After an evening of furious computer pounding, sighs and whispered expletives, my husband gleefully announced that he had snared the perfect reservations and flights for a long-awaited voyage around South America’s southern-most tip. Penguins were in our future!
While we celebrated this coup, we began comparing notes about our favorite home free adventures. Exotic Marrakech, seductive Lisbon, too hip Berlin, and my beloved Paris were all in the running. But in the end, a brief trip to Mexico’s Sierra Gorda Mountains stood out for both of us as the most challenging and remarkable journey of all.
The trip to Las Pozos isn’t for sissies.The six-hour drive from San Miguel de Allende took us deep into the Sierra Madre mountains, an adventure of great beauty and dramatic climate changes. We went from the searing 100F+ desert heat through frigid mountainous pine laden slopes, then back down to Xilitla a hot, damp jungle town on a high point surrounded by a tropical forest. The jungle was so pervasive that it threatened to reclaim equipment, roads, stucco walls, and the air was so thick that it could snatch the breath of the people in its midst. It throbs with its momentum, and its tentacles infiltrate everything in its path.
Tony Cohan’s account of Las Pozas in his book, Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico had propelled us to make the trek to the area.
His tales of Edward James’ surreal jungle sculpture park were enticing. Concrete stairways to nowhere, filagreed fragments of magical cathedrals, eight-foot tall hand sculptures rising from the loamy earth, heroic stone flower arrangements connected with bridges and breathtaking columns that spiked overhead into the thick jungle. At his suggestion, we booked a room at El Castillo, the hotel where Edward James lived while he and his project manager turned eighty acres of lush jungle into a garden containing 36 original surrealist heroic-sized sculptures.
We arrived in the late afternoon. The town was suffering one of its frequent power failures, so pressing the hotel’s doorbell produced no results. We stood on the fractured pavement hot, thirsty, impatient and frustrated, stupidly pressing a button that wasn’t working. An old man, tipped back on the back legs of a delicate chair on a second-floor balcony across the street, noticed our distress, and nodded towards a small opening in the stucco wall that we had not noticed.
We slipped through the gate and found the hotel owner, Luisa, the granddaughter of Plutarco Gastelum, the foreman of the Las Pozas sculpture park. She bore a striking resemblance to Isabella Rossellini, which under the circumstances seemed perfectly normal.
Luisa ushered us into the mansion, an intriguing blend of Mexican, English, and Moorish styles, and she shared colorful memories of her grandfather and Edward James. Staying in the eight room hotel and hearing her first-hand stories about the eccentric multi-millionaire poet and art collector intensified our excitement at the prospect of visiting the site.
That evening we tried to relax on the hotel’s rooftop balcony. It was the coolest spot in the still, humid climate. It was the kind of hot where your body begins to perspire before you’ve even turned off the cold shower! But despite the humid heat, sketchy accommodations, and exhausting drive, we were enjoying the adventure, the brush with surrealism, and anticipating seeing those ruins the next day.
The next morning we bounced up a punishing cobblestone road, and we finally entered the gardens. We were stunned to see colossal structures marching up into the jungle. Each time we turned a corner, a new marvel awaited: a bridge connecting three- and four-story structures with floors fluted like flowers, 12-foot-high walls with windows shaped like eyes framing magnificent vistas of waterfalls, and overhead in the deep thatch of vegetation, a choir of jungle birds serenaded us in dissonant keys.
We chose to explore without a guide, which made the walk seem as if we were discovering a lost civilization on our own, a surreal Xanadu rising in an improbable place. For the most part, we were alone with Edwards’ artistic notions. Concrete confections vying with creeping moss and jungle vegetation threatening to cover the ghostly, melancholic creations.
Tim insisted that we stopped often to rest and guzzle water. Remember the heat I mentioned? At first, we tried mopping our brows with tissue, but the humidity finally overcame us, and we succumbed to it. I remember sitting on a concrete bench fashioned to resemble a throne, bending over to catch my breath and just watching the perspiration drip from my forehead in a stream. Somehow we became one with the environment, and the heat ceased to be so important.
After we hiked for several hours, the birds’ calls were replaced by the voices of locals and tourists playing in a series of stream-fed pools that dropped down the mountainside. Families picnicked on platforms nearby, and civilization reclaimed us. We sat along the side of the stream dangling our tired feet in the refreshing water while we studied the guidebook about Edward James and his magnificent obsession. Born to extreme wealth in Britain, he longed to create art on the level of the surrealists he admired and to whom he became a significant patron. He collected their works and cultivated the friendship of major artists like Dali, Bosch, Picasso and Klee. Although his own attempts at art were not well received in Europe, his desire to create his personal statement resulted in his selling over $5 million worth of his collection to build Las Pozas.
Although we had planned to stay two nights, I must confess that we were less than hearty in dealing with the heat and we fled to the nearest town to indulge in an air-conditioned room before returning to San Miguel. We may return one day, but it will certainly be in winter!
Photo Credit for all images: Rod Waddington