La Maltaraña: An old hacienda on Lake Chapala
By John Pint for Go Mexico Way
“I think you may be interested in La Maltaraña, a good-looking but deteriorating casona on the banks of the Lerma River. It has quite a history.”
I read these words in an email from John Keeling, leader of Lake Chapala Birders, an informal group that has been observing the lake’s birds for years.
When he also mentioned that the road to La Maltaraña runs along the top of a historically important dike which had changed the size and shape of Lake Chapala 100 years ago, I was hooked. “My wife and I would like to join you on your next birdwatching tour of the lake,” I told him.
We meet in the little town of Jamay, at the northeastern end of the lake, where John showed us a large and impressive monument in the town’s plaza, said to have been built entirely by local people over 100 years ago. This, I found out later, is a 20-meter-high lavishly decorated column in honor of Pope Pius IX, constructed in 1876.
Just at the far end of Jamay we turned off the highway and two minutes later we were on a smooth dirt road atop a long straight levee heading south. “This is it,” said john. “We’re on the dike.”
As we drove along the raised road, John told us that the dike, which is 24.14 kilometers long altogether, was built between 1906 and 1909 by Manuel Cuesta Gallardo, one of the richest men of his day. He saw that the eastern end of the lake was shallow, marshy, and rich in silt deposited by the Lerma River. “So,” said John, “Manuel persuaded President Porfirio Díaz to grant him a license to drain one third of Lake Chapala and sell the land for agriculture, just like other smart developers were doing in California. Manuel built his dike across the lake from Jamay on the north shore to La Palma on the south shore, and also built raised dikes along each side of the Lerma River and its tributary the Duero River. Water was pumped out of the marshy areas and the land was sold. Back in those days, Lake Chapala may have stretched as far southeast as Zamora. Manuel later ran for governor of Jalisco, but was subsequently disqualified after it was shown that the number of ballots cast exceeded the number of voters.”
Traveling with a birder is like walking with an archeologist, who keeps picking up ancient shards and arrowheads where you see nothing. With a bird expert, the conversation goes like this:
John Keeling (hitting the brakes): “That was a Blue-black Grassquit!”
We (looking left and right): “What? You saw a bird?”
John Keeling: “What? You didn’t see it?”
In this fashion, we proceeded to La Maltaraña, which — seen from a distance — is still a truly beautiful building, said to be of either a French or Italian style, with 365 doors and windows. It is also known as La Bella Cristina, supposedly in honor of Manuel Cuesta’s niece, and the land is cleared all around it, affording a wonderful view.
As you draw near, you see that it’s only standing thanks to dozens of wooden poles propping it up from both the outside and inside. Someone obviously could not bear to see the old house crumble to the ground and had gone to a lot of trouble to keep it looking beautiful. We were surprised that same someone had not erected a sign narrating the history of the place and we were glad we had John Keeling at our side as we sat down on a big fallen tree trunk for a cup of coffee.
“This beautiful house appears to have been built as a hideaway by Manuel Cuesta Gallardo, who, being young and rich, was naturally the most eligible bachelor in Jalisco. One story has it that he maintained the place for a very beautiful lady from Guadalajara, but I think the locals deny this. His home base was the Hacienda at Atequiza, just one of several prosperous haciendas he had inherited, totalling 30,000 acres.”
Later we learned that President Porfirio Díaz used to spend Easter on Lake Chapala, after taking the train from Mexico City, sometimes staying at the Atequiza hacienda, but also visiting La Maltaraña… ironically, not to watch birds, but to hunt and shoot them.
How much longer the old casona will remain standing, I can’t predict, so add it to your New Year’s Do List right now. It’s a great place for a picnic.
How to get there
With the help of Google Maps, it is easier than ever to find the place. Just tell Google you want to go to “la maltarana jalisco,” Yes, no need to put the tilde over the n. This will get you to the plaza of the tiny town of La Maltaraña, whose main streets, fortunately, were beautifully paved in February of 2018. Once you are alongside the plaza, just keep going north for a block and a half and you will come to the famed Lerma River. Turn left (West) on the frontage road and drive only 150 meters to find yourself in front of the stately old mansion, standing all by itself at the edge of a huge lawn. Do NOT try to go inside.
Driving time is about an hour and a half, whether from Ajijic or from Guadalajara.