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The surreal, unreal vision of the brilliant Edward James

sunny 35 °C

Salvador Dali said of Mexico - "I will not go again to a country that is even more surreal than my paintings". The more we travel through Mexico, the more we understand Dali's sentiment. We drove to Xilitla to see the famous gardens of the late eccentric Edward James. To get there, we drove for eight hours through the high Sierra mountains; a trek that put the "odd" in odyssey.

We drove through many small towns. This one was having a fiesta, complete with an intriguing choice of rides.

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A group of 100 or so cyclists were taking part in a Ride for Jesus (rough translation) - as a lead-up to Easter. We wondered why such an event would be staged on twisty mountain roads with no shoulders - certainly passing cars and trucks showed no concern for their welfare. Further along we noticed Jesus on a cross, strapped a little unsteadily in the back of this van.

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Parts of the mountain roads were in such bad shape that we marvelled at the ability of big buses and service trucks to maneuver - our little car was able to easily switch lanes to avoid massive potholes. This colectivo was in front of us for a while - jammed to the rafters with passengers. Mexicans are so uncomplaining and accepting of inconveniences - we followed them for miles and never saw one of the men shift or move or look impatient.

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Finally, we arrived in Xilitla, (he-leet-la) and we were shocked by the town. Run-down, dirty, not one redeeming feature - not even a passable zocalo and cathedral. Our hearts sank. We had booked at the Hotel Dolores, which was painted a lurid orange, smelled of cleaning fluids and was run by a trio of thugs. One of the them grudgingly showed us a room the size of a high school locker and about as appealing. We fled.

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We discovered the Paraiso Encantado, just out of town and up the road from Las Pozas. Built on a hill, almost eaten up by vegetation, this hotel exactly matched our expectations for the area. The charming owner Mario led us past a large pool, up several stone steps to our unit, with a sweeping deck overlooking the jungle. We think we were the only ones there. It was electric - we were enveloped in jungle sounds - a steady thrum of insects, birds, and other mysterious jungle noises. Hummingbirds, chacalacas, parrots, and the shriek-y calls of a tropical bird with a red beak and yellow tail feathers. Butterflies of every colour and size.

Years ago I read about the mad world of Edward James and his surrealist sculptures in this remote corner of Mexico, and hoped one day we would find our way here. Nothing prepared us for the Heart of Darkness, acid-trip creation that greeted us the next morning at the Los Pozas entrance:

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Edward James was born in Scotland in 1907 to an American railroad magnate and a British aristocrat. He studied at Oxford, and immersed himself in a bohemian world where he became a patron to Salvador Dali, Leonora Carrington and Rene Magritte. He inherited a fortune and found himself in Mexico. After a chance meeting with a local man, Plutarco Gastelum, James moved to Xilitla, bought a plot of land, and the two men began the decades-long construction of the Sculpture Garden of Las Pozas. James (or Don Eduardo as he was known by his Mexican friends) employed over 150 locals to build walls, create paths, plant gardens, and fashion the sculptures. He paid all of them double wages, and gave some of the families free homes. Needless to say, he was much beloved by the locals. We found out all of this from Miguel, one of the Gastelum family members who grew up on the property and knew Edward James. He was watering the garden as we walked in, and stopped to talk at length about Edward James' life, including his love of animals. He told us stories of how Don Eduardo would walk around the property with an ocelot, flamingos or a boa constrictor. If you Google Edward James, you will find a wealth of information about him.

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We spent hours wandering the grounds - every path leads to another fantastic sight, and you have to pay attention so as not to miss any details. Las Pozas mean "the pools". A waterfall leads into a series of aquamarine pools that ring around one side of the property, and visitors are invited to swim. The pools are embellished with stairways leading nowhere, urns, columns and stone walls.

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We met up with a Mexican family who had jumped into the cold water, right under the waterfall - fully clothed - and were having a whale of a time. They tried to convince us to join them, but we just waded in.

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Many of the paths are Britain-inspired - narrow, with high stone walls.

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This foliage puts you back in Mexico - as you walk along clumps of steroid-sized ferns and fronds, there is no mistaking you are in the jungle.

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Staircases feature prominently in Las Pozas. Some are purely ornamental and whimsical, and lead nowhere.

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Others invite a climb, however precarious that might be. We tried to imagine this garden in Canada - it simply would not exist, due to health and safety rules, liability issues, etc. etc. There would be ropes and caution tape and guards and...it would be impossible.

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This woman was about 60 feet from the ground. She walked up those narrow stars without batting an eye.

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We met this young couple, from Joshua Tree, California. We had a chance to chat, shortly after we took this photo of them. They had dreamed of coming to Las Pozas for ten years, and wanted to make their private wedding vows to each other here. As transfixed as they were by the place, they still had time to discuss their mortification over Trump!

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Giant hands - possibly a model of Edward James' hands?

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A rare burst of colour

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This entrance way to the garden is in the shape of a giant engagement ring. When the sun hits it at a certain time of day, it illuminates and the prongs on the top resemble a diamond.

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An entranceway to another part of the garden.

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I'll leave you with a final story about our first dinner at Las Pozas. After we had checked into our hotel, we asked if there was a restaurant close by and our host told us we would find a restaurant at the far end of las Pozas. We drove down a long, bumpy dark road (the garden was closed), and eventually came to a point where we could hear music and see flickering candles. We parked, walked in total darkness down a path to find a restaurant set under a palapa, with jungle noises orchestrated to set off the strange music. A few tables were filled, including one with a young man loudly talking (at length) about the Voyage of the Kon Tiki. It felt like a set from Apocalpyse Now - our very own surreal moment. The food was fantastic, the beer was cold, and that dinner set the stage perfectly for what was to come.

We arrived in Jalpan yesterday - we'll send out another blog in a few days to tell you all about the Franciscan missions and the beauty of the Sierra Gorda mountains.

Posted by millerburr 05:32 Archived in Mexico

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Comments

Great pictures and blog post, Ginny! The garden looks amazing, I would definitely enjoy spending time there! I'm a big fan of Dali and really enjoyed his exhibit on the Thames in London. Very surreal pictures! Thanks for sharing :)

by Alanna

What a find! Makes you believe in the power of serendipity - that you stumbled upon it.

by Peter Hohenadel

Ginny, So glad to see you made it to Xilitla. Isn't it something? When I was there in the late 1990s, we stayed at the what I understood was the house of Edward James that had been turned into a posada. It too was a surreal night. Normally they didn't serve dinner, but because they had "special" guests, they were serving dinner. We received a last minute invitation because the posada owners had had car trouble and couldn't make it for dinner. We were offered their dinner. The special guests turned out to be an Australian couple, their young son and a friend. The Australians, I can't remember their names now, were actually living in Toronto. He was the curator of the Royal Ontario Museum! They'd brought along copious amounts of Australian wine - cases of it. So we enjoyed a beautiful dinner beside a roaring fire (It was cool outside), in this strange and very thought-provoking place.
Enjoy Jalpan. If you visit Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda say hello to Beto and Pati for me. Get out to see the military macaws and/or the swifts. Well worth the early morning climb.

by Nicola Ross

Fascinating blog and photos. I read about this garden years ago (in what, I don't remember). Now I'm going to drive myself crazy trying to remember reading about this amazing garden. I'm so happy we met in Oaxaca and I can follow your wonderful adventures!

by Marilyn Horn

Edward James must have been quite the character! I'm sure you found the garden worth the trip - it's astounding, by the looks of your pictures!

by Heather

Steve....this joke will make your friends in Mexico laugh:
A grasshopper walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Hey, we have a drink named after you" The grasshopper says, "really. You have a drink named Steve ?"

by Lorne Katz

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