Mexico’s largest lake is a magnet for foreigners and nationals alike who can’t help but be charmed by its stunning beauty and near-perfect climate, but after sipping margaritas in Ajijic for 365 days of blue skies and glorious sunsets, some curmudgeon is bound to ask, “So what else is there to do?”
If this is your case, here are a few little-known spots on the lakeshore well worth a visit.
La Maltaraña Mansion
Although its walls are now propped up by long poles, La Maltaraña is still a strikingly beautiful casona or mansion with 365 doors and windows, said to be of either French or Italian style.
The land is cleared all around it, affording a wonderful view of the lovely old building and, as often occurs in Mexico, there’s no fence around the place, or any sign explaining its curious history.
Fortunately, when I first visited La Maltaraña I was with birdwatcher John Keeling who told me that the house had been built at the beginning of the 20th century by Manuel Cuesta Gallardo, “the man who reduced the size of Lake Chapala by 33%.”
Cuesta had noticed that the eastern end of the lake was shallow, marshy and rich in silt deposited by the Lerma River. “So,” said Keeling, “Manuel persuaded President Porfirio Díaz to grant him a license to drain one-third of Lake Chapala and sell the land for agriculture, just like other smart developers were doing in California.
“Manuel built a dike across the lake from Jamay on the north shore to La Palma on the south shore, and also built raised dikes along each side of the Lerma River and its tributary, the Duero River. Water was pumped out of the marshy areas and the land was sold. Back in those days Lake Chapala may have stretched as far southeast as Zamora.
“In the same period (the early years of the Revolution), Manuel got the support of President Díaz to become governor of Jalisco. He was in power for only 25 days before he resigned, being unable to control popular uprisings against him. He later ran for the senate, but his election was disqualified after it was shown that the number of ballots cast exceeded the number of voters.”
Cuesta was young and rich and naturally the most eligible bachelor in Jalisco. Some people think he maintained Maltaraña for a beautiful lady from Guadalajara, but others point out that the house was also known as La Bella Cristina in honor of Cuesta’s daughter.
It is said that President Díaz used to visit La Maltaraña occasionally, not to watch birds, but to hunt and shoot them.
The grounds of La Maltaraña, by the way, provide a perfect place for an elegant picnic and maybe a selfie of you and your friends toasting La Bella Cristina. How to get there.
The flying white sheep of Petatán
Every year at the end of October, crowds of snowbirds flock to the shores of Lake Chapala. All the way from Canada they come, to pass the winter basking in the sunshine of the Ribera.
But hold on, I am referring not to well-tanned foreigners dwelling in Ajijic, but to the celebrated pelícanos borregones (flying sheep) which congregate by the thousands around the little town of Petatán, Michoacán, at the east end of the lake, seeking a daily handout.
These American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) make a 4,000-kilometer journey from Canada to Mexico and for the last 30 years Lake Chapala has been among their favorite places to winter, no doubt because of the huge quantities of fish scraps dumped into the lake at the end of every workday by several filleting maquiladoras.
An hour or so before feeding time, the pelicans begin to make their way toward Petatán from all over Lake Chapala. They appear in the distance like white, black-fringed ribbons in the sky. Despite their weight (up to seven kilograms), they are utterly graceful in the air and love to soar only inches above the water for long distances.
Not quite so graceful is their landing technique which involves sticking their feet out straight in front of them as they hit the water: a braking maneuver which is as comical as it is effective. Local people call them borregones because they are big and white and flock together like sheep.
Every day several thousands of pelicans show up for the feast. One might expect the result to be an absolute madhouse of squawking birds and flying feathers. Instead, they patiently wait their turn in line.
This sounds unbelievable, but if you observe the feeding procedure you will see that each bird eats two fish — neither more nor less — and then instantly turns around and leaves. This process makes for maximum buffet-style efficiency except for an occasional interruption when a motorboat appears anywhere nearby.
The flying sheep then become a flying carpet which instantly rises straight into the air with an audible whoosh, filling the sky with thousands of birds, each of which has a wingspan of up to three meters. It’s a sound and a sight you will never forget.
Word of this extraordinary spectacle has spread and little Petatán now has several good seafood restaurants from which you can keep watch for the pelicans’ arrival. The mass feed usually takes place between 4:00 and 5:00pm, Monday through Saturday.
Amazingly, the pelicans don’t bother to show up on Sundays, when the maquiladoras are closed. The pelican-viewing season lasts from the beginning of November to the end of March. How to get there.
This prize-winning ecology center is only a half-hour’s drive from the town of Petatán, mentioned above, and offers what may be the most unusual overnight accommodations in all of Mexico. Here, Salvador (Chavo) Montaño and his wife run a learning center that “teaches by doing.”
“At Igloo Kokolo,” says Montaño, “we have no electricity, but we do have energy-saving wood stoves, efficient filters made of natural materials for reusing gray water, buildings made of Superadobe, palm-tree roofs, dry toilets which produce odorless compost, solar ovens and even bicycle-powered devices, from blenders to cement mixers.”
It’s the Superadobe house, of course, that gives Igloo Kokolo its name. This was the brainchild of Iranian architect Nader Khalili, who proposed making houses out of the most easily available building material: earth.
You mix dirt with a small amount of cement and water, put it into old feed bags and pile them on top of one another in ever smaller circles to create an igloo. Khalili’s solution was designed not only for homeless refugees on Earth, but also for future colonies on the moon or Mars where, it seems, every inch of the surface is covered with dust.
The two largest igloos have clean, comfortable beds, lights (solar-powered, of course) and you’ll even find elegantly wrapped, environmentally safe soap and shampoo on your nightstand. What you won’t find in your igloo is a toilet or a sink or a shower or a stove. All of these, however, are available a stone’s throw away — just be sure to bring a flashlight! And, yes, the showers have hot water: solar-heated, naturally.
Igloo Kokolo is listed on Glamping.com, a website for people who love spending the night at unusual but attractive sites off the beaten track. I also found Igloo Kokolo on Airbnb where, among 22 reviews, I could not find a single complaint. To book an igloo, contact Chavo Montaño at cell 331 835 8026. How to get there.
The Mystery Rock of Tuxcueca
Only 2.5 kilometers from the lakeside town of Tuxcueca lies one of the least known archaeological curiosities in Jalisco. I include brief mention of it here only for the adventurous, as access to it is a bit inconvenient and if you really want to see it, well, you’ll have bring a ladder with you.
The Mystery Rock lies 60 meters north of highway 405 to Mazamitla. It is roughly rectangular in shape, three meters high and 4.5 meters long, covered with bright orange lichen.
About 40 vertical grooves have been carved on two sides of the rock and on top you will find some 25 petroglyphs, most of them symbols related to fertility, according to archaeologist Joseph Mountjoy, plus several spirals which, says Mountjoy, are a sort of pictorial prayer asking for rain. The top of the rock is flat and large enough to fully accommodate a prostrate human adult, but whether this rock was used for sacrificial purposes, I have no idea.
To reach the rock, you should park at the suggested spot off the side of the road. You must then walk along the highway 175 meters, climb over the guardrail and make your way through tall weeds to the rock: not exactly the easiest form of tourism, but if adventure is your thing, follow these directions, and if you want to climb on top of the rock don’t forget a ladder two meters long.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for 31 years, and is the author of “A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area” and co-author of “Outdoors in Western Mexico.” More of his writing can be found on his website.