THE SUN WAS PLAYING CAT AND MOUSE WITH ME. It had risen several hours earlier in the town where I was staying, but here—where the canopy of rain forest trees and vines blocked the view to the east—it had yet to make its formal appearance. Silvery shadows, gradually lightening, fell across the trail. Finally, as the crimson disk peeped over the trees and the birds began to cry, the scene came into focus. At the same time, certain other, intangible things went out of focus, and as I reached the entrance to Las Pozas, the logical, the predictable, and the commonplace evaporated altogether.
I stood and stared at one of the strangest places I have ever been—the remnants of a surrealistic Shangri-la, an absurdist’s playscape in concrete populated by fantastical, unfinished buildings, towers, columns topped with gigantic flowers, Gothic arches, gates, pavilions, and railless stairways that spiraled upward only to end abruptly in midair. Red and purple bougainvillea shimmered in the changing light and a transparent-winged dragonfly helicoptered silently across the forest floor. I began to walk, not with any destination in mind but wherever the deities that ruled this singular place might take me. As the flagstone path led steadily upward, I passed the immense bulbous column next to what is known as the House Destined to Be a Cinema and walked through the circular gateway called the Princess’ Ring. I continued past the seven rearing concrete snakes lining the Serpent Walk, went under the sinuous Toadstool Platform (half expecting to see a caterpillar on top smoking a hookah), and ended up at a bank of small, lichen-encrusted concrete cornucopias arranged in rows like so many alfresco showerheads. The longer I stayed, the more the outside world faded away and I became lost in the present.
Las Pozas is in the state of San Luis Potosí, 340 miles south of Brownsville. Constructed mostly in the sixties and seventies by the floridly eccentric English millionaire Edward James, it might be called a wilderness sculpture garden. All told, it comprises some eighty semitropical acres on the side of a mountain dotted with nine spring-fed pools— pozas—that flow into a small river. Thirty-six significant structures are concentrated on a dozen of those acres. Since 1987 the property has been owned by a 36-year-old Mexican lawyer, cattleman, and coffee grower named Plutarco “Kaco” Gastelum, who keeps it open to the public. He doesn’t do this for the money, because the place has never made a profit, but for something that’s more complicated and definitely closer to love. After all, Las Pozas’ creator—crazy, endearing, exasperating Edward James—was for nearly four decades the benefactor and de facto godfather of Gastelum’s family. “He was an incredible person,” said Kaco, sitting beside one of the interconnected pozas while local youngsters splashed and dived. “My father was his manager, and although he and my mother complained all the time about how aggravating Uncle Edward was, to me and my three sisters, he was our magical uncle, our private Santa.” Kaco’s father, Plutarco Senior, was James’s alter ego and, indeed, the person who helped translate the Englishman’s moonstruck dreams into reality. And though James has now been dead for fourteen years, those who knew him strive daily to keep his spirit alive amid the shifting shadows and the clouds of mist that rise above Las Pozas.
By all rights, the place should be a Mexican national monument. And if it were near a major city or better publicized, no doubt it would have long ago attracted the attention of some wealthy foundation or person. But it is located in the middle of nowhere, and except for occasional articles in magazines and newspapers, it is all but unknown. Beyond that, something about it thwarts organization and order. The whole time I was there, I found it exceedingly difficult to stay on track. On the second day, for example, I started out to see the spectacular waterfall above the Captain’s Pool. Along the way, however, I metaphorically but definitely lost my way. Wandering among elephant ears, I made the mistake of pausing to examine the House With a Roof Like a Whale. Intrigued, I walked around it, then ducked through a small door and was surprised to find that the house’s smooth, pleasing exterior harbored a dank, cavelike interior. After that I detoured along a scary elevated walkway to the fat concrete obelisk called the Stegosaurus Column. And so it went, one digression following another for more than two hours. When a village boy and two dogs sent by my friends found me at noon, I had never reached my destination, even though it was only ten minutes away. I had the feeling that somewhere, Edward James was laughing.
James first saw the mountainside paradise that would become his lifelong obsession in 1945. He was only 38, but he had already lived a full life as a fabulously wealthy art patron and proto-jet-setter. Thanks to his money and his charming manner, James had entrée into any social or artistic circle that struck his fancy. Among his friends were playwright Noël Coward and writer Aldous Huxley. He commissioned choreographer George Balanchine to create three ballets. He also tried his hand at various arts, including writing and painting, but had his greatest success as a patron. Picasso and Surrealists Dali and Magritte were recipients of his largesse, and the latter two found in him a friend and kindred spirit. Indeed, Dali once remarked to Sigmund Freud, “Edward James is crazier than all the Surrealists put together. They pretend, but he is the real thing.”
By the forties, James had more or less relocated to California, where he met many people in the motion picture world, including Bette Davis, Ronald Colman, and Humphrey Bogart. He was on a typically quixotic journey to Mexico when the event that was to transform his life occurred. Having heard that orchids grew in near-miraculous profusion around the town of Xilitla (he- leet-la), he had set out to find them,