Who would live just 12 miles from one of the most active volcanoes in Mexico? Her name is Lucie Canuel, a tourism entrepreneur from Canada who now holds Mexican citizenship. She has been living in the shadow of Volcán de Colima for the past six years.
Born and raised in Montreal, Canuel, 37, grew up speaking French and English with a dash of Spanish from high school and the lullabies of her grandmother, who was from the Spanish-speaking region of Morocco.
When she turned 18, sun-starved Canuel flew south to Puerto Vallarta in 2001 for a three-month language immersion program. She never left.
“I lived with a family to really learn Spanish,” she said, “but when the time came to go back to Montreal I knew I had fallen in love with the sun and warmth of Mexico and would not return.”
Instead, she enrolled at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico’s second largest city and received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2005.
“I learned conversational Spanish within my first six months in Mexico,” she said, “but I advanced to a whole new level of fluency at university.”
Her teachers warned her that a degree in sociology would probably limit her to education or research jobs, but life steered her in a different direction.
“To have studied sociology in Mexico really made me understand at a deeper level the culture, the history, the politics and the economy of the country,” she said. “That totally changed my mindset in terms of how I observe my surroundings and interact with people.”
Following graduation, Canuel represented universities and schools in Canada and other parts of the world, recruiting students primarily from Latin America. Later, she moved on to handle large employee events for the American technology company Hewlett Packard in Guadalajara.
“One of the things I felt was a big privilege in all my jobs was travel,” she said. “I always knew that I loved traveling and exploring different cultures, and my jobs enabled me to do that.”
She began working in tourism as a consequence of wanting to share her passion for travel with others and show them her love for Mexico. It was also the perfect work/life balance business for someone who was intent on managing her own time.
“When I first went into tourism, it was more alternative tourism,” she said. “That was the type of travel I did for myself. I soon realized that many people come to Mexico, but don’t know where to go or what to do. So, I moved to the small town of Comala in Colima six years ago to start my own tourism business.”
Her business is called Meshico Magical Tours, a name that reflects the original Náhuatl pronunciation of Mexico.
“Since I cover mostly western Mexico, I based my business just outside of Colima, the capital of the state of Colima. I live in Comala, a small town of under 20,000 people, just a few miles from one of the most active volcanoes in Mexico, Volcán de Colima.”
The volcano, over 12,000 ft. in elevation, is the youngest of the three major volcanoes in Mexico and has erupted 40 times since 1576.
Her new hometown is well located for her growing business, a two-hour drive to both Guadalajara and Manzanillo. Comala joined the Pueblos Mágicos list in 2002 and is often called the “white village,” so named because all buildings have been painted white for decades.
“We live in the outskirts of Comala, but we’re still about a 10-minute walk to downtown,” Canuel said. “We can hear the roosters crow and the cows moo, which is perfect for my husband Oscar and me.”
The couple is currently renting a three-bedroom home for about 2,000 pesos (less than US$100) a month, but own land nearby that they hope to build on in the future. They are expecting their first child this year.
The majority of her clients are expats who live in the Lake Chapala area or other places in western Mexico, but through social media and her website, more people from around the world are discovering her company.
“Some people like cultural tours, some like nature and some like a mixture of the two,” she said. “I am very flexible and really base all of my tours on what they would like to see and do. For those who are unsure, I have a pre-established route, which of course includes a visit to the volcano just behind us. For Guadalajara, we have the ‘hidden gems’ tour that focuses on cultural attractions.”
Canuel is a certified federal tour guide licensed to work in French, English and Spanish, so she can work anywhere in Mexico, although her specialty is western Mexico.
“Most people don’t know that you need certification to be a professional tour guide in Mexico,” she said. “Many tour guides work in the field, but are not certified because the certification course is difficult to get into. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”
When she is not giving tours, Canuel is very involved in her local community planning and organizing activities for children or collecting and distributing food donations to less fortunate families in Comala.
“I’m a proud Mexican who has dual citizenship,” Canuel said. “One of the reasons why I wanted to get my Mexican citizenship goes back to my training in sociology. I started doing a lot of community work and strongly believe in defending the rights of people. People often say that foreigners should not get involved in these types of activities. Well, I want to be Mexican so I can work and fight for people’s rights.”
Canuel has been expanding her business to include a cultural integration program that helps expats make the adjustment to life in Mexico.
“One of the things I have noticed when giving tours to expats,” she said, “is their desire to integrate more fully into the Mexican culture. I have used my experience and sociology education to develop an integration program for expats who are interested in learning how to do it.”
The program’s goal is to help expats feel more comfortable integrating into their local communities. She first recommends learning Spanish well so the communication barrier is overcome. She also discusses the ‘cultural codes’ expats need to be aware of before moving on to more general information and the basics of life in Mexico.
With a successful business, a new baby on the way and a pastoral life under the volcano, Canuel is a contented entrepreneur who has achieved a close to perfect work/life balance. She has found her home and happiness in exactly the kind of place she was looking for when she first touched down in Mexico nearly two decades ago: a laid-back lifestyle, sunshine, warm weather and friendly people.
“I love how people engage with one another in Mexico,” she said. “Even when you’re on the streets and saying hello to complete strangers, it’s just normal. I love that I can arrive somewhere and talk to anyone. I love getting to know people. For me, human interaction is the key. That’s what I enjoy most. And, not freezing my buns off anymore.”