The Ajijic-Chapala area has the highest concentration of expatriate American/Canadian retirees in the world. So let’s face it: if you’re there with children–you’re probably there to visit grandma. In an area that pretty much bows to the wishes of retirees, what’s there to do with the kids? Get ready for a few pleasant surprises.
On the most populous north side of Lake Chapala, three towns (Ajijic, Chapala and Jocotepec) have made a great effort to revitalize and maintain the waterfront vistas.
Jocotepec is most friendly for the youngest of your crew. Although each of the malecon areas have playground equipment, this malecon has the largest play area, built to function as a mini water park. Although the water is seldom on at the park the expansive playground will be a hit for your children. Adjacent to this area, are shaded picnic sites with self-serve barbecue grills. Sample the various flavors of ice cream at the friendly, well-run vendor stalls. These also offer cut fruit and snacks; pizza, tacos, grilled fish and other hot dishes appear on the evenings and weekends. Like the other malecons in the area, Jocotepec comes alive on Sunday afternoons with family fun and lots to eat.
The Ajijic malecon is smaller scale but also has a pleasant concrete walkway suitable for rollerblading or walking. Colorful playgrounds and jungle gyms are convenient to picnic benches and restrooms. You can also take in lovely lakeside view from the benches that line the walkway.
The malecon is very accessible from the square of Ajijic and the colorful downtown art gallery-boutique hotel-restaurant district.
In Chapala, the malecon is bustling on the weekends with tourists flocking in from Guadalajara. This is the most active of the three waterfronts, but parking is ample. Teens and older will enjoy horseback rides on the lake’s beaches. Boat rides also originate here, taking visitors for pleasant lakeside views or to explore one of the nearby islands. We visited Alacranes Island, a short boat ride away.
Note: The lake is clean for swimming. The Jocotepec waterfront has more wildlife but tends to be more swampy. The other two have good access for swimming. Be sure to grab your darlings some inner tubes from the many vendors around the malecon.
Parents of water-loving tots will want to set a day aside for this water park. Some claim it’s the best water park in Mexico. One visit and you will see why. Toddlers and non-swimming young ones will love splashing among the pirate ships and mermaids. Stronger swimmers and teens will enjoy the multiple fast-running slides. Grills are available for rent for use in shaded picnic areas. At MXP 120 for adults and 60 for all but the smallest children, it is on the upper end of family activities. Concessionaires are limited; bring your own food. Don’t forget the water-resistant sunblock and insect repellent. Tobolandia is our favorite family friendly hang out in Ajijic. I share tips on discounts and more about the water park here.
Okay, so going to the market might not be your first pick as a child friendly spot, but seriously, everyone enjoys the variety at this market. Our children enjoy trying the samples and helping fill our market bags. We find that when children participate in healthy shopping, they more readily dive into healthy eating. Health-conscious parents will feel good letting the little ones look at baked goods made with local, quality ingredients, shop for pastured organic eggs or pick up a jar of freshly prepared sauerkraut. Although there are a lot of great markets in town, the organic market is only open Tuesday mornings. As of this post, the organic market is just outside of Ajijic on the way to Jocotepec in the La Huerta Expo Center.
There are no shortages of great places to eat around the Ajijic-Chapala-Jocotepec lakeside area. We have a few family favorites.
Breakfast: “La Casa de Waffle” is on the west side of Ajijic. For late risers, they are open until 2pm. Your children will love the creative fruit-topped Pooh Bear waffles (served with honey, of course); parents and children will appreciate the small indoor play area. We like sitting outside under the large umbrellas. While the view is nothing to write about, the food is consistently good and served quickly.
Lunch: Open only until 4:30, Monday thru Friday, “Chopsticks” is located near the El Torito Supermarket on the carretera. The friendly owners serve authentic Asian cuisine. Try their veggie potstickers. Top it off with their own homemade lemongrass or coconut ice cream. This is definitely our go-to spot for a nourishing, quick, and economical lunch. The food is so good, we have been known to order take out just to enjoy their specials for supper as well. See our review here.
Find generous portions of classical Mexican fare at “Sunrise Restaurant” (on the carretera in the San Antonio area).
For a good sandwich, cold or hot, be sure to visit the Scandinavian Panaderia in the Centro Laguna. Peter works hard at making great bread. Try his apple walnut bread with a thick smear of ghee for breakfast.
Supper (or Dinner): For Italian fare, “Pranzo’s” serves good paninis, pizzas and pastas in a casual open air atmosphere.
For more international cuisine with a family-friendly atmosphere, “La Nueva Posada” has been a well-loved Ajijic tradition (and our standby favorite). The outdoor seating option will let your little ones have some fresh air and a chance to chatter with their resident scarlet macaw. We love their fish and chips special on Fridays. This may be our very favorite spot in all of Ajijic. Its classy enough for an anniversary and yet child-friendly enough to make it fun for all.
If you want Indian food, “Jasmine’s” on the square in Ajijic will satisfy your taste for curry. Delicious vegan options are available. The birth family of our daughter Hosanna is from India. We take every opportunity to keep her birth culture alive. We go to Jasmine’s in the afternoon, use our hand to eat and always follow up with a steaming cup of chai.
Note for travelers heading westward toward Jocotepec. Just before San Juan Cosala is a string of seafood restaurants. You will know you’re there with flashing yellow lights, speed bumps and four or five men holding menus directing you toward their parking areas. Recently, a restaurant opened with life-sized fiberglass jungle animals crafted by the owner. He encourages play on and around them; they make a great picture spot.
Snacks: For the best donuts around, go to Donas Donuts. These donuts rival any Tim Horton’s or Dunkin’ Donuts along with a good cup of coffee. On second thought, just skip Donas. Your waistline will thank me. These may be the very best donuts on the planet. Once you visit, yo will want to go again. Take my advice and just stay away.
It won’t take you long to realize that Chapala and Ajijic are considered an art capital in Mexico. Visible from the highway just before entering Chapala, a mural by Javier Zaragoza depicts the city’s history–from Pre-Hispanic times to the present. Ajijic is peppered with murals from many local artists. Step in the plaza on any weekend and there will be local art to admire.
Get your children involved by signing them up for the free art classes at the Lake Chapala Society. The personality of these classes changes often as it is run by volunteers. As with any new class, you will want to go along with your young children for the first few times. When our children attend, I always stay and volunteer.
If you are here longer, ask locals and members of the Ajijic art society about any classes available. Our children have studied weaving, basketry, pottery, wood working and painting in the area.
Since Mexico’s third largest city is only a 45 minute ride/drive away, we’ll include some of the city’s best known child-friendly attractions
The Guadalajara Zoo is a great value on the northwest side of the city. Animals appear content and cared for in well-designed habitats. Tip: Avoid paying extra for the sky ride; you will want an on-the-ground view anyway. Also, rates tend to reduce steeply on the weekends.
Trompo Magico is an excellent children’s museum in the same area as the zoo. Set aside an entire day. Even if you are not fluent in Spanish, the interactive exhibits will delight children of all ages from a toddler friendly fruit/vegetable market to a recording studio. See our review.
Tip On the way back to the Ajijic-Chapala-Jocotepec area, stop at Karne Garibaldi. This restaurant holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the Fastest Restaurant Service. The old fashioned beef soups, piping hot tortillas and unlimited horchata (rice water sweetened with sugar, vanilla and cinnamon) drinks will keep your little back seaters happy on the way back to grandma’s.
Do you or have you had time in the lakeside area with younger children? What would you recommend for families with children?