By Tim Leffel
Hidden in a remote Mexican jungle hours from any large city or airport, the sculpture garden of Sir Edward James is like a dream manifested in the waking world.
It all starts when I land on a travel magazine article, one containing photos of structures that don’t look like anything that could exist anywhere here on Earth.
Curving sculptures rise out of the lush jungle and reach toward the sky, extending up and out in ways that seemed to defy gravity. And is that little ant-looking creature really a man—walking up a spiral staircase that doesn’t lead anywhere? A grove of bamboo made of concrete? Taking it all totally over the top on the strangeness scale, this collection of building-sized sculptures is in a place I can’t even find in my atlas or in a map program I pull up online. In central Mexico, in a small town called Xilitla, this bizarre dreamscape seems to be something out of an ancient explorer’s fantasy, lost in both time and place.
Now here I am several years later, wife and daughter along for the ride, after a day of navigating around 1,000 curves (who’s counting?) through the Sierra Gorda mountains. As soon as I step out of the car and look up, it’s as if I’ve gone through the rabbit hole and ended up in Wonderland, only this bizarre place was created not on paper, but in the jungle. One man with a vision, 40 laborers, and nearly 25 years of work to bring the dream world into our world.
My own daydream about arriving here is a little off. I always imagined a hike through the jungle with the structures rising before me after some branches part, feeling like one of the first non-natives to stumble upon Tikal or Machu Picchu. But no, Las Pozas is smack up against a gravel road. It draws our eyes up before I even turn off the ignition, more like an arrival to Six Flags than a reward at the end of an arduous trek. There are all of eight cars parked here though, the price to get in less than five dollars. In this remote region, even the closest big cities are places almost nobody outside of Mexico has heard of. The closest international airport is three hours away—in a city called Tampico—if you don’t make any stops along the way.
Solid gray structures four stories high loom over us, circled by stairs that suddenly stop. Huge support columns rise from the ground and tower above the trees, but don’t support a roof above—and never have. We venture down a stone path, through a circular sculpture, to visual delights that serve no purpose except to provide visual joy.
Around every bend is another surprise that makes no sense, simply a man’s dream images brought to life. Flying buttresses shaped like butterfly wings are works of art in themselves, supporting the walls of rooms and tunnels that stop suddenly, as if the artist was afraid it was all starting to look too conventional. Stairs lead to open platforms for taking in the view—spots that would surely be ruined by zealous lawyers if this place were in a more litigious country, where the admission price would rise to support a pricey liability insurance policy.
This surreal Wonderland is the prize after a long journey we started in the colonial city of Queretaro, in the state of the same name. Just a bit up the road is the city of Bernal, which tips the strangeness scale for another reason. Its one big draw is a rocky cone viewed from almost any vantage point: the tourism brochures proudly tout it as the world’s third-tallest monolith. Like the Rock of Gibralter or Rio’s iconic Sugarloaf Mountain, but smaller. And without any water around it. Okay, so it looks like a mountain. A solitary, cone-shaped mountain. Donna and I have jokingly been building it up for weeks with our daughter and now she plays her part perfectly. “Wow, that’s really amazing,” she says with a heavy dose of sarcasm. I tell we’re sorry, but she’s not getting a Bernal monolith t-shirt.
We decide to keep the disjointed dream theme going with a visit to an improbable winery owned by a Spanish company. Cavas Freixenet de Mexico is a winery in an area nobody thinks of—ever—when discussing even Mexican wine. Amazingly, much of what it cranks out is sparkling wine made in the labor-intensive French Champagne method. Workers have to periodically rotate bottles by hand as they are fermenting, through several stages where the bottles are tipped up at higher angles. At the end of a that process, which is nine months for the top-end line, the neck of the bottle is frozen and the plug of yeast and sediment popped out before corking.
With a few bottles packed for the road trip, it’s time to head for the mountains. We have to face the daunting part and start taking on hours of switchbacks through the Sierra Gorda Biosphere. Soon I am zig-zagging my way through curves that seldom take a break, hoping my lazily named Chevrolet “Chevy” rental car is up to the challenge. I’m skirting steep ravines with an uncomfortably high number of roadside graves for lost loved ones. My wife keeps grabbing the dashboard and the little one is not helping any. “Daddy, if you make one mistake on this road, we’re all dead! Just look over there; you would go straight down!”
Besides the inconsistent appearance of guardrails, there’s the inherent problem that it’s hard to constantly keep your eyes on the road when there is such stunning scenery in every direction. For the most part this park system is amply protected, with few signs of deforestation. The climate changes dramatically along the way, starting out with an assortment of cacti on brown hills, then rocky cliffs and pine trees. By the time we reach Xilitla it’s a full-blown tropical jungle, the humidity hanging on our bodies like a warm wet blanket.
Mexico has no shortage of giant structures that were the result of big dreams meeting with ample funds. Many are fantastic structures that required an army of workers toiling for years, then were left abandoned. Some, like Teotihuacan and Chichen Izta, are restored to part of their former glory and are big tourism draws. Others have become mere mounds of rock covered by centuries of dirt, still hidden away in the overgrowth. Man can build great things, but the plants often take it all back when the two-legged creatures leave.
Those grand monuments—including the grand cathedrals in Mexico’s colonial cities—were built by the ruling elite of the times, The construction money was gleaned from tribute or battle, with the stonework resulting from the spoils and sweat of the citizens. Las Pozas is a modern-day marvel created with private funds. It’s the kind of project only a half-crazy man with more money than he knows what to do with could envision, much less actually build. Even using cheap Mexican labor, the costs eventually hit $5 million, for a vanity art installation that was never intended to actually earn any income.
Edward James got his vast wealth the old-fashioned way: he inherited it. He grew up in a family with immense wealth, much of it earned by his father through mining and timber operations. His childhood home was a 300-room mansion on 80 acres in the fox hunting country of England. Never content to follow his family’s plans for him, he bankrolled ballets, wrote poetry, and bought paintings from budding surrealist movement artists who needed the money, like Dali and Magritte. Later he sold part of his collection for a huge profit in order to keep funding his whims at his own personal Xanadu.
In the 1940s, James hired a guide in Cuernavaca and traversed Mexico, looking for the perfect place to build the playground in his mind’s eye. Eventually he found a land of pools, waterfalls, and orchids near the small town of Xilitla, in San Luis Potosi state, and went to work. His guide, Plutarco Gastelum, married a local woman and had children, continuing to work for him the rest of James’ life.
The artist dreamed big and built sculptures and structures that probably seemed impossible to many, using concrete and rebar in ways that had not been explored before, with custom molds created from wood. (Some are on display in the game room of a whimsical mock-gothic house the two of them built, now the hotel El Castillo.) He did not clear swaths of land and try to overpower nature in his 80 acres, however. Instead the stone paths and the original rocks seem to play off each other and the natural walls blend into the man-made ones. Next to a pool at the bottom of a waterfall, small columns appear to be holding up a mountain. Instead of the concrete structures being the opposite of the surrounding plants, many contain motifs of leaves or bamboo, the natural reflected in the unnatural. He spent as much time caring for orchids and playing with pet tropical birds as he did telling workers where to pour the concrete.
After 36 structures built over a period of more than two decades, it wasn’t finished. Edward James still had money left and the largest structure was intended to reach seven stories, with trees growing out of the top. Alas, his body gave out before the funds did and just like that, the manifested dream stopped growing. He died in 1984, at age 77, with more plans sketched out but never realized.
Exploring Las Pozas now is a different experience than it was for many years after James’ death. With no heirs to look after the property, the Gastelum family was on their own and the hungry jungle kept spreading its tendrils. A foundation eventually took over the property, acquiring it in 2008 dollars for half what James spent in 1970s dollars. Fittingly, one of the donors was Cemex, the world’s third largest cement company.
Now the natural and unnatural are in balance again. The paths and narrow bridges are still treacherous, the stairs to nowhere still slippery, but for the most part we move through the 36 structures without real danger. This being Mexico, a country refreshingly under-burdened with lawyers, it’s our own problem if we fall and hurt ourselves. The original vision remains intact throughout the grounds: no warning signs, no plaques, no Pepsi stands, no logos.
His vision came to life here successfully. There is a sense of walking into a dream, entering a world where the usual rules don’t apply. Our pattern recognition is scrambled, our childlike sense of wonder returns, and we smile with the pure pleasure of discovering something truly different. In a digital age where every favorite site has now been photographed and shared a million times, when we arrive in a place feeling like we’ve been there already, Las Pozas still surprises, giving the impression of entering an alternate dimension.
Is that worth decades of work and five million dollars? On his deathbed, Edward James surely thought, “Absolutely!”
Tim Leffel is the author of four travel books and is editor of the award-winning webzine Perceptive Travel. He also runs several blogs including PracticalTravelGear.com.