Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Mexico: Ajijic, Expat Haven on Lake Chapala

Signs such as this have recently been placed in communities surrounding Lake Chapala.
This is on the malecon (waterfront walkway) of Ajijic.

One of my oldest friends, a fellow Ole Miss alumnus, has been living for 14 or 15 years in Ajijic. He moved there from San Francisco. Like me, he has spent much of his life as far away from our roots in the Magnolia State as possible. Jane and I had time off over Thanksgiving from helping out with our granddaughter in San Diego and spent a week with my friend, Ralph, in Ajijic. It's  pronounced ah-HEE-heek.

Read my column about expat retirees, including one in Ajijic. Click HERE.

To reach this small town, we flew on the bare-bones Mexican airline Volaris from Tijuana (using the Express Border Crossing bridge to walk into the airport after parking our car on the U.S. side) to Guadalajara. Ralph picked us up for the half-hour ride to Ajijic. Although Ralph has a lovely Spanish Colonial-style home with a guest room and a swimming pool, we stayed at a nearby bed and breakfast (Casa Tres Leones, click HERE for website) thanks to my allergies and Ralph's two dogs and two cats. 

Ajijic markets itself as an affordable retirement haven for Americans and Canadians, and the town of about 12,000 has more than 1,000 full-time expat residents. Another 700 or so have winter homes there. We saw car license plates from several U.S. states and Canada. With an elevation of about 5,000 feet, Ajijic has a constant spring climate, though rainy and dry seasons break up the year. The average year-round temperature is 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The town is on the northern shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest lake at about 420 square miles. It's surrounded by mountains that are part of the Sierra Madre range. The lake moderates the temperature in waterfront communities like Ajijic, making it warmer during the "cold" months and cooler during the summers. Although it's very scenic, the lake's questionable water quality discourages boating, swimming and fishing. 

For such a small town, Ajijic has a great variety of restaurants, from small traditional Mexican eateries like Chile Verde (click HERE), which is popular with locals and expats alike, to more sophisticated places like Pale (HERE), a Spanish place where we ate three times. Our last meal was an off-the-menu rabbit and chicken paella for three. The young co-owner and chef said it was the first time he'd made rabbit paella since opening the restaurant 18 months ago. It was delicious. 

The shopping scene is not so bright. We had thought that we'd do a good bit of our Christmas gift-buying here, but what we wanted -- handcrafted baby clothes, blankets and other easy-to-pack textiles -- were very similar to Mexican goods sold in San Diego and not exactly bargains. We came home with very little despite having made it to the town's quite good Wednesday street market and having gone into most shops in the "Corazon de Ajijic" more than once. Some of the local art, however, was very interesting and well priced, but hard to carry on an airplane. The town is something of an art colony, and Ralph has filled his house and garden with wonderful works by Ajijic artists. 

In addition to eating and drinking too much, we three went on several excursions. The first was to Mazamitla, a small town at about 7,000 feet in the Sierra del Tigre mountains on the other side of the lake. Another was to Teuchitlan, a couple of hours away on the other side of Guadalajara, where we visited the Guachimontones, circular pyramids more than 2,000 years old. We also went to Guadalajara where we had lunch in a neighborhood cafe near the center of the city, which is the second-largest in Mexico. Another outing was a drive further east along the lake through a couple of indigenous villages. The condition of some roads in Jalisco are excellent by any standards, and others show why Ralph and so many others there drive Jeeps or similar vehicles.

Here are some snapshots from Thanksgiving week, 2018: 
The western end of Ajijic's
one-kilometer malecon.

Another view of the malecon.

A wall at a skateboard park along the malecon.

Residents have donated several ancient sculptures that
are displayed along the malecon.

An egret finds a perch along the malecon.
An unusually long rainy season has caused
an exceptionally high water level in
Lake Chapala.

A movie theater competes with clothing vendors
along one of the main streets.

The weekly Wednesday street market offers a wide range of produce, including
the largest cauliflowers Jane and I had ever seen.
Shoes, watermelons, pineapples and more. 

People were eating breakfast around 10 a.m.

Murals enliven many streets in Ajijic.

This artist went beyond a simple mural to create a bas-relief underwater world.
Lake Chapala seems to have thousands of pelicans.

A gas delivery on the main shopping street.

We were in Ajijic for its annual late November 10-day fiesta.  The Ferris wheel and other rides
blocked the main shopping street.  During the fiesta, early morning (like 6:30 a.m.!) fireworks
can be heard throughout the town, ostensibly reminding people to go to early mass. They are sometimes
followed by loud band music, drumming and singing. "I should have told you to bring
ear plugs," my friend Ralph said. 

Terracotta skulls adorn the walls of a building
across the street from the town's main church, each
bearing the name of someone who has died. 

This work (a celebration of Mexican independence?) is part of the wall of skulls.

A mural near the main plaza celebrates, I suppose, some aspect of local or Mexican history.

That's the main church in the background as
fiesta-goers start to fill the streets in the center
of town.

Dancers in the courtyard of the main church.

It amazed me that narrow streets could accommodate
carnival rides such as this. 

The inside of the dome above the front porch at Casa Tres Leones.

The three lions of Casa Tres Leones.

The lush garden at Casa Tres Leones, with the pool to the right and the breakfast terrace to the left.
Although we were told the pool was heated, it was in the shade for most of the afternoon
and never was warm enough for wimps like us. I imagine that during hotter weather,
it would be absolutely wonderful.

This is the malecon at the town of Chapala, a larger town to the east of Ajihic.

A flying dancer on a pole atop a circular pyramid in a visitors' center mural depicting
the Guachimontones 2,000 years ago. This site became known in the last half of the
20th century and excavation wasn't completed until the 1990s. 

Visitors read about another mural at the visitors' center.

This large circular pyramid is called the Iguana. It was once topped with a pole for
a flying dancer. The other platforms formed a circle around the Iguana and also
connected it with other circular pyramids. This complex was built by people
known as the Teuchitlan Tradition to honor a wind god.

At 7,000 feet, Mazamitla sits amid a conifer forest, providing wood for building.  Promoters have
labeled the town "The Mexican Switzerland" because of the chalet-like architecture.

A covered sidewalk along Mazamitla's main square.

The main church in Mazamitla.

It was interesting to see that the president (who seems to
relish closing the U.S.-Mexican border) is as beloved
in Mexico as he is in the saner parts of the
United States. This cap and tee shirt were
on sale at a Canadian-owned shop in Ajijic.
The airport in Guadalajara sold similar if
less vulgar anti-Trump tee shirts. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

California: San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Recycled signs spread the park's conservation message.
Forty minutes or so north of the much-acclaimed San Diego Zoo is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in the hills and canyons near Escondido.  It started out as a breeding area for zoo animals but was eventually opened to the public, rebranded as a "safari park" and now is yet another Southern California attraction. (Click HERE for the Safari Park's website.)
     Given the absence of some animals anyone would expect to see here -- hippos, chimpanzees, to name a couple -- I got the impression that the park is still a work in progress. I assume it will become more fully developed and more encyclopedic as time goes on. As it is, it's a major breeding zoo for rhinos and other threatened animals. Some animals born there have been introduced into the wild in Africa.
     Jane and I are fortunate to have spent several weeks on safari in Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa (click HERE for postings about the experience). This park is really a zoo, although a very, very large one, much larger than the San Diego Zoo itself. Parts of it mimic the plains in Africa and the Australian Outback, and parts of it are simply displays of bats or skinks or other animals. Many kinds of African antelope share a large canyon with giraffes and other beasts. The size of the place, however, means that it's difficult to view many of the animals closely, though the park offers "insider" and other tours at an additional cost that get visitors much closer to the animals.
     Conservation is a constant theme at the park, so it's disconcerting to see plastic straws distributed automatically with soft drinks and that the drinks are in plasticized but not reusable cups. This at a time when tiny bits of plastic are turning up in much of the seafood we eat.
     We spent several hours at the park on Oct. 23, 2018, with Jane carrying a clipboard and answering questions about the park in a "scavenger hunt" as part of her training to be a volunteer at the San Diego Zoo in the city. I followed her around, offered her no worthwhile help, and took a few photos.
A three-banded armadillo. 

A Sumatran tiger paces in its enclosure. Yes, the fence was the only barrier between
visitors and the big cat.

The tiger takes a dip. Other big cats at the park include
cheetahs and lions. 

The Safari Park is set among the arid hills and canyons near Escondido in northern San Diego County.

A kangaroo rests in the Australian Outback exhibit.

Touching is allowed. There's a hand-washing station just
outside the Outback exhibit.

These looked like natural rocks to me, perhaps shaped a bit and artfully rearranged. 

While plants and animals from all over the world can be found in the park, some areas
look like natural Southern California landscapes. 

A prehensile-tailed skink.

Animals are given "enrichment" items like this large
block to handle and play with. All the elephants are
African and from Swaziland.

Little Mkhaya, less than a month old when we saw her, is getting back on her feet after laying down. 

A nyala, one of many kinds of African
antelope at the park.

East Africa crowned cranes. 

The park is particularly proud of its success in
breeding rhinos.

Ruppell's vulture is one of several vultures at the park,
including the California condor.

As in Africa, I lost track of how to distinguish among the many different kinds of
African antelopes. To make matters more confusing, many of them are known by
more than one name.

I'm almost certain these are oryx. 

"What do you mean, Toys R Us is out of business?" 

These are lesser flamingos, not quite as striking as the larger and pinker Chilean flamingos.

The African Sacred Ibis was worshiped in ancient Egypt  as a representation
 of the god Thoth, giver of  wisdom, knowledge and writing.

The Kikulu Colobus is from Kenya's highlands
east of the Rift Valley.

A female Southern Gerenuk. In the wild they're found from
Somalia to Tanzania.

The magnificent eland. We saw these animals in Africa, but we could never
get close enough for a decent photo, even with a good zoom lens. 

More elands. 

Some sort of sawdust-like play area accounts for the debris in this
gorilla's fur. My impression is that the gorillas at the main zoo
have a more stimulating environment, but perhaps the gorillas
here like the quiet life.

For an additional fee, a tethered balloon gives visitors
a bird's eye view of the park.