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Hike to the Chapel

By Judy Henke

It is three days after the September 11 attack on the United States. My husband, Sam, and I decide to take a break from the television and hike to the little chapel overlooking the village of Ajijic. The sun is high in the sky and the air is crisp after last night's welcome rain.

This trek up the mountain is a favorite outing for us, one we often share with visitors.

Departing from the top of Galeana, the street just east of the Ajijic Clinic, we tackle the hardest part of the walk. The sharp incline and loose stones make it tricky to maneuver. Rounding a bend, a couple hundred feet up the slope, we catch the first view of Lake Chapala. The San Andres Church steeple stands proudly in the foreground and we can clearly see the towns and villages on the other side of this huge lake.

What a dramatic change this hike is from the one we took in April when the weather was hot, arid and dusty. Now, the deep green vegetation is lush. Vines, bushes and trees narrow the path. Fall wildflowers have just begun to bloom. A profusion of miniature white daisies contrasts sharply with the brilliantly purple flowers and the deep gold cosmos blossoms bobbing in the breeze. Today, the humidity reminds me of being in a rain forest or in the jungles of Ecuador, until an opening in the undergrowth allows the cool breeze to reach us.

When we pause to catch our breath, we hear little animals scurrying in the underbrush. We search the skies hoping today we will see one of the huge eagles circling in majestic flight.

As we struggle up a particularly tough stretch, Ricardo Gonzales greets us with a cheerful "Hola!" as he runs downhill. We met Ricardo and his wife Isabel in their glass shop on Guadalupe Victoria when we wanted to frame our son's wedding photos. Before he disappears around the next bend, we breathlessly shout, "How many trips today?" "This is the third," he yells back.

Because of the beautiful scenery, we have to remind each other to watch the path. In many places the trail is no wider than my shoe, and some of that is crumbling away. In the dry season we can walk side by side, but today there is too much foliage hugging the trail.

About half way up, the sounds of the village reach us. I can't understand how the loudspeakers from the gas and vegetable trucks could sound so close. Sam reminds me that the shape of the mountain resembles the bowl shape of ancient Roman amphitheaters. We hear barking dogs, a duo playing marimbas, polka music from someone's radio, roosters crowing and children playing-all the wonderful sounds of life in the village.

As the next switchback comes into view, we see two ladies praying at the cross. I motion for Sam to slow down, while I rehearse a question in Spanish. Their prayer finished, I ask about the meaning of the crosses. Maria Luisa and Estella tell us, in perfect English, that they are The Stations of the Cross, a practice started in the first centuries after the birth of Christ. People traveled to the Holy Lands to follow the path of Jesus. When the crusades began and travel was not safe, the church popularized representing the major events of Jesus' last week in paintings, sculptures and monuments. The stations encircle the walls of every local church, but here on the mountain, the faithful hike to the stations, located at the trail switchbacks.

After the final station, we climb higher above the hairpin bends. That's when the chapel first comes into view. What an incredible sight. Beyond the lake are regal purple mountains on the south shore with villages visible along the water's edge.

We're a little out of breath and invigorated from our 45-minute walk. A breeze caresses my face. The serenity we were seeking now surrounds us and I realize that it doesn't get any better than this. Sam takes my hand and I feel a bit of peace in this incredibly unsettled time in our world.


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