At age 17, Gerry Szakacs left his small town of Kipling, Saskatchewan and headed for the bright lights of Calgary to begin his working life for the next 35 years. But one very cold Canadian morning he read something in the local paper that changed his life forever and made him the man from Manzanillo, Mexico.
“I woke up and it was just a blizzard out there like you wouldn’t believe,” the 68-year-old Szakacs said. “So, as usual, I got my coffee and opened up the Calgary Herald and saw the obituary of a doctor named Helen who had a Hungarian last name. That’s my ancestry, so I read on. She was just 56-years-old but retired. That was close to my age so I went upstairs and woke my wife and said we’re out of here. She said OK and went back to bed. I went downstairs and started liquidating my company and six months later we were in Manzanillo for the rest of our lives.”
The search for a place in the sun, though, started years before. Szakacs and his wife Dorothy did not want to shovel snow for the rest of their lives so they started looking for a warm weather place in the Caribbean, Cancún, Belize and other similar locations.
“After all that looking we almost ended up in La Paz on the Sea of Cortez,” he said. “A business associate of mine told us how wonderful it was so we almost bought land there. Thank goodness the deal fell apart.”
The couple also had visited Huatulco and Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific shore but found Manzanillo more to their liking.
“It was just one of those things,” Szakacks explained. “We had only spent a few hours in Manzanillo but really liked it. I can’t tell you why. We drove down from Puerto Vallarta and it just struck us. We turned to each other and said, ‘We could live here.’ We only spent about five hours there but three months later we put an offer in on a piece of property and a year later we were in Manzanillo.”
They started looking at land north of Manzanillo on the Peninsula de Juluapan and just before they returned to Calgary they bought an ocean-view property with the idea that they would build a home there over the next 10 years. “
“I was still 50-years-old at the time and Dorothy was close to her mother, so the time was not right to move to Manzanillo,” he said. “Less than a year after we bought the property, her mother passed away and we decided to begin building a home.”
The couple moved to Manzanillo in 2002 and began building their dream home in the hills above the Pacific Ocean, but construction did not go smoothly.
“We rented a place nearby to supervise the construction,” he said, “and thought we would be living in our new home within eight months or so. We had a few calamities along the way that pushed our move-in date way back. A wall collapsed within six months and it unfortunately fell on our car and our truck. So now we were without vehicles. A month after that happened a retaining wall collapsed. By that time, Dorothy had pretty much packed and was ready to leave.”
They did not leave but were out US$100,000 from the construction mishaps. It took them another four years to finish building their home, while living in a pre-fabricated double car garage on their property.
Manzanillo is located on the Pacific Ocean about 170 miles south of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Colima and is Mexico’s busiest container shipping port. A city of 185,000 people, it is known more as a working class city although it does have a thriving tourist industry centered north of the downtown area.
“I think we were attracted to Manzanillo because it’s more of a blue collar working town,” Szakacs said. “You don’t have the hype like you do in tourist towns like Puerto Vallarta. I like that it is more tranquil here, very quiet and low key.”
The Szakacs live in Las Lomas del Mar, or the “Hills of the Sea,” which provides them with sweeping 360-degree views of the ocean and hills. The area is home to mostly American and Canadian expats.
“We actually designed our home on a restaurant napkin and carried it around for years before it finally got built,” he said. “We started off with just one bedroom because that’s all we wanted, but we ended up with two bedrooms plus an office for my business. The upstairs master bedroom takes up about 80 percent of the second floor. We also have a pool to stay cool.”
Air conditioning and pools are welcomed in Manzanillo because the heat and humidity begin early and stay late. Szakacs said his home has just a master bedroom air conditioner, which works for them because of the ocean breeze they receive in the hills.
“Last year was probably the hottest year we’ve had in the 16 years we’ve lived here,” he said. “Not the temperature, but the humidity. It was a real killer.”
The cost of living in Manzanillo, Szakacs believes, is quite a bit cheaper than the U.S. or Canada, although not as inexpensive as inland cities.
“We just got back from Guadalajara and I think the competition and the choice you get there makes things cheaper,” he said. “We get good prices on fresh fruits and vegetables in nearby Santiago and we also have most of the big chain stores like Walmart, Sam’s Club and Home Depot, but no Costco. When we first moved here, the only franchise in town was Domino’s Pizza.”
Most of their dining out is during Manzanillo’s high season when the expat population expands from about a thousand to what Szakacs estimates to be around 4,000.
“’All the snowbirds start arriving in November and stay through March, so there is always some function going on,” he said. “When we go out on a Saturday night for a nice meal with a bottle of wine, it usually runs us about US$32 to US$42 at the best restaurants.”
Szakacs, an entrepreneur in Canada, has owned and operated Realty Executives Mexican Bay for over a decade.
“I had owned building supply and salvage industry businesses in Calgary for years before I moved to Manzanillo,” he said. “I got into the real estate business down here by accident. We had a lot of people coming to visit and everyone was interested in real estate, so it just sort of fell into my lap.”
Szakacs said the current Manzanillo real estate market has lots of inventory so homes are a good value. Homes with a beach view but not on the beach begin at about US$150,000. Condos start at about US$100,000. If you are looking for a long-term rental, he said he just rented a two-bedroom, two-bath beachfront condo to a couple for US$1,600 a month.
With his real estate business going well and now comfortably settled into his dream home in the hills above the Pacific, Szakacs and his wife are very happy expats.
“We love the weather, the people and the cost of living in Manzanillo,” he said. “I have no interest whatsoever of ever going back to Calgary. We were there in July for my mom’s birthday and it was cold. Everyone was running around in shorts and I was freezing. No thanks.”