02 March 2008

Warm for Mexico - Canadians flock to Mexico

By Ellen Ashton-Haiste

'What we like is the laid-back, slow pace,' says one expat living in the Lake Chapala region of Mexico. 'The people are absolutely wonderful. The cost of living is lower. The weather is great. And the country is rich with culture and history and places to sightsee.' But test the lifestyle first, he urges - because it's not for everyone.

Move over, Florida.

Step aside, Arizona.

Mexico is staking its claim as one of the most desired sites for expatriate Canadians to reside, says Reg Cyr, a Toronto-based financial advisor who has been counselling clients about relocating to this North American nation for the past two decades.

From Baja to the Mayan Riviera to Campeche or the picturesque cultural gem at San Miguel de Allende, there are enclaves of snowbirds and relocated retirees throughout the country, but primarily in the central regions, Cyr says.

"It is my understanding that the Lake Chapala area is the largest population of Canadian expats anywhere in the world," he claims. "If you drew a line from Puerto Vallarta to Cancun and went 400 miles, or even less, on either side of it, that's where you'd find the majority of communities people go to."

Where the retiring expats aren't going is to the coastal beach-resort areas. Shortstay vacationers tend to go to the coasts while longstayers go inland.

"When people think about winter destinations, it does conjure up images of the beach, but, quite honestly, that's touristy," says Cyr. "When they're spending their winters some place, people may try the beach for awhile but they tend to migrate towards more community-oriented centres."

Cyr claims to offer independent advice on relocating, pro and con, though he admits to being a devotee of the expat lifestyle.

Lake Chapala is located about a half hour south of Guadalajara. The handful of communities along the north shore of the country's largest lake - roughly 90 kilometres long and 25 km. wide - became known as an retirement spot shortly after World War II and today boasts some 40,000 expatriates, the majority transplanted from Canada and the U.S.

What makes this place so special? Cyr, who has his own winter home there, says two major factors are the weather and the social network created by the large North American community.

Donna Birch, of Brampton, who has wintered in Lake Chapala for several years with her husband, Grahame, agrees.

"The weather is wonderful because it's not hot. It's a temperate climate. And there's no humidity," she says. "There are lots of places in Mexico to go, and we have visited quite a few of them, but one of the things that draws us back to this particular area is that the expat community is very gregarious. You make a lot of acquaintances and you can make some very good friends, which when you're retired is a real bonus."

And the Mexican people themselves are warm and welcoming, she adds.

"I sometimes wonder if such an invasion of people who don't speak your language and who live so differently must be difficult to tolerate at times. But you never see any indication of that."

Most of them speak English, because of the large North American population, so learning another language isn't essential. "We tried to learn some Spanish, but I know people who have been living there for 10 years and hardly know any," Birch says. However, she adds, outside the area and even in the nearby big city of Guadalajara, English is not so widely spoken and, to get around, knowing Spanish is an advantage.

Mexico itself was attractive to the Birches as a winter getaway because they could drive there -- "it's four to five days maximum to drive and we take our dog with us" -- and because of the inexpensive lifestyle.

The cost of living throughout the country is very much lower than in Canada, Cyr says. For example, real estate property taxes run about $150 to $200 a year and for Canadians who move there, the federal government flat-rates taxes on their pension income at 15 per cent a year.

"Couple that with the fact that you don't have a heating bill, dining out is significantly cheaper, you don't have to buy winter clothing and your vehicle, if you have one, is not suffering through a Canadian winter. There are a lot of soft savings."

In fact, he says, many retirees relocate to Mexico precisely because they can't afford a retirement lifestyle in Canada. "If you retire with a pension of $30,000 a year, frankly it's not enough to live on," he says.

"But if you sell your home for, say, $400,000, in Mexico you're going to spend half that and have a nice place with $200,000 left and that can generate (income of) $1,500 a month.

"Now, you have a lifestyle," he says, particularly in a country where a nice dinner out can be had for $20 and two people can take in a movie with popcorn and drinks for less than $10.

The influx of snowbirds and expats has created a development boom and driven up real estate prices, which have pretty well doubled in the last decade, Cyr admits. But they're still considerably lower than North American values.

Birch cites the example of the home she and her husband rented for about $700 a month, which included maid service once a week and a gardener but did not include utilities (electricity, telephone and cable TV) which she says were comparable to or less than in Canada.

"We had two bedrooms, two baths, a garden and patio plus what they call a cassita, which is a little (guest) house with a bedroom and bath," she says.

Other advantages include first-rate health care which, Cyr says, is "far more accessible than in Canada. If you need a specialist you can go to one directly and, in most cases, get an appointment the same day." And North Americans frequently travel to Mexico for elective surgeries and diagnostic procedures, like MRIs, because of the lack of wait times.

Nursing-home care is also better ,he claims. "I have clients who have brought elderly parents down for better care. The ratio of caregiver to resident is much higher and it's cultural as well. Mexicans love people and they're a family-oriented culture. So they care for each other and they care for other people."

And, despite a few high-profile news events in the past couple of years, Cyr says Mexico is a very safe place to live. "There's less crime and, certainly, a lower severity in types of crimes than you're going to experience in any of the big metropolitan areas in Canada."

Birch agrees: "The crime that we've seen there is really, really petty crime."

While it might sound too good to be true, Birch, a self-proclaimed "enthusiastic fan," admits the lifestyle isn't for everyone. What many people enjoy is the slower, more laid-back pace but friends who visited missed their "mall fix" and felt that issues like having a water-purification system in the home or using bottled water ("which is delivered to your door so it's not a hardship") were too much trouble, she says. "They felt it was like being in a Third World country and you are, in fact, in a Third World country. There are places that are primitive but you don't have to live like that. So it's not for everyone but I found it was definitely for me. And there are a lot of people who find it's for them as well."

Cyr agrees and says part of his job, working with potential expats and snowbirds, is helping them decide if the lifestyle is for them.

"My wife and I have travelled extensively around the world," he says. "And all places have something to make them attractive. What we like about Mexico is the laid-back, slow pace. The people are absolutely wonderful. The cost of living is lower. The weather is great. And the country is rich with culture and history and places to sightsee."

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