Although there are several theories as to the origin of the city's name, the most likely is that it comes from Chapalac, the name of the last chief of the Nahuatl-speaking indigenous people of the region. Chapala became an official municipality on September 10, 1864, by decree of the Jalisco State Congress.  Chapala is the largest of the lakeshore villages, and the first to be placed on Spanish maps in the early 1500s.


Among the restaurants, bars and meeting places of Chapala is the largest American Legion Post outside of the US, with its own clubhouse, restaurant and activities. Much of the Lakeside foreign population has business or banking activities in Chapala and you will see them meeting for conversation with friends in one of the several coffee shops and sidewalk cafes. Near the church and the former Braniff estate (of aviation fame) is the pier and Malecón, the Mexican version of a boardwalk, which is lined with vendors of souvenirs, food, clothing, boat tours and more.

Just outside of Chapala are the bedroom communities of Las Brisas de Chapala, Chapala Haciendas and Vista Del Lago, which surrounds the nine-hole Chapala Golf Course

In the late 1940s the American writer Tennessee Williams settled in Chapala for a while to work on a play called The Poker Night, which later became A Streetcar Named Desire. As Williams explains in his essay "The Catastrophe of Success," Chapala offered him an ideal place to work, "a remote place among strangers where there is good swimming."

Since the 1960s, Chapala has been frequented by both Mexican and international tourists. Among the area's cultural attractions is mariachi music, which originated in the state of Jalisco.