Living in Jocotepec, on the Shores of Lake Chapala: Beauty, Free Enterprise, and Some Cupcakes

Home in Jocotepec, garden and home view – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingIf you’re like me, with typical middle-class US suburban experiences and sensibilities, when you first arrive at Jocotepec, you are confronted with several things that just don’t seem right. 
For starters (and this is not unusual for Mexico), what was to be our home for the next 10 days did not have any internal hallways. All the rooms were placed at the far rear of the property, closest to the mountains, so that the back wall of each room was also the rear wall of the lot, and had zero windows in that direction.
After living within this design just for a bit, I can report that what to a North American would at first seem to be a terrible way to arrange a house was actually a really good one.  With the entire house only one room deep, there was plenty of natural light from the ample windows facing the yard, and a spectacular view from everywhere in the house.  Also, placing the house at the far rear of the lot made the Map showing Jocotepec, Lake Chapala,Mexico – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livinglot seem enormous, as opposed to having a typical North American arrangement, where we are concerned about curb appeal and place the house towards the middle of the lot with traditional front and back yards.  Our home in Jocotepec had only one yard and no curb appeal whatsoever. In fact, it had no curb at all and you couldn’t even see the house from the street.  All you saw from the street was a huge, very imposing wall surrounding the entire property with equally imposing gates.
However, once inside these walls, the world changed.
Inside the walls, our Jocotepec yard was filled with serenity, beauty, wonder and interest, in all fields of view, near and far.  The home was elevated in the foothills around Lake Chapala, so in the distance, through a huge pine tree and other varied and majestic tropical trees, we could see the glistening lake.  In the far distance, our eyes were drawn to what looked like a volcanic mountain called Garcia.  At 9,000 Chuck Bolotin standing outside home in Jocotepec, with Garcia and lake in distance – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingfeet above sea level and 4,000 feet above the shore of Lake Chapala, it was not unusual for the top of Garcia to be obscured by clouds.  In the foothills of Garcia, even from our vantage point across the lake in Jocotepec, we could clearly see agricultural land.  In the near field of our home, underpinning it all, was our lovely, large, and inviting garden, with a fountain, different levels, and all sorts of interesting and exotic plants and fragrances.
When you buy food in a restaurant in Mexico, be prepared to wait.  The reason is that most everything is cooked to order, even down to the tortillas, which are more often than not, handmade while you wait.  As a result, when Jet, my wife, would ask me to walk down the hill to pick up another great meal, I would generally not return for half an hour: five minutes to walk to one of the restaurants, five minutes to walk back, and 20 minutes watching our food being cooked.
View of large home in Jocotepec, fro driveway through garden – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
Arriving back to our private garden with the great setting and great views, Jet would usually have the table outside prepared and ready to go, where we would open the bags of food, complete with salsas and assorted accompaniments.  Then we would enjoy creative, delicious, fresh food in a garden setting, with a monumental view, usually for less than US $4 total for us both.
Given that we arrived in the middle of the rainy season, it would usually rain at night and sometimes in the early morning.  Many times, we would wake up to our gorgeous garden, beautiful views of the lake and the smells of flowers, accompanied by gently falling rain with Garcia visible in the distance. The middle of the day was almost always rain-free.  True to its reputation, the temperature ranged from what felt like about 65 in the morning to what felt like about 75 during the day.  It was pretty idyllic.
Child in the street with toy car and puppy in Jocotepec – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
As is the case with much of what we saw and experienced in Mexico, the beauty we were fully immersed in and enjoying behind our tall and imposing walls (all at about 30% of what it would cost in the US) was not equally experienced by many of our less fortunate Mexican neighbors.  As is done in many places in Mexico, by both Gringos and Mexicans, the owner of the home we rented had created an oasis, but it was a walled oasis, complete with barbed wire.  On the inside of this oasis were our home, our garden, our dogs, and us.  Immediately outside was a family that could very well have been squatters with less than clean clothes, and kids playing on a dirt and mud street that was not entirely free of trash.
To one degree or another, this was the case in much of Jocotepec.  Some of the smaller homes down the hill from us had been beautifully and artfully refurbished, were kept immaculately clean, and had an expensive, freshly washed car easily seen through their security wrought iron gates.  The house next door to that one may be close to a ruin.  Next to that may be an empty lot gone to seed (which was usually beautiful) with horse grazing in it, or a home somewhere in the middle.  This seemingly randomized urban revitalization appeared all around us, and was not confined to residential housing.  More than once, walking down the street in what I believed to be a less prosperous area, I would be startled to come across an Motorcycle dealer in Jocotepec – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingimpressive, modern retail store, perhaps selling motorcycles or granite countertops, flooring and very high end plumbing fixtures, attended by impeccably groomed and dressed salespeople.
The sidewalks in front of each house or building looked to be the responsibility of the owner, because some were well kept, uniform and safe, while others were not.  And, in front of a very high percentage of the buildings, the sidewalk continued the theme of the outside of the building. For example, if the outside of the building had slate interspersed throughout its walls, so did the sidewalk in front of the building.  This was a nice touch.
The colors of the buildings were creative and wonderful.  We saw all sorts of combinations we had not only never seen before, but also never even imagined.  And it all worked extremely well.  Many of the buildings, even the humble ones, were very tastefully and artistically done, which showed that the people who owned most of the buildings in Jocotepec very much cared about the appearance of their home or business.  It was wonderful to see.
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The people of Jocotepec could not have been friendlier.  In the short span of 10 days, I was on a first name basis with several people in the restaurants, an old man sitting on a chair I passed every day, and the man who ran an aborrote (a little convenience store) on the way walking up to Church in the square in Jocotepec, Mexico – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingour home.  If he saw me walking by, he would greet me with, “Qué tal, ‘Chook?’” even though I had told him my name (Chuck) only once in our initial conversation.  Regardless of what they have or don’t have, the people of Jocotepec are by and large happy, friendly, accepting, nice people.  It’s easy to like them.
Next to the town square was the mercado (market), which was a real life example of unbridled free enterprise.  From the street, I saw people entering empty-handed and people leaving with bags full of products.  Inside, you could almost feel the energy.  Everything and everyone was in motion; nobody stopped.  Transactions took place quickly and without friction.  Potential customers examined food and other items, asked for prices, made decisions to buy or to move on.  Vendors in stalls accepted new inventory, scaled fish, cut chicken, and made fresh juice, all with practiced efficiency and no wasted motion whatsoever, multi-tasking while talking with customers and moving; always moving.
You could buy raw fish, chicken or beef, baked goods, juices, fruits and vegetables, and in the back, there looked to even be clothing and household items for sale.  Observing the movement of people and goods was like watching the mechanism of a watch.  Everyone knew exactly what he or she was doing.
Here’s a video of the mercado and also of the delivery of whole sides of beef to the nearby butcher shop.  For those who prefer to not see how their food is prepared, you Jocotepec Malecon, showing bridge and Ajijic in the distance – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingmay want to skip this, especially the beef delivery.  As a carcass is carried on the shoulder of a man delivering it and I catch it on video, you can see the reaction of my reaction to it by a boy in a chair nearby, who laughs joyously at what I can only assume is his assumption of my shock.
Many Mexican towns along the water (and pretty much all large ones) will have a malecon, or some type of boardwalk along the shore.  In Jocotepec, it was located a pretty good distance from the square, which, from what I can tell in Mexico, always has a church.  I couldn’t easily find the malecon, so I asked another new friend of mine, Pancho, who ran Carnitas Los Panchos, where to find it.  (Pancho serves great food.)  Given that I was walking, he pointed me to a street right behind his restaurant that turned into an alley.  The alley was not in a nice neighborhood, so I figured I was lost or that the malecon would be pretty shabby, but I kept going, anyway, to see what would happen.  Then, the alleyway opened up and revealed the lake and the malecon.
Jet Metier in Jocotepec, with Lake Chapala in the distance – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
It was quite an abrupt transition.  I could almost hear the angels sing.  While the alleyway was dingy and dusty with stray dogs and people standing around, and the mercado was a center of concentrated, energetic capitalism, the malecon was peaceful, clean, relaxing, and very inviting.   With the gentle lapping of the waters of the lake, Garcia in the distance, and the agreeable movement of the people, it was almost rhythmic, like what you feel and see snorkeling or scuba diving.  Everything slowed down.  Along the boardwalk, young lovers talking in hushed tones walked hand in hand next to the lake, while children played nearby.  Old people on benches chatted in moderate tones to their friends or younger family members.
Very clean and very well designed, the malecon also had a good-sized park as part of it. Some children giggled and ran around in an area that randomly shot up water.  Other smaller children played on teeter-totters.  No one raised his or her voice and in this place the world obeyed a gentle, natural order.  Everyone looked to be happy and at peace and clearly enjoyed their malecon.  My assumption is that the people of Jocotepec were very proud of it.  They should be; it was a delight to attend.
Later in the week, while we were picking up some great food at Carnitas Los Panchos, Pancho Chuck Bolotin on malecon in Jocotepec, with Lake Chapala and Garcia in the distance – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingintroduced us to two young women who were selling homemade cupcakes for 5 pesos (about 26 cents) each.  In a nearby white, plastic chair, sat Pancho’s grandmother, watching over the business and talking with customers about the old days.  Given my revised sensibilities for what things should cost, the price of the cupcakes seemed high to me, so I didn’t want to buy any.  Ignoring me, Jet purchased a dozen, because she had other plans for them.  She immediately gave one to Pancho’s grandmother, who loved the cupcake, but, given how her face lit up, probably loved Jet’s gesture even more.  Into the van with the remaining cupcakes we went.
We rambled up the hill in our van towards our house with the big gates.  Outside, as usual, were four or five of the neighborhood children, all under 8 years old in the unpaved street or standing around their very modest homes.  We stopped the van as we always did, in front of our big gates, where we always greeted the neighbors and waved to them before we opened the gates, drove through, and locked Two children standing outside their home in Jocotepec – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingourselves in.  Over time, the neighbors seemed less wary of us, and had become marginally friendlier.
This time, however, after stopping the van, we didn’t walk through the gates.  Instead, Jet approached the children across street, who had no idea why this foreigner was breaking protocol and walking towards them.  A few feet away from them, Jet reached into the bag she was carrying and produced a box.  Inside the box were cupcakes for the children.
After asking their mothers if they could have them, Jet passed them out.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen wider grins, especially with icing all over them.
Next, we experience the world famous expat haven Ajijic, and see if it’s all we’ve heard it to be.

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