Las Pozas is the kind of project only a half-crazy man with more money than he knows what to do with could envision, much less actually build. Even using cheap Mexican labor, the costs eventually hit $5 million, for a vanity art installation that was never intended to actually earn any income.
What's more amazing is, it wasn't finished. James still had money left and the largest structure was intended to reach seven stories, with trees growing out of the top. Alas, his body gave out before the funds did and just like that, the manifested dream stopped growing. He died in 1984 with more plans sketched out but never realized.
Edward James got his vast wealth the old-fashioned way. He inherited it. He grew up in a family with immense wealth, much of it earned by his father through mining and timber operations. He grew up in a 300-room mansion on 80 acres in the fox hunting country of England. Never content to follow his family's plans for him, he bankrolled ballets, wrote poetry, and bought paintings from budding surrealist movement artists who needed the money, like Dali and Magritte.
The Search for Xanadu
James hired a guide in Cuernavaca and traversed Mexico in the 1940s, looking for the perfect place to build the playground in his mind's eye. Eventually he found a land of pools, waterfalls, and orchids near the small town of Xilitla, in San Luis Potosi state, and went to work. His guide, Plutarco Gastelum, married a local woman and had children, continuing to work for him the rest of Edwards' life.
With the site of his 80-acre surrealistic Xanadu secured, he dreamed big and built sculptures and structures that probably seemed impossible to many, using concrete and rebar in ways that had not been explored before, with custom molds created from wood. (Some are on display in the game room of a house Edwards and Gastelum built, now the hotel El Castillo.) He did not clear swaths of land and try to overpower nature, however. Instead the stone paths and the original rocks seem to play off each other and the natural walls blend into the man-made ones. Next to a pool at the bottom of a waterfall, small columns appear to be holding up a mountain. Instead of the concrete structures being the opposite of the surrounding plants, many contain motifs of leaves or bamboo, the natural reflected in the unnatural. He spent as much time caring for orchids and playing with tropical birds as he did telling workers where to pour the concrete.
Exploring Las Pozas now is a different experience than it was for many years after Edwards' death. With no heirs to look after the property, the Gastelum family was on their own and the hungry jungle kept spreading its tendrils. A foundation eventually took over the property, acquiring it in 2008 dollars for half what James spent in 1970s dollars. Fittingly, a key donor was Cemex, one of the world's largest cement companies.
Now the natural and unnatural are in balance again. The paths and narrow bridges are still treacherous, the stairs to nowhere still slippery, but for the most part we move through the 36 structures without real danger. This being Mexico, a country refreshingly under-burdened with lawyers, it's our own problem if we fall and hurt ourselves; the site is free of hand rails or other unsightly additions installed to avoid a lawsuit. The original vision remains intact.
There is a sense of walking into a dream, entering a world where the usual rules don't apply. Our pattern recognition is scrambled, our childlike sense of wonder returns, and we smile with the pure pleasure of discovering something truly surprising. In a digital age where every favorite site has now been photographed and shared a million times, when we arrive in a place feeling like we've been there already, Las Pozas still feels like stepping into an alternate dimension.
Is that worth 25 years of work and $5 million? Edward James would surely say, "Absolutely!"
If you go:
Xilitla can be reached by bus or car from San Luis Potosi to the west, Tampico to the north, or Queretaro from the south (the most scenic route). Las Pozas admission is less than $5. See more at Xilitla.org. His original "castle" home is now a hotel in Xilitla.
To see the Parthenon in Zihuatanejo, proceed up the unmarked dirt road to the left as you crest the hill between Zihuatanejo town and Playa la Ropa. The cost to enter will depend on your negotiating effort with the guard holding the keys.
Editor Tim Leffel is a blogger, award-winning travel writer, and author of four books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations (in its 3rd edition) andTravel Writing 2.0. See more at TimLeffel.com
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