There are many good reasons for New Englanders to head south this time of year, escaping ice and snow being the obvious one. However, for a lot of people at or approaching retirement age, winter vacations also provide the opportunity to check out warm and sunny places with an eye to buying a second home or settling permanently.
One of the most popular destinations for these purposeful travelers is Mexico, which offers a relaxed lifestyle, low cost of living, special residence status for retirees -- and lots of sunshine. An estimated 700,000 US and Canadian citizens now live in Mexico or spend a substantial part of the year there, usually the part that's coldest where they come from.
While just about anywhere in Mexico is going to be warmer in winter than Massachusetts, not to mention Manitoba, the country has three distinct climate zones: hot, temperate, and cool.
The hot zone includes the seacoast and areas up to about 3,000 feet. Destinations in this zone are invariably very warm and humid year round and include popular resorts such as Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, La Paz, and Mazatlan.
The temperate zone, with areas 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level, has pleasant, springlike weather year round. Cuernavaca, San Miguel de Allende, and towns around Lake Chapala near Guadalajara are in this zone.
In the cool zone are places well above above 6,000 feet where frost and snow, while rare, are not unknown. Mile-high Mexico City is the most popular cool-zone destination.
North American retirees and long-stay snowbirds can be found in all of Mexico's climate zones, but the greatest concentration is in the temperate regions. An estimated 40,000 year-round expatriates live in Guadalajara and around Lake Chapala. They are particularly numerous in Chapala -- a pleasant lakeside community known for its streets of Victorian houses -- and nearby Ajijic, a village with a large Canadian colony and some of the area's best shopping and dining.
Although it is a big city, with a metropolitan population of about 5 million, Guadalajara is a very livable place that moves at a far slower pace than Mexico City, which has twice as many people packed into a smaller area. An old colonial city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, flower-filled parks, and cafe-rimmed fountain plazas, Guadalajara is intensely Mexican in feeling. The capital of the state of Jalisco, it is home to three of the things most associated with Mexico: charros (ornately outfitted Mexican cowboys), mariachi music, and tequila.
San Miguel de Allende is a gem of a Spanish colonial town, with centuries-old churches and cobblestone streets lined with tile-roofed mansions. To guarantee its preservation, it has been declared a national monument by the government. Home to some 10,000 North American expatriates, San Miguel is an old artists' colony with a respected art school and a very active crafts scene. Shopping options, particularly for jewelry and handicrafts, are among the best in the country.
Some snowbird colonies are so large and well established that they have their own institutions and special activities. San Miguel, for instance, has an English language newspaper, Atencion (Attention), that reports local news and also lists the many classes, lectures, plays, films, and other activities available to the English-speaking community. The Lake Chapala Society, the sort of service club found in most American towns, sponsors events to raise money for scholarships and worthy local projects.
Morelia, capital of the state of Michoacan, is another attractive colonial city and is known as both an artists' and writers' colony. As in San Miguel, there is a lively cultural scene, but here it is geared almost entirely to Spanish speakers. For this reason, Morelia appeals particularly to North Americans who want to immerse themselves in Mexican culture rather than be surrounded by fellow countrymen. The price of real estate, and the cost of living in general, is also lower than in San Miguel and other places with large expatriate communities.
For American visitors, proof of citizenship is all that is required for stays of up to six months. For longer stays, a so-called ''rentista" (temporary resident) visa is required. Only people 51 or older and with a guaranteed minimum monthly income of $1,200, plus $600 for each dependent, are eligible for rentista status. After living in Mexico for five years, foreigners are legally recognized as permanent residents.
While Americans who just winter over in Mexico are more likely to rent apartments or villas, year-round residents often own their own homes. As long as property isn't within 60 miles of the border or 30 miles from the coast, foreigners may buy it directly. Within the restricted area, property can be purchased for a period of up to 50 years, with an option to renew, through a trust set up by a Mexican bank.
For additional information about retirement or long stays in Mexico, call 800-446-3942 or log on to www.visitmexico.com.
William A. Davis, a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Going Strong, his column on senior travel, appears the first Sunday of every month.