How do you describe the Chapala Lakeside – La Ribera de Chapala – to someone who’s never seen it?  It’s the question that drew me back to Ajijic for a second look more than 7 years ago.

Ajijic and Lake Chapala seen from the mountains above

I asked local business owners and expats  ranging from long-time residents to first time visitors.  Most touted the great year-round climate and low cost of living.  Many cited the picturesque lake and mountain views, a sizeable English-speaking expat community, and the proximity of Guadalajara and its airport.  None of this, however, seems to conjure up in the mind’s eye a magical picture like images of San Miguel de Allende or Cabo San Lucas or Costa Rica or Belize.

What, then could lead one resident to gently plead with me to “Come, but PLEASE don’t tell all of your friends about it” while a Stateside friend said, “I don’t get it.  What is there to DO there?”

Sometimes it’s in the understanding of the empty portion of a glass that we begin to understand the way in which the remainder is full.

I first stumbled upon Santa Fe, New Mexico more than 30 years ago before the Northridge (California) quake and the dot-com bust sent thousands of refugees scurrying there to open galleries stuffed with revisionist Southwestern art and to affect ridiculous excesses of Native American jewelry and clothing in a Rodeo-Drive-meets-Geronimo caricature.  In more recent visits I can’t shake the feeling that the authentic image of Santa Fe now lies obscured by caked layers of faux pueblo like a European nude masterpiece over which clothing has been later painted.  These are the sorts of people who probably wouldn’t “get” La Ribera, either.

The Chapala Lakeside is, after all, not a Los Cabos Phoenix-sur-Mer where the gringo has only to strap himself into the seat of a fishing charter or a championship golf course cart and simply wait for the ride to begin.  It’s not a San Miguel backdrop of quaint native garb and Spanish colonial street scenes into which many gringos simply peer through vacant oval cutouts as if in some fairground souvenir postcard photo.

The Chapala Lakeside is not so much a place in which to be seen as a place in which to live.  It seems not so much to serve up things to DO as it serves up the freedom to BE, like a perfectly stretched blank palette inviting the newcomer’s brush strokes.  It seems to retain the sense of community long lost in an America afraid to make eye contact with passers-by and automatically and unreservedly extend to them a daily greeting.  It can be sensed in vignettes come to life at the weekly tianguis or in the sheltered shade of the plaza in its quietest hours.  It percolates tranquilly and unobstrusively behind modest street-fronts that shelter exquisitely intimate courtyards and gardens.

The Chapala Lakeside is not ostentatious or overbearing and it may be that therein lies its special charm.  Perhaps La Ribera is the perfect destination for those who need no place from which to draw an identity, but only the most hospitable of places in which to fully realize the identity they already have.  If that’s so, then it doesn’t matter how many friends I tell, because only those for whom it is well-suited will truly be able to see into its soul.

This post is an excerpt from my earlier piece published under the title “Elusive Lakeside” in the December, 2004 issue of El Ojo Del Lago,  and named its top feature article for that year.