Staircases that wind up to nowhere. Doorways that open to nothing. Bridges that lead to dead ends. All of them surrounded by tropical jungle; vines and moss beginning to encroach upon the abandoned structures, uncared for since the death of their creator in 1984. Seek them out to discover one of the world’s most eclectic and monumental shrines to surrealism and fantasy.
There is perhaps no art movement that encapsulates Outside The Box Travel better than surrealism. I have always been drawn to surrealism. In fact, Dalí and I share the same birthday. Surrealism encourages its audience to think outside the box and break down preconceived limitations and barriers imposed both by the self and society, which in a way makes it quite complementary to travelling off the beaten path.
One could spend one’s whole life travelling the world in search of surrealist destinations, of which there are many. Though the most surreal place I’ve ever been to is the sculpture garden of Las Pozas, just outside of the village of Xilitla, nestled in the Huasteca Potosina jungle in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. The first time I ever heard about Xilitla was when I saw the music video for Nicole Scherzinger’s song “Try With Me”. While the song isn’t exactly of breathtaking depth, to go down in the annals of music history, the video is quite beautifully shot and I was immediately intrigued by the towering sculptures, lush jungle, and waterfalls featured in the clip.
Or check it out in this video by Empire of the Sun, if that’s more your thing.
If there is one name that anyone wanting to know more about how Las Pozas came to be must know, it is Edward James. Edward was born into an aristocratic British family, with rumoured blood ties to the royal family. He was raised by his mother, a socialite with a known affinity for the flamboyant, in the company of his four elder sisters. His father passed away when Edward was just five, and he inherited his family’s estate, the West Dean House, in Sussex, England. Twenty years later, at the age of twenty-five, Edward would go on to inherit the rest of his father’s fortune.
Edward James was a highly eccentric character, and, unburdened by financial pressure, found himself free to pursue his avid interest in the arts. Unfortunately, although he did his best with his stabs at poetry, his own artistic endeavours went generally unnoticed by the public. And so, Edward did what anybody with a passion for the arts, a boatload of money, and relatively little artistic talent of his own would do: he became a patron of the arts; specifically, surrealism.
As one of the movement’s first supporters, Edward amassed a substantial collection of important surrealist art over the course of his life, financially sustaining Dalí for two years and housing Magritte in his London home. He collaborated with Dalí to create the concepts for the now iconic Lobster Telephone, as well as the notorious red couch in the shape of Mae West’s lips, which would go on to decorate his West Dean home.
Eventually, after a messy divorce from Austrian ballet dancer Tilly Losch, and feeling stifled by the traditional views of British aristocratic society, Edward decided to escape the land of his upbringing and set his sights on travel. After brief stints in California and New Mexico, he eventually ended up in Mexico, where he discovered the verdant, mountainous rainforests of the Huasteca region and promptly purchased a tract of land known as Las Pozas, after the series of cascading pools which snake their way through the property.
With the help of his trusted confidant and right-hand man, Plutarco Gastelum, Edward filled his garden with tens of thousands of orchids, striving to create a sort of personal Garden of Eden. Tragically, a freak frost in the usually warm, temperate region decimated his garden, claiming the lives of all of his orchids. Devasted, Edward vowed to recreate his garden so that nature could never destroy it again. And thus began to spring up the surrealist sculptures of las Pozas.
While I was living in Mexico City, I knew that I had to make a pilgrimage to Xilitla to see Las Pozas for myself. And so, my trusted travel companion and I hopped on a night bus and awoke to the glaring sunlight of the hot, humid tropical rainforest of the Huasteca Potosina, as our bus twisted and turned through the mountainous terrain. We hopped off the bus one stop before the town of Xilitla, at the entrance to Las Pozas. After going up a muddy jungle road, we eventually stumbled upon the picturesque site of Casa Caracol, which a fellow traveller had recommended to us. Casa Caracol has a few enormous, psychedelically-decorated teepees that you can choose to share with other travellers, but we opted for a bit more comfort and went for the private cabanas further up the hill, equally psychedelically decorated and on the edge of the thick forest which ringed the clearing of Casa Caracol. As I admired the view of the vantage point from outside of our cabin, the friendly owner of Casa Caracol turned on some deep trance music from the main house of the site, which complemented the scene, with the morning mist drifting through the clearing and the trees beyond, perfectly.
We wasted no time in walking over to the entrance of Las Pozas, located a few minutes from Casa Caracol, and finally entered the surrealist jungle garden of Edward James. The first thing I did was climb up a high, winding staircase until I ended up at the top of a small bridge, with a fine view of the surrounding jungle, and absolutely no safety barrier or railing stopping me from plunging to my death below, should I stumble or fall. This was the first of several structures with no safety barriers, which was surprising given the drop below certain bridges and staircases, but I appreciated the authenticity and the faithfulness to the garden’s original design.
As we walked through Las Pozas, we wondered at the eerily beautiful, decaying structures around us, seemingly without purpose aside from avant-garde architectural expression, springing forth from the fertile ground of the rainforest. Rusted cages and enclosures dotted the path against the slope of the forest, leaving to the imagination the exotic creatures that must have been kept in them when the garden was cared for. Edward James had an affinity for animals, and was often seen in the company of a brightly-plumed parrot perched on his shoulder. Bringing a bathing suit is essential to enjoy the cascading pools of cool water that run through the garden, from which Las Pozas derives its name. Although James frequently paraded around his garden nude, and would encourage his workers to follow suit, some form of swimwear is generally now encouraged at Las Pozas.
In addition to the main waterfall of Las Pozas, I discovered two additional pools high above the waterfall by continuing up the small, narrow path along the stream, undeterred by signs above a certain point warning me to continue at my own risk on the unmaintained paths. When I made it to the highest pool, I noticed some small, makeshift steps carved into the stone on the other side of the stream. I waded across the water and went up the steps, continuing along a very narrow dirt path, climbing steeply up the slope of the valley, unsure of what I would discover, if anything, now that I was far away from any other visitors and on my own in the jungle.
Finally, my climb was rewarded as I came upon a beautiful, two story tree house, built into a small tree on the edge of the valley. I entered the tree house cautiously and respectfully, as if entering a sacred chapel or a long sealed-off Egyptian tomb, excited by my discovery of this mystical shrine to nature, perched in the clouds. I saw a ladder, sturdily made of wood from the surrounding forest, propped up into a hole in the ceiling, leading to the upper floor of the tree house. Three sides of the tree house, which faced the sprawling valley beyond, were left open, in a way fusing the structure to the nature around it and providing some seriously impressive views. I climbed up the ladder and came to my feet on the highest level of the tree house, triumphantly gazing out at the verdant canopy covering the mountains before me, watching the clouds drift along the valley, trying to spot Las Pozas far below.
Yes, Xilitla is a magical place, and although the journey to see it is not an easy one, it is well worth it. And although we chose to spend the entirety of our two days in the region enjoying the nature-friendly, peaceful, and spiritual atmosphere of Las Pozas, there are many other interesting sights to see in the jungle of the Huasteca Potosina, such as splendid caverns and waterfalls. The tropical region, unexpectedly situated far north of Mexico City, unlike the rest of the country’s jungles in the south, closer to Central America, is a great place to spend a few days reconnecting with yourself and nature. Relatively untainted by the massive development increasingly encroaching upon Mexico’s more touristed destinations, it’s a great place for ecotourism and escaping the city. And the spiritual pulse of it all beats within the surrealist heart of Laz Pozas, Xilitla, nestled deep inside the jungle, slowly being reclaimed by nature, as the vines continue to inch, year after year, along its dizzying spires and whimsical arches.
WHERE: Las Pozas, outside of the town of Xilitla, in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. The closest destination you can fly into is Tampico, and from there you’ll need to take a car or a bus.
WHEN: Year-round! I went in June, which was a great time to visit. Note that the rainy season in Mexico begins in June and lasts until late September.
HOT TIP: If you choose to stay in the town of Xilitla instead of directly at Las Pozas, consider staying at El Castillo, the property where Edward James lived when he wasn’t staying at Las Pozas himself. But really, I can’t recommend Casa Caracol enough – you basically get to sleep in the middle of the jungle, and you will certainly get to see all kinds of interesting flora and fauna (perhaps even fireflies!) as a result.
HOT TIP: There is a huge cave just off the road between Xilitla and Las Pozas. A local offered his services as a guide to show me the cave, but I insisted on finding it on my own. In the end, I really wished I had hired him, but one major adventure later I finally came upon the cave, which is impressively carved into a huge rock wall and is filled with squawking green parakeets.
HOT TIP: If you’re going to attempt to find the magic tree house described above, wear good footwear. I did it in Havaianas the first time I went up, which I really wouldn’t recommend to anybody.