Travelling through the Sierra Gorda is a joy in itself, but really doesn’t prepare you for the picturesque small town of XILITLA (pronounced Hee-leet-la) sprawled over the eastern foothills some 320km northeast of Querétaro and 55km beyond Jalpan. Hemmed in by limestone cliffs, it’s set in a dramatic location, and at just 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, however, is to visit Las Pozas, some 2.5km east of town along a dirt road.
Museo Edward James
Before heading out to Las Pozas, visit the Museo Edward James, behind the Posada El Castillo (it shares the space with the hotel restaurant), which showcases James’s life and particularly his work here. His handmade wooden moulds and photos of the construction are particularly worth perusing.
Having lived in Xilitla since 1947, English eccentric Edward James spent the 1960s and 1970s creating the surreal jungle fantasy of Las Pozas, 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 bought the site for US$2.2 million (M$28.6 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 wxilitla.org 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 Wednesday to Sunday. You can also request a guided tour, which can be a good way to get to grips with what’s on display.
The surreal world of Edward James
The surreal world of Edward James
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 the Gastelum family, though without making any provision for the upkeep of his work.