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Ajijic: Mexico’s expat paradise on the lake

The city of San Miguel Allende sucks all the air out of the room when the conversation turns to expatriate life in Mexico. While San Miguel Allende has been garnering lots of awards for its quality of life and general wonderfulness, the tiny town of Ajijic (pronounced Ah-HEE-hic) is developing into another expat paradise for citizens from the U.S. and Canada.

Ajijic is in the state of Jalisco on the shores of Lake Chapala, which at 417 square miles is the largest lake in Mexico. Ajijic is about a half-hour drive from Guadalajara’s international airport. This positions the town close enough to the big city benefits of Guadalajara, while still being tucked away from the urban sprawl in a unique natural setting. Imagine a huge lake with fisherman out on the water in pangas (small boats) casting for carp. At the shoreline are snowy egrets doing their own fishing. Someone in Ajijic must have made a concerted effort to protect the town’s trees since the streets are lined with huge specimens, including palm trees mixed in with pines and flowering jacarandas.

The compact town of Ajijic has narrow streets with rough cobblestones. Strolling through the town, there are hints of past hippy glory, such as a Volkswagen Beetle festooned with stuck-on flowers, or a distant sound system playing Creedence or the Stones. Many of the walls of the town are decorated with colorful murals in a range of styles, from figurative to whimsical to abstract.

A note about the cobblestone streets and in some places cobblestone sidewalks: If you plan to do any amount of walking at all, you’ll get a lot more mileage if you wear sturdy footwear and forgo the high heels.

The streets are lined with colorful houses and small boutiques and galleries. Since expats make up about 50% of the population during the winter season, visitors will find a greater variety of shops and restaurants than they would in a typical small Mexican town. For example, there’s the Simply Thai restaurant; Pasta Trenta; Ajijic Tango, featuring Argentinian steaks; and Tabarka Restaurante, serving Basque/Spanish cuisine.

Drop into Ajijic on a Wednesday to experience the weekly tianguis, or farmer’s market. There’s a variety of vendors, with some selling fresh produce, while others hawk household goods, curios and crafts. There’s also a mix of food vendors selling traditional Mexican food at rock-bottom prices. My breakfast of two excellent carne asada tacos and a soft drink cost less than $2.

While sitting on the malecon, I met a friendly Canadian walking his four dogs. When his wife was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome several years ago they were advised to find a sunnier climate. They first tried expatriate life in Panama, but found it too rainy for their liking. They heard about Ajijic and fell in love with the town immediately and made the decision to move down permanently. “We love it here,” he said. “It’s one sunny day after another. When people ask me if it’s safe I tell them, ‘I’ve been attacked by mosquitoes once or twice, but that’s about it.’”

Ruthie and Charles Baker moved to Ajijic eight years ago. They opened their own store, Sweets & Treats Ajijic, filling a much-needed niche. “Most expats aren’t going to cook a whole tray of brownies for themselves,” said Ruthie Baker. “But they love coming in here for a cupcake or some of our custom chocolates.” The Bakers donate the profits from their store to a local orphanage.

In fact, a desire to give back and help out the local Mexican community seems to be prevalent among the expats.

I’d recommend Ajijic as being a great day trip from Guadalajara, with a full day exploring the malecon, shopping and grabbing a meal. Those who want to soak up the town’s unique ambiance and maybe even weigh settling down in Ajijic would be well served by a couple of overnights. The choice of a hotel comes down to what kind of experience a visitor is seeking. If they want to be right in town with easy access to shopping, dining and the malecon, they should choose one of the boutique hotels, such as Estrellita’s B&B Hotel, or Hotel Casa de Abuela. If they want a break from the town at the end of the day, the Hotel Real de Chapala is a good choice. It’s located about a 10-minute walk from town in an upscale residential neighborhood on the shores of the lake. At 85 rooms, the two-story Hotel Real de Chapala is the biggest and most modern hotel in town. While its rooms could use some updating, this drawback is offset by the hotel’s beautiful landscaped grounds, great variety of birds and excellent onsite restaurant.

Some moments during my stay I felt as though I’d stumbled into a retirement home for energetic seniors. While I took in the sun, the malecon was busy with gray-haired gents and ladies either running or powerwalking the length of the strip. In the town square, it seemed like the Coffé Black & White restaurant was a pulse point for people to exchange hellos, hugs and some juicy gossip.

Living in a town like Ajijic could suit some seniors better than settling into a typical stateside retirement home. In addition to a beautiful natural setting that encourages residents to get out and enjoy the day, senior expats living in Ajijic will stay sharp rubbing up against the unfamiliar edges of Mexican culture.

Mark Rogers, Special to USA TODAYPublished 10:55 a.m. ET Jan. 22, 2018 | Updated 2:00 p.m. ET Jan. 22, 2018