In March 2006, approximately four months after arriving in San Miguel, a tiny two- or three-line classified ad in the real estate section of the English-language newspaper pointed us toward open land outside the city and upended our notions of what kind of house we wanted to build.
Ultimately the deal fell through but along the way we picked up the lingo of off-grid construction--rainwater catchment, photovoltaic panels, Hebel blocks and different types of solar water heaters--and also had learned about some quirky turns in Mexican land deals.
The parcel was less than a hectare, or about 1.5 acres, and had the configuration of an uneven trapezoid. It was located in Taboada, about 20 minutes outside of San Miguel, an area with several popular thermal springs and spas, rolling hills and spectacular views.
The ongoing San Miguel real estate hustle had preceded us. The road to Taboada had already been rechristened "The Golden Corridor", which had a bombastic ring reminiscent of Chicago's "Magnificent Mile."
Actually it is the road to Dolores Hidalgo, a town central to the history of Mexico's battle for independence from Spain. The beautiful shrine of Atotonilco, the site of constant pilgrimages, is also nearby.
What suddenly made this historic corridor also golden was an outbreak of gated residential subdivisions catering largely to wealthy Americans.
Some enclaves feature golf courses, though it's not entirely clear where the water is going to come from to keep all those fairways green. San Miguel is a high desert location where it rains only four months a year and the level of the aquifers is dropping steadily.
The parcel of our affection, a few miles off the Golden Corridor, had no golf greens or even any water. Or electricity, telephone service, sewers or roads. That's when we learned the expression "off-grid". Here, the disconnect was for real--not the result of some virtuous ecological choice on our part or a trendy lifestyle experiment to be featured in a shelter magazine.
Yet the beauty of the location seemed to more than make up for lack of the most basic amenities. In addition to the usual cacti, the parcel had several mature trees, including a centerpiece mesquite with a spread of maybe 40 feet. It's hard to gauge the age of this gnarled yet gracious fellow, but it may have been 50 years old or more, given how tentatively mesquites and other desert trees grow.
On the horizon was a small town that at night looked like nothing more than a smattering of twinkling lights. Beyond that, mountains. No sight of the prized pink spires of the Parroquia, not that you would miss them here.
Several Americans had built around the site, but the size of the adjacent parcels--ours was the smallest--prevented any feeling of crowding. Most of the houses were small and inconspicuous, though a couple had very nearly reached the size of "spreads." Under construction today is a Tuscan-like confection, reportedly with 20 solar panels to feed refrigerators and sundry electric doodahs in its twin kitchens.
But even as we dreamed of the house we would build, the deal for the land became tangled in Mexican laws.
The owner of the land, an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S., had died without a will. In the U.S., his wife likely would have automatically inherited the land, but we were in Mexico where an explicit will is required.
The wife could not readily return to Mexico to claim title to the property or give someone power of attorney to act on her behalf: She didn't have any immigration papers either, and if she returned to Mexico it would be a one-way trip.
So before we could actually close on the property, it had to go through probate proceedings which we agreed to pay for on behalf of the surviving spouse. I can't even remember many of details of the bi-national legal proceedings that dragged on for more than eight months.
And when it looked like the probate question might clear up, another more immediate question arose: How would we get to our landlocked parcel? Two meandering ruts went there from the main road, but there was no legal easement or access through other owners' properties.
One owner, a Boston financial trader, promptly said "no dice" to our request for a 12 ft.-wide easement.
If you then drove along another path, you ran through land owned by, yes, seven Mexican sisters who would have to be rounded up to obtain their approval. And beyond that, you bumped into land belonging to an "ejido," one of hundreds of thousands of collectively owned farms established by Mexico's land reform early last century.
Coursing through the ejido would require approval by its governing council. They did express some verbal approval, we believe, but on one onerous condition: The easement would be more like a boulevard, not 12 feet but nearly 40 feet wide, including the piece cutting the land belonging to the aforementioned seven Mexican sisters.
It seems someone in the ejido council had its own visions of land development and the boulevard would be like its grand entrance. We had our doubts, though, that the council could legally give away a piece of the ejido without some major legal procedure.
The penultimate solution was to create a zigzag easement going through some land owned by the sister-in-law of the guy who had owned our parcel (and died in the U.S.) and another American with considerable acreage in the area.
Problem is, these last two characters were in the middle of their own, very contentious lawsuit concerning a unrelated parcel of land. Neither was eager to cooperate with the other on putting together our easement.
(It's a miracle--or a testament to our very agreeable personalities--that to this day Stew and I remain good friends with both parties.)
The final, and shakiest, solution came from a notario, a type of Mexican lawyer who handles real estate transactions. Under Mexican law, we were told, a property owner could not be denied access to his land. So the solution would be for us to keep driving on the existing but vaguely established easement--two ruts in a open field--which at some point would in fact become a legal easement!
But what if an angry owner blocked our de facto easement? Well, then we could sue on the basis of that old Mexican law.
"Hmmm," Stew and I immediately said to ourselves. "Don't think so."
So after nearly a year of haggling, we walked away from the Taboada land deal, including its majestic mesquite. The land is back on the market for twice what we were going to pay. We hear the probate issue was resolved and that eventually an easement was somehow established.
We didn't walk away empty handed. While the gears of the Mexican legal system ground on, we had been talking to an architect and developed a clear idea of what we wanted to build.