Mar 302023

This year (2023) marks the centenary of D H Lawrence’s visit to Chapala, where he wrote Quetzalcoatl, the first draft of The Plumed Serpent. At some point in the trip, almost certainly en route to Chapala, Lawrence stayed at the Hotel Ribera Castellanos (located on the lakeshore between Ocotlán and Jamay). This hotel, often called simply Hotel Ribera, no longer exists, but has numerous literary claims to fame dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the property was owned by Ignacio Castellanos and his wife, poet Esther Tapia de Castellanos.

In The Plumed Serpent, Ocotlán became Ixtlahuacan (chapter V) and the Hotel Ribera Castellanos the Orilla Hotel (chapters V, VI).

“The hotel consisted of an old low ranch-house with a veranda — and this was the dining-room, lounge, kitchen, and office. Then there was a two-storey new wing, with a smart bathroom between each two bedrooms, and almost up-to-date fittings: very incongruous.

But the new wing was unfinished — had been unfinished for a dozen years and more, the work abandoned when Porfirio Diaz fled. Now it would probably never be finished.” (chapter V)

In the following chapter, Lawrence explained how the “Orilla, which had begun to be a winter paradise for the Americans” had suffered badly during the Revolution but that “In 1921 a feeble new start had been made” and “the hotel was very modestly opened again, with an American manager.” (chapter VI)

That American hotel manager (named Bell in chapter VI) was hotelier-photographer Winfield Scott, who had actually become manager of the Hotel Ribera in 1919. By the time of Lawrence’s visit, Scott had moved on to manage the Hotel Arzapalo in Chapala. When Lawrence and his wife rented a house in Chapala, their traveling companions—Witter Bynner and ‘Spud’ Johnson—took rooms at the Arzapalo. Scott needed little prompting to regale Lawrence and his friends with all kinds of stories of the old days.

Dwight Furness. c 1907. Hotel Ribera Castellanos. (Fig 6-6 of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History.)

Dwight Furness. c 1907. Hotel Ribera. (Fig 6-6 of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History)

But when and why was the Hotel Ribera first built? In 1902, American entrepreneur Dwight Furness, who had numerous business interests in Guanajuato, bought the estate from the Castellanos family. Having seen the obvious success of the purpose-built Hotel Arzapalo which opened its doors in Chapala in 1898, Furness envisioned an even grander resort hotel on this lakeside property near the main Mexico City-Guadalajara railroad line, alongside a modern “summer colony” of vacation homes for the wealthy. Plans were announced to add a health spa, golf links and bowling alley. Construction of the first homes and the Hotel Ribera began in 1904. One of the first to build a cottage close to the hotel was Arturo Braniff, from Mexico City, who also bought a much grander house, the Casa Pérez Verdía, in Chapala for his widowed mother.

The Hotel Ribera advertised with the the tagline, “The Riviera of Mexico” and claimed to be a “Sportsman’s Paradise.” It quickly became a highly desirable and popular destination, where all manner of politicians and celebrities would hob-nob over the next decade. Shortly after Furness added 60 more rooms in 1909, journalist Winifred Martin vacationed there; she remarked on the colorful flora and fauna and described the hotel as “picturesque and charming with lawns sloping steeply to the water’s edge… the long rambling building with its tiled roof fits well into the setting.”

When pioneering female travel writer Marie Wright, author of two non-fiction books about Mexico, visited in 1910, she lauded the Ribera as “a fine new hotel of modern equipment.” The following year, Juan Kaiser, the Swiss-born store owner and publisher (responsible for some of the finest early postcards of Chapala and Guadalajara) stayed at the hotel to recover from a relapse of malaria. Not long afterwards, veteran traveler writer Harry Franck arrived by boat from Chapala and stayed a couple of nights, before taking the hotel launch across the lake to La Palma to continue his herculean hike through Mexico.

In February 1911, prolific American children’s writer Emily Huntington Miller (1833-1913), who founded “The Little Corporal”—the first serial magazine for children published in the US—stayed at the Hotel Ribera.

In 1916, Janet M Cummings photographed Lake Chapala for National Geographic. Cummings was one of the first female photographers ever to have work published by that august magazine. She took the image titled “Water carriers at Lake Chapala” in Ocotlán, presumably during a short stay at the Hotel Ribera.

When the Mexican Revolution prompted Dwight Furness and his family to leave Mexico, the Hotel Ribera was sold to Enrique Langenscheidt Schwartz, a prominent German businessman living in Guanajuato. Tragically, his son, Enrique Langenscheidt Jr., was murdered there by bandits in 1919. Despite Scott’s best efforts to revive business, the hotel gradually lost popularity and clientele.

By the time travel writer Edna Mae Stark argued in 1930 that “The most modern town on the shores of Lake Chapala is Ribera Castellanos, which is destined for popularity as a vacation resort. With a good hotel as headquarters, guests may fish, or hunt, swim or ride horseback, go motoring or sailing,” the hotel was in terminal decline. All that remains today of this once-grand lakeside resort are  a few ruined walls.

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See chapter 6 of Lake Chapala: a postcard history for an extended history of the Hotel Ribera Castellanos.

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.

Mar 302017

One of my more maddening failures in trying to piece together the history of the artistic and literary community at Lake Chapala has been my inability to corroborate the existence of the “Peter Arnold Art Studios” in Ajijic in the early 1950s.

The term appears in the obituary of author and serial adventurer Peter Elstob in The Independent (a now-defunct UK newspaper), written by his grandson, Ben West, but I have so far failed to find the exact same phrase used anywhere else. The Guardian obituary for Elstob refers to “Peter Arnold Studios”, omitting any mention of art. As we will see later, this may make more sense, though that writer’s claim that Peter Arnold began in 1951 is definitely false. Alex Bateman, in her valuable contribution to Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers (2011), also refers to “Peter Arnold Studios”.

“Peter Arnold” was not a real person, but a business name used in Ajijic by Peter Elstob and his associate, Arnold “Bushy” Eiloart. In their various joint ventures, which lasted well into the 1970s, these two long-time friends got up to all manner of creative enterprises. This particular joint venture promoted Ajijic as an artistic vacation and retirement destination. Participants were housed in the Posada Ajijic and other rental properties as needed.

Elstob lived in Ajijic from late 1949 to April 1952. Eiloart lived there from either late 1948, or early 1949 until April 1952. Both men (with Elstob accompanied by his future wife – artist Barbara Zacheisz – and their infant son) returned together to the U.K. from New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that this marked the end of their involvement in the “Peter Arnold” enterprise in Ajijic.

Peter Elstob did not return to Ajijic for more than a decade. Eiloart may also have returned; he is recorded as traveling from New York to the U.K. in March 1955, though it is unclear whether or not he had revisited Mexico.

Even after their departure from Mexico in 1952, the business name “Peter Arnold” continued to appear in adverts promoting Ajijic. Either Elstob and/or Eiloart continued to be partners in the enterprise, without taking any active role, or they passed the business on. The most likely recipient would be Bob Thayer, who took over as manager of Posada Ajijic, the small hotel where “Peter Arnold” had been based, at about the time they left.

The earliest “Peter Arnold” ads appeared in 1949; I have also seen ads from publications in 1950, 1954 and 1956. I have yet to find any ads for “Peter Arnold” in non-U.S. publications.

The earliest ads (1949-1950), claim it is more than possible to live in Ajijic on $80 a month. For example, the Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona (16 August 1950) reprints an ad from the New Yorker magazine:

“Mexico $80 a month per person includes food, liquor, cigarets, your own three bedroom furnished house and patio, maid, and 17 foot sloop on magnificent Lake Chapala. English American artist colony in fishing village. Winter temp. 75, summer 85. Write Peter Arnold, Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico.”

These adverts certainly attracted attention. Among those who saw this ad and decided to try his luck in Mexico was Jack Bateman who moved from New York to Ajijic with his wife Laura Woodruff Bateman and their three young children in 1952. The couple quickly became pillars of the local community, making exemplary contributions to the local social, cultural and artistic scene. Laura Bateman ran one of the village’s premier art galleries for many years in the late 1960s.

"Hacienda Garden". This real photo postcard, with logo "Peter Arnold", shows the gardens of Posada Ajijic and was mailed in 1951.

“Hacienda Garden”. This real photo postcard, with “Peter Arnold” logo, shows the Posada Ajijic gardens and was mailed in 1951.

No similar adverts by “Peter Arnold” appear in 1952 or 1953. When they reappear in 1954, the costs of retiring to Mexico have been revised upwards: the quoted monthly figure has risen to $90 a month. Very similar ads, also quoting $90 a month, appear in 1956. For example, the one placed in Elk Magazine (July 1956) reads as follows:

RETIRE ON $90 A MONTH or less in a resort area, 365 days of sun a year, dry temp. 65-85°. Or maintain lux. villa, servants, ALL expenses $l50-250 a mo. Am.-Eng. colony on lake 60 mi. long. 50 min. to city of 1/2 million, medical center. Schools, arts, sports. Few hours by air. Train, bus, PAVED roads all the way. Full-time servants, maids, cooks, $6 to $l5 a mo., filet mignon 35¢ lb., coffee 40¢, gas 15¢ gal. Gin, rum, brandy 65¢-85¢ fifth, whiskey $1.50 qt. Houses $lO mo. up. No fog, smog, confusion, jitters. Serene living among world’s most considerate people. For EXACTLY how Americans are living on $50—$90—$150—$250 a mo., Airmail $2.00 for 110 Pages current info., prices, roads, hotels, hunting, fishing and living conditions from Am. viewpoint (Personal check OK) to Peter Arnold, Box 12, Ajijic, Lake Chapala, Jal., Mexico.

The ads appeared in a wide range of national and local newspapers. Several distinct P.O. Box numbers appear in these adverts. By using different boxes for responses from different newspapers or groups of papers, the advertiser could gauge the success of different media.

An almost-identical version of this ad appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and was used as an example of good copywriting in John Caples’ Making Ads Pay: Timeless Tips for Successful Copywriting, first published in 1957. Caples wrote, “I read the copy and found that it packed more sales punch into a small space than any ad I had read in a very long time.”

Anyone responding to these adverts was sent an information booklet giving more details about Ajijic and the costs of living there.

Interestingly, none of the adverts mentioning “Peter Arnold” (even in its earliest iteration in 1949) mention art workshops. The ads claim only that it is possible to live or vacation inexpensively in this Mexican village which has an art colony. The lack of any specific reference to art workshops suggests that this enterprise was a purely hotel management or real estate venture. The term “Peter Arnold Art Studios” used in Peter Elstob’s obituary in his native U.K. was perhaps a vanity expression, putting a bohemian spin on what seems to have been a straightforward capitalist enterprise embedded in tourism, not art.

Despite its lack of any clear link to art workshops, this advertising campaign is worthy of further study. It is the earliest prolonged campaign I have found so far that aimed to persuade readers in the U.S. (and indeed elsewhere) that Ajijic was an attractive and inexpensive place to live.

In succeeding years, many similar claims have been made. It was not to be many more years before the publication of the first book actively promoting Ajijic as the ideal place in which to live cheaply “in paradise”.

How did Arnold Eiloart and Peter Elstob first hear about Ajijic?

This is the big, as-yet-unanswered question. Perhaps Eiloart and Elstob first heard about Ajijic, and the attractions of living there, from the London theater circles in which they moved? In 1946, the two men teamed up with actor Alec Clunes to raise £20,000 for the lease on the Arts Theatre in London. After buying the lease there was only enough money for one production: Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets. Fortunately, this was a financial success, and enabled them to finance several other plays, including the first production of The Lady’s Not For Burning by Christopher Fry.

The London theater and writing set at this time would have included friends of Nigel Millett and  Peter Lilley who had teamed up as “Dane Chandos” to write Village in the Sun (first published in the U.K. in 1945), their month-by-month account of building a home in San Antonio Tlayacapan, just to the east of Ajijic. It seems perfectly possible that Eiloart and Elstob would have known this book.

Millett lived in Ajijic from 1937 to his death in 1946. Prior to moving to Mexico, he had written (as “Richard Oke”) a biography, and several plays and novels, including Frolic wind (1929), a satirical gay comedy novel that was turned into a West End stage production in 1935. A revived run began on 10 November 1948 at Boltons Theatre, Kensington.

Almost certainly, Eiloart and Elstob would have met Peter Lilley in Ajijic at some time, but it remains unclear whether or not they knew one another prior to the creation of “Peter Arnold”.


  • Sincere thanks to Gail Eiloart for help in working out the timeline of her father’s visits to Ajijic.


  • The American Legion Magazine, October, November and December 1954  [eg Volume 57, No. 6 (December 1954)
  • Anon. 2002. Peter Elstob. Obituary in The Telegraph, 31 July 2002.
  • Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) August 16, 1950, page 16
  • Alexandra Bateman and Nancy Bollenbach (compilers). 2011. Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers (Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR)
  • The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) October 10, 1954, p 130
  • Elk Magazine, July 1956
  • Long Beach Independent (Long Beach, California), 5 Oct 1953, p 12
  • Los Angeles Times, 31 October 1954; 14 November 1954
  • New Yorker : 6 May, 13 May, 20 May, 22 Apr – all in 1950
  • Josephine Pullein-Thompson, 2002. “Peter Elstob. Writer with a passion for adventure and a flair for entrepreneurship“, The Guardian, 25 July 2002.
  • The Rotarian, October 1954, p62:
  • The Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio) Tuesday, December 14, 1954
  • Ben West. “Obituary: Peter Elstob; Writer and Activist for International Pen”, The Independent (London, England), 9 August 2002.

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