Xilitla's Jungle Wonderland
By Victor A. Walsh
Photos by Dick Davis
In the afternoon sunlight, the peaks of the Sierra Gorda Mountains in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi have turned the color of burnished metal, while a smoke-like mist hovers in the valley below. On the steep sloped hills, lush with vegetation and terraced with coffee beans, stands the village of Xilitla (he-leet-la).
As the road climbs, it becomes a series of narrow paved switchbacks built more for donkeys than for cars. Unable to make a hairpin turn around a wall, our Grand Marquis has to back up and swing wide coming uncomfortably close to the road’s edge. Eventually the big car carries us into a maze of narrow cobbled streets.
The December cold chills us to the bone. Laurel trees, decorated with ribbons of Christmas lights, line the rectangular plaza. On the far end is the gold bronze head of Benito Juarez, Mexico's only full-blooded Indian president.
What intrigued us, at least initially, and brought us to Xilitla, was Sir Edward James—his wealth, notoriety and bon vivant lifestyle—and trying to understand why he came to this remote Indian village. We had read up on him and knew about Las Pozas (The Pools), his surreal garden wonderland, but that in no way prepared us for the staggering surprise of his creation in the nearby jungle.
At a small cafe off the plaza, my two traveling companions, Dick and Françoise, and I order coffee. We ask directions to El Castillo, the eight-room guesthouse that was once the home of this eccentric British millionaire. The waiter points and says, "right there, just down the hill." It's only a half block away.
The street, which is for pedestrians only, is so steep that it literally slides off from the plaza.
We walk down the stone steps and ring the outside bell. Peering through the iron grated door I can see a path of large, clown-like, raised white footprints leading to the entrance.
El Castillo is full. We make arrangements to have breakfast and to check in the following evening—a stroke of luck that only materialized because it was off- season.
That evening we eat at a little restaurant tucked away in the darkness off the plaza. It’s a magical place. The rain bounces off the tin roof like popcorn. A breeze blows in from the vine-covered back veranda, and the parrots, hidden in the darkness, cackle away in Spanish and English. Lanterns cast soft halos of light above the wood-paneled stalls.
The next morning we return to El Castillo for breakfast. The three-storied, oblong concrete building, with its jumble of rooftop turrets peeking above the high stucco wall, reminds me of a child’s tinker toy set.
Once inside, my impression quickly changes. Thick, ivory-white stone archways, reminiscent of Old Spain, hold up the massive veranda. The upper-levels have a distinctive Moorish style with their diamond-shaped lattice of white rails and narrow columns. Everything seems disconnected, yet symmetrical. The swimming pool, nestled among flowering red orchids, ferns, and palms in the rear provides a sweeping panorama of the jungle. “The place has more color that a box of crayons. This is an artist’s dream,” Dick tells me.
Over a breakfast of corn tortillas with scrambled eggs, fritas, and fresh fruit, we learn that James first visited Xilitla in 1945. He was only 38, and already had lived a full life as a fabulously wealthy art patron and world traveler. Rumored to be the illegitimate son of Edward VII, he grew up alone and largely ignored in a 300-room mansion in the English countryside. At the age of 21, he inherited a vast fortune and soon left Oxford, traveling throughout Europe and amassing one of the largest collections of surrealist art in the world, including works by Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, and his close friend Salvador Dali.
In 1939, he came to the United States, living in New York City for a time, and then Hollywood where his flamboyant lifestyle and eccentric charm endeared him to everyone of note. But it was in Mexico that he found his true home and raison d’être. While in Cuernavaca he would meet Plutarco Gastélum, the part Yaqui Indian, part Basque, self-taught architect who designed and built El Castillo. Plutarco, who later became Las Pozas’ construction foreman and James’ heir, married a girl from Xilitla. Sir Edward, whom the family adopted, was called “Tio Edward.”
Las Pozas, which was built mostly in the ‘60s and ‘70s with money from the sale of his art, encompasses 80 acres of a thickly wooded hillside dotted with nine spring-fed pools that flow into a small river.
At the entrance, a pebbled footpath leads steadily upward past a column of concrete snakes that balance on their tails. Red and purple bougainvilleas somehow shimmer in the dim winter light. Visitors pass through an ornate wrought-iron gate topped with the Eye of the Buddha. Concrete bamboo trees sixty feet tall, doors opening into empty spaces, stairways spiraling into voids and columns topped with gigantic painted flowers—all a surreal fantasy born of his wild imagination.
Many of the re-bar concrete structures represent the animals—ocelots, deer, monkeys, and flamingoes—that James dearly loved. There’s an aviary for parrots and flamingos, the Ocelot House, Parrot House, Bamboo Palace, Temple of the Ducks, and House With a Roof Like a Whale. With many of the structures covered with green moss and rusting steel rods protruding from them, Las Pozas has the feel of a place arrested in time like a Sleeping Beauty castle.
By all rights, it should be a Mexican national monument, but it isn’t because it’s out in the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, it defies order, logic. In the mist, I manage to lose Dick and Françoise, indeed all sense of direction, despite being a seasoned hiker and backpacker. The landscape seems to spin without an axis.
Climbing steadily higher among towering trees, I find myself staring into a snake-like gorge of pools below me connected by waterfalls. It begins to rain, becoming a torrential downpour as I retreat down the footpath towards the gorge. I slip into an aquamarine pool just below the Henry Moore grotto, floating as the rain pummels me. The waterfalls become imagined water slides. Tall leafy trees float by, silhouetted in a smoke-like mist. Rocks, smooth as glass, are transformed into giant birds and flowers. I slide into three more pools before emerging at the foot of some concrete buttresses.
Sopping wet, I eventually find Dick and Françoise at a thatch-roofed cafe near the exit. “How was your shower? he asks in jest. “I need tea, hot tea, not another shower!” I holler back.
Later that evening, back at El Castillo, we hear an interesting story. James revisited Xilitla in 1947 after hearing that orchids grew in profusion on its jungle slopes. He brought his secretary with him. The two of them stopped for a mid-day swim, and when James emerged from the water, he startled a colony of sleeping butterflies. They flew up in a huge cloud and then landed all over his naked body. To James, this was a mystical moment—an epiphany. A short time later, Plutarco bought the land for him. (Foreign-born residents could not own property in Mexico then.)
James set about recasting the jungle into his own private dream world. By the 1960s he had a workforce of 150 men. They built some 36 concrete structures, platforms, and aqueducts, and installed electrical lines lighting up the jungle like a fairyland every night. All told, he spent five million dollars constructing Las Pozas before his death in 1984.
Today, 10,000 people live in and around Xilitla. Much of the mountain water is being diverted to accommodate more people and farming in the surrounding valleys. Modernity intrudes, manifested in the rooftop TV antennas and Internet cafes. But the old ways endure, carried from centuries ago in the folk memories of the Huastecan Indian people.
Xilitla is a magical place, much as it was when Edward James discovered it. You hear it in the screeching cry of a wild animal at night. You see it in the eyes of a young boy playing his wooden flute on the plaza. And you feel it all around you in the mountain jungle. Hopefully, the little pueblo will remain what it is—an enchanting Shangri-La, where you might find your own wild orchids and butterflies.
GETTING THERE: Xilitla is 15 km (9.3 miles) southwest of Mexico 85 via Mexico 120. Vencedor provides bus service between Xilitla and other towns in the Huasteca region, including Ciudad Valles.
San Luis Potosi, the charming 400-year-old capital city, is less than a day's drive (230 miles), and the Gulf port of Tampico less than 200 miles. Continental flies to both cities via Houston from all major U.S. cities and Aeroméxico via Mexico City from Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Houston and San Antonio.
WHERE TO STAY: There is only one place to stay, and that is Posada El Castillo, the former home of Edward James, a block from the plaza at Ocampo No. 105, Xilitla, San Luis Potosi, C.P. 799900 Mexico. The guesthouse, now owned by Gastélum’s children Plutarco Jr. or Kaco and Gabriela, has eight rooms, each with a sunken bath and/or shower. Rates: $60-130/night; book in advance. Credit cards not accepted. Call (011) 52 489 365-0038 or email firstname.lastname@example.org See www.junglegossip.com
MORE INFO: Xilitla is a remote jungle destination, and should be part of a longer itinerary. Nearby are the native Huastecan villages of Aquismón and Huehuetlán, and the Cascadas de Tamasopa (Waterfalls of Tamasopa) and the Cascada de Tamul. Another natural wonder is the Sótano de las Golondrinas (Cave of the Swallows), the home of thousands of black-winged swifts, which is near Aquismón. Archaeological sites abound; the largest and most accessible being the Zona Arqueológica El Consuelo at nearby Tamuín.
Victor A. Walsh is a well traveled freelance writer living on the U.S. West Coast. This feature won the Bronze Award for Destination Story in the third annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing (2009). His travel and feature stories have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, San Jose Mercury News, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American Statesman, Arizona Daily Star, Irish America, Sunset Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. Contact Victor at email@example.com
Dick Davis is a professional freelance photographer living and working across Mexico. Dick is the author of Bus Journey Across Mexico, Western Star Publishing, 2010.