THERE'S A PROGRAM run by the Mexico Tourism Board in which they designate small towns “Pueblos Mágicos,” or “magic towns.” For most of the towns designated, the word “magic” can be interpreted as “cute,” “pretty,” or even “of relatively minor historical or cultural significance.” But at least one town on the list, Xilitla, earned the name “mágico” for its actual magic, or at least what we can get away with calling magic in the hippie, artsy sense of the word.
Xilitla is home to Las Pozas, the surrealist fantasy garden created by eccentric British art patron Edward James.
In the mountains north of Mexico City, Xilitla is home to Las Pozas, the surrealist fantasy garden created by eccentric British art patron Edward James. Mexico already had a healthy relationship with Surrealism before members of the 1930s European art movement began discovering it on their own continent in the lead up to World War II. Frida Kahlo had spent the early part of the decade traveling the Mexican countryside and incorporating disparate and often jarring elements into her increasingly dreamlike paintings when French Surrealist and leader of the movement André Breton arrived in Mexico City in 1938. Without a place to stay, he availed himself of Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera’s hospitality. Given that they were already putting up Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, what was one more rabble-rouser?
Breton, for his part, helped arrange Kahlo’s first major exhibitions in New York and Paris. He also wrote a love letter to Mexico for the French Surrealist journal Minotaure, which served as a sort of proto-Lonely-Planet-style trip review and advertisement to other artists and wayward creative types for what he called “this land of convulsive beauty” and “…the most surrealistic country on Earth.”
That same year, Minotaure patron and occasional contributor Edward James embarked on a Mexican road trip with his friend, local architect Plutarco Gastélum. James had been born into a rich, quasi-aristocratic family in England and had put his inheritance toward funding and befriending many of the leading artists and writers of the European avant-garde, among them René Magritte, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, and Breton. Though he was primarily known among the Surrealists as a collector and impresario, he also dabbled in painting and poetry — dabbled well, it bears mention — and acted as an adviser and collaborator on some of his friends’ projects. For instance, he claimed to have given Salvador Dalí the idea for the infamous work “Lobster Telephone.”
For James, the appeal of Mexico was to find a new place to set up shop away from the growing nightmare of European politics, as well as some mild tax evasion. “I always felt a bit like the Wandering Jew,” he told a BBC film crew in the ’70s. “Because of taxation problems, I always had to move from one place to another, building houses and traveling and helping other artists — which if I’d had to earn a living, I couldn’t have.”
James and Gastélum got a truck and a pair of sleeping bags and began traversing the outlying parts of the country, bedding down every night wherever the spirit bid them. One night while driving through the Sierra Gorda mountains in the state of San Luis Potosí, the spirit bade them to sleep on the side of the road that led into Xilitla. They awoke underneath a great, green thumb-like protuberance atop the surrounding hills. Called “the mountain of the horn” in the local Huasteca Nahuatl language, James took this as a thumbs up from the cosmos that this was where he was supposed to be.
Las Pozas means “the pools,” and James’ original estate was a little cabin he built in the rainforest right outside Xilitla, with easy access to the numerous waterfalls in the area and the swimming holes they make. Supposedly — and there’s a lot of supposedly with James’ biography, the “Lobster Phone” for example — one day he was bathing in one of the pools when a group of 12 large penguins came out of the woods and solicited him for money. After securing his glasses and realizing it was in fact a group of nuns, and after then securing a large leaf to cover his genitals, he agreed to fund the construction of a hospital for Xilitla, and inauspiciously became inaugurated into the economic lifeblood of the town.
Xilitla occupies a strange little nook in the geography of central Mexico. Surreal in its own right, it encompasses the northernmost part of temperate rainforest on the continent, as well as a fertile fossil bed from its time as the floor of a prehistoric ocean, and a sharp thrust upwards into rolling highlands. The preponderance of seashell impressions in the coral outcrops that crown the hills reputedly gave the town its name, “xil itla,” which roughly translates to “spiral place.” There is, however, a competing local theory that the actual etymology of the name is “xe’el itla,” or “place with good crayfish,” and the whole spiral shell thing was concocted later on to pretty up the town’s image for tourists.
James saw in the landscape’s primeval oddness the potential for “a new Garden of Eden,” and set to importing animals from other parts of Latin America, as well as a variety of tropical orchids to help his vision come to life. He also started hosting artists from his old clique in Europe, many of whom had taken refuge in Mexico as the Nazis overran France in the spring of 1940. This jungle arts camp outlasted the war, and over the next two decades became a sort of roofless studio in the wild for visiting painters like Magritte and permanent exiles to Mexico like the painter/sculptress/tarot-card-maker Leonora Carrington, whose eerie, mythology-based dream-like figures were influenced by the local fauna and old religious beliefs.
Looking for an alternative to his attempt at an orchid nursery — the first try was doomed to bad weather — James instead concentrated on an ad-hoc cement maze of disjointed architectural elements. For this, he enlisted the help of Gastélum, who’d put his name on the lease since James wasn’t a Mexican citizen, as well as a continuous construction crew made up of stonemasons, ironworkers, and other craftsfolk from town. The flowers were supplanted by hulking concrete fleurs-de-lys, hardened duplicates of native trees that served as capitals for columns, and flying buttresses that didn’t buttress anything. Rooms with no walls prop up rooms with no roofs and great, gaping gothic window-frames with no glass in them — stained or otherwise. Twin staircases intertwine M.C. Escher-style and then just stop midair, as if forgotten, which they may have been, at precipitous heights — and you better believe without any sort of safety rails.
In the ’30s, the Surrealists popularized the occult-like practice of mechanical writing, zoning out, and letting your hand conjure up whatever words it may. As Las Pozas took shape over the next two decades, its form — or rather its lack of form — enacted a sort of automatic architecture, a strange, illogical grandiosity and endless unfolding, like the settings in dreams.
Gastélum and local carpenter José Aguilar worked from cocktail napkin sketches and James’ loose ideas, mentioned when he’d drop into town for the summer. Gastélum and Aguilar would translate these ideas for the workers into feasible designs, directing them to leave whatever they were doing to suit James’ shifting whims. One year James requested a three-story enclosure be built for some ocelots he’d adopted. The following year he was presented with his new ocelot townhouse and said, “Why are we keeping the ocelots in there? They should be free!” From then on, the elaborate 20-foot-tall ocelot pen sat empty.
Construction continued in this capricious fashion until James died in 1984, strewing the forested hillside with a butcher’s window of cathedral parts, like readymade jungle ruins. By then James had adopted a local family and allowed Gastélum to build him a slightly more conventional house in the center of Xilitla so that he wouldn’t plummet to his death off a set of nonsense stairs trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He still went to Las Pozas plenty, to oversee the always-ongoing construction and also to seek out a fresh sanctuary from the sounds of other always-ongoing construction for which he was paying upwards of $1,000 a week.
Miguel Angel Marquez, who grew up in Las Pozas and is the son of one of Edward James’ housekeepers, now leads tours at the site. “He was always climbing up the mountains, even when he was very old, to find somewhere he could read and get away from all the noise down below,” Marquez says of James’ later years. “He never wanted this place to be on display or open to the public. He wanted to build a lost city in the jungle, a hidden city for artists.”
For close to a decade, his estate abided by this wish. Xilitla made do in the absence of James' construction money by housing the largest collection of Leonora Carrington’s paintings and sculptures, as well as being an out-of-the-way spot on the road to San Luis Potosí, where you could swim beneath some reliably empty waterfalls. Local teens, and the occasional outsider in the know, also made use of Las Pozas for your typical covert teen things.
But a secret city of artists can only remain secret so long in this day and age. Especially when that city is one made with the full knowledge and pride of an entire town, on the flimsiest of instructions and yet still stably standing. In 1994 Gastélum opened Las Pozas to the public, and Xilitla began capitalizing on its claim as the most surreal town in the most surreal country in the world.
Gastélum’s son Kaco opened a campground called Casa Caracol (“Snailshell House”) across the street from the ruins, itself a maddening hodgepodge of teepees, concrete huts with stained-glass eyeball windows, and a treehouse I don’t think would make code in this or any country. Supposedly a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building — again, supposedly — went up as an artist’s studio nearby, alongside a cement labyrinth, and latter-day Surrealist types and other creative oddballs began flocking into town. They came not only for inspiration but frankly also to screw around in one of the last great marvels of one of the last great artistic movements of the twentieth century.
At first and for many years, Las Pozas operated on a kind of “have at it” basis, where you could wander its dreamlike stairways and colonnades on your own recognizance, and use them for whatever magical or non-magical purpose you could concoct. Today, however, the grounds are run by a foundation in conjunction with the state government and Mexico’s largest cement company. And now due to the pandemic, you can only legally enter during the day as part of a scheduled, guided tour. Note I said “legally.” As with dreams, real magic is best accessed at night.
Finding your way to the gardens of Las Pozas.
The surrealist garden is located in the jungle near a small mountain village called Xilitla, in the province San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Driving directions, as well as information about tickets, accessibility, and additional information about the history of the region, can be found at Jardín Escultórico Edward James, Las Pozas.
Thomas Morton Writer
Thomas Morton is a writer and video journalist of sorts living quasi-legally in Mexico. Morton is the creator and host of the immersive documentary-TV series "Balls Deep," editor-at-large for the print magazine the Mountain Gazette, and purportedly the first non-juggalo to report from the Gathering of the Juggalos.
Pia Riverola Photographer
Pia Riverola was born and raised in Barcelona and currently resides between Los Angeles and Mexico City. With an acute eye for detail and color, she creates captivating imagery across the genres of fashion, still life, landscape, and architectural photography.