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Travel Story - A Mexican wintering ground for Canadian Snowbirds

La Penita is home to Mexicans, British Columbians and Albertans

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Back at university my friend Ron was a natural all-around athlete, a big powerfully built guy who excelled at both hockey and skiing. After moving on to our separate careers we continued to ski together whenever possible and following Ron was always a challenge. He bombed the icy steeps of Panorama the way he played hockey – hard, fast, and often. That was before his knees refused to absorb any more moguls or take any more hits on the rink. Today he and wife Shirley still have their ski cabin at Invermere but now, unable to ski, they make it their summer retreat and spend their winters far south of the snowline. My ski-buddies have become snowbirds.

Thousands of Canadians join the fall migration each year in search of a tropical wintering ground. Many touch down in Florida, others swoop onto the golf links of Palm Springs, or glide to some retreat in the Bahamas. Ron and Shirley landed in La Penita, a tiny town on the Pacific coast of Mexico. They discovered it several years ago and, together with a flock of six Canadian friends, pooled their resources to build a penthouse on top of Villas Estero del Mar. One by one Ron's partners have flown the coop and now, as sole owners, he and Shirley make it their full-time winter home. Last month, while Betty and I were travelling in Mexico, we finally got around to dropping in for a visit.

After a long, fog-bound delay our jet out of Mexico City finally made a run for it and climbed up through the murk into bright sunlight. Below us the city is smothered in the brown residue of its own effluent. Like some pulsating monster of science fiction the many-armed blob of opaque pollution streams into mountain valleys far beyond the megalopolis that spawned it. Beyond the city the landscape is surprisingly empty – a patchwork of small fields draped around extinct cinder cones and ancient black lava flows still too raw to cultivate. Here and there the sun picks up a tiny village, many with no more than a dozen buildings – a reminder of Mexico's rapidly increasing urbanization and shrinking rural population.

An hour out of Mexico City we pass Guadalajara on the edge of the highlands and begin our let-down into Puerto Vallarta. The stark brown hues of the highlands gradually change to green. Lush tropical jungle covers the hills and, on the coast, the beach is lined with palm trees. Shirley and Ron are waiting for us at the airport.

Ron may no longer have the knees to ski but he still has the reflexes to drive in Mexican traffic, an accomplishment that has my unqualified admiration. After a quick tour around Puerto Vallarta, we set out for La Penita. The 40 km drive along a narrow road through rolling, jungle-covered hills takes about an hour and we arrive at the Villas Estero del Mar just in time for Happy Hour. On the spacious balcony of their fourth-floor condo Shirley hands us her specialty – a tall, cool, gin and tonic with a twist of lime – and we drink a toast to "life after skiing".

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