Here in the mile-high-desert-plain-beside-the-lake, we have a dry season (November-May) and a rainy season (June-October). While we are in the tropics, we don’t have a proper monsoon, just regular weather patterns with fronts that bring consistent rains. Many rain storms happen in the early evening, as the storms blow north across the lake and attempt to scale the mountains which hug the north shore communities. For you weather geeks, it is called orographic precipitation, and it happens often enough here to be local legend.
So for expats around Lake Chapala, May and the dry weeks in June are the most uncomfortable. It is desert-dry, and the sun can easily cook up 90 degrees. Many year-round expats plan their “vacations” or visits back NOB during this time. We had visited lakeside during this period, but coming from DC and only being here for a week or two, the dry heat seemed a relief in comparison. This time, we were here for the whole hot, dry mess. As Don Henley put it, “stuck here in limbo, tryin’ to say sane, ‘tween the end of the summer, and the coming of the blessed rain.”
We have neither air conditioning nor heating; they just don’t build many houses here with either. We arrived in February and brought along a bed-size heating pad, but we never used it: not cold enough. The hot/dry time got to us, mainly because it was so relentless. You could not escape the sun/heat during the day, although it did cool down at night. We eventually succumbed and bought a swamp cooler, a fascinating device which looks like a portable air conditioner but is just a water tank, a pump, and a fan. The pump pushes the water from the tank in front of the fan, where it evaporates, cooling the air which blows out of the unit. The air is not cold, just cooler. The unit is effectively a “humidifier” since it works exactly opposite those de-humidifiers some of you may have NOB. Swamp coolers have long been used in very dry areas; where the humidity is already high, they do not work.
Over the course of the dry season, the mountains get progressively browner, dust builds up, and it gets hotter… “yeah, but it’s a dry heat.” The lake level begins to fall as more of it evaporates in the very dry conditions. Sometime in May, you start to hear the shrill cry of the rainbirds, which are not birds, and have nothing to do with the rain. Rainbirds are incredibly loud insects (cicadas, I believe) which emerge at the end of the dry season and set out making a racket. They are loudest initially up on the mountains, but by the beginning of June you can hear them singing nearly everywhere during the day.
Adding to the sun, arid heat, ebbing shoreline, and the rainbirds, May is when local farmers start burning their fields to prepare the soil before planting once the rains hit. I use the terms “farmers” and “fields” advisedly, because they cover a gamut of situations from large, industrial berry fruit operations to locals planting in their backyards to ejidos planting corn and pasturing cattle on the mountainsides.You can smell a faint hint of smoke anywhere, and sometimes see the fires burning in the mountains at night. Lucky us, this year was also a record-setter for fires in the nearby Jalisco forests.
Just about the time you start to think that 10 and 1/2 months of perfect weather are not good enough to make up for all this, one afternoon you spy thick, ominous clouds coming over the far side of the lake. They seem to rush across in the afternoon, and then stall at the foot of the near-side mountains, like tired runners with a final hill to climb before the finish line. As they slowly climb they get darker, and begin to rumble and crackle. The deluge begins, all is forgiven. Happy Rainy Season!