Flaming Towers and Fiestas in Ajijic
As we descend the hills between GDL and lake chapala everything immediately slows down to a quiet and peaceful pace. We have heard from many that ajijic is a can’t miss town and we are trying to time our visit with the city’s patron saint festival. I think in our minds chapala and ajijic were going to be small towns nestled along a small lake. In reality the towns aren’t small and the lake is enormous, especially in a country almost devoid of lakes. We circle the malecon of chapala first as we heard it was a bit “calmer” than ajijic but realize that if we are going to be in a city this large (22k people) we might as well be right in the action. As we arrive in ajijic we find it very difficult to navigate as the buildings all form a solid wall at the street and the only visibility in any direction is at the intersection. Every block in the city is a wall that seems like you are on the outside of a fort trying to find the gate inside. The main streets are currently lined with vendors and carts that completely shut down what would have been the main streets through town and we drive by them without even knowing they are there. After circling down to the lake and around town in concentric circles we finally zero in on the cathedral and site of the festival in the town square.
Our bearing locked, we head back downhill and park on the malecon, which will make a great camping spot for the night and a safe haven to retreat from the party as needed. We didn’t have lunch, so we quickly head out on foot looking for anything to fill our hunger. We cant find any taco carts so we finally agree to simply stop at the next restaurant we find, which we learn later is the busiest in town. Strange after being in GDL, but we find ourselves sitting amongst a sea of people speaking english and servers who even greet us in perfect english. We find out later that ajijic has one of the largest expat communities in the world. Not something that we are used to, and it takes us a while to get our bearings as we sit in the middle of mexico eating at an italian restaurant decorated with native american paintings.
We relax in the bus and take a few photos of a stunning sunset, then wander up to the square when we start hearing what sounds like shotgun fire (but we are pretty sure is firewoks) echoing through the streets. We walk through the square taking in the huge number of people in what was a vacant block only hours earlier. As we get to the other side and start walking toward the church we hear our names and look up to see George, who had written us through the blog weeks ago and told us about the festival. What are the odds? We figured we would have to go it alone tonight and then email George to meetup before tomorrow's big finale’, but there he sits and recognizes us straight away from the blog.
We join George and his partner Steve for a few drinks and then finally set out to walk around the festival and learn a bit more background about them, their journey here and the festival.
The festival (set to honor ajijic’s patron saint, San Andres- apparently the saint of fiesta and booze) runs for nine days and each night features a larger and larger party that brings in people from all neighboring towns. Each night is capped off by a fireworks display at the cathedral where a different group each night builds a castillo (tower structure covered in rockets) trying to outdo the last. The music has started, the crowd is packing in tightly around the square and the numbers are growing by the minute. Oddly, the masses of gringos we saw on the street during in the daytime have all retreated behind the fort walls- only locals out enjoying this occasion (and the four of us).
We cant get enough of the band or the street vendors (truckloads of carnies have poured into town) and you can buy anything from music to kitchen supplies, underwear to hoodies, and hotdogs on a stick to micheladas. The real show however is the local crowd. Families and children laughing and playing in the streets, dancing to the music and enjoying the evening. We make it back to the cathedral just in time to squeeze through the crowd and check out the “architecture” of the castillo before they start lighting fuses. It’s really a sight to behold as it's nothing more than wooden crates stacked and tied together with twisty ties, then lined from foundation to peak in fireworks, fuses and explosives.
As the show begins and guys climb upon the wobbling tower, we watch certain that the tower will topple under their weight and light fire to the thousands of people watching below. They light fuses one at a time which set off a series of whirling screaming rockets which throw sparks and fire directly into the crowd. A few run away, but many others squeeze closer and the children actually gather on the steps to sit in a rain of glowing embers. The display grows larger and more impressive as each series of rockets is lit higher and higher before culminating atop the tower where a giant spinning flower spins around and then launches one final rocket (the corona) soaring into the night air.
Pictures dont do justice to this event or to the castillo, much less to the crowd's enjoyment of the show slowly unfolding in front of them. Much to our surprise, everything goes off without a hitch. No tumbling tower, no mass fire only roaring screams and applause from a happy crowd as the tower goes up in sparks and smoke.
We follow the crowd back to the square where the music is still going strong and the party shows no signs of winding down. George and Steve are extremely generous and are enjoyable festival companions. We have great time exploring, bar hopping and walking through the cobblestone streets taking in the fiesta. Earlier today along the malecon we actually discussed leaving town tomorrow and continuing our exploration of small local pueblos. It’s clear now, we aren’t going anywhere tomorrow, and (at least after dark) there’s hardly anywhere we could be more surrounded by locals. We look forward to the fiesta’s final night tomorrow and a bit more time with the guys.