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Barbara McClatchie Andrews, seen while working on art, was found dead on Friday near Merida, Mexico where she lived in a tight-knit Canadian ex-pat community.Art Works Gallery/The Canadian Press

The brutal killing of a B.C. photographer near Cancun, Mexico last week has left those who knew her in shock as they struggle to understand the sudden end of a woman described by friends as a "life force" who "saw beauty in everything."

Vancouver native Barbara McClatchie Andrews, 74, was found strangled to death on the side of a highway connecting Cancun and the city of Merida on Friday, according to state prosecutor spokesperson Baruch Velasquez.

Ms. Andrews had lived in Merida for the past decade, friends say, and operated a local art gallery that helped emerging artists. She was a photojournalist who had recently turned her focus to abstract photographs that looked like paintings, said Carlos Duran, a friend and fellow artist in Merida.

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Mr. Duran said that she was "irreplaceable" in the local arts community and a "very well-loved person." Merida is home to a tight-knit Canadian expat community, but Ms. Andrews spoke fluent Spanish and had many Mexican friends.

"I'm absolutely devastated," Mr. Duran said. "She treated me like family."

Friends say that Ms. Andrews had flown to Cancun after a trip to Canada and had called her housekeeper, Rosie, indicating that she would be making the roughly four-hour bus trip to Merida.

Her death has shaken Merida, which has been largely insulated from the violence that plagues so much of Mexico.

"It is very strange. This is a very peaceful community. This is not an everyday event, that someone gets murdered," Mr. Duran said. "We want to make sure that this crime does not go unpunished."

Eva Boyd of Maple Ridge, B.C. had been friends with Ms. Andrews for 30 years and described her as a "fascinating and lively and vital person."

"I'm going to miss her," Ms. Boyd said, her voice thick with emotion.

She described Ms. Andrews as a blur of activity who hated to be still and took frequent solo trips to the obscure parts of distant countries from Turkey to Mongolia to Kenya.

"This is a woman who travelled widely to deep, dark, dangerous places," Ms. Boyd said, calling her friend "fearless."

Ms. Andrews moved to Mexico in part because her ex-husband was an anthropologist who studied Mayan culture, instilling a love of the country in her that grew over the years.

"She was a fierce defender of Mexico and would rail against the media for its exaggerations – she would say it's a perfectly safe place," Ms. Boyd recalled.

An animal lover with "an ability to make things grow," Ms. Andrews cared for a pack of feral cats in Merida and maintained a "stunning" garden there, Ms. Boyd said.

Above all, she remembered her friend's love of beauty. "She was a woman for whom aesthetics trumped everything. Her houses were always modest, cozy and stunningly beautiful."

Since 2007, Ms. Andrews has been represented by Art Works Gallery in Vancouver, according to gallery owner Deanna Geisheimer.

Ms. Geisheimer said Ms. Andrews had a special way of looking at the world and was able to see beauty in the mundane.

She said the photographer visited Merida in 2005, and "fell in love with the architecture and the sculpture and the people."

Ms. Andrews formed deep bonds with people, her friend Ms. Boyd recalled.

"She's going to leave a big hole in an awful lot of people. And an awful lot of people are waking up this morning trying to make sense of what happened to her."

She leaves her son, Julian Andrews, and her brother, Sam McClatchie.

With reports from The Canadian Press