Or, I found the ruins of Rivendell and it’s in Mexico.
About a day’s travel north-east of Mexico City is a place that feels like it fell off the pages of a fantasy novel. Like some fantastical movie set come to life. Like a vivid painting you assumed sprang from a painter’s imagination, only here it is in real life.
This place is called Las Pozas, or the Surrealist Garden of Edward James, and it’s located just outside of the mountainous jungle village of Xilitla (pronounced hee-LEET-la, if you were wondering).
This beautiful stretch of Mexican jungle is punctuated by waterfalls plunging into startlingly blue pools under shady green trees highlighted by colourful tropical flowers. But it’s not the beautiful setting that makes this place feel other-worldly.
Las Pozas is an artwork consisting of dozens of immense surrealist concrete sculptures looming out from the idyllic jungle. Twirling, twisting columns reach out over the steep pathways winding upwards, huge palatial structures materialise from behind screens of greenery, staircases climb through the air, seemingly unsupported, to finish abruptly, as though what they are supposed to lead to has yet to appear, or perhaps has floated away.
The creator of this stunning piece of sculpture, architecture and art was a man named Edward James, an English aristocrat and art lover in the early part of last century. A lover of surrealist art, he was a patron of some of the big names of the movement including Salvador Dali, before a bitter divorce led to his falling out with high society and he found himself purchasing land just outside of Xilitla. It’s a village that’s remote enough today, and it must have seemed like the furthest possible place from English high society in those days. It was there that James started to build – or more correctly, he hired locals to build the fantastical sculptures he imagined. The sculptures became surrealist paintings brought to life, taking their cues in form and structure from the land and life around them, but also juxtaposing the greenery with decidedly mechanical shapes as well.
The decades-long project was never completed, and that was intentional – James enjoyed the partly-finished nature of his creation, and continued to add to it until his death in the 1980s. Incidentally, throughout his life he was a tremendous source of employment to the people of Xilitla and a massive boost to the local economy. For several years after his death, the garden was abandoned, and the jungle began to reclaim it. Luckily, some bright spark realised it would make a fantastic tourist attraction, and the garden began to be carefully restored and opened to the public. Again, it’s been great for the Xilitla economy, which has far more hotels and restaurants than a village of that size normally would have.
While the place is popular with tourists, especially on weekends, it’s still possible to feel quite alone under the graceful archways and elegant, soaring columns. Stone flowers are perched alongside real ones, and crumbling walls are traced by vines and spotted with delicate moss. In James’ day, flamingos and rare parrots roamed the garden – sadly these have long since departed.
Las Pozas means The Pools in Spanish, and by far my favourite part of the garden was swimming in the turquoise water under cascading waterfalls, surrounded by sculptures that simultaneously blend into the landscape and stand out from it in a decidedly man-made way. The decay that the humid air, frequent rain and encroaching plants have caused in the last few decades gives the whole place the feeling of ancient ruins that have only recently been reclaimed from the jungle, yet the art deco styling is like no Mayan or Aztec ruin anyone has yet found. This is why I say it feels like the ruins of Rivendell, or like an illustration from the front of a fantasy novel. Nothing like this has ever existed before. It’s just too strange, this blending of what was avant-garde art with the beauty and rawness of nature.
How to get to Las Pozas
Or, the practical bits.
Xilitla is accessible by bus from several nearby cities and towns, though not directly from Mexico City itself. I took a bus out of San Luis Potosi – get your ticket the day before, as departures are early and infrequent. The bus I took was a local bus, and I was the only passenger travelling such a long distance. As a result, my bus driver made a special effort to look out for me, making sure to tell me when the opportunity for a toilet stop arose and ensuring I knew when to be back on the bus. We even had lunch together at a street stall!
From Xilitla, Las Pozas is an easy two kilometre walk. Either ask for directions – Xilitla is a bustling place! – or check Google Maps when you arrive like I did. You can stay at any of the places in town, or do what I did and choose to sleep in a giant concrete tepee just opposite the garden itself!
Casa Caracol, located just behind the Garden Bar opposite the garden (follow the path and cross the creek, you can’t miss it), is a lovely collection of tepees, bungalows and elegant single rooms amongst gardens and artworks keeping with the surrealist theme. A bed in the hostel-style tepees will set you back 150 pesos (maybe $10), and you can fall asleep listening to the nearby creek or the rain. There’s a decent kitchen, free drinking water, and a rooftop hammock with WiFi.
(A little note: while I loved staying at Casa Caracol, I CANNOT recommend their tour to the nearby (ish) Tamul Waterfall. While the fall is lovely, a driver who smokes marijuana while driving windy, wet and busy mountain roads is not my idea of a safe trip. If you’re really keen for the waterfall – and keep in mind at best you’ll get a partially obstructed view from a distance since the strong current makes a full approach difficult – pay the extra and go with a reputable operator instead.)
Entry to Las Pozas is 50 pesos and includes swimming. Dive in early to avoid the crowds and experience an amazing feeling of tranquillity amongst these truly surreal sculptures surrounded by bird calls and very blue water – the pools do fill up after lunch. There’s an onsite restaurant or several cafes and food stalls just outside the gate, as well as plenty of market vendors selling some really exceptional jewellery and souvenirs. You’ll need something to swim in (wear it under your clothes – there’s no changing facilities), sunscreen, and decent walking shoes. You’ll also need a moderate level of fitness and a fair sense of balance to fully experience the sculpture garden, as many of the stairways are steep and slippery, and not all have handrails.
This is definitely a place you should be adding to your Mexico itinerary. It might take a day to get there and another one to get back – go anyway. It’s worth it.