North of Mexico City, the fertile valleys of the Bajío (“Lowlands”) are sprinkled with wealthy colonial towns and rugged, dust-blown hills. This has long been the most heavily populated part of the country, providing much of the silver and grain that supported Mexico throughout the years of Spanish rule. Indeed, the legacy of Spanish architecture remains at its most impressive here, in meticulously crafted towns that – at their cores at least – have changed little over the centuries.
The Bajío grew rich on just one thing – silver – but in time the region also grew restive under the heavy-handed rule of Spain. The wealthy Creole (Spanish-blooded but Mexican-born) bourgeoisie were free to exploit the land and its people, but didn’t control their own destinies; lucrative government posts and high positions in the Church were reserved exclusively for those actually born in Spain, while the indigenous peoples and poor mestizos were condemned either to landless poverty or to near-fatal labour. Unsurprisingly, then, the Bajío was ripe for revolution. This land is La Cuna de la Independencia (the Cradle of Independence), where every town seems to claim a role in the break with Spain. Dolores Hidalgo, in particular, is a point of pilgrimage for anyone with the least interest in Mexico’s independence movement, as is, to a lesser extent, Querétaro, a large and booming modern city that preserves an underrated colonial quarter at its heart. Querétaro also serves as a good base for exploring the Sierra Gorda, particularly the concrete fantasy sculptures of Las Pozas near Xilitla. Guanajuato, quite simply one of the country’s most scenic colonial towns, is close to San Miguel de Allende, which also has its advocates, as much for its wonderful setting as for the comforts of home, ensured by a large population of foreign artists, gringo retirees and language students. Heading north, the less-visited city of Aguascalientes is a real pleasure, with an appealing roster of colonial relics, art from José Posada and fabulous food. The north of the region is dominated by the colonial cities of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí – both eponymous state capitals and oases of culture and sophistication, built largely with the bounty of the silver mines that riddle the landscape hereabouts. Approaching the Bajío from the US border, you cross several hundred kilometres of desert landscape punctuated only by the occasional ranch, or defunct mining towns, such as the wonderfully strange semi-ghost-town of Real de Catorce, where decades of abandonment are gradually being reversed.
The hill country to the northeast of Querétaro is the Sierra Gorda, a remote and mountainous region where roads are winding and travel slow. Much of the area was incorporated within the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda in 1997, a designation that affords its natural and historic attractions a limited amount of government protection.
Apart from the wonderful tropical fantasy world of Las Pozas at Xilitla, the area’s main attractions are the Sierra Gorda missions. These five communities (each with an ornate church) were founded by Spanish Franciscan Fray Junípero Serra (1713–84), who spent nine years in the Sierra Gorda during the 1750s and 1760s, working with, and gaining the trust of, the indigenous people (mainly the Pame). Serra was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015 (becoming St Junípero Serra).
Beyond Jalpan, the other four Sierra Gorda missions are harder to visit without your own transport, but given their architectural beauty, isolation and unspoiled natural settings, well worth the effort:
San Miguel Concá On Hwy-69 to San Ciro de Acosta, 40km north of Jalpan. The smallest of the missions, completed around 1754. Concá is a Pame word that means “with me”.
Santa María de la Purísima Concepción del Agua Built between 1760 and 1768 in Landa de Matamoros, 22km east from Jalpan on Hwy-120 towards Xilitla. The last of the missions to be built.
San Francisco de Asís de Tilaco Best-preserved church, with a florid Baroque facade and soaring, multi-tiered tower (completed between 1754 and 1762), some 27km beyond Landa (15km east on Hwy-120, then 12km south from La Lagunita).
Nuestra Señora de la Luz de Tancoyol (22km east of Landa along Hwy-120, then another 22km north on the signposted road to Tancoyol). The most ornate of the five missions with an incredibly intricate facade, constructed during the 1760s.
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.
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's a lovely 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.
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 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 (then M$24 million), with the aim of turning it into a world-class attraction; restoration has been slow since then, but check laspozasxilitla.org.mx 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.