Musing on the Malecon in Ajijic

Carole and I live in Ajijic, a village on the shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake. During our travels in Mexico, we have found a startling cultural mix from ancient pre-hispanic to the 21st Century. This is a land of vivid colors and contrasts, a country which provides us with fascinating new perspectives. We hope you enjoy this photographic journal as much as we have enjoyed creating it.

The Ajijic Malecon, with Lake Chapala and the south shore mountains in the background. The winter and spring of 2019 have been especially lovely, so I decided to share some photos I took along the shoreline walkway. In Spanish, a walkway like this is called a malecon.

More and more of Mexico’s pueblos sport colorful signs announcing the name of the town. The mountain in the upper left of the photo is Cerro Garcia. At 2,743m (9,000 feet), it is the loftiest peak directly overlooking the lake.

At the east end of the Malecon is a grove of eucalyptus treesfilled with parakeet nests. One of the nests rests in the fork of the tree seen above. The wild parakeets are one of the many species of birds that can be found at Lake Chapala. Some are year-round residents, while others migrate from areas as far away as Canada and South America.

A white pelican glides demurely along the shoreline. The water has been unusually high this winter and spring. Normally, local residents could be seen resting in the shade of the tree above. Now, only the pelicans can enjoy it. Excessive local rain is not the reason for the high water. Lake Chapala is fed by the Rio Lerma, which flows through a number of Mexican states. Heavy rains in those other states prompted them to open their dams to prevent overflows. While Lake Chapala gets some benefit from the extra water,  in drought years the same dams hold back water and the lake’s level often drops significantly.

Tall, leafy trees shade the park next to the Malecon. Some of these are relatively recent. In 2008, an upstream release of water drastically raised the lake’s level and flooded the shoreline. This included the area called Parque Amistad (Friendship Park), which runs along the north shore of the lake. The government of Chapala decided to raise the level of the park and build the current Maleconalong the shore as a barrier against future floods.

At first, I was a bit dubious about the project. Many of the former park’s lovely old trees were cut down during the construction. Also, I have seen projects like this begin and then be abandoned due insufficient funds or a change of administration. However, new trees were planted and construction continued steadily. When the new Parque Amistad was at last completed, the result was a lovely new recreation area along the shore. More improvements have been added every year since it opened to the public.

A Great White Egret eyes its possible lunchArdea Alba is found along the shore year round. Some can be found perching on beds of  lirio (water hyacinth), like the egret above. Others hang out along the concrete edge of the Malecon. At night they roost high in the trees along the lake. Usually an egret’s long neck curls back in an “S” like a snake’s body. When it’s stretched out, the egret is almost ready to strike into the water for a small snake or a fish.

A woman contemplates the lake from the muelle (pier). This view is from the east side of the muelle. It juts out into the water from the base of Calle Colon, the street that runs north to south, from the foot of the mountains to the lake. Colon is lined with restaurants, cantinas, art galleries, and boutique shops. In a previous posting, I dubbed it “Ajijic’s quirkiest street”.

The lirio (Eichhornia crassipes) you see in the foreground is one of the most invasive plant species in the world. It originated in the Amazon and constant efforts are needed to keep it from overwhelming the lake. Local Lakeside governments work hard to control it. However, periodic water releases from the upstream dams bring great rafts of lirio down to Lake Chapala, requiring cleanup efforts to begin again.

A Snowy egret rests on a branch. Snowy egrets are smaller than their Great White cousins. The Snowy (Egretta thula) has a tuft of feathers running from the top of its head down the back of its neck. When it is excited, or wants to intimidate another bird, a Snowy will flair these feathers while spreading its wings.

Often, a Snowy will fish right alongside a Great White. This confused me at first, because I initially thought the smaller bird was the female of a breeding pair, not an entirely different species. The close proximity of the two species also puzzled me because a Great White will aggressively challenge any of its own species that might stray into its preferred patch of shoreline. For some reason, the larger bird doesn’t consider a Snowy to be a competitor.

View of the west side of the muelle. The “barber pole” at the end of the pier is a navigation light. The structure built along the pier is a restaurant that was completed a while back, but never opened, apparently due to legal issues. It is the last of a series of restaurants on this spot that have closed for similar reasons. Mexican federal law prohibits the building of any private structure within a certain distance from a shoreline. Time and again, restaurants have opened on this pier and then have had to shut down.

Sometimes the closure doesn’t happen for several years. This may indicate that the owner had friends in high places or (as many suspect) money has changed hands. The current restaurant was announced with great fanfare but, after a long period of remodeling, everything stopped. I have mixed feelings about all this. On a hot day, this is a great spot for a restaurant. On the other hand, I would hate to see the quiet shoreline overwhelmed by a line of glitzy establishments projecting out into the water.

The Malecon, looking west from the muelle. A line of palm trees was planted along the edge of the Malecon, with benches placed between them for those who want to stop and enjoy the view. Parque Amistad is on the right. In drier years, there is a narrow beach between the Malecon and the water. However, this year the water reaches right up to the edge of the wall.

A fountain decorates the east end of Parque Amistad. The fountain wasn’t running the day I took this photo, but it is quite lovely when it does. The muelle and its restaurant can be seen on the left side of the photo. Set under Parque Amistad’s trees are picnic areas with tables and BBQ pits. On weekends, the park and Malecon are packed with Mexican families. Parque Amistad is a major attraction, both for local folks and visitorsfrom Guadalajara.

A playground with various climbing and sliding structures. The population of Mexico tilts toward the younger end of the scale and kids are everywhere. A sign at the play area credits the federal government for funding the equipment. Adult exercise equipment can be found a little further west. All this emphasis on exercise is a good thing, because Mexico has a problem with obesity. It recently passed the US as the most obese country in the world. Fortunately, there seems to be a boom in gyms, running, bicycling, and soccer (fútbol, in Spanish) and other vigorous activities. I’ve even noticed more Mexican hikers on the trails in the mountains.

View of the Malecon, looking east. Most mornings, the Malecon is almost empty, except for a handful of expats like Carole and myself. Most Mexicans are at work or in school during the morning hours. While we enjoy the people-watching opportunities in the evening and on the weekends, we find the Malecon most enjoyable during strolls on quiet mornings like this one.

The Malecon includes this amphitheater. The seats and classic columns provide a faint echo of ancient Greece. This area was created for musical events and political rallies. When millions of people in the US and around the world marched and rallied on January 21, 2017, expats and Mexicans living in Ajijic participated in the event. Four hundred expats and Mexicans marched from the Ajijic Plaza to this amphitheater to support women’s issues. The gathering did a lot to cement the relationship between foreigners and people in the local community. This was particularly important at a time when the new Trump Administration was gearing up to attack the human rights of immigrants.  Believe it or not, a photo of our rally made the front page of the New York Times!

One of the date palms that grow along the Malecon. The palms were small when they were planted about nine years ago, but now they tower over the walkway. Evidence of cultivation of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) dates back to 7000 BC in Mesopotamia. In 1765, during the late colonial period, the Spanish brought them to Mexico. The fruit of date palms is edible, but I don’t know if anyone actually consumes the dates that grow along the Malecon.

Impromptu art work adorns the skateboard area. Next to the amphitheater is a skateboard area, complete with ramps and other devices to challenge the skills of local kids. The existence of this area helps keep the skateboarders off other areas where they might damage property or themselves. The people who built this area apparently encouraged local “taggers” to do their work here, so as to keep the spray painting contained. An explosion of remarkably creative artwork resulted.

This brilliant poinsettia caught my eye. Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is an indigenous Mexican plant that can be found throughout the north shore area of Lake Chapala. It is cultivated in local gardens but also grows wild. The bushes on which they flower often attain a height of 10-12 feet. The plant got its name from Joel Roberts Poinsettia, who was the US Minister to Mexico in 1825. He introduced the plant to the United States. Because it flowers in winter, it became a popular Christmas decoration.

Chacmool in the park’s sculpture garden. A little west of the skateboard area is the sculpture garden. Chacmools were pre-hispanic stone sculptures closely associated with human sacrifice. The one above is a reproduction. These reclining figures first appeared in the Toltec Empire (700-1000 AD). They have also been found at Chichen Itza (600-1200 AD) in Yucatan. It was a Maya city which had a somewhat mysterious connection with the Toltecs. The Aztecs (1200-1500 AD) were also fond of Chacmools. They were originally barbarian nomads from the northern deserts. After their arrival in central Mexico, they  decided to adopt cultural features of the great empires that had preceded them, including Chacmools.

The Malecon, looking west. The north shore mountains can be seen in the background. The sculpture garden continues on the right side of the walkway. I hike regularly, not only in the north shore mountains, but also in the south shore’s Sierra El Tigre, as well as locations even further afield. In fact, I am a founding member of the Ajijic Hiking Group and lead some of their hikes. Every Tuesday and Friday morning, hikers meet up to choose their route for the day. The menu includes hikes of every level of difficulty from “beginner” to “very difficult”.

A local fisherman casts his net on the edge of the lake. On any given day, you can find fishermen casting nets like this along the shore. Just past the western end of the Malecon, you can find their camp where they pull their boats up and repair their nets. So far, I have seen only men or boys engaged in this activity. Even on cold days, you can find them knee-deep, or even waist-deep, in the chilly water. Their catch includes charales and tilapia. The former are small, about the size of sardines. The tilapia are larger, about the size of perch.

While the fishermen make net casting look easy, it is an activity requiring a high level of skill. Sinkers are attached to the edges to pull the net down and envelope fish. Cast nets are a technology that is extremely ancient. The oldest sinkers yet found were unearthed in Korea and date to 27,000 BC.

This completes my posting on Ajijic’s Malecon. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, PLEASE include your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Reach Jim at Jim & Carole’s Mexico Adventure

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