Chapala flourished in the early 20th century, and architectural treasures such as City Hall (a former hotel), the Braniff house across from the malecon, and the 1920s railroad station – now a cultural center – have been preserved or restored. Former Mexico president Porfirio Diaz enjoyed vacationing in Chapala, and D. H. Lawrence wrote his novel "The Plumed Serpent" while living at Lake Chapala. A mural at one end of the lakefront promenade tells the story of the town.
The town of Chapala dates to 1530, and is said to take its name from a Coca Indian chief named Chapa who was an early convert to Christianity. Franciscan priest Miguel de Bolanio evangelized the area, and the parish church of San Franciso is a landmark.
Chapala’s beautifully restored architectural gems include the splendid Hotel Nido. One of the oldest Chapala hotels, it opened in 1905 and operated as a hotel through the late 1980s with a dining room in the central patio. Today it is home to City Hall.
On the opposite side of the street, nearer the pier, is a Victorian mansion that was owned by the Braniff family who operated Braniff International Airways from 1928 to 1982. For several decades, it has been home to the Cazadores Restaurant.
A lovely villa on Zaragoza Street was briefly a home for English author D. H. Lawrence, where he wrote The Plumed Serpent.
And Mi Pullman, a Chapala landmark designed and built by architect Guillermo de Alba in 1906, has been lovingly restored. Born in Mexico City, De Alba grew up in Guadalajara and studied architecture in Chicago. The townhouse – his vacation home – belonged to him until 1926.
The malecón, or lakeshore promenade begins on the carretera. A mural there on the mountain side of the road traces the history of Chapala from pre-Hispanic to modern times. It is the work of artist Javier Zaragoza. He was one of the children taught by Neill James in Ajijic who went on to a successful career creating billboards, then stage sets for Warner Brothers in Hollywood before returning to Lake Chapala to pursue fine art.
Recently restored and landscaped, the malecón leads to the lighthouse and pier, where boats can be hired for a tour of the lake.
Alongside the pier, La Christiania Park is run by the city. It is a popular spot for tennis, volleyball and basketball, with a public swimming pool and picnic areas. To the east, the Chapala Yacht Club is the place for boaters.
Two golf courses in the vicinity make the most of their lovely settings to challenge golfers with fine weather almost every day of the year.
While Veracruz, Cozumel and Mazatlan are known for their Carnaval celebrations, Chapala on the “inland sea” has one of the best Mardi Gras celebrations in the country with parades, music and dancing, carnival rides and more before Lent begins. In Chapala and Ajijic, rodeo events add to the fun.
Chapala is home of the large, modern and well stocked Soriana supermarket. At the opposite end of the scale, the town’s municipal market is located on Calle Madero. Here, fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish and a wide range of household articles are sold from stands.
Shops in Chapala range from hardware stores and stationers to handicraft shops and trendy boutiques that attract weekend visitors and tourists.
Equally, the range of restaurant options is huge. Chapala’s American Legion Post 7 serves hot dogs and burgers on Sunday afternoons, and breakfast on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The restaurant, open Monday to Friday from 9 to 3, is run by the Legion Auxiliary and you don’t need to be a member to eat there.
Several restaurants along the main avenue offer a wealth of excellent dishes, both Mexican and international. On the shore, a row of informal restaurants specialize in – what else? Seafood.