CHAPALA, Mexico — Driving down the hillside road in this evergreen-lush part of western Mexico, Lake Chapala and the different communities dotting its shoreline soon come into view.
Further downhill, on the northwestern shore, lies Ajijic, a quiet fishing village and home to Canadian-born Don Marie and Ian Fraser.
Like many Canadian retirees, the Frasers, both in their 60s, fell under the spell of the picturesque lakeside valley — a mere 30-minute drive from Guadalajara's Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport — from the very beginning.
"We were sitting around talking how most Canadians find a place to live and then go south for a few months in the winter, so we said, 'What happens if we lived in the south and went north for a few months in the summer?'" said Ian Fraser, former president of an Ottawa-based software company.
After looking at several retirement destinations, he and his wife settled on Lago de Chapala — Mexico's largest freshwater lake, and a place known for its year-round mild temperatures.
"This is an eternal spring climate," Ian Fraser said. "Seven years ago, we came down and rented a house for the winter and decided to be here permanently."
"When we came down here and we were looking around it was clear to us that we could live here," added his wife, who had a career in human resources before coming to Ajijic, where old-time Mexico meets small-town America.
It is believed that Canadians in the larger Guadalajara area — including the roughly 10,000 who live around Lake Chapala at least part of the year — represent the second largest group of Canadian retirees after Florida.
New ex-pat communities are springing up in other parts of Mexico despite the ongoing drug war.
In addition to Lake Chapala, popular destinations for Canadians also include the central colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Los Cabos (Baja California), Riviera Maya and more recently Puerto Vallarta (Jalisco) and Ixtapa (Guerrero) on the Pacific coast, and San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, according to FONATUR, Mexico's tourism development agency.
Strikingly, in the coastal city of Mazatlán, located in the home state of Joaquín (Chapo) Guzmán — the feared capo of the Sinaloa cartel — British Columbia-based Oceanside Developments Inc. is building a 360-unit, high-end beachfront condo project. Of the 107 units completed to date, 76 per cent were sold to Canadians.
"Although Mazatlán, like any other major city in Mexico and the U.S. or Canada, isn't crime free by any means, generally speaking tourists and visitors are well looked after," Oceanside marketing and sales vice-president Jay Orth wrote in an email from Cranbrook, B.C.
"The areas of concern are not the beach resorts or historical cities most Americans visit, but rather the border towns, specifically Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros."
Over the last decade, the number of Canadians living in Mexico soared from 6,000 to 75,000, according to figures from Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) and the Canadian Embassy in Mexico. The surge in drug-related violence, blamed for the loss of more than 28,000 lives in four years, doesn't seem to faze the ex-pats.
The number of Canadians in Mexico is expected to climb as baby boomers reach retirement and many will likely choose to make a home in Chapala, says Anthony Wilshere, president of the Canadian Club of Lake Chapala and a resident of the lakeside community since 2000.
"The chances of about half-a-million to a million Canadians retiring in Mexico in the next 10, 15 years are very high," Wilshere told me while doing his grocery shopping at Ajijic's recently-opened Wal-Mart supermarket.
Signs of the expatriates' growing presence are hard to miss. Most businesses here bear signs in both English and Spanish, and English newspapers are available locally. The area's Mexicans and extranjeros (foreigners) often share a meal or dance to Mariachi music in seafood restaurants along Chapala's Malecon.
What's more, North American franchises, including Subway, Domino's Pizza and Goodyear, set up shop here, and major banks and the real estate giant Remax opened branches, while a condo project and a new shopping centre are currently going up.
It's not just snowbirds coming to Chapala. The place said to have drawn English author D.H. Lawrence and Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Charles Bronson is also popular with Americans from southern states — commonly known here as sweatbirds — seeking relief from scorching heat in the summer.
"They view this as their cool place to come to," said a smiling Wilshere, adding there's no need for air conditioning or heating. Daytime temperatures hover around 27 C in the summer, which also coincides with the rainy season.
Meanwhile, the economic downturn, new competition from inexpensive real estate in Arizona and Florida, and Mexico's increased drug violence marked a slowdown in sales in Chapala in recent months. House prices have stayed the same over the past two years, said Chapala's Ray Bullock, whose Focus on Mexico orientation program helps retirees settle in.
But this comes after a decade of steady growth for home values in Chapala. The average three-bedroom home sells for $300,000 US, up from $220,000 US 10 years ago.
Since Mexico does not keep a register of foreign homebuyers' country of origin, it is impossible to tell how many Canadians own homes in Mexico.
However, Brad Grieve, who runs Ajijic Home Inspections, says he has seen more Canadians getting into the Chapala real estate market lately on the back of a stronger Canadian dollar and economy.
Grieve, an Ontario native who moved to the area 16 years ago, believes low property taxes (roughly $200 US a year for a $200,000 US home) and low maintenance costs make the area particularly attractive.
In addition, pensioners can benefit from the Canada-Mexico Tax Treaty. Signed in 2006, the agreement provides for savings on Canada's non-residence tax.
On the downside, however, Canadians who choose to live abroad lose their public health insurance.
"That you have to give up. But what you save in taxes is many times larger, and as a couple we can buy good private insurance in Mexico for about $3,000 US a year or we can enrol in the Mexican public system for less than $1,000 US," said Ian Fraser.
"If you had $60,000 US coming in [annually] between your social security, Canadian pension and private savings, and you could live in Canada on that, you could probably live here on $45,000 US."
On the summer afternoon I met the Frasers at their comfy home on the banks of Lake Chapala, Don Marie spoke of how living abroad entails changes one has to adjust to.
"We know people who can't live here. There are couples that break up because one of them can sort of embrace the way Mexicans are and the other one can't and goes back north," she said.
Seeing family and friends less often is another thing one has to get used to. Still, sitting in the spacious living room, with large windows overlooking grapefruit and avocado trees in a freshly-trimmed courtyard, it's easy to see why the Frasers wouldn't trade off their life here.
"As an English-speaking person, there aren't that many places that you can go without the command of a second language and live well right away," said Ian Fraser. And with today's technology, Canadian news, TV, books and emails from home are within reach.
"If you are the slightest bit adventurous and adaptable, you get a lifestyle here that you can't get in Canada."