Category: Lake Chapala, México


Sandra Luz, Friday Artisans Market Ajijic

Sandra Luz at Ajijic’s Friday Artisans’ Market

I first meet Sandra Luz at in her market stall in Ajijic’s Friday Artisans’ Market surrounded by a seemingly eclectic combination of brightly colored feathers, candles and planters made of something too perfectly shaped to be gourds, and vials of something that looked like they came straight from a cosmetics counter.

She speaks even less English than I do Spanish. No surprise, then, that it takes conversation strung across a couple of market days before I fully understand that the brightly colored feathers are hand-dyed ostrich plumes,  that the curiously shaped candles and planters are emptied ostrich eggs sliced neatly in half, and that the vials contain a healing skin serum are made of essential oils rendered from – you guessed it – ostriches… las avestruces.

Then the story gets even more interesting.  It turns out that Sandra Luz and her husband Francisco raise the ostriches just outside the village of San Cristóbal Zapotitlán on the opposite side of Lake Chapala, and I soon find myself invited to visit the “Rancho de las Avestruces”.  I confess that for a moment an improbable image of sombreroed vaqueros herding a legion of Big Birds flashes through my head.

On the appointed day I stop in nearby San Juan Cosalá to pick up Martín, another Friday Artisan Market merchant who’s fluent in both English and Spanish, and soon we round the end of the lake and turn off the highway at a spot I’ve passed before without note.  In minutes the village of San Cristobal Zapotitlán appears, hugging the coastline unseen from the highway.

The town is neatly laid out around a plaza at one end of which omnipresent street vendors sell clothing, CD’s, and DVD’s.  At the opposite end a mother and child browse a florist’s stand  awash in Mexico’s native poinsettias, las flores de Nochebuena… the Christmas Eve flower.

 

Florist on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Florist on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Weaving a fishing net on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Weaving a fishing net on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

 

Next to a canopy that covers an open-air foosball parlor made up of vintage tables, a man painstakingly weaves a fishing net from a spool of nylon line as deftly as if he was making a rug.

Another man sitting next to him watches, but hardly a word is spoken and I get the sense that they have long ago talked each other out during uncounted hours spent here together.

Open air foosball parlor on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Open air foosball parlor on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

The worn and weathered mechanical gaming tables are a nostalgic anachronism in an era of video games, and they remind me of my mis-spent college days.

Campanario of the parrish church, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Campanario of the parish church, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Towering above this entire scene is the campanario –the bell tower of the parish church – tiled in a distinctive checked pattern of blue and white.

Dyed ostrich feathers, Sandra Luz's workshop,San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Dyed ostrich feathers, Sandra Luz’s workshop,San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

We stop by Sandra Luz and Francisco’s modest home, where she shows us the workshop corner in which she crafts her ostrich feather art and ostrich egg arrangements.

Ostrich egg incubator, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ostrich egg incubator, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

In an adjacent room, ostrich eggs the size of footballs sit in an incubator.  They weigh a hefty kilo or so. Francisco tells us that one of them is equal to 18 chicken eggs and makes an omelet which can feed an entire family.  He holds one of the eggs up to a light so bright that it shines through the shell to reveal if it’s to become an ostrich or an omelet.

Three-day-old ostrrich chick, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Three-day-old ostrich chick, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

I’m still peering into the incubator when he suddenly appears holding an ostrich chick only three days old and already as big as a small chicken.  My curiosity whetted, I’m ready to see ostriches grazing on the open range… or whatever it is that ostriches do.

Back on the main highway we travel only a short distance before turning toward the mountain on a dirt road that even in this dry season is so rutted that my SUV creeps along behind their pickup truck.  Gates are unlocked and relocked as we pass through, ascending almost continuously for 20 minutes before the big birds suddenly appear, corralled in fenced pens that cover a space the size of a basketball court.

We step out of the car into a bracing breeze, and Francisco tells us that we are now 1,700 meters above the mile-high lake. There are more than a dozen of the birds, their long necks already craning in our direction as we approach.

The ostrich ranch, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

The ostrich ranch, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Macho ostrich, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Macho ostrich, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

One particularly large specimen quickly sets us straight on who rules the roost, dropping to his knees and swaying back and forth as he spreads his wings in a macho display.  The birds will peck harmlessly at a stranger who ventures too close to the fence, but Francisco tells us that it’s the kick from their 25-pound-drumstick legs that can easily injure an inattentive human. He also tells us that the rancho is self-sufficient; the family grows the corn and beans that feed the winged herd.

Ostich pen, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ostich pen, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

I slip around to the back side of the corral for a better photo and that’s when I see behind the feathered herd the lake beautifully spread out below from its western end to its vanishing point on the eastern horizon.

Ajijic, from mountainside above  San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ajijic, from mountainside above San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

 

 

 

Ajijic and the other villages across the lake appear as specs along the shoreline, villas climbing the mountainside behind them until the steep grade gives way to the wild.

Here at the rancho the mating season is just beginning.  Each female may lay up to 40 eggs in a year, burying them in the earth.  If December days are cool at this altitude, December nights can be bone-chilling; the eggs are exhumed and placed in an incubator.  The family breeds the ostriches for sale to other would-be ostrich ranchers and it also sells ostrich meat, which Francisco tells me is very lean.  Each bird can yield up to 35 kilos of meat… none of it white meat… and grow to full height within a year.

Firing up the comal at the ostrich ranch

Firing up the comal at the ostrich ranch

Sandra Luz has already lit a wood fire on a brick grill.  We dip glasses of Jamaica-flavored beverage out of a barrel-sized jar as she lays out frijoles, white corn tortillas, and a bowl of salsa.  In a few moments the aroma of meat grilling on a comal drifts over us and we’re soon eagerly dropping the seared beef onto tortillas and scooping up frijoles in the open ends.

Sandra Luz enjoys the view behind me

Sandra Luz enjoys the view behind me

As the visit draws to a close and we head back down the mountain, I reflect on the unconditional hospitality that has again marked my Mexican experience.  The mountainside picnic alone was worth the trip, but it also crosses my mind that upon my return I need to try my first ostrich steak.

Ostrich art, though, is only part of the story of the artisans’ cooperative of San Cristobal.  Follow me on my next post to an artisan workshop back in the village where local women craft elaborate art from nothing but simple corn husks and palm fronds.

Click here for a map to San Cristobal

Facebook users can see more photos and get more details by clicking on these links:

San Cristobal Zapotitlan

Friday Artisan’s Market Ajijic

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Ferris wheel looms over the municipal Delegación building

The Tuesday sun is not long risen and there’s a slight chill in the air as I walk into the village over cobblestone streets.

On other weekdays I would be passing workers headed to their jobs and schoolchildren on their way to class, but this day is different.

Carnival ride awaits the start of Fiesta

Here in Ajijic it’s the day before the beginning of the fiesta patronale – the patron saint Fiesta de San Andres, and as I turn toward the plaza the street is already blocked by waiting carnival rides.

Band member rush to meet the parade

It’s also the 112th anniversary of the start of the Mexican Revolution… the Dia de la Revolución.

A trio of bass band musicians passes me hastily, rushing toward the Revolution Day parade assembly point, which stretches for several blocks at the eastern end of the village.

I follow them through the plaza past a mural that celebrates the Revolution.

Wall mural of Revolutionary heroes just off the Plaza

Costumed children awaiting the start of the parade

Milling about the parade’s starting point are hundreds of children in costumes ranging from drum-and-bugle corps to heroes of the Revolution, and parents everywhere are making last minute adjustments to fidgeting ninos.

A mother makes last minute costume adjustments

The scene gives me pause for reflection.  American independence, the American Revolution, and the framing of the U.S. constitution unfolded as a virtually unified event spanning only 13 years.  In Mexico these events occurred separately over more than a century, the outcome of each many times cast into doubt.

Two costumed boys pass time before the parade

There’s a case to be made that the Mexican Revolution is still a work in progress.  Its memory is still fresh; the parents of the children in today’s parade grew up at the feet of grandparents who survived it.

Sweeping the street on the parade route

Sweeping the street on the parade route

 

Today education and information technology are giving their children the tools to better practice democracy and hold their government more accountable for the promises made by the Revolution.

 

The parade participants have begun to queue up in marching order. Along the route women are sweeping the cobblestones.

Waiting for the parade to pass

Families are collecting in windows and doorways in anticipation.

 

The last census pegged Ajijic’s population at around 10,000 persons.  At least 1,500 are children participating in today’s procession and easily twice that number line the streets to watch them.

Little drummer girl

'Franciso Madero' pauses along the parade route

‘Franciso Madero’ pauses along the parade route

 

Bands and drum corps keep the procession moving as teams of gymnasts pause at every block to build human pyramids.

Other teams wave bandannas, hoops, or batons in synchronized drills.

It has the look of small town patriotic parades all across North America except for the setting… and children in traditional Mexican costume dressed as miniatures of the heroes of the Revolution.

Youngsters perform a traditional folk dance

Madero.  Zapata.  Villa.  The youngest ride in the ever-present pickup truck float, arranged in tableaus that recall historical events.

 

Costumed children create an historical tableau

A charro-in-training astride her mount

And because Ajijic is undeniably Jalisciense, the parade would not be complete without the charros, whose horses amazingly dance across the cobblestones to the sound of traditional Mexican tunes.

A charro puts his dancing horse through its routines

In the morning 10 days of fiesta begins, and there will be no need for an alarm clock, because the boom of fireworks, clanging church bells, and blaring brass bands will do the job before sunup!

The artisan as art

Mexico’s folk art is at risk of becoming an endangered species! Industrialization and urbanization – not to mention cheap Chinese knock-offs – are driving local artists to leave their villages and forsake their craft for work in the cities.

All natural fabric dyes are made from plants and insects

The good news is that there is a strong antidote in Ajijic’s Feria Maestros Del Arte, which this weekend celebrates its eleventh year.

 

A ceramic octopus in fanciful colors

Painstakingly painted detail

The Feria is a standout among area venues for artists and artisans not only for the quality, breadth, and originality of its work, but for its single inspired purpose of protecting and preserving Mexico’s community of indigent artists and their artistic traditions.

 

Artisans in bright traditional garb

Artisans in bright traditional garb

A potter stands chest-high in his work

 

The Feria is also philanthropic capitalism that showcases this art and these artists to the expat community and to visiting art merchants.

The outcome is an opportunity for these distinctive works to fetch the fair price that promotes their economic sustainability.

 

Clay iIguana at perpetual rest

Clay iIguana at perpetual rest

 

The philanthropy, though, goes well beyond simply bringing sellers and buyers together.

The merchants – more than 60 of them – are charged no fees for exhibit space.

 

 

 

 

The Feria is the brainchild of locally resident gringa Marianne Carlson, who each year travels the length and breadth of Mexico seeking out new talent.

There’s a message in the tiny symbols on this piece

Adding finishing touches to a corn husk blossom

Adding finishing touches to a corn husk blossom

 

 

 

An extensive network of volunteers and significant donations – the Feria is registered as a non-profit in both Mexico and the U.S. – assure that every dime of every sale goes to the merchant artists.

 

Lady mariachis waiting to go on stage

 

Many receive transportation assistance or are housed and fed gratis in the homes of locally resident expats.

 

The Feria is also nothing if not authentic.

 

All of the exhibited goods are handmade by native artists using materials native to Mexico, and much of this remarkable work has rarely been exhibited outside of the often remote villages in which it is created.

 

 

 

Lady mariachis' wall of sound

Lady mariachis’ wall of sound

 

 

Many of the artisans are but the latest in generations of family artists.

Shoppers can watch many of the artisans continue to create as they tend their market stalls while patiently explaining the symbolism of the images in their work and the process by which it is produced.

 

 

 

 

This is my first year to experience this event, and I have the good luck to do so from a front-row seat in more ways than one.

Jurassic metal sculptures

Jurassic metal sculptures

It’s located within easy walking distance of my place, which is a real bonus since the patrons’ parked cars have not only lined the curbs of surrounding neighborhood streets, but spilled out along the Carretera for a quarter mile in both directions.

Timeless

Timeless

 

 

 

Location, however, is only the beginning of the good luck because my place is also a room-and-board site for Feria artist Martín Ibarra and his family.

A leap of ceramic leopards

A leap of ceramic leopards

 

 

 

The son of a noted clay artist, Martin has been widely recognized for his painted clay sculptures of the Virgin and his intricately decorated eggs and spheres.

 

 

 

 

A threatening wooden image in playful colors

A threatening wooden image in playful colors

 

 

 

 

This year each room-and-board sponsor is taking a turn at a dinner held in their home for the artists and their fellow sponsors, and these gatherings add yet another dimension to the experience.

 

 

 

 

 

Hand-painted detail on wood and gourd containers

Hand-painted detail on wood and gourd containers

Artisans drawn from across Mexico from Chihuahua in the north to Oaxaca and Chiapas in the south, and when they come together each evening over food and drink the feeling is almost one of reunion.

Talk quickly turns from art to life and there’s lots of laughter here.

It’s a rare opportunity for expats to gain a glimpse into the traditions and lives of these master craftsmen, and for them to see their American and Canadian hosts up close and personally.

It’s also a great demonstration of what happens when people put national identities and politics aside and come together as individuals in a common pursuit.

 

 

Even for casual students of world cultures the Feria is not to be missed.

 

If you’re looking for items not to be found even in the abundance of artist communities in Guadalajara’s nearby Tonala and Tlaquepaque neighborhoods, this is the place to be.

A live face in a wall of masks

 

Fitting beadwork into a design

This 5th-generation weaver may need 2 months to produce a single work.

 

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the spirit of social activism that marked the youth of many retirees you’ll find it alive and well in the spirit of Ajijic’s Feria.

Make your own contribution by buying something… and spreading the word.

For more information check out the Feria’s web site here.

Ajijic’s guitar art

Artist: Teodor Lopez

Perhaps nowhere else in the Spanish-speaking world has the guitar become such an inseparable part of the culture as in Mexico.

Inside the Galeria del Lago

Here the instrument appears the varying shapes, sizes, and sounds which can be most often seen in the instrumentation of Jalisco’s celebrated mariachi bands.

 

At Ajijic’s Galeria de Lago on the very edge of Lake Chapala the instrument appears in yet a new incarnation:  Guitar Art.

Artist: V. Manuel G. Santillan

 

It all began when local artist Kim Tolleson made a pilgrimage to the town of Paracho in Michoacan.  The town has long been famous as the center of guitar-making in Mexico, but in the past generation it has produced world class maestro craftsmen and instruments sought by aficionados everywhere.

 

There are more guitar shops in Paracho than chocolatiers in Switzerland and each August the town hosts a festival that features and honors both musicians and luthiers.

 

Kim had the idea that these instruments would make an interesting painter’s palette, but soon came to the conclusion that the 30 guitars that he brought back from Paracho was ambition enough for more than a single painter.

Artist: Kathy Seaboyer

 

He enlisted the aid of local artists and aspirants, and soon much of the space he’d first envisioned as no more than a studio became a guitar art gallery.

Artist: Sergio Xoñu

 

 

Kim’s decision to open entries to virtually all comers made the gallery unique not only for its use of guitars as painters’ palettes, but for its diversity of styles.

 

 

 

The artists range from local professionals including Efren Gonzalez to some very talented amateurs.

The inclusiveness is refreshing and the artist community has clearly embraced the concept.

Artist: Judy Dykstra Brown

The images range from scenes of colonial Mexico to rock music tributes. Most are painted, but one of the more striking pieces is installed as a sculpture standing on human legs.

Artists: Daniel Palma & Sergio Xoñu

Artists: Hugo & Carlos Villalabos

Part of the Galeria remains a working studio.

On the day I was there Emily Allen had set up her easel there to catch the light flooding in from off the lake, and I stood for a while with my face pressed against the window watching her work.

Artists: Hugo & Carlos Villalabos

 

Even though the regular gallery hours are Saturday/Sunday, 1-6PM, visitors can browse on many weekdays when the artists are in residence, and the work is readily viewed through big picture windows at any time of the day.

Artist: Jesus Lopez Vega

 

Galeria del Lago is located right on the lakefront between the Old Posada and Yves Restaurant, within eyesight of the Ajijic Pier.

 

No surprise, then, that the subject of many currently featured paintings is the white donkey that seems perennially tethered just a few yards away on the beach.

 

Galeria del Lago

Galeria del Lago

 

 

Photos don’t do the work justice, so drop by and see the real deal. It’s guaranteed to bring a smile to your lips!

You can also see photos of work no longer on display when I visited on the gallery’s Facebook page               

 

Read more about Paracho, Mexico’s guitar capital, here.                              

For more on Ajijic’s unique character see my related posts:

Ajijic’s mural art

Mexican art is blessed by the rich muralist tradition of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, and even today murals remain a prominent feature of Mexican public art.

 

Murals are so commonplace in Ajijic as to be taken for granted, but they’re as much a signature part of the village’s character as spring blossoms or street vendors or views from the malecon.

 

 

It’s hard for anyone on the Ribera not to pass at least one daily, and each image indelibly anchors the memory of everything that happens beneath it to a single spot.

 

Murals made perfect sense as a way to present ideas and to perpetuate sense of history throughout Mexico’s illiterate past, but the art form is as fresh today as ever.

 

As similar as some murals may seem at first glance, their form is far from formulaic.

 

The topics may be patriotic or otherwise political, and they’re often historical.

 

Sometimes, though, the primary object seems to be only to create pleasant diversion for the eyes and to adorn an otherwise unmemorable spot.

 

Their forms are remarkably diverse, ranging from dayglo-bright ribbons to simple black-and-white images.

Ajijic mural art 05

Ajijic mural art 06

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some borrow their style from Europe and others are purely indigenous.

 

Some are painted and some in relief.

 

Some have a commercial agenda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many – but not all – are outdoors. The one below adorns the interior stairwell of the Cultural Center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They all, however, have a couple of things in common.

 

One is that each is an original work of art.  Some are permanent – or at least as permanent as paint on stucco can be in the Mexican sun – and others only long-lived enough to commemorate a passing event.

 

Another is that they all tell stories.  Some are short and simple.  Others are like scrolls unrolled, so panoramic that each new look uncovers some detail earlier unseen, like the three panels of the mural below reading left to right.

 

There was a time when billboard painting was an art north of the border. These days billboards are created in Photoshop, digitally printed by the dozens onto vinyl, and stretched over the frames of boards that were once signpainters’ canvasses.

 

One thing’s for sure.  It’s impossible to visualize Ajijic without picturing its public murals! For more about Ajijic’s unique character see my related posts:

Street vendor walking on Colon

It’s nearly a century since pushcarts plied the streets of most American neighborhoods; sidewalk vendors of nearly every stripe went out of style when the nation traded Main Streets for malls.

Fresh watermelons on the Carretera

In Mexico street merchants are alive and well.  It seems as if wherever in Mexico three or more people are gathered a fourth will show up with something to sell them. Retail here is up close and personal and the store often comes to you.

Ajijic’s street merchants are not the annoying chachki vendors of the coastal resort beaches, but a retail subculture that’s baked into Ajijic’s endearing DNA.

Nuts & snacks on the Plaza

More people gathered attracts more sellers, and in Ajijic the Plaza and the Carretera rarely lack for either.

Baskets & brooms on the Carretera

The variety of merchandise and services offered by these “no-store stores” often surprises.

Freshly-squeezed juices on the Plaza

Food vendors sell everything from frozen treats and freshly-squeezed beverages to prepared foods (taco stands warrant a blog post all their own!), home goods, and flowers.

Chicharrón in the making

Shoe shine on the Plaza

Street merchants will also dupe your keys, shine your shoes, sharpen your knives and wash your car in less time than it takes to find a parking spot at your average Stateside Safeway.

Basket vendor on the Plaza

Walkabout vendors are the salt of the street merchants.

They carry their entire inventory on their backs, often walking miles every day.

CD & DVD bike cart on the Plaza

Some merchandise, though, begs to be wheeled through the crowd, and the conveyances are nothing if not inventive.

Other merchandise better lends itself to hanging from trees and fences each day to be carted off at day’s end and re-hung each morning.

A very few even sell from roadside kiosks not much larger than a phone booth.

Most of the street merchants not walking or wheeling about are parked so routinely in the same spots at their appointed times that people sometimes use them as directional landmarks.

Coffee vendor/grinder on the Carretera

Among them will appear for a day or a week spontaneous street capitalists who vanish as suddenly as they appeared.

On the Plaza curb in front of BBVA

Many of these sidewalk merchants start each day very early by walking, bicycling, or riding the bus to Ajijic from homes in nearby villages.

Ice cream vendor stocks up

Others stock push carts or buy fresh products at a wholesale market before the selling day begins.

There are no bar codes or credit cards here.

There are no frequent shopper programs, blue light specials, or rebates.

There’s just cash and carry from a sole proprietor who does one thing only and strives to do it better than anyone else.

There are also plenty of merchants who are as well known to their customers as the customers are to them, and there’s no small amount of loyalty between many buyers and sellers.

Curbside empanadas on the Plaza next to BBVA

It’s a relationship long gone in America’s retail landscape, but for those who can take it in stride it can be a richly rewarding trade-off for America’s impersonal, one-stop, “big box” shopping experience.

See my related post “American Values

Doors of Ajijic

Ajijic door

If eyes are windows to the soul, doors must just as surely express the soul of a home.

Ajijic door

 

Doors have special significance in Spanish colonial architecture, which cloisters intimate living spaces in courtyards hidden from the street.

Ajijic door

Ajijic door

Ajijic door

It’s easy to pass these doors every day without giving them a second thought.

Ajijic door

As a collection, though, they paint a unique picture of the village that’s authentic, personal, and spontaneous.

Ajijic door

Doors here come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and are crafted in materials ranging from wood to wrought iron.

Ajijic door

Some are simple and others ornate.

Ajijic door

Some are formal and others whimsical.

Ajijic door

Some are reflections of the Old World and others are distinctively Mexican.

Ajijic door

Some merely hint at what lies behind, and others provide a teasing glimpse.

Ajijic door

Ajijic door

It can be as entertaining to speculate on what lies behind them as to actually know.

Ajijic door

If you haven’t seen these, enjoy them.

Ajijic door

If you’ve seen some of them in passing, take a second look because there’s often more here than can be taken in with a single glance.

Ajijic door

Ajijic door

Ajijic door

Ajijic door

Tianguis’d

Florist, Ajijic tianguis

Whenever I travel to someplace new the local version of tianguis is always high on my itinerary. It’s virtually guaranteed to deliver an instant lay of the land and a hi-def cultural immersion experience.

What is more common to the Lakeside expat experience than tianguis?

Huichol woman, Ajijic tianguis

Nuts & fruits vendor, Ajijic tianguis

It’s broad appeal is not surprising.  Weekly market bazaars are one of the oldest expressions of human community (the Nahuatl word tianguis is distinctively Mexican), and on the Ribera this truly moveable feast materializes in a different town each weekday beginning on Monday in Chapala.

Gas-fired pizzeria, Ajijic tianguis

Tianguis brings together an incredibly diverse cross-section of the Lakeside community more often and more consistently than just about any other event.  In this social microcosm Mexicans and expats are represented – if in different mixes – among both buyers and sellers. Tianguis attracts customers ranging from householders to maids and cooks, and there’s something for every budget from purse to pocket change.

Nopalito skinner, Ajijic tianguis

Tianguis – as with so many of Mexico’s open markets – is a personal experience in which it’s not unusual for frequent buyers and sellers to know each other on sight and for vendors to have fiercely loyal customers.

Snack bar, Ajijic tianguis

Any Mexican street market worth its salt features an eye-cluttering array of merchandise ranging from kitchenware to underwear and from jewelry to CD’s and DVD’s, and on this the tianguis in Ajijic is not lacking.

Taco grill, Ajijic tianguis

Taco fillings grilling, Ajijic tianguis

Ditto for freshly prepared hot food of the eat-and-walk variety.

Fishmonger, Ajijic tianguis

The heart and soul of tianguis, though, is fresh fish, meat, produce, and flowers.

High end Stateside grocery chains like Whole Foods Market and HEB Central Market try to evoke the same sense of community, but without the small merchant touch it’s an inauthentic experience.  (Try getting your car washed in its parking spot while you shop at a Stateside Safeway!  Or getting your shoes shined or any extra set of keys made.)

Marimba player, Ajijic tianguis

There are at times a carny sort of sidelight to tianguis.  Sort out the truly disabled mendicants from the panhandlers and solicitors for donations to charities of unknown character.

Plan on encountering at least one musician playing for tips, and if more at least one who needs more practice before playing again in public.

For some tianguis visitors, though, it has little to do with buying or selling. Tianguis is just a likelihood of running into someone you know and need catching up on.

It’s the office water cooler for the retired and not-so-retired, and a chance meeting at tianguis can easily morph into an extended lunch if not today than later in the week.

The Midway, Ajijic tianguis

Shopping… street theater…  community.  What’s not to like about tianguis?

Check out my other market-related blog posts:

Barcelona’s Mercat de la Boqueria

Guadalajara’s Mercado Libertad

Mendoza crafts market

Zapopan fish market

Ferry departs from the Ajijic pier

All that I saw of San Luis Soyatlan on my first visit there nearly 8 years ago was the flower-bedecked cemetery that caught my eye just as the day was drawing to a close and I was about to turn back to Ajijic.

I ran out of daylight before I ran out of town, promising myself to return one day to finish the visit, but the recent start of ferry service from the Ajijic Pier gave me an irresistible new way to keep that promise.

Ajijic Pier

A block away from the pier on Colon I grab a latte from La Prensa Francesa, and within half an hour we’re pulling away from the pier.

The boat is easily spacious and comfortable enough for the trip of under an hour.  I watch the pier recede in our wake.

Out on the water the fishermen are already well into their day.

Pulling in the net on Lake Chapala

There’s often a mirage-like quality to things seen from this vantage point.

Fisherman on Lake Chapala

As the opposite shore draws nearer the towering campanario of the parroquia first takes shape, and then the village gathered around it. Behind it the mountain grows to cover the entire horizon.

San Luis Soyatlan from Lake Chapala

Street scene, San Luis Soyatlan

I set out for myself as soon as we land just west of town, mapless but following two time-tested rules:  (1) Follow the shoreline whenever possible, and (2) always go toward the campanario.

The shoreline path winds along an expansive lakeside park with lots of picnic tables and groomed trails.

As the campanario looms larger I turn toward the mountain and within a couple of blocks reach the coast road.

Frutas y verduras, San Luis Soyatlan

Clustered along this part of the highway are neighborhood tiendas and tacquerias that give way to homes as I approach the campanario and the plaza which must certainly be below it.

A family business, San Luis Soyatlan

Street scene, San Luis Soyatlan

 

This place feels to be about the same size as San Juan Cosala on the opposite shore – I’d guess under 2,500 persons – and just like San Juan is stretched along a narrow strip that clutches the coastline.

This place also feels like Jocotopec… a working agricultural town devoid of Tapatios on holiday or expat retirees.

The Plaza is classic. It’s bordered on one side by the coast road, framed by buildings of substance, and located directly across from the campanario.

Plaza, San Luis Soyatlan

Plaza, San Luis Soyatlan

Plaza, San Luis Soyatlan

I’m always struck by the way in which every Mexican neighborhood builds out the age-old Catholic Church footprint in a distinct reflection of its own unique image.

On that count this one does not disappoint.

Parroquia, San Luis Soyatlan

Parroquia, San Luis Soyatlan

Parroquia, San Luis Soyatlan

Only a few blocks from the Plaza I stumble upon the Posada Los Crotos, an intimately-sized hotel with an impressive restaurant. I wish I’d found it sooner, because a thorough walk of the town and a leisurely lunch will barely allow enough time to make it back to the ferry before its departure!

Posada Los Crotos, San Luis Soyatlan

Posada Los Crotos, San Luis Soyatlan

I return to the ferry along back streets.

Street scene, San Luis Soyatlan

Street scene, San Luis Soyatlan

 

As the returning boat approaches Ajijic I study the town from this new perspective. I think to myself: THIS is the definitive postcard from Ajijic…

Ajijic from Lake Chapala

I’ve just completed my tenth round trip between Dallas and Guadalajara by bus.  At the end of each trip, tactful friends on both sides of the border question me about the experience with a combination of curiosity and skepticism.

Greyhound bus terminal, Dallas, TX

Tactless friends question my sanity.  After all, the driving distance – which varies depending upon the route taken – runs around 1,100 miles (about the same distance as driving from Dallas to Phoenix, Detroit, or Jacksonville).  By private auto the trip takes a bit over 20 hours.  By bus with occasional station stops it takes a little over 26 hours.

Greyhound bus terminal, Dallas, TX

There are otherwise some really good reasons to travel to Mexico by bus…

Mexico “gets” bus service.  There’s almost no passenger rail service in Mexico and outside of major population centers economics don’t lend themselves to air service a la Southwest Airlines.  The result is that Mexico – as in many other countries I’ve travelled – has refined bus travel to an art.  (See my related post on bus travel in Argentina.)

Border crossing, Laredo, TX (U.S. side)

It’s a rich experience.  Bus travel affords an opportunity to see the Mexico – and meet the Mexican people – inaccessible for air travelers.  Even after ten trips I still see something missed on an earlier trip, and I always make new acquaintances.  The route takes me through cities including Monterey, Saltillo, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes, and since I’m not driving I have every chance to enjoy the views.

It’s comfortable.  In Mexico – as in much of the world outside of the U.S. – bus travel is the transportation of choice, and first class bus seating and service is on par with transatlantic airline business class.  Busses have their own dedicated lines for Customs and Immigration on both sides of the border, and often clear inspection more quickly than the long lines of passenger cars… particularly during rush hours.  There’s a restroom on the bus, and a rest stop with limited foodservice and more restrooms on an average of every 2-3 hours.

Rio Grande from the Lincoln-Juarez bridge, Laredo, TX

It’s convenient.  I book my trip with Greyhound and its Mexican affiliate Americanos, buy my ticket online with a credit card, and receive it by mail.  I’m even enrolled in Greyhound’s Road Rewards frequent traveler program… which earns me further travel discounts.

From Mexican Immigration & Customs, Nuevo Laredo

While air travel requires an hour of travel and car parking and another hour for security screening, I’m routinely on the bus in Dallas within an hour of leaving my home.  If you become bored with the passengers or the scenery, crack open that new novel you’ve been meaning to read or listen to your MP3 player.  I get lots of writing done on the bus.

Two bus drivers kibbitz while their busses await their turn for inspection.

Bus travel to and from Mexico is incredibly economical.  My round trip bus fare costs about one-third of the cheapest Dallas-to-Guadalajara airline ticket… and actually less than the cost of auto tolls alone for the same trip on Mexico’s excellent system of toll roads (the cuotas)… not to mention the cost of gasoline.

Outside the bus terminal, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

Since there’s no overnight stay on the bus route – the bus changes drivers, but rolls right on through the night – there’s also no hotel expense.  While there’s a modest charge for extra luggage checked on trips originating in the States, there seems to be no such restriction for trips originating in Mexico.  Greyhound charges for ticket changes in the States, but a bus ticket in Mexico can be used at any time within 6 months of issue with no charge for schedule changes between the original ticket destinations.

Inside the bus on the Mexican side

It’s safer.  I view the risk of violence to Americans traveling in Mexico as grossly overstated by both the U.S. media and the State Department.  Particularly between dusk and dawn the risk of hitting stray livestock or pedestrians increases, and if you’re involved in a accident that causes injury or fatality you will go directly to jail until blame is sorted out… and much of what you’ve heard about Mexican jails is probably true.

 

There are two drawbacks to Greyhound/Americanos.  One is that while busses on the Mexican legs of the trip have spacious seats, plenty of leg room, and video, the Stateside busses are about as (un) comfortably cramped as traveling in airline economy class.  The other is that the trip on Greyhound/Americanos requires anywhere from 2 to 4 bus changes, and while I’ve never arrived late or missed a connection within the Mexican legs of the trip the same cannot be said for the Stateside legs.

Central Nueva bus terminal, Guadalajara, Mexico

For a bit more than the cost of Greyhound/Americanos, travelers can instead book with one of several Mexican bus lines that require no bus changes from U.S. destinations and depart from locations as far-flung as Florida, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Illinois.  These carriers cater to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, cost a bit more than the Greyhound option, and typically locate their U.S. terminals in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods.  Just a few are Omnibuses de Mexico, Turimex, El Tornado, and El Conejo.

Central Nueva bus terminal, Guadalajara, Mexico

Bottom line:  Bus travel to/from Mexico is not for everyone, but if you have a spirit of adventure that craves more than a sanitized Epcot Center experience, it’s something you should do… at least once!