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Beaches, mountains, jungles all within view in Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is located on Banderas Bay, which is 32 kilometres wide.

Steve MacNaull/The Canadian Press

Ask Nancy Chapman and Gary Ford to explain what they like about Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and you may have trouble getting them to stop.

"It's a beautiful place with friendly people. It's a tropical beach destination," says Ford, who works with fellow U.S. expat Chapman selling real estate to snowbirds in this Mexican resort area.

"Vallarta sits on the second largest bay in the world, and it's surrounded by mountains that go up 6,000 feet [1,828 metres]. So you have beautiful beaches, surrounded by mountains with lush jungles, rivers flowing into the jungles."

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Enough already. Admittedly, as realtors, Ford and Chapman have a vested interest in describing Puerto Vallarta's charms, but large numbers of Canadians and Americans who get tired of winter also seem to agree.

"I like it because it has everything," says Elisa Meyden, a corporate marketing co-ordinator from Ontario's Niagara region who vacations there often. "You can go in one direction to all the tourist places – Hard Rock Café and the like – but you can also go off in the other direction and find authentic Mexico."

"You can't beat the weather here when it's freezing in Canada," adds Jeana Dunphy, who moved to Puerto Vallarta from California and opened a regional tour business eight years ago. "There's also a big expatriate community here. There are a lot of things to do here that are aimed at Americans and Canadians."

The Vallarta area is spread across about 150 kilometres of coastline, including Banderas Bay, 32 kilometres wide. The "things to do" that Dunphy refers to range from conventional North American shopping, to beach days, strolling along the city's especially picturesque Malecón (boardwalk) to checking out a vivid gallery scene.

"We have incredible restaurants, and we have excellent health care," Chapman says. "That's why baby boomers from the U.S. and Canada are moving here, and they're moving here in droves."

The area attracts Canadian and American snowbirds because it offers activities for both peppy baby boomers and slower-paced older retirees. "But it's quite international. I have clients from France and Dusseldorf, Germany, and Gary is working with a client from New Zealand," Chapman says. "There are also a lot of Mexican nationals who buy property along the beach."

"In Vallarta there's not a real stratified social system – whether people have money or don't or what they had in their last life, it doesn't matter," Dunphy says.

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"All people, whether they're straight, gay, whatever, they're welcome."

Vallarta's MLS real estate listing service puts the North American expatriate community in the Vallarta area at more than 35,000. Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has estimated that about 125,000 Canadians live at least part of the year in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Second home properties are not necessarily cheap; they start at about $100,000 (U.S.) and can go into the millions. Ford puts the popular properties at between $400,000 and $600,000.

For those who want to get away from the city or beach scene, tours into the mountains and the rain forest are easily accessible, too. Ms. Dunphy's company, called Beyond Vallarta, even runs trips to Mexico City, which is either 12 hours away by road or 45 minutes via a low-cost flight.

"You can fly there for about $100," she says. Ms. Dunphy, Ms. Chapman and Mr. Ford all agree that the relatively low cost of living is a major incentive for snowbirds from Canada and the United States.

"I know it's not as good for Canadians right now, but as an American, your money goes a lot farther," Dunphy says. Right now, Mexico's currency trades at nearly 17 pesos to a U.S. dollar, or about 12.5 pesos to a loonie.

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"I had been working for 25 years in the United States and was kind of burned out and exhausted, but I knew I couldn't retire in California," she adds.

The weather can be occasionally unpredictable though; in early fall, a monster hurricane warning was issued and Canadians and other expatriates were urged by their governments to leave. Luckily, the hurricane dissipated over the Pacific Ocean and the storms in Puerto Vallarta were more inconvenient than disastrous.

Canadians might also worry about crime, after reading reports of lurid deeds by Mexican drug cartels and a warning from both the Canadian and U.S. embassies in Mexico last May. "It would be not correct to tell you that there are not issues here," says Mr. Ford. "But I grew up in the city of Chicago and I've gone back to visit, and it's absolutely terrifying there. The number of drive-by shootings there, for example. There's nothing like that here."

Any decision to move to warmer weather in winter should never be taken lightly, Ms. Dunphy says.

"I always tell people to come here for a season before you do anything. Check it out."

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