Out of This World

In a rain forest in Mexico lies a wilderness fantasy called Las Pozas, where concrete flowers bloom in profusion. Unfinished stairways spiral into the treetops, and waterfalls fill secret pools—all a day’s drive from the Texas border.

April 1998By Comments

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, taking along a handsome young Texan named Roland McKenzie, who served as his secretary and traveling companion. In the heat of the day, they stopped to swim, and when McKenzie emerged dripping from the water, he startled a throng of hundreds of butterflies. The agitated insects flew up in a cloud of yellow and blue and settled back all over McKenzie’s naked body. To James, it was a mystical moment. He resolved on the spot to possess this realm of orchids and butterflies, and in 1947 Plutarco Senior purchased the land on his behalf. (One of the ironies of Las Pozas is that, because foreigners could not then own property in Mexico, Edward James never held the deed to his tropical Eden.)

Having acquired the property, James plunged obsessively into orchids. Season after season he coddled them, and then, in the winter of 1962, disaster struck. A freak storm dropped the temperature below freezing, and 18,000 flowers perished in a three-day snowfall that the mystified villagers referred to as a rain of “white ashes.” Says Avery Danziger, a filmmaker who has made a documentary on James’s life: “When it freezes here, it looks like the whole forest has been burned. James was absolutely devastated.” Like Scarlett O’Hara shaking her fist at the sky and swearing she will never be hungry again, James swore that the next orchids he planted would never die. After salvaging what he could of the real flowers, he began to create new ones—in concrete.

Before long, he had become the patron of the village of Xilitla, paying higher wages than anyone in the area. Always a globe-hopper, he would be gone for months at a time, then without warning descend on Las Pozas bursting with new ideas—such as building a fish pond in the form of a giant human eye or erecting a thicket of impossibly delicate bamboo-shaped columns to make a freestanding “curtain.” He would sketch his fantasy on a ruled pad and show it to his master moldmaker. Then, using only machetes, axes, and knives, the master and his assistants would carve the wooden molds into which the concrete would be poured. Some forms might take months to make and require thousands of tiny strips of pine, all meticulously fitted together. But in time, a shape would emerge and another Wonderland blossom or Rapunzel’s tower would take its place in the forest.

Over the years, the sculptures gradually coalesced into a sort of haphazard city, with all kinds of extraneous attractions. Some of the concrete was tinted gaudy colors reminiscent of the ancient Mayan temples. James loved animals and had pens and cages built for deer, ocelots, monkeys, and flamingos. He also had electrical lines brought up the side of the mountain so that he could string colored lights and spotlights everywhere. Kaco remembers the night they were first turned on: “We all came up here, and about ten o’clock they threw the switches—pow! pow! It was fabulous and incredible, but if you looked around in the brush, you could see all these little animals running around, sort of dazzled and disoriented.” Before it was all over, James had spent an estimated $5 million on Las Pozas, easily more than $20 million in today’s dollars.

The early sixties to the early eighties were Las Pozas’ golden years. James poured his imagination and energy into it, but even as the city was unfolding, its creator was growing old. In 1984, while on a trip to Europe, he suffered a serious stroke. A few months later he died and was buried at his family estate in England, West Dean. He was 77. For Las Pozas and the Gastelum family, the event was a dual tragedy. The exasperating man who had been the focus of their lives for decades was gone. Moreover, in a short while the money was gone too. Always utterly impractical about finances, James had left nothing for the upkeep of Las Pozas. Within four years Plutarco Senior and his wife, Marina, also died. An era had ended.

Kaco inherited Las Pozas, but as he candidly admits, “Everything had gone kind of crazy.” He kept the place open for the few intrepid visitors who took the trouble to find it, but for years little else happened. For one thing, his resources were limited and, he says, “I didn’t have the heart to ask people to pay to see it.” Eventually, though, he realized he couldn’t carry the burden alone. Three years ago he started charging eight pesos admission ($1) to help defray the cost of maintenance. But the money—when someone is there to collect it—goes only so far. It pays for the sweeping and pruning needed to keep the forest from reclaiming its land, but not for anything else.

Today Las Pozas is at a crossroads. Every year more water from the heavy seasonal rains seeps in around the tens of thousands of metal reinforcing rods that sprout everywhere from the concrete, rusting them and causing them to swell. Miraculously, most of the structures remain sound, but they will not stay that way indefinitely. Las Pozas needs an infusion of money—for upkeep, restoration, and some kind of administration—and it can’t wait forever. Gastelum has asked Avery Danziger to act as his agent to pursue funding sources, and plans for an architectural and engineering study are being spearheaded by Bud Goldstone, the man who in 1959 was involved in a successful campaign to save Los Angeles’ wonderfully idiosyncratic Watts Towers. That project was funded by, among others, Edward James.

Of all the places I have been, Las Pozas is one of the most fascinating, and I cannot imagine that ultimately it will not be saved—not only to amaze and delight future generations of visitors but also to soothe the restless spirit of Edward James, which I imagine to be hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the Bamboo Palace. I keep remembering the first morning I was there, when my guide, Miguel Resendiz, who had known James well, told me the effect the place has on him: “When I look at what he built, I see his face. I even hear his voice. I think he is still here because I can be at Las Pozas and never get tired of it. When I walk around, I see a new door or a new concrete flower. It is like he is still building here. Edward James died, but the magic didn’t die.”

Getting There: From Reynosa, on the Texas-Mexico border, the drive to Xilitla takes about eight hours. Continental and American fly to Tampico for $219 from Houston or $462 from Dallas, respectively, with advance booking. Rent a car for the three- to four-hour drive to Xilitla or arrange for a van from El Castillo hotel in Xilitla to pick you up (round trip $150). Round-trip bus fare from either Reynosa or Matamoros to Xilitla is $44 on Omnibuses de Oriente (Reynosa 011-52-89-22-17-19; Matamoros 011-52-88-12-07-11). If you’re studying a map, Xilitla is approximately forty miles south of Ciudad Valles.

Accommodations: In Xilitla the place to stay is El Castillo, a wonderfully whimsical bed-and-breakfast inn that was once the family home of Plutarco Gastelum, Sr., James’s manager. The present operators are Avery and Lenore Danziger. All seven rooms are quite attractive, with stucco walls and cool tile floors. Rates for a double are $40 to $80 (phone 011-52-13-65-00-38; fax 011-52-13-65-00-55; or make reservations through El Castillo’s great Web site, www.junglegossip.com. Be sure to get a map of Las Pozas at El Castillo; there often aren’t any at the site.

Directions to El Castillo: From the main highway, Mexico 85, turn right onto Mexico 120. After about fifteen minutes, as you come into Xilitla, you will see a new Pemex station with a Goodyear sign. Curve left, go over some speed bumps, and take the first right, in about one hundred feet. Follow this narrow, curving street (which has houses on the right). Cross three more sets of speed bumps, then turn left on Ocampo at the stone wall. Go up Ocampo one block (it’s a hill) and park at the little store on the right with a sign reading “Amadeus.” Continue upward on foot about fifty feet to the hotel, Number 105, on the left. Shout, or ring the doorbell located inside the gate on the left side at eye level.

When to Go: Spring and fall are good times to visit Las Pozas; the rainy season—mid-May into September, usually—makes the rock steps slick and treacherous. Winter—late December through February—is foggy and cold. In any case, take nonslip shoes and be prepared to climb a lot of stairs. Birding in the area is good year round, but don’t go during Semana Santa, the week before Easter, unless you love hordes of vacationers.

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