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Monday, January 24, 2022

A new ranch house in Yucatán powered by high and low tech solutions

With the help of some modern technology, an Alaskan native living in the city's Centro goes off the grid deep in the countryside

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our top headlines will appear in your inbox each Monday and Thursday.
Marc Olsen’s ranch in a remote part of Yucatán is powered completely by sun and wind. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Long before social distancing became a thing, Marc Olson took the concept to a new level. He began building a home deep in the middle of nowhere. 

It is a beautiful nowhere, in an undisclosed location somewhere on the Yucatán Peninsula, far from neighbors, roads, and all the comforts provided by the electric and water utilities. 

The Alaska native, a former photojournalist, is obviously pleased with his new home, which he’s dubbed Rancho San Benito, as he gives a brief tour.

“Early in the morning, with those open,” Olson says, pointing to the shutters on the window, “the soft light is super bright. I love light. I was a photographer, and I thought a lot about light and air when I decided on doing this.”

Marc Olsen’s ranch house is simple but efficient. The multi-purpose living room was angled to get maximum sunlight and air. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Olson had to consider much more than light. He had to provide his own electricity, for which he built solar panels. The water flows from a windmill-powered pump, the kind you see in grainy old photos from the region. 

The L-shaped home itself is very simple. It has a large, multi-purpose living room-bedroom and a kitchen. It was built with rocks found on the land, a former ranch.

Sometimes, the traditional ways are best. For sleeping, Marc employs hammocks hung from old-fashioned knobs which a friend helped him turn from a salvaged piece of old hardwood. 

This off-the-grid Yucatán ranch house is far from the road. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A row of celocías — breeze blocks decorated with the Mayan cross — runs across the top of some walls for airflow. The walls are white, a practical decision. “I can retouch anytime and the paint is always going to match,” Olson says.

Off the rear is a simple terrace with a pergola and a swimming pool, naturally fed by the adjacent, sky-high windmill. The angle of the sun and the direction of the wind were all considered to shield the house from the elements. It’s everything he wants and needs.

“The house is a mestiza,” Olson observes, referring to the blend of cultures represented by its construction and design. “It looks kind of colonial from the front. Inside is modern.”

Marc Olsen’s ranch house was angled to get maximum sunlight and air but also locks up tight for security. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The home is an ongoing project. The home is one story but designed to expand upward if the time should come. Fruit trees, a cactus garden, and a pen for some livestock are planned for a future phase.

His friend Victor Yam, whose father was a local cattle rancher, “is the agricultural guy. He knows the planting. We’re going to actually revive the pastures and we’re going to have some cattle, and it’s going to turn back into a real kind of a ranch.”

The home stands in contrast with what he inhabited in Mérida for years. He vowed not to repeat what he sees as newbie mistakes.   

“At first I did the typical foreigner deal,” Olson recalls, having bought a big house but finding himself living in a small part of it. And the house required constant maintenance. 

A ranch in a remote part of Yucatán is powered completely by sun and wind. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Moving from the Centro to a ranch property, and building from scratch, he admits to some bumps in the road. The power supply was cut off, a mystery until they figured out that a worker had brushed against some cables, disconnecting one. Finding competent painters and other tradespeople in the middle of nowhere is a constant challenge. 

But none of the challenges he’s had wouldn’t have happened in the Centro, Olson says.

Whatever the obstacles, it’s been worth it.

“It’s beginning to feel like what I had in mind,” Olson says. “My parents had a couple of cabins in Alaska when I was growing up, and this is my cabaña, my cabin in Yucatán. It’s a little house out in the monte.” 

A version of this article appeared in Issue 1 of Yucatán at Home.

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