A fourth career win seemed assured when Meeke carried a near-40sec lead over Sébastien Ogier into the final gravel road speed test in the mountains near León.
But just 750 meters from the end of the four-day event, a mistake plunged his Citroën C3 through a hedge and into a spectator car park.
A disoriented Meeke drove around parked vehicles urgently searching for a way back onto the road. He eventually spied a hole in the hedge, regained the track and limped to the finish with a puncture and fan safety tape trailing from his car.
The clocks showed the Northern Irishman had won by 13.8sec, ending a miserable start to the season for Meeke and his Citroën team. It was their first success of the year and Meeke leaped to sixth in the FIA World Rally Championship points.
“I got caught out on a bump after the jump at a fast right corner,” said Meeke. “I’m a lucky boy. That’s certainly one way to finish a rally and I didn’t need that.
“I was desperately trying to trying to find my way out of the parked cars and find a gap in the hedge. A lot of things went my way….,” he added.
Third for Thierry Neuville, a further 45.9sec behind, was a relief for the Belgian after crashing out of the lead in the opening two rounds of the season in Monte-Carlo and Sweden. He also gained maximum bonus points after winning the final Power Stage in a Hyundai i20.
Ott Tänak maintained his consistent start to the campaign with fourth in another Fiesta, more than a minute clear of a frustrated Hayden Paddon. The Kiwi suffered several technical problems but this was still his best result of the season.
Toyota Gazoo team-mates Latvala and Juho Hänninen finished sixth and seventh. An overheating engine and brake problems on his Yaris slowed Latvala, while his Finnish team-mate suffered sickness throughout the event.
The championship returns to Europe for round four next month. The Mediterranean island of Corsica hosts the Che Guevara Energy Drink Tour de Corse on 6 – 9 April, the first pure asphalt round of the year.