You’ll need to set aside a couple of days to explore the hill country to the northeast of Querétaro, particularly if you’re headed for the wonderful tropical fantasy world of Las Pozas at Xilitla. This is the Sierra Gorda, a remote and mountainous region where roads are winding and travel slow; much of the region is now protected within the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda (wwww.sierragorda.net). There are bus services to most places and several companies run tours, but this is an ideal region to explore by car, motorbike or even bicycle, though you’ll need to be fit.
Apart from Las Pozas, the region’s main attractions are the Sierra Gorda missions, five communities (each with an elaborate church) from the final phase of Mexico’s Christianization in the mid-eighteenth century. The missions were founded by Spanish Franciscan Frey Junípero Serra, who’ll be familiar to Californians – once his work in Mexico was complete, he continued evangelizing in the new missions there. He spent nine years in the Sierra Gorda working with, and gaining the trust of, the indigenous people. It is this rare synthesis of missionary and native creative efforts that earned the district UNESCO World Heritage status in 2003.Read More
Xilitla and Las Pozas
Xilitla and Las Pozas
Travelling through the Sierra Gorda is a joy in itself, but really doesn’t prepare you for the picturesque small town of Xilitla, sprawled over the eastern foothills some 320km northeast of Querétaro. Hemmed in by limestone cliffs, it’s set in a dramatic location, and at 600m, it’s warmer than the rest of the Bajío, with a lusher feel. There are tremendous views over the surrounding temperate rainforest, which is thick with waterfalls, birdlife and flowers, particularly wild orchids. It is mainly of interest as a place to relax, though you might devote a few minutes to admiring the beautifully preserved interior of the sixteenth-century Ex-Convento de San Agustín, which overlooks the central plaza, Jardín Hidalgo.
The real justification for the lengthy journey to Xilitla is to visit Las Pozas (roughly 9am–6pm; M$30; wwww.xilitla.org), some 2.5km east of town along a dirt road: head down Ocampo on the north side of the square, turn left and follow the signs. It is a pleasant walk downhill on the way there, or you can grab a taxi for around M$60. Having lived here since 1947, English eccentric Edward James spent the 1960s and 1970s creating a surreal jungle fantasy on the site, full of outlandish concrete statues and structures. Sprouting beside nine pools (“pozas”) of a cascading jungle river you’ll find a spiral staircase that winds up until it disappears to nothing, stone hands almost 2m high, thick columns with no purpose, a mosaic snake and buildings such as the “House With Three Stories That Might be Five” and “The House Destined To Be a Cinema”. Only one is in any sense liveable, a hideaway apartment four storeys up where James spent much of his time. With so little complete, there are all sorts of unprotected precipices: take care. In 2007, the Fondo Xilitla consortium (which includes CEMEX and the San Luis Potosí state government) bought the site for US$2.2 million, with the aim of turning it into a world-class attraction; plans are still at an early stage (and any development is likely to be slow-moving), but check the website for the latest.
For now at least you can see everything in an hour or so, but plan to spend the better part of a day here bathing in the pools and just chilling out; the restaurant is usually open Wed–Sun. You can also take a guided tour (in English M$250; 1hr 15min), which can be a good way to get to grips with what’s on display.
Back in town, call at the Museo Edward James, behind the Posada El Castillo (nominally daily 10am–6pm, but actually open when they feel like it; M$30), which showcases James’s life and particularly his work here. Photos of the construction are particularly worth perusing.
Born in 1907 to a second-rank British aristocratic mother and American railroad millionaire father, Edward James may well have also been an illegitimate descendant of King Edward VII. He grew up cosseted by an Eton and Oxford education, and with no lack of money set about a life as a poet and artist. Meeting with only limited success, he turned his attentions to becoming a patron of the arts, partly in an attempt to prolong his waning marriage to a Hungarian dancer, Tilly Losch. Despite his bankrolling ballets that served as vehicles for her talent (notably those by George Balanchine’s first company), she eventually left him, whereupon he retreated from London society to Europe. Here he befriended Salvador Dalí, and agreed to buy his entire output for the whole of 1938. As James increasingly aligned himself with the Surrealists, Picasso and Magritte also benefited from his patronage. Indeed, Picasso is reputed to have described James as “crazier than all the Surrealists put together. They pretend, but he is the real thing.” During World War II, James moved to the US, where he partly funded LA’s Watts Towers and made his first visit south of the border. After falling in love with Xilitla, he moved here in the late 1940s and experimented with growing orchids (which all died in a freak snowstorm in 1962) and running a small zoo. In his later years he was often seen with a parrot or two in tow as he went about building his concrete fantasy world. Aided by local collaborator and long-time companion Plutarco Gastelum Esquer and up to 150 workers, James fashioned Las Pozas continually revising and developing, but never really finishing anything. By the time he died in 1984, he had created 36 sculptures, spread over more than 20 acres of jungle. He left his estate to Esquer and his family, though without making any provision for the upkeep of his work.
The Bajío is one of the most active regions in Mexico when it comes to celebrations. The state of Guanajuato is especially rich in fiestas: the list below is by no means comprehensive and local tourist offices (and the state websites) will have further details.
Fiesta de Cristo de Matehuala
(Jan 6–15). Feria in Matehuala.
Feria de León
(Jan 10–20). Agricultural and industrial fair in León.
Día de San Sebastián
(Jan 20). The climax of ten days of pilgrimages in San Luis Potosí and León.
Natalicio del General Allende
(Jan 21). Parades and celebrations in San Miguel de Allende.
Día de la Candelaria
(Feb 2). Major religious festival in San Juan de los Lagos.
St Patrick’s Day
(March 17). Now in San Miguel de Allende.
Batalla de las Flores
(Fri before Good Friday). Altar-building in Guanajuato.
(Holy Week). Observed with a huge procession almost everywhere. See especially San Miguel de Allende, San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato.
Zacatecas en la Cultura
(two weeks around Semana Santa). Enormous citywide celebrations of all strands of culture in Zacatecas.
Feria del Toro de Lidia
(middle week of March). Bullfights in Tequisquiapan.
(two Sun before Easter). Religious procession in San Miguel de Allende.
Feria de San Marcos
(mid-April to mid-May). Huge, month-long fair in Aguascalientes.
(second Sun before Easter). Culmination of a week’s celebration in San Miguel de Allende, with an overnight pilgrimage following an image of Our Lord of the Column from Atotonilco to the church of San Juan de Dios in San Miguel. The procession is greeted at dawn with rejoicing and fireworks (see San Miguel de Allende).
Internacional Feria de Queso y Vino
(late May–early June). Tequisquiapan.
Día de María Auxiliadora
(May 24). Fiesta lasting until the next Sun at Empalme Escobeda, 25km south of San Miguel de Allende, with traditional dances including that of Los Apaches, one of the few in which women take part.
Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua
(June 13). “The Crazies” are out in San Miguel de Allende.
Fiestas de San Juan y Presa de la Olla
(June 24). This Guanajuato family festival kicks off with the coronation of a festival queen, and features concerts by Mexican pop stars, a food festival, craft displays and activities aimed at kids (see Guanajuato).
Apertura de la Presa de la Olla
(first Mon in July). Festivities and dancing in Guanajuato.
Festival del Día de Santiago
(July 25). Stylized battles just outside Aguascalientes.
International Folk Festival
(late July–early Aug). Mexico’s top folk festival in Zacatecas, with around fifty nationalities represented.
Festival de Música de Cámara
(first two weeks of Aug). Chamber music festival in San Miguel de Allende.
Día de la Asunción
(Assumption; Aug 15). Religious and grape festivals in San Luis Potosí and Aguascalientes.
Día de San Luis Rey
(Aug 25). Festivities in San Luis Potosí.
(weekend closest to Aug 27). Massive mock battle between Moors and Christians in Zacatecas.
Día de la Virgen de Remedios
(Sept 1). Lively fiesta in Comonfort, 25km south of San Miguel de Allende.
Feria de Zacatecas
(first two weeks of Sept). Zacatecas’s principal fiesta.
Fiesta de San Francisco de Asís
(second Sat in Sept to fourth Sun in Oct). Weekly pilgrimages to Real de Catorce.
Día de la Virgen de la Soledad
(Sept 8–15). Festival in Jerez.
(Sept 16). Celebrations everywhere, particularly in Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende.
San Miguel Arcángel
(Sept 29). San Miguel de Allende’s most important festivities.
Fiesta de San Francisco de Asís
(Oct 4). Final massive pilgrimage in Real de Catorce.
Festival Internacional Cervantino
(early to mid-Oct). Huge cultural and arts festival in Guanajuato.
Día de los Muertos
(Day of the Dead; Nov 2). Celebrated everywhere.
Fiesta de las Iluminaciones
(Nov 7–14). Religious festivities in Guanajuato.
Festival Internacional de Jazz & Blues
(last weekend in Nov). In San Miguel de Allende.
Día de la Inmaculada Concepción
(Dec 8). A religious festival with a feria and traditional dancing in Dolores Hidalgo and San Juan de los Lagos.
(Dec 16–25). These traditional parades are widely performed. Particularly good in Querétaro on Dec 23 when there’s a giant procession with bands and carnival floats.