Jun 062024

Before the advent of trains and motor vehicles, the only way to get to Lake Chapala was to walk, ride or take a stagecoach (diligencia). The first regular Guadalajara–Chapala stagecoach service began in 1866. While the trip could be done in ten hours, it usually took twelve or more, and the mix of excitement, speed, fright, danger and uncertainty described by early travelers was certainly not for the faint-hearted.

After the completion of the Irapuato-Ocotlán-Atequiza-Guadalajara branch line of the Mexican Central Railway in 1888, demand for a Guadalajara–Chapala stagecoach service declined. Travelers from the city had a choice: they could take a train to Atequiza, followed by a relatively short stagecoach ride to Chapala, or they could take the train to Ocotlán, and then catch a steamboat to Chapala, avoiding having to ride the stagecoach at all.

I know of about ten early photos of stagecoaches taken in the town of Chapala. Some were used as book or magazine illustrations, and several were mass-produced as commercial picture postcards in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The images reproduced here are presented in approximate chronological order, based on evidence of publication dates and on details of buildings in the respective photos.

Postcard by Juan Kaiser

Fig 1. c 1900. Winfield Scott. Postcard by Juan Kaiser. The turreted building behind the stagecoach is Villa Ana Victoria. On the extreme right, a water carrier is walking towards the camera.

This photo (Fig 1) of a stagecoach on the eastern side of Calle del Muelle was uncredited when it was first published in 1900 to illustrate an article about Chapala by the Hon. Maud Pauncefote in Harper’s Bazar. The photo was also published in about 1901 on a triple-view postcard by Juan Kaiser, then based in San Luis Potosí. The other two photos on that postcard can be positively identified as the work of Winfield Scott, so there is little doubt that Scott also took this stagecoach photo.

A slightly cropped version of Fig 1 was included in Vitold de Szyszlo’s book, Dix mil kilometres a traverse le Mexique, 1909-1910, published in 1913, where the photo is credited to Charles B. Waite. This attribution is not as surprising as it sounds, given that Waite had purchased all Scott’s negatives and photo rights in April 1908.

Winfield Scott. Published in El Mundo, 2 June 1901.

Fig 2. c. 1900. Winfield Scott. Published in El Mundo Ilustrado, 2 June 1901.

Winfield Scott also took this photograph (Fig 2) of a stagecoach on the other side of Calle del Muelle, waiting outside the Hotel Arzapalo (which first opened in 1898). This image appeared in El Mundo Ilustrado in 1901, and in Four Track News in 1905.

Postcard by Juan Kaiser

Fig 3. c 1904. Photo by José María Lupercio (?). Postcard by Juan Kaiser.

Fig 3 is a somewhat similar image, which I believe was taken a year or two later, probably by Guadalajara-based photographer José María Lupercio. It was reproduced in about 1904 on postcards published both by Ruhland & Ahlschier and by Juan Kaiser, who by then had moved his publishing sideline from San Luis Potosí to Guadalajara. By that time, the Hotel Arzapalo owned two stagecoaches for daily service to and from Atequiza railroad station, as well as several carriages (guayines) for special trips.

Traveling by stagecoach was both uncomfortable and unreliable. Stagecoach service was often impossible during the rainy season, owing to the poor state of the wagon roads. In July 1904, Chapala hotel owners Victor Huber and Ignacio Arzapalo joined forces to finance repairs and reopen the road before October. At that time the stagecoach between Chapala and Atequiza cost one peso (US$0.50) each way.

Summer Matheson. 1907.

Fig 4. 1907. Photo by Summer W Matteson. (Courtesy Milwaukee Public Museum, Wisconsin.)

We can date this photograph (Fig 4) of another stagecoach outside the Hotel Arzapalo to 1907 with certainty, because it was taken by American photographer Sumner Matteson during his first trip to Mexico.

Postcard published by Schwidernoch, Austria.

Fig 5. c 1907. Photograph by José María Lupercio (?) Postcard published by T Schwidernoch, Austria.

This photo (Fig 5) must date from about the same time, and is believed to be another photograph taken by José María Lupercio. It was used by several postcard publishers, including Juan Kaiser (post-1906), Manuel Hernández (1907), and T. Schwidernoch of Vienna, Austria.

The postal service was efficient in those days. One of these cards, mailed in 1908 by guests at the Hotel Ribera Castellanos near Ocotlán, took only five days to reach Virginia! The card explained why the senders had chosen to stay near Ocotlán in preference to Chapala: “Would you like a souvenir of Mex? This is the coach they use to go from the R.R. [railroad] to the hotel on Lake Chapala fourteen miles. We are staying at a place on the same lake but only three miles from the R.R.”

Unknown photographer and publisher

Fig 6. c 1908. Unknown photographer. Believed to have been published by Juan Kaiser. (Courtesy of Ing. Manuel González García.)

In Fig 4 and Fig 5 there is no building abutting the Hotel Arzapalo, which proves they were taken prior to the second half of 1907, when construction began of the Guillermo de Alba-designed Hotel Palmera, completed in 1908. The Hotel Palmera does appear on the left side of this photo (Fig 6), a rare early image of a stagecoach in motion. The building on the right is the competing Gran Hotel Victor Huber (later Gran Hotel Chapala).

Unknown photographer

Fig 7. c 1908. Photographer and publisher unknown.

The Gran Hotel Victor Huber (later Gran Hotel Chapala) is shown in all its glory in Fig 7, which must date from about the same time.

By 1908, the days of stagecoaches were numbered, and the automobile was taking over. In 1906 prominent American dentist Dr. John W. Purnell drove his Reo from Guadalajara to Chapala in 3 hours 49 minutes, and made the return trip (including an 11-minute stop in Tlaquepaque) in 3 hours 39 minutes. The following year, Alfonso Fernández Somellera took just 63 minutes out to the lake and 65 minutes back to complete his round trip from the big city to Chapala (about 130 kilometers in total) in his 30-horsepower Packard.

Stagecoaches were unable to compete, in speed or comfort, and rapidly became a thing of the past.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via comments or email.

May 302024

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, a photo I took of Ajijic in 1980 (below) shows, almost precisely in the middle, the bare hillside known as Cerro del Aguila (“Hill of the Eagle”) or Cerro Colorado (“Colored Hill”). According to a local legend, the hillside was formed during the centuries-long migration of the Mexica people (the forerunners of the Aztecs) from their ancestral homeland, Aztlán, en route to founding their capital city, Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City stands today) in 1325.

The Mexica were looking for a sign—an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus—to tell them where to found their new capital and ceremonial center. Today, this sign, with the  addition of a serpent, which the eagle is devouring, is a national symbol and appears on the national flag.

Ajijic and its eagle. © Tony Burton, 1980.

Ajijic and its eagle. © Tony Burton, 1980.

The Ajijic version of the legend was summarized in 1988 by journalist Ruth Netherton, a long-time Ajijic resident. She explained to her readers that the Mexica saw their sign at Lake Chapala’s Isla de los Alacranes:

As the priests pondered the omen, a strong wind blew up and dashed the eagle against a barren hill, leaving its image there. The eagle is still visible today above Rancho del Oro, with wings outstretched, a shrub forming the eye. Why the priests were discouraged from founding Tenochtitlan at Lake Chapala is not explained. Perhaps the strong wind (called locally “el abajeño” or “el mexicano”) was considered a bad omen.”

This is an appealing legend, and one which directly links Ajijic to the rise of the Aztec Empire. But the unanswered question about this legend is just how old it might be. Did the legend start when Ajijic was founded in 1531? Is it possible to trace its origin back that far, or even further?

John Spillyards. 2023. Ajijic: Cerro del Aguila (cropped from original image)

Ajijic: Cerro del Aguila. © John Spillyards. 2023.  Image reproduced courtesy of the photographer.

In my thirty-plus years of research about Lake Chapala, I have come across remarkably few references to the Ajijic Eagle, and none of them date back very far. The earliest documentary evidence I’ve come across is a paragraph written by Dr Leo Stanley in October 1937, when he and and a friend rode horseback from Chapala to Jocotepec, and then continued along the southern shore of the lake to San Luis [Soyutlán], where they found lodgings for the night. In the early evening, Stanley strolled down to the lake shore:

It was a very pretty afternoon, and off in the distance across the lake toward San Juan could be seen a peculiar phenomenon. By landslides and erosions in the mountains, the natural form of a spread eagle was displayed in brown against the green verdure. This marking could be seen very distinctly from the southern shore of the lake.”

On the other hand, none of the three best-known books about the Ajijic area written a decade later—House in the Sun and Village in the Sun, both by ‘Dane Chandos (Peter Lilley and Nigel Millett), and Dust on my Heart, by Neill James— includes any mention or description of the Ajijic Eagle.

This leads me to believe that, even though the Mexica migration legend is ancient, its link to the Ajijic eagle is much more recent, perhaps dating from the beginning of the twentieth century, and associated with several decades of mining in the hills behind Ajijic. For example, just before the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910, we know that the owners of one of the main mines were installing “a cyanide annex at the plant, which now consists of ten-stamp concentrators and amalgamating plates.” The use of cyanide on this scale would have killed off the immediate vegetation and destroyed soil organisms, creating a barren area that has remained infertile to this day: the unusual eagle-shaped hillside scar on Cerro Colorado.

If you know of other literary or documentary references to the Ajijic Eagle, please let me know!

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of mining, artists and authors in Ajijic.


  • The Mexican Herald, 15 December 1909, 15.
  • Ruth Netherton. 1988. “Laguna Chapalac.” Guadalajara Reporter, 20 August 1988.
  • Leo L. Stanley. 1937. “Mixing in Mexico,” 1937, two volumes. Leo L. Stanley Papers, MS 2061, California Historical Society. Volume 2. (My sincere thanks to Frances Kaplan, Reference & Outreach Librarian of the California Historical Society, and to the California Historical Society for permission to reproduce the excerpt used in this post.)

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via the comments feature or email.

May 162024

Many artists and authors have visited Lake Chapala in search of, or in homage to, their literary or artistic idols. But what about those who have also spent time collecting ancient stone and pottery idols and artifacts? There are far more members of this latter group than I first thought.

The first academic report of such artifacts in the international press was anthropologist Frederick Starr‘s short, illustrated booklet titled The Little Pottery Objects of Lake Chapala, Mexico, published in 1897. Starr, who visited Chapala over the winter of 1895-96, credited Francisco Fredenhagen with having introduced him to archaeological pieces from the western end of the lake, and suggested a simple typology for the different kinds of objects he had examined. Starr’s collection of ‘miniature pottery’ now resides in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. Professor Starr’s handwriting may explain why several items are recorded as having been collected in “San Juan Coyala,” instead of San Juan Cosalá!

Fig 52 of Starr (1897)

Fig 52 of Starr (1897)

(Note that, while collecting ancient artifacts as souvenirs and removing them from Mexico was a common practice at the time, it can now result in severe legal consequences.)

Coincidentally, Starr’s visit to Chapala came only a few weeks after a major international conference of ‘Americanistas’ in Mexico City. Several of the attendees had close links to Lake Chapala, including:

  • Lionel Carden, the British consul to Mexico Lionel Carden, who was building a house (Villa Tlalocan) in Chapala.
  • New Orleans poet Mary Ashley Townsend and her daughter, Mrs Cora Townsend de Rascón: Cora bought Villa Montecarlo in Chapala for her mother that year (1895) as a Christmas gift.
  • Ethnographer Jeremiah Curtin, who left us an unforgettable description of meeting Septimus Crowe, the eccentric Englishman and pioneer foreign settler in Chapala, on the train home from the conference.
  • San Diego language teacher Eduardo H Coffey, who broke the first news in English of a giant whirlpool that struck the western end of Lake Chapala in January 1896.
  • Historian Luis Pérez Verdía, who (in 1904) began building the iconic Victorian-style house close to the church now commonly known as Casa Braniff.

The female English artist and amateur archaeologist Adela Breton, an intrepid traveler who presented papers at later Americanistas’ conferences, also visited Chapala in 1896 and collected a few pottery items. She is best remembered today for having recorded ancient Mayan murals and friezes; in some cases the originals no longer exist, and her magnificent drawings and watercolors are the best record we have of these artistic and cultural treasures.

Also visiting Lake Chapala in the 1890s was Norwegian anthropologist Carl Lumholtz, though his findings were not published until 1902. He recorded excavations near Chapala, and the finding of two ‘ceremonial hatchets.’ As we shall see shortly, Lumholtz also apparently bought several ancient artifacts, some or all of which may have been fake.

American journalist George W Baylor described in a 1902 article about Chapala how tourists staying at the Hotel Arzapalo would walk along the beach each morning,

examining the water’s edge closely for ollitas and various kinds of toys which are washed up every night from the lake. Some represent bake ovens, chairs, ducks or geese, volcanoes, and after a storm they are quite plentiful, and an early rise and race is made to get them. They can be bought quite cheap but most every visitor wants to say, ‘I found this on the beach at Lake Chapala.’ One [explanation] is that there was at one time an island in front of Chapala on which there was quite a populous city, and say that this is more than likely, as innumerable pieces of porous burnt rock keep washing ashore.

Another probable explanation is that those three million people that have lived on the borders of the lake since the year 1, threw those toys into the water to propitiate their god of water and rain, Tlaloc, and from the quantities that are carried off by tourists and others annually, each of the three millions of ancients must have put in a bushel apiece. They are made of yellow and blue clay, and burned, and occasionally of stone.

Horrible figures of idols come from the foothills, where in ages past were probably pueblos swarming with Indians. Others are dug from the banks of arroyos in a white cement. Others well, they are manufactured up to date and are sold to innocent parties as contemporaneous with Adam and Eve – nothing later than Montezuma.”

American artists Everett Gee Jackson and Lowell Houser lived for several years in Chapala in the mid-1920s. Jackson amassed his own collection of figurines from Chapala, and published an analysis of them in 1941. In his 1987 memoir It’s a Long Road to Comondú, Jackson also explains how he taught a local boy, Isidoro Pulido (about whom more later), how to make reproductions of figurines! On a return visit to Chapala in 1950, Jackson was delighted to find that,

Isidoro had become a maker of candy and a dealer in pre-Columbian art in the patio of his house on Los Niños Héroes Street. I did not teach him to make candy, but when he was just a boy I had shown him how he could reproduce those figurines he and Eileen [Jackson’s wife] used to dig up back of Chapala. Now he not only made them well, but he would also take them out into the fields and gullies, bury them, and then dig them up in the company of American tourists, who were beginning to come to Chapala in increasing numbers. Isidoro did not feel guilty when the tourists bought his works; he believed his creations were just as good as the pre-Columbian ones.”

Whether or not the locals really needed Jackson’s help to produce ‘fake’ antiquities is debatable, given Baylor’s testimony that even at the very start of the twentieth century some people were already  making—and selling—genuine-looking artifacts to unsuspecting foreign visitors.

German-born artist Trude Neuhaus also first visited Chapala in the mid-1920s, as part of her preparations for a show in New York in 1925. The New York Times reported that the exhibition, previously shown at the National Art Gallery in Mexico City, included “paintings, water colors and drawings of Mexican types and scenery,” as well as “Aztec figurines and pottery recently excavated by the artist in Chapala, Mexico.”

Poet and novelist Idella Purnell, born in Guadalajara, had studied under American poet Witter Bynner at the University of California, and played a key role in the decision of English novelist D. H. Lawrence to visit Chapala in 1923. Purnell later penned a delightful, and moving, story, “The Idols Of San Juan Cosala,” for the American Junior Red Cross News.

Five years after American anthropologist Elsie Crews Parsons visited Chapala in 1932, she wrote a short paper entitled “Some Mexican Idolos in Folklore.” She cast doubt on the authenticity of the stone ídolos (idols) collected by some previous anthropologists and ethnographers, writing that, ever since the 1890s there has been,

at this little Lakeside resort a traffic in the ídolos which have been washed up from the lake or dug up in the hills back of town, in ancient Indian cemeteries, or faked by the townspeople. An English lady who visited Chapala thirty-nine years ago quotes Mr. Crow[e] as saying that the ídolos sold Lumholtz were faked, information that the somewhat malicious Mr. Crow[e] did not impart to the ethnologist.”

The identity of the ‘English lady’ referred to by Parsons is unclear. The most likely candidates are either the Honorable Selina Maud Pauncefote, daughter of the British Ambassador in Washington, or Adela Breton, both of whom visited in 1896.

While Parsons doubted the authenticity of Lumholtz’s collection, she was convinced that the items collected at about the same time by Frederick Starr were definitely genuine.

Californian prison doctor Leo Stanley visited Lake Chapala in 1937. He was sufficiently intrigued by the ancient artifacts he saw to seek out a local to help him find and excavate likely locations. In one of those coincidences that are seemingly inevitable in real life, the local was ‘Ysidoro’, the young man befriended years earlier by Everett Gee Jackson! Stanley’s account of the effort involved in hunting for idols with Isidoro Pulido—and of their eventual ‘success’—is well worth the read.

Leo Stanley. 1937. "Digging for Treasure." By kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937. “Digging for Treasure.” By kind permission of California Historical Society.

English author Barbara Compton visited Lake Chapala in 1946. One of the main characters in her semi-autobiographical novel To The Isthmus is an idol hunter and fellow guest at Casa Heuer who regularly left Ajijic for a few days at a time to explore new sites. In real life, she later married the man who had given her the inspiration for this character.

In 1948, author Neill James, an avid treasure hunter, explained to a visiting reporter how:

When the water in Lake Chapala is low, you can sit in it waist deep, dig in the sand and bring up miniature idols, medallions, vases, kitchen utensils and other things that the Indians threw into the lake in their worship of the rain god hundreds of years ago.”

Journalist Kenneth McCaleb recalled in a Texas newspaper in 1965 how he had known a very good faker of antiquities in Chapala, who “specialized in the familiar pre-Columbian ‘primitive’ ceramic figurines of ancient Mexico.” McCaleb reported that the aging process was a secret, but that the maker would guide customers to “places where, after some healthful exercise, he dug up his own archaeological objects.” And the name of this faker? None other than our old friend Isidoro!

Unlike the collecting of ancient idols, with their often dubious provenance, there is—I am glad to report—no obvious drawback to my fixation on collecting and profiling the famous authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala!

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.


  • George Wythe Baylor. 1902. “Lovely Lake Chapala.” El Paso Herald, 1 November 1902, 10.
  • Adele C. Breton. 1903. “Some Mexican portrait clay figures,” Man, vol 3, 130-133.
  • Barbara Compton. 1964. To The Isthmus. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Mary Hirscheld. 1948. “Author in Mexico.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, 10 April 1948, 8.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1941. “The Pre-Columbian Ceramic Figurines from Western Mexico.” Parnassus, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1941), 17-20.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1987. It’s a Long Road to Comondú. Texas A&M University Press.
  • Carl Lumholtz. 1902. Unknown Mexico (2 vols). 1973 reprint: Rio Grande Press.
  • Kenneth McCaleb. 1968. “Conversation Piece.” Corpus Christi Times, 27 January 1965, 14.
  • Elsie Clews Parsons. 1937. “Some Mexican Idolos in Folklore”, The Scientific Monthly, May 1937.
  • Idella Purnell. 1936. “The Idols Of San Juan Cosala.” American Junior Red Cross News, December 1936.
  • Leo L. Stanley. 1937. “Mixing in Mexico.”(2 vols). Leo L. Stanley Papers, MS 2061, California Historical Society. Volume 2.
  • Frederick Starr. 1897. The Little Pottery Objects of Lake Chapala, Mexico, Bulletin II, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago.

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via the comments feature or email.

May 022024

The text of “A Brief History of Ajijic,” by June Nay Summers (1916-2001), comes directly from her own 1993 booklet Lake Chapala Villages in the Sun. The full text of the article is on the web, and parts of it were paraphrased during a recent Open Circle presentation in Ajijic. But how accurate is her account of Ajijic’s history?

A Brief History of Ajijic (Ojo del Lago, December 2012)

A Brief History of Ajijic (Ojo del Lago, December 2012)

My critique of the article follows, with quotes from the original in red:

“Ajijic was settled by people who came from the north, and their origin is explained by a legend. There was a place far to the north called ‘Whiteness’, and, from its seven caves, seven tribes set out towards the south.”

Ajijic did not exist until 1531, when it was founded by Franciscan friar Martín de Jesús (or de la Coruña), who suggested to an indigenous group led by Xitomatl (later baptized Andrés Carlos) that they move their existing community to begin a new settlement, where water was more readily available, named Axixic [Ajijic].

Summers’ account echoes a local legend that these groups were descendants or offshoots of the Mexica people (forerunners of the Aztecs) who may have settled temporarily on the shores of Lake Chapala while en route from their ancestral homeland (Aztlan in the north) to found a new city, Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City stands today). The meaning of Aztlan is unknown, with ‘place of whiteness’ being only one of several possible alternative derivations. According to the legend, before living in Atzlan, the Mexica were one of the seven tribes occupying seven caves in a mythical place named Chicomoztoc.

Ethnoarchaeologist Dr Carolyn Baus Czitrom found that all the indigenous people living on the northern shore of Lake Chapala at the time of the conquest belonged to the Coca indigenous group, except for those living in San Juan Cosalá, Ajijic, San Antonio Tlayacapan and Chapala, who were Caxcan. The origin of both groups, and their kinship (if any) with the Mexica, is unknown.

“These primitives lived on Chapala’s vast shores with no thought of founding permanent pueblos. Nor were they curious about their own origins, their forefathers or their names. Their vision of the world was simple. They were completely absorbed with the rendering of tribute to their gods. It was through, they thought, the pleasing of these deities that the sun shone and the rains fell on their land. Obtaining their daily sustenance was their primary reason for being.”

This culturally insensitive claim is conjectural and overly simplistic. There is no evidence, to the best of my knowledge, that these early settlers (whether Coca or Caxcan) “established complex barricades on the shores of this immense lake.” According to Czitrom’s research, the Coca did have multiple deities, but they also had a social structure and settlements, comprised of homes built using adobe, stones and wood. The Coca also crafted several kinds of rafts and boats.

“In 1522, the Olid Expedition reached the eastern shores of Lake Chapala. When they arrived, Captain Avalos met with little resistance. A royal grant gave joint ownership of the area to Avalos and the Spanish Crown.”

This is another immense simplification. The Olid Expedition, which reached the southern shores of Lake Chapala in about 1522, involved Fernando (sometimes Hernando) de Saavedra, the older brother of Alonso de Ávalos. Alonso de Ávalos did not arrive in New Spain until 1523. The two brothers were cousins of Hernán Cortés, who granted them (and a third relative who died shortly afterwards) the encomienda (the right to collect tributes and labor from indigenous inhabitants) for a large area, which included the southern shore of Lake Chapala, and later also the northern shore. After their partner’s death, the two brothers shared tribute payments from the encomienda. After Fernando died in 1535, his half-share reverted to the Spanish Crown. The encomienda system did not, strictly speaking, constitute either solo or joint ownership. The tributes supplied by Ajijic every 80 days consisted of blankets and items of clothing, cotton, fish and provisions.

“Close in Avalos’ (a cousin of Cortez) wake came other relatives of Cortez. One, by the name of Saenz, acquired almost all of the property that is now Ajijic…. By 1530, the Saenz property was one big hacienda. The principal crop was mezcal for making tequila. The hillsides were covered with mezcal plants and their soft blue-green blanketed hill and dale.”

Summers’ timeline is wildly inaccurate. No haciendas had been established in this area by 1530; Spanish settlement had barely got underway. Construction of the first Franciscan friary in Ajijic began in 1531, and the earliest haciendas in the surrounding region date from about a century later. There is no record of anyone named ‘Saenz’ ever owning any hacienda near Ajijic, though a Sebastian Sainz (note spelling) acquired the Hacienda El Cuije (which included land in and around Ajijic) in about 1900, following the murder of its former owner, Hans (‘Juan’) Jaacks. Sainz had no known familial connection to Hernán Cortés. Both Sebastian Sainz Peña (ca 1851-1927) and his wife, María Dolores Stephenson Zambrano (1869-1958) were born in Spain. They arrived in Mexico in the 1890s and quickly amassed an extensive property portfolio in Ajijic and Chapala.

According to most historians, tequila was not produced commercially until the 1700s, and the first exports of tequila (from anywhere in Mexico) were not until the 1870s. Agaves (mezcal plants) are not mentioned in distinguished naturalist Henri Galeotti’s comprehensive description of Lake Chapala’s geology, flora and fauna after his visit in 1837, or in Mariano Bárcena’s meticulous statistical account of Ajijic in 1888. [English translations of excerpts from Galeotti and Bárcena can be found in Lake Chapala Through The Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales.]

If either Jaacks and/or Sainz pioneered the commercial cultivation of agaves in the Ajijic area, it was probably in the 1890s, though contemporaneous descriptions of Jaack’s production at the time of his death in 1896 mention cattle, oranges, bananas and coffee, but not agaves. There is no evidence that agave was ever their principal crop, or that “the hillsides were covered with mezcal plants.”

“Later, Franciscan missionaries visited the village and gave it a patron saint, San Andres (Saint Andrew). Royal land grants included the Indians who lived there. Franciscan Fray Sebastian de Parrago introduced the first oranges to Ajijic in 1562. Henceforth, the village was called ‘San Andres de Axixic.’ Its cobblestone streets-laid down during the days of Spanish rule-are still used today.”

Chronologically, this paragraph belongs centuries before any talk of haciendas or tequila. It also contains two significant inaccuracies. First, Franciscan accounts show that friar Sebastian de Parrago introduced the first oranges to the area in 1562, but to Chapala, not Ajijic. Secondly, there is zero evidence that Ajijic had any cobblestone streets prior to the very end of the nineteenth century or early years of the twentieth century.

“After the border wars (1910-29), the Saenz hacienda was split into many small holdings and all Mezcal cultivation ceased, as each Mezcal plant needs seven years to mature and only large estates can devote such acreage solely to growing plants.”

Hacienda El Cuije was owned by Sebastian Sainz for only a relatively short time, and there was never any large-scale tequila production in the Ajijic area, even when Sainz was the hacendado. Summers contradicts her own account in a later paragraph when she claims that “In the early 1920s, Mr. Ramirez, Mayor of Chapala, purchased the Saenz Hacienda.”

“During the Porfirian Era (1875-1910), Ajijic was isolated from Chapala by land. Their commerce with the resort town of Chapala, which was five miles away, was confined to an occasional cargo canoe touching down at the Saenz Hacienda for a load of tequila or coffee beans.”

This emphasis on tequila and coffee completely ignores the important mining activity that was already occurring in Ajijic by the end of the nineteenth century. Overland transport prior to 1910 was poor, and principally by horseback, but Ajijic was not “isolated from Chapala by land.”

“In the early 1920s, Mr. Ramirez, Mayor of Chapala, purchased the Saenz Hacienda. He re-named it Hacienda Tlacuache (The Opossum). The property is still owned by the Ramirez family and has, over the years, been sublet to various people.”

The building referred to by Summers was never an hacienda. It was a taberna—a small, subsidiary building which was part of Hacienda El Cuije. El Cuije’s main residence and buildings (of which nothing now remains) were situated a short distance northwest of Chapala (between a building currently numbered as Prolongación Lázaro Cárdenas #145 and the Chapala libramiento). The taberna was bought by Casimiro Ramirez (who was never Mayor of Chapala) and renamed ‘Hacienda El Tlacuache,’ but this was an honorific title, which did not imply any functional or economic status. In the 1930s it became an inn named Posada Ajijic; the building still belongs to members of the Ramirez Family.

Postcard (published by E Esteban) of Posada Ajijic, mailed in 1974.

Postcard (published by E Esteban) of Posada Ajijic, mailed in 1974.

“In 1925, Ajijic was discovered by European intellectuals and became a refuge for those fleeing political persecution after World War I. Louisa Heuer, a writer, and her brother Paul, were German refugees. They owned Casa Particular—a small inn overlooking the lake. Zara Alexeyewa, the great-granddaughter of Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy under President Abraham Lincoln—first came to Guadalajara in 1925 to dance at the Teatro Degollado. She was accompanied by her mother and adopted brother, Holger Mehner.”

This is a mix of fact and fantasy. The Heuers’ arrival had nothing to do with World War I, and there is no evidence that they were refugees or in Ajijic prior to 1933. On the other hand, Austrian count Alex von Mauch did purchase a lakefront property in Ajijic in 1928 (and other non-Mexicans are known to have purchased property in the village even earlier). Zara Alexeyewa (aka ‘La Rusa’) had no familial connection of any kind to Gideon Wells. Her dance partner’s surname was Mehnen, not Mehner. Zara and Holger first arrived in Guadalajara in 1924, and first performed in the city in 1925. They did not live in Ajijic until 1940.

“The trio had just finished a tour of Europe and South America where Zara and Holger had introduced ballet to that continent.”

Zara’s mother did not accompany the dance duo on their impromptu tour of South America. And there had been many many ballet performances of note in South America long before Zara and Holger ever set foot on the continent. For example, European ballets had first performed in Buenos Aires in the 1860s.

Summers later turns her attention to what she terms the Ajijic gold rush, paraphrasing a passage in the penultimate chapter of Neill James’ Dust on my Heart, where James reports (without stating any clear time frame) what she had been told by Paul (‘Pablo’) Heuer:

“In the mid-30s, three engineers, their curiosity aroused as to why a certain red hill (variously called Bald Mountain, Gold Mountain, or simply Quarry) was without growth when all others in the area were wooded, discovered gold in the hill.
Almost overnight the gold rush was on. Corn mills were transformed into gold mines. The women of the village reverted to hand-operated metates to pulverize corn for family tortillas. Farmers left their fields, fishermen dropped their nets, and trouble beset Ajijic as food became scarce. Neighbors quarreled. Murders and mayhem were rife.
Leaders in the gold rush were the ballet dancers, Zara and Holger, for they owned the best mine. Zara found life as a dancer tame, compared with gold mining. Armed with her “treasure finder,” Zara looked for gold, but found only trouble. One associate after another cheated her. The dream of gold began to fade.
There was gold in the hills, but not in sufficient quantity. The gold fever cooled. Men returned to their tiendas. Gold mills went back to grinding corn. Fishermen spread their nets again, and farmers re-plowed their land. The Ajijic gold rush had ended.”

As I explain in Foreign Footprints in Ajijic, gold mining in the hills behind Ajijic began much earlier than the “mid-30s,” and by 1885 there were already thirty silver and gold mines in Ajijic. Production peaked in the first decade of the twentieth century, with occasional short-lived revivals thereafter. Zara’s first investment in a mine in Ajijic was in 1925. The story about the three engineers may well be true, but with the very significant caveat that the reason why “a certain red hill (variously called Bald Mountain, Gold Mountain, or simply Quarry) was without growth when all others in the area were wooded,” was probably because it was the precise site, many years earlier, of a cyanide processing plant, installed by the largest mining company, which had poisoned the soil.

The remainder of Summers’ account is far less contentious, though I’ve never found evidence that the “Dane Chandos” book Village in the Sun ever won an award, and the lengthy excerpt from Sybille Bedford’s book The Sudden View (which Bedford openly admitted was fictional, not factual) has minimal relevance to the history of Ajijic.

Conclusion? “A Brief History of Ajijic” may be short and easy to read, but—in terms of history—it is hopelessly inaccurate.

The time has come for someone to write a more realistic short history of Ajijic.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offers more details about the twentieth-century history of Ajijic.


  • Carolyn Baus de Czitrom. 1982. Tecuexes y Cocas. Dos grupos de la región de Jalisco en el siglo XVI. Mexico City: INAH.
  • Henri G Galeotti. 1839. “Coup d’oeil sur la Laguna de Chapala au Mexique, avec notes géognostiques.” Acad. Roy. Soc. Bruxelles, Bull., 6, pt 1: 14-19.
  • Mariano Bárcena. 1888. Ensayo estadístico del Estado de Jalisco. Gobierno de Jalisco.
  • June Nay Summers. “A Brief History of Ajijic.” El Ojo del Lago, December 2012.

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via the comments feature or email.

Jul 272023

In a rare departure from my ongoing efforts to document the history of the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala, this is a review of the Spanish language book Chapala: Ciudad Señorial e Insigne. Chapala cuenta su historia. (Chapala: Stately and Distinguished City. Chapala tells its history). This book, coordinated by Moisés Alejandro Anaya Aguilar, was published in 2022 by the Jalisco State Government.

book coverIts publication was timed to coincide with the designation of the City of Chapala as a “Ciudad Señorial e Insigne” (Stately and Distinguished City). The book has contributions by various writers and historians on a wide range of topics, from the early (precolonial) history and evangelization, to the events on Mezcala Island during the fight for independence, as well as details of the lives and contributions of certain key individuals to projects that established Chapala’s enduring appeal.

Interesting as many parts of the book are, perhaps—if a second edition is ever produced—the coordinator could see fit to consider some of the following suggestions?

The one line reference to “Henry Guillaume Galeotti” (page 68) offers no context or explanation for his inclusion. Henri (the correct spelling) Galeotti, was born in Paris, lived most of his life in Belgium, and deserves far more credit: he wrote the earliest truly scientific account of the lake, and his detailed report, based on a visit in February-March 1837, was an extraordinary achievement for the time.

The chapter “Nombre y origen,” first published many years ago, is closely based on Antonio de Alba’s 1954 book, Chapala. As valuable as de Alba’s book is, it offers only a partial list of the city’s many old villas and mansions, and it is also worth noting that the Hotel Nido and the Hotel Niza were both originally part of the famous Hotel Palmera, designed by Guillermo de Alba.

Devoting a short chapter to Alberto Braniff is a surprising choice. Braniff lived in Mexico City and spent only limited time in Chapala, where he had bought Casa Pérez Verdía (later known as Casa Braniff) for his mother. It is interesting to learn that Braniff, after agreeing to be a godparent for a local child, marked the occasion by throwing silver coins into the air, but surely Braniff was a peripheral figure among the many individuals who contributed more directly to the betterment of Chapala. The book rightly features the roles of Ignacio Arzapalo, Christian Schjetnan and Guillermo de Alba, but surely Septimus Crowe, Joseph Schnaider, Victor Huber (and several others) are at least as deserving of inclusion as Braniff?

A number of significant details in the section titled “Personajes y datos curiosos” are inexact. For instance, the “Naufragio del Vapor ‘Luisito’” occurred not in 1926 but in 1928 (as reported in El Informador and the New York Times), and the boat was not a steamboat (vapor) but a gasoline-powered motor launch. This section of the book is a miscellany and lacks any common thread.

The section of the book of most personal interest to me is “Chapala en sus inicios.” This is a period of Chapala’s history that holds a particular fascination for me as a geographer-historian. It is disappointing and annoying to read “Crow” for “Crowe” and “Garden” for “Carden” (143-144), and equally infuriating to read that Crowe first arrived in 1895, suffered from arthritis, and that he was somehow helped by Angelo Corsi. I have been debunking these and similar claims for years. The dates and chronology given for Crowe’s several houses in Chapala are inaccurate. And, though I agree with the author that the new 1960s’ version of the Montecarlo has no architectural merit, Sr. Crowe certainly did NOT sell the Villa Monte Carlo to Aurelio González Hermosillo, as claimed in this book (145-146).

The parts about Ignacio Arzapalo (and Guillermo de Alba) are similarly error-strewn. For example, evidence is totally lacking that de Alba designed the Hotel Arzapalo (146-7) or ever worked with Septimus Crowe (151). This section, a strange mix of fact and fiction, relies far too heavily on Antonio de Alba’s 1954 book.

Elsewhere, there was no such person as “Sra. Aurora Vidrio viuda de Arzapalo” (page 149) . The ONLY “viuda de Arzapalo” was María Pacheco, the second wife of Ignacio Arzapalo (senior) who built and owned the hotels. Their son, Ignacio Arzapalo Pacheco, had died a widower in 1904 and had never owned the hotels. It was his daughter, María Aurora—grandchild of Ignacio Arzapalo senior and María Pacheco—who inherited the hotels as a child.

Similarly, the account of Schjetnan’s early years in Mexico (page 153 on) contains grains of truth but the suggested chronology is unsupported by contemporary written sources. The capital for Schjetnan’s 1917 company (which successfully built the railroad) came largely from Norwegian investors, and most definitely not from state or federal funds. As a point of detail, the heavy rains and flooding which led to the closure of the Chapala railroad (page 180) occurred in 1926, not 1925.

The chapters about legends and local cuisine are a valuable part of this book, and an enjoyable read.

The chapter about photographer Jesús González Miranda (“El Chorchas”) is attributed in this book to Marco Antonio Castrañon Castro. Curiously, the text is identical to an article bylined by Javier Raygoza Munguía, published in the 18 December 1995 issue of PÁGINA Que sí se lee! Regardless of original author, this chapter repeats an unfortunate error in its penultimate sentence when it claims that Foto Esmeralda was the name of González’s photo studio. That studio had no connection to González and was (always) owned by a different photographer, José Cruz Padilla Sánchez.

Hopefully, some or all of these comments might be taken into account if or when a second edition is prepared for publication.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Note: My own books about Chapala history include Lake Chapala Through the Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales which looks at the period from 1530 to 1910, and If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants, which considers Chapala in the twentieth century. The latter book is also available in Spanish as Si las paredes hablaran: Edificios históricos de Chapala y sus antiguos ocupantes.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Nov 062019

Rose Georgina Kingsley (1845-1925) was the oldest child of the Rev. Charles Kingsley, the celebrated English clergyman and novelist, who contributed the prologue to her book South by west or winter in the Rocky Mountains and spring in Mexico.

Rose Kingsley had crossed the Atlantic to Colorado Springs in November 1871 to join her brother, Maurice, who was assistant treasurer of the company developing Colorado Springs. Even by 1872, there were less than 800 residents, so both Kingsleys were pioneer settlers.

The founder of Colorado Springs, General William Jackson Palmer, a railway entrepreneur, also owned a newspaper Out West which published several columns and sketches by Rose Kingsley. The Denver and Rio Grande train had been operating for only a week when Rose Kingsley boarded it en route to Colorado Springs. She quickly felt at home and rapidly made friends in the ever-changing community that she grew to love. She taught in the local school, begun by Palmer’s wife, Queen, for a short while, but did not enjoy the experience. Little did she realize at that time that she would, in 1884 – with the help of Dr. Joseph Wood, later Headmaster of Harrow – found The Kingsley School, in Leamington Spa, England. Rose Kingsley went on to write many more books, including A History of French Art, 1100-1899 (1899) and Roses and Rose Growing (1908).

When General Palmer decided in 1872 to examine possible routes for a railway linking Texas to Manzanillo, Rose Kingsley was invited to join his wife Queen and General William Rosencrans on the trip. The group landed in Manzanillo and then headed inland to Colima, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Querétaro and Mexico City.

Illustration from Georgina Kinsley's "South by West"

Illustration from Rose Georgina Kinsley’s South by West

In chapter XVII of South by west or winter in the Rocky Mountains and spring in Mexico, Kingsley describes the route from Guadalajara past the northern shore of Lake Chapala on the way to Mexico City. Following a common convention of the time, she uses only initials to identify important people; several of the individuals referred to have been identified by historians. For instance, “Mrs. P.” is Mrs Queen Palmer, and Mr. C. is Mr. Duncan Cameron. Kingsley’s account of this route serves as an introduction to set the scene for so many other travelers, who would follow this exact same route from Guadalajara to Chapala in years to come. It is 1872…

“April 13.— Guadalajara to Ocotlan. At 6.15 A.M. we left hospitable Guadalajara, carrying away none but the pleasantest reminiscences of our stay of six days.

Pablo, a pleasant young fellow, who had been our cochero in Guadalajara, came with us as mozo, and was in a state of supreme delight at being armed with a Henry rifle and revolver. Mr. M. also came with us as far as La Barca.

The usual route from Guadalajara to the capital is by La Venta, Lagos, Leon, and Guanaguato; but for two reasons we chose the more southern route, past Lake Chapala and up the Rio Lerma. First, because the engineer’s party from the north (of whom we had heard nothing as yet, which made us very anxious) must pass along that route, and so be able to give a report on it. Secondly, because we were told the Chapala route was shorter and better, if there can be anything “better” in one Mexican road than another. Certainly, after the first few miles it was bad enough—rough and stony, and in the softer places there were clouds of dust.

At San Pedro [Tlaquepaque] we stopped and got three men as escort, and at 9.30 came to San Antonio, a hacienda where we changed mules, and had breakfast in a hut by the roadside. The women in the hut, which was only made of sticks and thatch, gave us eggs, frijoles, tortillas, and carne seca, in chilli colorado sauce, which for hotness almost beat the mole de guajalote at Atenquique. But besides these native viands we got capital chocolate, made from some cakes we had brought with us. So, on the whole, we fared well.

At 12.15 we came to the summit of a small pass (4850 feet), and there before us lay a splendid valley, rich with golden wheat-fields, with a fine river flowing through it on our left to the north-west; and we knew we had struck the great central valley of Mexico, commonly known as the Valley of the Lerma.

This valley is one of the richest portions of the Republic. Its length, between Guadalajara and Queretaro, is about 230 miles, and its greatest width (between Leon and the mountains of Michoacán), 60 miles. About one-tenth of the available land in it is under cultivation. Wheat, maize, and beans grow freely without irrigation, yielding good crops year after year without the slightest pains being taken to improve the soil. With irrigation and better farming two crops might be obtained; and when a market for the produce, and easy means of transportation are supplied, this tract will become one of the most important wheat-growing districts of the world. The amount of wheat which could be raised in this valley alone has been variously estimated from 500,000 to 1,000,000 tons yearly, equal to or surpassing the whole yearly yield of California.”

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

This is an extract from chapter 30 of “Lake Chapala Through the Ages: an anthology of travellers’ tales”, available as either as a regular print book or a Kindle e-book.

Note: This post was first published 22 April 2012.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jan 312010

It is impossible to do justice in these few lines to the brilliance of Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, aptly described by Charles Darwin as “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived”. He was born in Berlin, Prussia, in 1769 to a very well-connected family.

He studied political economy before turning to science at the University of Göttingen in 1789. One of his friends there, George Forster, had been scientific illustrator on Captain James Cook’s second voyage. This friendship undoubtedly reinforced Humboldt’s determination to undertake his own long distance travels. Humboldt systematically prepared himself for a life as a scientific explorer, first studying commerce and foreign languages at Hamburg, then geology and mining at Freiberg, followed by anatomy at Jena, as well as astronomy and the use of scientific instruments.

Humboldt spent five years in the New World, from 1799 to 1804. His visit to Mexico began in Acapulco on March 22, 1803, and lasted until he set sail from Veracruz for the United States on March 7, 1804. In the intervening months, Humboldt measured, recorded, observed and wrote about anything and everything, with remarkable industry and accuracy. He climbed mountains, burned his boots on active volcanoes, descended into mines, recorded geographical coordinates, and collected specimens and antiquities. He also drew a large number of maps, drawings and sketches. Humboldt’s Political essay on the kingdom of New Spain was the first systematic scientific description of the New World. It appeared in 1811, and marked the birth of modern geography in Mexico. His figures and ideas were used and quoted by writers for many many years.

On his return to Europe, he spent more than twenty years, mainly in Paris, writing and publishing his results. The crowning glory of Humboldt’s career was his five-volume Cosmos. Begun at age 76, it turned out to be a masterpiece, proposing conceptual generalizations, supported by the observations of the physical world he had made decades earlier.

Humboldt’s work was the foundation for the subsequent development of physical geography and meteorology. Developing the concept of isotherms allowed climatic comparisons to be made. He recognized that altitudinal differences in climate echoed latitudinal differences. His essay on the geography of plants related the distribution of plant forms to varying physical conditions. Finding that volcanoes fell naturally into linear groups, Humboldt argued that these presumably corresponded with vast subterranean fissures. In addition, he demonstrated the igneous origin of volcanic rocks for the first time.

Humboldt’s work awakened considerable European interest in the Americas and caused many later artists to travel to Mexico to draw and paint.

Humboldt died, at the age of 89, on May 6, 1859. His travels, experiments, and knowledge had transformed western science in the 19th century. Humanist, naturalist, botanist, geographer, geologist: Humboldt was all of these, and more.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

A brief excerpt from Humboldt’s “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain” is included in Tony Burton’s “Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travelers’ tales” (Sombrero Books 2008).  This book has excerpts from more than 50 original sources covering the period 1530–1910, together with short biographies of the writers, and an informative commentary setting the extracts in their historical context.

Jan 032010

Charles Fleming Embree was born in Princeton, Indiana, October 1, 1874, the son of lawyer David Franklin Embree, member of a prominent pioneer family, and Mary Fleming Embree. Charles was still an infant when his father died in 1877. To this day, one of the main streets in Princeton is N. Embree Street, and the Fire Department Chief at the fire hall (on Embree and W. Brumfield) has the surname Embree.

embree-portrait-2Charles Embree was educated in Princeton public schools and entered Wabash College in the fall of 1892. After three years he left college without graduating to devote himself to writing, and achieved immediate success. For the Love of Tonita, and other tales of the Mesas was his first book, published in 1897. The success of his first book led to two more novels.

On January 18, 1898, he married Virginia Broadwell. The young couple moved to Mexico, and lived in Chapala for eight months in 1898, before moving to Oaxaca. The precise motives behind Embree’s decision to spend two years in Mexico remain frustratingly unclear.

Embree’s second book, dedicated to his wife, is set in the Lake Chapala region, but was written while they were in Oaxaca. A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900), is illustrated with five black and white drawings by Henry Sandham (1842-1910), a very well-known Canadian illustrator of the time. From Oaxaca, Embree also penned a short newspaper piece about anthropologist Frederick Starr, who was conducting fieldwork there.

Embree’s third book, illustrated by Dan Smith, was A Heart of Flame: the Story of a Master Passion (1901). Embree also had several short stories published in McClure’s Magazine, from 1902 to (posthumously) 1906. In recognition of the distinguished place he had already achieved among American novelists, Embree was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by Wabash College in 1903.

Embree and his wife moved to Santa Ana, California. Sadly, the couple had not long celebrated the birth of their only daughter Elinor in 1905 when Embree was taken seriously ill. He died on July 3, not yet 31 years old.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

A short extract from Embree’s A Dream of a Throne is included in my “Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travellers’ tales” (Sombrero Books 2008). This book has extracts from more than 50 original sources covering the period 1530-1910, together with short biographies of the writers, and an informative commentary setting the extracts in their historical context.

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.