The Lake Chapala area of Mexico has long been a popular retirement destination for those from the U.S., but increasingly Lake Chapala is now a winter and year-round escape for Canadians as well.
Known locally as lakeside, the northwestern shore of Lake Chapala, which is the largest lake in Mexico, was first discovered by American expats decades ago, as they retired to the then small towns of Ajijic, Chapala and the other communities strung out along the lake. But now, it has become a magnet for several thousand Canucks.
One of them is Clair Kuntz, who, at the age of 88 (he turns 89 this October), might be older than most of his fellow Canadians, but is more active than many who are half his age.
“I play tennis three times a week, I swim every day and I sing karaoke once or twice a week,” he said.
He also has an 80-year-old girlfriend he met after he was divorced in his early 80s.
Kuntz, who was living with his ex-wife in Vancouver, B.C. at the time, first discovered the Lake Chapala area in 2007, when they traveled there as part of a Focus on Mexico six-day discovery tour. Focus on Mexico, which offers Canadians a snapshot of what life is like in the area, still exists.
After the tour he and his ex-wife bought a condo in the Birds of Paradise, which is located midway between Ajijic and Chapala. He still lives there. They snow-birded until about six years ago, then separated and divorced. Now single, he decided to move there year-round.
Kuntz, who worked in Human Resources and other capacities in the Canadian mining industry until he retired in his 70s, thought he would stay in the Vancouver area. But then he discovered lakeside life.
“A friend had suggested we look at the Lake Chapala area as a place to retire, which is why we went there,” he said.
Kuntz said there are many reasons why he has never regretted his decision. The area is at a higher elevation, which makes year-round temperatures pleasant, making it definitely appealing to a Canadian.
“But I also like the Mexican culture,” he said.
An added bonus is the cost of living there, he said, particularly given that Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in North America.
Kuntz also appreciates the easily accessible healthcare in the area. Although Canadian healthcare is taxpayer-funded it can take years of waiting for routine surgeries. Given his age, with health insurance being costly or not available, he has chosen to pay for it out-of-pocket, which has proven to be affordable.
He had surgery a few years ago to remove a cyst from his spine, which cost about $12,000 Canadian dollars, or about US$9,300. He also had a minor procedure done but believes he can afford to pay for whatever he needs.
He estimates his cost of living, even including paying for healthcare, is about one-third of what it would be in Vancouver.
He said he lives on about $30,000 Canadian dollars a year, or about US$23,000.
Kuntz was able to take full advantage of the lower cost of living in Chapala during the peak of COVID-19, since he has not traveled back to Canada for about three years.
He has five adult children, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, many of them have traveled to Mexico to visit him.
He said he may visit his former home again but will never return to Canada full-time. “I’m going to die here,” he said.
Glenn Thibault is another former Vancouver resident who moved to the Lake Chapala area. The 73-year-old did so seven years ago, after having snow-birded in Puerto Vallarta for three years.
Although he liked Vallarta, the hot and humid summers weren’t to his liking, especially after he decided to move to Chapala full-time.
“I was running away from the summer heat at PV,” he said. “I landed here by accident.”
He retired when he was 46, after many years of being in small business and investing in real estate. Thibault, who is single, bought a house in a community near Ajijic, after discovering the area.
As a Canadian who lived in rainy Vancouver, he said weather played an important role in his decision to move permanently to the area. “Vancouver is dark and dreary,” he said. “People are in depression. No comparison to here.”
However, he said the pandemic did “have a severe impact on socializing.” Life is now returning to normal.
Despite the fact that he loves living in the area, he said there are negatives, which include “noise, people who are late (and) government bureaucracy.”
Aside from the exceptional year-round weather and the ease of making friends, he said economics played a role in his decision to live there year-round. “I have done the math and I figure it costs one-third of what it costs (to live) in Vancouver,” he said.
But one cost he has encountered that he wouldn’t have had to face in Canada is paying for healthcare. “I have health insurance,” said Thibault. “It’s expensive but the only thing that could hurt me financially is a series of major health issues.”
But whatever negatives there are, the positives of living lakeside overwhelm them. Echoing Kuntz, he said he would “never” move back to Canada.
Sheila and George Margellos, also from Vancouver, first discovered the area 18 years ago and began their lives lakeside as snowbirds. They bought a house and transitioned to living there full-time.
She was a teacher at a Vancouver community college, from which she retired at age 49. Her husband, who is 13 years older, owned a lighting company that was involved in the film business. He continued to work for a few years until he sold his interest in the firm.
The couple had considered other retirement locations in Mexico, including Cabo San Lucas and San Miguel de Allende, but have now been full-time Chapala residents for 13 years.
Moving from Vancouver was an easy decision, she said: “We don’t like dreary, rainy weather.”
They also didn’t like the hot and humid summer weather in Cabo and found San Miguel to be not to their liking, since locals and expats weren’t as friendly as in Chapala and there was no airport nearby (her husband was still working at the time).
Now they know they made the right decision. They like the year-round climate, ready access to an airport, which is a short 30- minute drive away in Guadalajara, and ready access to beach resorts. Puerto Vallarta is about an hour away by air and a current six-hour drive, although the new Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta highway, when completed next year, will cut driving time substantially.
The couple also appreciates living less than an hour away from Guadalajara, where they shop, attend concerts and can go for medical procedures. They also have traveled a good deal throughout Mexico and South America.
While they were both enjoying retirement (George, an avid golfer, still plays), she decided she wanted a challenge beyond volunteer involvement. Five years ago, she accepted an offer to become a realtor with Access Lake Chapala Real Estate. That job has given her a good understanding of the local area and how much of a magnet it has become for expats and snowbirds.
“There used to be more Americans here than Canadians, but now I think there are more Canadians than Americans,” she said.
But that has started to change lately, she said, as the high cost of living in the U.S. and disenchantment with U.S. politics has caused more Americans to consider retirement there.
The appeal, aside from the moderate climate, good restaurants and an active cultural life, is the cost of living, she said.
“Once you own a house the cost to maintain it (including taxes, utilities etc.) is about US$1,000, or about $1400 Canadian,” she said.
They both have health insurance “with a huge deductible” but pay out-of-pocket for surgeries or other healthcare needs. Her husband recently had two knee replacement surgeries, which cost US$15,000, or about $19,000 Canadian. The same surgery would have been free in Canada, but he would likely have had to wait for years, instead of days.
Her one complaint is that the area is becoming so popular that the infrastructure, such as water supplies and roadways, is “stretched.” But that’s unlikely to lead to a move back to Canada.
“I’ve often said I’ll never leave here,” she said.