Lake Chapala is the largest lake in Mexico, covering about 417 square miles. It’s a popular day trip from Guadalajara and a hotspot for North American retirees.
But since Lake Chapala is so big, it might get you wondering about the differences between Chapala vs Ajijic, which are Lake Chapala’s two most popular towns.
I’ve explored Chapala and Ajijic multiple times and will share how these destinations are similar and where they diverge.
1. Chapala Is a Larger Town
Chapala has a population of over 50,000 people, whereas Ajijic has only about 11,500.
The difference in population is palpable when visiting both destinations. But if you only visit Chapala, you’ll feel like you’re in a small country town, complete with people wearing cowboy hats and riding horses as transportation.
Don’t worry—you’ll see locals using horses to get around Ajijic too.
But you won’t need a horse unless you want to pay a local to ride theirs. Instead, you’ll be able to explore Chapala and Ajijic on foot since nearly everything of touristic interest is within walking distance.
Of the two, I ended up walking around Ajijic more even though it’s less populated; searching for beautiful murals on charming cobblestone streets really racks up the miles.
2. Ajijic Is Where the Foreign Tourists Go
If you’re wondering where the place is to visit in Lake Chapala as a foreigner, it’s Ajijic.
But because of this, not everyone loves Ajijic. It can feel like stepping into a historic town in the United States or Canada, packed with mostly retired gringos eager to give up their harsh winters to Lake Chapala’s spring-like weather year-round.
Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a tight-knit English-speaking community with access to high-quality health care and a nearby Walmart, Ajijic is your place.
In contrast, Chapala is primarily where local tourism happens. Locals come in droves on the weekends, especially from Guadalajara.
You can find lots of yummy sweet treats native to the state of Jalisco, local music, and restaurants turning large grassy spaces into a Mecca of plastic tables for eating lunch and dinner beside the lake.
3. Both Sit on Lake Chapala
That’s right—Chapala and Ajijic both call Lake Chapala home.
They also have their own lakefront boardwalks, although they vary significantly in their vibe and appearance.
Chapala’s boardwalk is wide and rather desolate during the weekdays, offering visitors the opportunity to explore it with fewer tourists around. But on the weekends, it becomes packed to the brim, with people often resorting to walking through the grass.
Vendors and restaurant owners line the Chapala boardwalk, enticing children with toys and adults with drink specials.
In contrast, Ajijic’s boardwalk is narrower but longer and quieter.
When you enter the boardwalk from the main Enbarcadero Ajijic entrance, there’s a market to your right where most of the vendors congregate.
From there, the further you walk along the boardwalk, the quieter it becomes—even on weekends.
There are also many beautiful grass areas where you can sit beside the lake and enjoy the sounds of nature—a scenario that Chapala doesn’t offer, given that its cement boardwalk butts up to the water.
4. The Driving Time From Guadalajara Is Similar
Whether you choose to visit Chapala or Ajijic, the amount of time it takes to drive to these destinations from Guadalajara is nearly equal.
If you’re driving from downtown Guadalajara, it’ll take around 50 to 60 minutes to arrive in Chapala. In contrast, it takes about five extra minutes to get to Ajijic, where you’ll need to veer off onto Highway 119.
If you wish to drive between Chapala and Ajijic, it’ll take 15 to 20 minutes. The road can sometimes get congested, though, especially as you arrive in Ajijic.
When comparing Chapala vs Ajijic, it’s more common for people to rent a car in Ajijic and do their touring from there.
Even though Ajijic and Chapala are the most popular areas in that region, there are other cute towns you can explore via vehicle around the lake.
5. Chapala Offers More Food Options
There are naturally more restaurants in Chapala than Ajijic since it’s a larger town. And according to KeySearch, Chapala restaurants have a surprisingly high search volume, with an average of 2,900 people per month looking up “Chapala menu.”
It appears that this could be for the Chapala Mexican Grill, though, which is a popular restaurant name throughout the United States.
Needless to say, it’s wise to arrive in Chapala hungry to taste the food at one of its fair-style lakefront restaurants.
Unlike in Chapala, where English speakers are hit or miss, you can expect most restaurant staff in Ajijic to speak at least some English.
6. Ajijic Is a Pueblo Magico
Pueblo Magico stands for “Magical Town” and is an initiative led by the Secretariat of Tourism in Mexico.
When comparing Chapala and Ajijic, only Ajijic falls under the Pueblo Magico category.
Whereas Chapala has a slightly more modern and open design, Ajijic is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets. It’s fun to walk through those streets searching for street art that adorns many buildings, garbage cans, and more.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Ajijic’s charm because of its artwork and old-town feel, and it’s easy to see why so many foreigners choose to call it home.
7. Both Have Bus Stations
If you’re like me and love traveling by bus, you’ll be happy to know that you can take the bus to both Ajijic and Chapala from Guadalajara.
There are also frequent bus departures between Chapala and Ajijic.
So, on the days when I wanted to visit Chapala and Ajijic as a day trip from Guadalajara, I’d take the bus from Guadalajara to Chapala, then hop on a bus to Ajijic after my Chapala explorations, and from there head back to Guadalajara via the Ajijic bus station.
If you’re interested in learning more about these buses and how to get to the right bus station in Guadalajara, I encourage you to read my posts on taking the bus from Guadalajara to Chapala and the bus from Guadalajara to Ajijic.
So, Which Town Will It Be?
Now that we explored the similarities and differences between Chapala vs Ajijic, which town feels like the best fit for you?
Personally, I think Ajijic and Chapala have unique qualities that make them both worth a visit. And since you can easily visit them in a day by bus or car, I encourage you to do so.
If you have questions about visiting Chapala or Ajijic, leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to help. I’d also love to hear about your experience and takeaways once you visit the Lake Chapala region.