Creating a homestead with low cost land in Mexico. How one couple found a new life, home and heart in Mexico.
Some stories begin with danger; some with adventure. This story begins with romance.
No sooner were they married than Camille learned that her father had died during the ceremony. Death was a tempest that unmoored their lives, and Steven sought anchor by revealing a long harbored dream: He wanted to move to Mexico.
Steven had been 4 years old during his first trip south of the Rio Grande. His family drove from the Bronx to Beeville, Texas, where an uncle lived, then down to the border town of Matamoros. During summer vacations and his entire senior year in high school. Steven worked on his uncle's ranch, visiting Laredo regularly. "Mexico felt like it was home," he says. Later, as a young man, he lived in Guadalajara for a few years, singing in nightclubs and working in the studio of Mexican artist Sergio Bustamante. Yet when he decided to buy land, the real estate situation in Mexico seemed too complicated, so Steven purchased in New Mexico instead.
Driven by economic considerations, Mexico's system of land tenure began changing in the '90s. While the Aztecs had held land communally, their Spanish conquerors amassed land in huge, privately owned, feudal-like haciendas. At the time of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, 1% of landowners controlled 97% of arable land, an inequity that fueled rebellion and socialist sentiment. In 1917 Mexico approved a new constitution inspired by Russian law; Article 27 addressed land reform by establishing an ejido, or collective farming system. Rights to ejido lands could be assigned to individual households but not sold or leased. By the time President Carlos Saunas de Gortari took office in 1988, half of Mexico's farmland was in the ejido system, and most of the farms were less than 4.65 hectares (11.5 acres). Under this system, agricultural productivity was so bad that Mexico was importing both beans and corn. To rectify this, Salinas wrangled new agrarian reforms in 1992. Prominent among those reforms was giving ejido farmers direct ownership of their land. As slow and bureaucratic as the privatization process has been, the result, nonetheless, is a growing supply of rural real estate.
Moving to Mexico became the number one topic of conversation as Camille and Steven weeded the garden, grazed the goat herd, ate dinner and sat on their small flagstone patio watching the days come and go. Two excursions through Mexico in 1997 Led them to the village of El Tuito in the vicinity of Puerto Vallarta, where the countryside reminded them of a tropical version of New Mexico. Renting a house in El Tuito, they made several outings to the coast, where the couple discovered oceanfront property for sale. First, the Dannuccis purchased three small lots, totaling less than an acre, stacked perpendicular to the beach; later, they acquired a 40-hectare (100-acre) potrero, or small ranch, just behind the lots.
The parcels sit near a rocky cove on the Pacific Ocean south of the Tropic of Cancer. The Sierra Madre Occidental run to the north. The Sierra Madre Del Sur begin farther south. Whales and pelicans migrate along the coast. Deeper inland, in machete land, the guayavillo tree dominates the thicket, its steely wood limbs draped in moss. Eagles and hawks slice through an arroyo where orange, violet and chartreuse dragonflies hover in sungilded patches of jungle.
Standing in his kitchen before a stove, turning for the third and last time a corn tortilla that billows with air, Steven says, "I like the hot climate and ocean. I like to spend my life raising food and eating it. This is a good place to do it."
According to Dennis John Peyton, an American licensed to practice law in Mexico and author of How to Buy Real Estate in Mexico , the Constitution of 1917 created three classes of land: private, public (national parks, indigenous communities, etc.) and social (the ejido system); it explicitly prohibited foreigners from owning land in restricted zones within 31 miles of the coastline and 62 miles of any Mexican border. A 1973 Foreign Investment Law clarified the conditions of foreign land ownership. Foreigners could purchase property anywhere in Mexico except in the aforementioned restricted zone; there, foreign nationals could hold property through a fideicomiso, or bank trust.
To this day a fideicomiso is the only way a foreign individual can legally hold title to residential property in the restricted zone. The mechanism is simple: A bank holds the trust deed for the purchasers or beneficiaries, who have the exclusive right to use and control the property — sell, lease, mortgage or pass on to heirs. At a cost of $350 to $1,000 U.S. to establish, plus an annual maintenance fee, trusts are granted for renewable 50-year terms.
That said, land that is part of an ejido can present complications. Since the 1992 agrarian reforms, each ejido has had the option to convert communal property into private property. The process involves surveying the ejido and deciding which tracts will be held and which privatized. The ejido then begins domino pleno, distributing title for individual tracts. Another process, called procede, moves the land from the social to the private category of land tenure.
To circumvent laws governing ejido lands, one practice has been to use preta hombres, or borrowed names. In essence, a Mexican citizen fronts for a foreigner, holding title in his or her name. Obviously this is a risky business. As Peyton points out, what happens if the Mexican citizen gets mad at you?
For land that has not yet been privatized, another strategy has been to sign a long-term lease with an ejido or ejidatario (member of the ejido). This practice has been used extensively in Baja California. However, leasing has drawbacks: Lease terms cannot exceed 30 years on ejido lands and ten years elsewhere; resale of improvements on leased land can be difficult; if you lease property from an ejiditario who is in the process of converting title from common to individual ownership, legal complications could arise.
Peyton fumes over the cockeyed ways Americans approach Mexican real estate. First, he says, they think it's a gamble. "They have an irrational fear that the powers that be can arbitrarily take their land away." The cause of such fear, Peyton speculates, may go back to the 1930s, when Mexico nationalized the oil industry. "Nationalizing banks in the '80s didn't help," he adds. Nor did the Mexican supreme court decision last fall — however justified on legal grounds — to resolve a Baja California title dispute by ordering the eviction of numerous Americans who had built homes at Punta Banda peninsula. Still, Peyton stresses, the paranoia is ridiculous. "Unless the government goes down the tubes, appropriation is not going to happen." While caution is the normal response to fear, Peyton rails that Americans do the craziest things: choose a realtor who can't read a contract in Spanish; neglect to seek legal advice; and purchase land through presta nombres.
On only one account does Peyton admit that buying land can be riskier in Mexico than in the United States: Mexican real estate is unregulated. Someone can sell cars in Phoenix one day and real estate in Mexico the next, calling him or herself a broker. No special education is required or license granted. Buying and selling real estate in Mexico, says Peyton, is much like it was in the U.S. in the '30s — you need an attorney.
It didn't occur to the Dannuccis to use an attorney when they initially contracted to purchase land from an ejido that was in the process of privatizing. However, due to the headaches and delays involved in herding their parcels through domino pleno and procede, they later retained legal counsel. "It's good to have a reputable attorney," says Steven. "Attorneys are not nearly as expensive as they are in the states. It's well worth it." He also advises buyers not to purchase land before it is titled. "Don't cut any legal corners," he warns.
Eventually, Steven says, "I want to operate here and own land as a citizen." Gaining that status requires five years of residency. Many Americans living in Mexico dash to the border every six months for a new tourist visa, while some apply for a three-month FM-3 work visa before leaving the states and then apply in Mexico City for a permanent FM-2 resident's visa. This can be an arduous and complicated process.
Where to scout for land is another consideration. "Some places," says Steven, "are very remote and very cheap but could also be dangerous. The remote regions of most states can be dangerous because people live by the law of the jungle. You do see guys riding burros with bullets strapped across their chests. The remote regions of Michoacan are supposed to be beautiful, but most people say it's dangerous due to the growing of marijuana and poppies. Chiapas still has a war going on. If you go into any extremely poor region with money, the odds are good you'll become a victim. Jalisco, Oaxaca and Colima are relatively safe. Nayarit and Durango have beautiful, productive farmland, but wherever there's farming in Mexico, it's chemically intensive."
The price of real estate in Mexico varies as radically as it does in any country. The Dannuccis paid $35,000 for their 100-acre potrero, but before settling in the Puerto Vallerta area, they found rural real estate for $200 an acre and less, and an ejido in the mountains near Mazatlan offered them a simple house with land for $2,000. As you might imagine, property near the ocean or urban areas or resorts will be more expensive. Thankfully, annual property taxes arc very low.
What happens when one partner, but not the other, has a dream to retreat farther from civilization into the rural countryside of a foreign land, without electricity or telephone, the closest village of any consequence over an hour away by dirt road?
"I came here because of Steve, period," says Camille. "I was a wreck. I didn't know which way was up. Suddenly, I was transported from New Mexico to sea level." She regrets they didn't have a game plan to experiment with living in Mexico for a fixed period of time before deciding whether to purchase. "I've always lived in a place, [whether] in the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico . . . or a rural community in northern California, because I loved it." Having married for the first time in her 40s, the independent woman who had been a caregiver and advocate for the critically ill found herself living in a tropical setting for love of a man, not a place. "I left everything behind — work, family, income, gorgeous land I thought I'd live on until the day I died."
Cultural differences compounded her distress. On occasion, during sunrise walks on the beach, Camille encountered a man on horseback, his saddlebags bulging with sea turtle eggs. He patrolled the beach at night, she learned, waiting for the endangered and protected turtles to wing their way through the sand and lay eggs. Also, superstition abounds: Some campesinos attribute birth deformities and other anomalies to eclipses; others believe the Earth is flat. Moreover, animals are mistreated. "I've seen horses and goats tied up all day or beaten," says Camille.
Adding even more stress was the task of rendering a homestead from a tangle of vegetation. They whacked away the jungle and built contoured rock garden hells. They planted coconut palms, papayas, pineapples and bananas and rimmed the property with a New Mexico-style coyote fence, training crimson bougainvillea to grow along and over the enclosure as a living harrier that would replace the posts as they rotted.
Why did Camille stick it out? "I'm always going for ultimate — what my soul longs for in its own evolution," she explains. "I would check in, and it was always about staying and weathering the fierce, ferocious storm without any support." As she went through it, Camille says, "I felt like a phoenix rising." Today, she is studying Spanish at home, tutoring campesinos in English and gardening. Working with people is important to her. "I know something more is going to Surface," she says.
As for the cultural clash, Camille is philosophical: "It doesn't matter what the situation is or how it appears externally. As long as there's an issue, it begins inside me. If I work to save turtles from a place of reaction, I'm creating more reaction. I've got the bellows on the flame. If I come from a place of response — a place of compassion without attachment to outcome — I can make a difference." She points out that clashes can and do happen anywhere, even between ranchers and environmentalists in the American West and in farming communities surrounded by survivalists. "I enjoy the differences here. It's more colorful," she continues. "The language is like a song. The people are alive. There are definitely places here that I prefer to some rural neighborhoods in the U.S.
"Many Americans visit Mexico and can't stand it," she continues, "because it's mañana land, and people don't show up for appointments when they say they will. In New York, people hustle up and clown the streets. Here, they stop and visit on the corner. Americans come and want Mexicans to be like them. But they need to leave behind American expectations and arrogance. This is not the U.S."
Building their home from local timbers and bricks, plus concrete mixed by hand on site was an arduous process. Skilled workers were not an abundant commodity. "It would be good," Steven advises, "to live in an area for awhile before you start building so you'll know who is actually a qualified plumber, not who just claims they are." How much to pay workers was another matter. Camille notes that Americans who live in Mexico and pay the local wage are often criticized for taking advantage of cheap labor. But, she insists, there's a lot more to it than that. "An elderly Mexican rancher came to us and said please don't pay over 50 pesos a day. If you do, the teenage boys won't come out and work for us at the wages we can afford to pay." The Dannuccis weighed all the factors and decided to pay workers 12 to 15 pesos (less than $2) an hour.
Today, the Dannuccis are beginning to harvest the fruit of their physical, emotional and ethical struggles. Before dawn, they wake on the sleeping porch to a rhythmic surge of ocean waves. They light candles and a propane stove, remove goat milk from a propane refrigerator and make cowboy coffee, using water provided by the ejido from a central well. Steven takes a pail and heads for the potrero to milk goats. Cobbled together from local purchases, this herd produces half as much milk as did his New Mexico nubians. Goats in the state of jalisco, explains Steven, are raised for meat. He plans to improve milk production by culling, selective breeding and additional purchases.
Camille opens the back door and feeds mash to a pack of dogs and cats. Grahhing gloves, she walks around the house past a small gray-water pond teeming with tadpoles and tilapia fish. Insects and birds congregate at the pond, which produces a robust crop of flowering hyacinth, a delicacy beloved by ducks. In the rock beds around the house and in the flat, sandy soil next to the beach, they have planted limes, avocados, figs, pistachios, sugar cane and almonds. A white butterfly — its wings large, paperlike and fragile — weaves through banana fronds.
The rainy season is July to October. From November to June moisture is scarce. Winds scour the coast between January and April. Grubbing Bermuda grass from a garden bed, Camille notes: "We've only been in this house for two full seasons, learning the cycles of insects, climate and ocean. You can bring basic organic gardening techniques like healthy soil and companion planting, but we still have a lot to learn. In New Mexico there was a four-month growing season from frost to frost. There's no frost here . . . ever. But we have to deal with other things — la brisa [the breeze which bears fine saltwater particles], the intensity of the sun, the heat in the summer, the profusion of critters. I'm experimenting all over the place to see what works."
If you eat what's in season, what grows locally, says Camille, your food costs can be minimal. She believes that it's possible to live frugally but well on as little as $200 to $500 U.S. a month in rural Mexico. However, earning that income can be a challenge. "Asparagus may work out as a cash crop," she thinks. Another idea is to make tropical chutneys and preserves and ship them out. Steven envisions a roadside stand alongside the highway — a dirt gouge through the jungle that bounds one side of the protrero — especially if the government eventually paves it. There he will sit under the thatched shelter of a palapa, perhaps playing his accordion, and sell bottled hot sauce, fruit, eggs, produce and goat cheese — all, he emphasizes, organically produced. As far as they know, not a soul in hundreds of miles is growing organic vegetables.
It may sound like Eden, but the challenges continue. Living in rural Mexico, says Camille, means that "everything you do takes more energy, effort and time. If I want information about solar energy or wind, I have to drive to El Tuito. If the car doesn't break down on the way and if the phones are working, the call is going to be expensive." They contend with rust and rot; driving rains and droughts; scorpions, which they killed by the hundreds before finishing the house; and last but certainly not least . . . ants. If the surf provides rhythm, the tune is "the ants go marching one by one," Steven says. "They patrol every square inch of the house, and the minute there's food left out or decay starts, they zoom in." Life in such protean form also means more death, more tumult and turnover. A little nick can turn into a festering wound in no time. Since medical care is several hours away, the Dannuccis study herbology and homeopathy.
Camille would love to have like-minded folks in the neighborhood. Steven says, "I've never known anyone that was like-minded." And having moved so far, he still has to deal with people. The president of the ejido is building next door to the Dannuccis, right on the edge of their property. Not only that, he recently cut a road across the beach in front of their house without permission. Such incidents give rise to los pleitos, or legal disagreements, which, Steven says, are a major source of local entertainment. "Humans are one of the less noble of large mammals," he believes. "I wanted to move somewhere remote where I'd have fewer dealings. Now, I'm in the middle of a bunch of soap operas." In time, he pictures retreating to the potrero and building a house deep in the jungle.
Another side of Steven manifests en route to a nearby village. Jouncing along in their Volkswagen Thing, without doors or top, he smiles at Camille, reminding her that it is important for them to join the circuit. That includes frequent visits to Dona Maria's store for beer, sodas and gossip. The Dannuccis have made an effort to fit in by respecting local customs and learning Spanish. "The more genuine and authentic you are," says Camille, "the better you fit in anywhere in the world." Due to their sincere efforts, most smiles broaden and arms open for the Dannuccis. Elder Francesco Garcia Rengel, who helped found the 40-year-old ejido from which the Dannuccis acquired their land, believes that having Americans in the area is good. "It's like a lasso between the two cultures," he says.
Rebecca Bryant is a freelance writer in Fayetteville, Arkansas; she contributes to a number of magazines.
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