Travel: Guadalajara, old and new 

Some of architect Luis Barragán’s best work can be found in and around Mexico’s second largest city


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Lake Chapala, where thousands of Canadians spend the winter, is an hour's drive south of Guadalajara. And when our coach dropped from the surrounding mountains and into a basin described by ancient Olmec Indians as "the door to heaven," I scribbled in my notebook: "sweet pastoral landscape."

The climate around Lake Chapala is warm year-round; the vegetation is lush (poinsettia grows wild here), and the fresh farm produce abundant. Chapala, the largest town, is a laid-back centre with a lakeside crafts market, long pedestrian pier and docks at which you can hire boats to take you to islands popular for dining and bird-watching.

For me, a Chapala highlight was another Barragán house - its exterior adobe walls punched with triangular-shaped openings, and with fine views from its rooftop patios. Also in Chapala, the former railway station, now a handsome gallery-museum set in a fine garden, is appealing but for the fact that Mexico is now entirely without tracks or passenger trains (and hugely dependent on long-distance buses).

Ajijic ("ah-HEE-heck") is Lake Chapala's trendy town - with restaurants like the Posada Ajijic - where lunch was a rich "Azteca tortilla soup" and passable avocado and crabmeat salad - and a profusion of art, craft and clothing shops.

Our tour guide, who also works as a lawyer, cautioned about buying property in the Lake Chapala region before spending a year in a rental property - in part to consider the complexities of settling in Mexico, but also to familiarize yourself, she said, with the many scams and disputes associated with property ownership here.

And New Agers have taken to this "Chapala Riviera." "You do anything before you go to a doctor," said our tour guide of myriad types of alternative and native medical treatment offered in the region (although she may have been commenting on the quality of conventional medicine). There are therapeutic hot springs, and a celebrated hilltop spa, called Monte Coxala, offering native-inspired body treatments.

More ominously, agricultural and other water users, not to mention four million Guadalajarans, threaten the water levels of Lake Chapala. A few decades ago, the decline seemed irreversible, though some say recent rains have returned the waters to reasonable levels. But the lake's future remains uncertain. As well, the lake is rimmed with invasive, menacing and apparently uncontrollable water hyacinth.

Guadalajara is well sited for visiting some of Mexico's glorious colonial cities - maybe Morelia, Guanajuato or San Miguel de Allende. It's a four-hour drive to Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast. And it's a similar distance to Mexico City, where you can visit Luis Barragán's 1947 home and studio, one of the most influential houses in modern architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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