Las Pozas, Xilitla
Las Pozas, Xilitla is part of the Tentative list of Mexico in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Las Pozas is a surrealist garden laid out by Edward James between 1960 and 1984 in a tropical environment. It is full of incongruous dwellings with no purpose other than to represent the dreams of visitors. The ensemble forms an excessive, expensive, gratuitous, disorderly, irrational and unplanned architectural and artistic achievement of great beauty.
Map of Las Pozas, XilitlaLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
I visited this tWHS in January 2022 as a convenient stopover between the Sierra Gorda missions WHS and the Otumba/Zempoala components of the Padre Tembleque WHS.
For starters, the whole area surrounding Las Pozas is quite shabby and also prone for tourist traps. There are several activities and places claiming to be the right place to visit to appreciate Las Pozas, and makeshift parking personnel ready to earn a quick buck to keep your vehicle safe. If you insist to drive further on, you can park your car for free at your own risk, but having a drink at one of the cafes/bars should be enough instead of paying the same 50 pesos for such a parking tourist trap. It is quite a drive to get there and the locals know this so just keep this tip in mind instead of paying for a fake service.
The surreal gardens of Edward James are open everyday except on Tuesdays and entrance is currently only allowed with a guided tour taking 1.5 hours (125 pesos + 25 pesos for the guide). It's best to book and pay for your tickets online in advance and you're requested to exchange your booking with an actual ticket some 15 minutes before the scheduled time. When we visited, we were the only visitors requesting an English guide, so apart from having a private tour we were also lucky to have a really motivated guide who showed us photos of Edward James on his tablet at each of the 12 locations used as stopping point for explanations. The site's surrealism lies in the interrelationship between the natural "Mexican jungle" and the mostly incomplete crumbling concrete structures. I usually prefer roaming about alone without a guide, but in such a place a guided tour is a must and surely an added value to try to grasp such a site.
Edward James was one of the most eccentric 20th century collectors of surrealist art. The British guy was filthy rich and in the 1940s he used to spend his days in Xilitla under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. He was also obsessed with Illuminati symbolism so he set out to create a fantastic home, which includes a unique sculptural space unlike any other in the world. This surrealistic place was inspired by James' dreams and subconscious. Edward James was described by Salvador Dali as "crazier than all the Surrealists put together" and he really designed a sculpture garden that defies any architectural style and allows a glimpse of something new, moving between fantasy and reality. During our guided visit I counted at least a dozen of other WHS, Edward James got his inspiration from, when creating or remodelling Las Pozas.
Not being a concrete architecture enthusiast in general, I still was quite impressive be James' fantastic creation: columns with capitals that look like giant opium flowers, gothic arches, dramatic gates, pavilions with undetermined levels and spiral staircases that end abruptly in mid-air, as if they were an invitation to the horizon. In the past, Las Pozas was not only lush in flora but rich in fauna too living in the purposely built enclosures. Edward James paid some 5 million dollars to create Las Pozas' incomplete set of buildings and paid for them by selling his Surrealist art collection at an auction. The sheer contrast of James' living conditions in Las Pozas and back home at the West Dean House in West Sussex, UK is really incredible. He sponsored Salvador Dali in 1938 together with his collection of paintings and art objects, subsequently accepted as one of the finest collection of surrealist work in private hands. I was impressed by how glimpses of M.C. Escher's art defying gravity in Relativity and Waterfall is practically portrayed at some of the iconic stops along our guided visit at Las Pozas.
The WHS which came to mind during our visit bearing some sort of similarity with Las Pozas is Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra's esoteric component, but it doesn't really cover Surrealism as Las Pozas which can be argued to be a significant gap on the WH list. I think the site deserves inscription if only to monitor its much needed maintenance works before the whole place comes crumbling down, overcome by nature.
A bit off trek but on the way from the Franciscan Missions towards El Tajin, and totally worth it. It is also really popular. I took more pictures here than ANY other place in Mexico but it also took effort to have nobody in the frame, especially with Mexican kids splashing in the water. If you want to get close to the El Waterfall you either take off your shoes, prepare to get wet or buy booties in the shops before you enter the gardens.
If you try to imagine this is an ancient ruin with unknown origin and you would think it's a mysterious place ranking among the Mayan ruins. Alas it is not. Somehow inspired by Dalí and you can imagine what it is like. Art overgrown by jungle. In another example, have you been to Siem Reap and how the "Tomb Raider" temple gets a lot of attention and is very photogenic? So then you should understand that every corner he is just asking for a picture.
Edward James created a very unique place and I believe this should be part of the world heritage. I think it also reaches beyond what you see here as the park is apparently 80 acres with a sign stopping you to explore the rest of the garden because there is no security. The park is in the forest and wild animals could probably mame you (leopards?).
Is the park actually complete to the artist's intention? I didn't have a guide, incidentally there was a group of foreigners with a guide so they are available. I don't think I need a guide to experience the place but that would be something to ask. The The House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six is basically Solivagant's unfinished house in Sherwood Forest now overgrown with ferns, moss and ivy. Staircase to Heaven is also just that, staircase going up in an unfinished house. This only works in the setting here with the slightest decoration because if you have it somewhere else it's just "unfinished house waiting to be demolished" by artists called Mexican Builders.
Nevertheless you can see a lot here. It was rainy which is probably common and steps can be slippery. With an entrance of 100 pesos you are also looking at more than the usual ticket price. There are lots of hotels in the area to park and walk over (or taxi if you find the hill a bit too much but the last section is actually annoying to walk so if the taxi drops you off at the garden entrance you save some muddy shoe cleaning and miss out on trinket shopping).
Lastly I think this place will start to need a lot of maintenance in this setting but for now it seems almost original.
Las Pozas at Xilitla is a bit of a surprise entry onto Mexico’s T List – A “Wilderness Sculpture Garden” in the form of the surreal “architectural ramblings” set in a sub-tropical Mexican rainforest and created during the mid 20th Century by a rich and eccentric English poet and art patron. It has been described somewhat grandiloquently as “one of the biggest and least known artistic monuments of the 20th century”, as “a spectacular marriage of nature and art.” and, more prosaically, simply as a “Folly”! So, love it or hate it, it seemed worth taking in as we passed by in 2008 when traveling between the Sierra Gorda Missions and El Tajin.
If you are thinking of visiting then it is important to read up beforehand on the history of the man who “created” it - Edward William Frank James (1907–1984). Without this background the whole place could seem even more meaningless than it might still seem if you have done the reading! There is plenty on the Web about him so I won’t fill this review with much detail – suffice to say that his personal contacts included Magritte, Dali, Brecht/Weill, Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Balanchine and the Mitfords. He inherited great wealth from his Liverpool based American father, increased this by creating a valuable collection of early surrealist art and, between 1949 and his death, blew cUS $5 million of it on Las Pozas! It might also be of interest that, in 1959, James was involved in the campaign to help preserve Watts Towers.
We gave the place around 2 hours – you might get by with a bit less but it is quite difficult to reach, so you might as well spend reasonable time there. In early 2008 the place looked a bit “down at heel” but, since then, great changes have been afoot so any information on costs/visiting hours or general condition are likely to be outdated. Because of Mexican laws regarding foreign ownership of land the property was never actually owned by James but was held on his behalf by his local partner and lifelong friend Plutarco Gastellum. He was also the man who actually turned James’s fantastical ideas into “concrete” reality. His children had been adopted by James and they inherited the place. One of these, “Kako”, ran it after James’s death until just before our visit but appears to have been struggling financially since the will didn’t provide the means to maintain it. The state government took an interest in ensuring the site’s preservation and in 2007 it was sold to a consortium - “In 2007 "Fondo Xilitla" acquired Las Pozas, with the purpose of conserving the magnificent sculptures of Edward James and to protect the surrounding land and gardens. "Fondo Xilitla" was created by the Pedro and Elena Hernández Foundation, one of Mexico's best known and most active charitable organizations, with support from the government of San Luis Potosi and CEMEX, the worldwide cement and infrastructure company. Fondo Xilitla is a non-profit charity in Mexico.” But this quote provides an “alternative” take on the deal - “a consortium of investors is banking on the importance of James’ artistic legacy. More than two decades after the artist’s death, the site has been bought for $2.2 million USD by the Xilitla Fund, set up by billionaire ex-Banamex CEO Roberto Hernández and his wife Claudia Madrazo, and chaired by British-born UBS economist Damian Fraser. For Hernández to convince fellow billionaire Lorenzo Zambrano of CEMEX to join the project was easy. “This is the largest open-air cement sculpture park in the world, and CEMEX is one of the world’s largest cement companies. It was a natural complement,” !!
And this consortium thinks BIG –“Since the sale, the San Luis Potosí government has recognized Las Pozas as a patrimony of the state, the Fund’s key first achievement. The next goal is status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site … Five million USD are earmarked over the next five years, for restoration of the works, revitalization of the gardens, and international promotion of Las Pozas as a “high-quality ecological and cultural destination”. (source - www.xilitla.org/database/currentmedia/files/8.pdf
In 2010 the site was placed on the WMF “watchlist” and, from what I have read, restoration appears to be progressing well. Whether the “promotional” objectives will ever be achieved is another matter…!
The “Cement” reference is highly relevant. Among the hills, waterfalls and foliage of the site there are some 36 concrete surrealist structures – hardly any of them actually “finished”! Exploring each of them is an adventure as you climb stairs to nowhere, face doors which can’t be opened look at columns which hold up nothing and come across “a concrete bed shaped like a tree leaf where James used to meditate and prepare for death”. Names given to the structures include “The House with Three Storeys that could be five”, “The house with a roof like a whale” and “Column of the Stegasaur”. So, if Fondo Xilitla gets its way and the site is nominated one day for “World Heritage”, are ICOMOS etc going to find OUV there? I find it very difficult to say - I certainly enjoyed my visit but is the creation just too “way out” and James just too inconsequential a figure despite his famous “connections”? On the other hand, “Surrealism” isn’t really represented on the List beyond some aspects of Gaudi I guess – Parc Guell is perhaps the nearest to Las Pozas I can think of (along with Watts Towers) but Gaudi of course had other claims to fame as well. Perhaps all I can say is that, if Las Pozas were to succeed, I wouldn’t be arguing against!
During my 2 days trip to Sierra Gorda de Queretaro, I've managed to take the 1,5 hours driving from Jalpan to Xilitla, where out of the village and apparently in the middle of nowhere, you'll find the entry to Las Pozas. The gardens are open every year and there is a small entry fee. The main "palace" is very close and visible from the unpaved dirty street you have to take in order to get to Las Pozas (it may become particularly hard to drive, after a rainy day (luckily it wasn't out case). The gardens and concrete structures are well integrated into a main surrealistic environment, many of the concrete structures are just "useless" and just for beauty, mostly representing flowers or bamboo. Particularly remarkable are the "stairs to nowhere", with no handrail and scary to climb (luckily the scariest steps where closed, in order to mantain the integrity of the structure). It took little more than an hour in order to visit Las Pozas, it wasnt crowded when we were there on a Monday morning. We could have stayed longer and seim in the pozas just down a spectacular waterfall, but we left the swimsuits in the car and the water was not as warm as in other places of the Sierra. All in all, a worthy detour if you plan to visit Sierra Gorda and have an overnight stay in Jalpan
2009 Added to Tentative List
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