Concrete "flowers" with more flowers growing out of the top!
Ever since we arrived in Mexico, I’ve heard rumblings about Las Pozas. General commentary included things like “crazy place in the jungle”, “this English guy Edward James’s surrealistic garden”, “wild concrete structures”, and perhaps the most intimidating, “8 hours away on windy mountain roads”.
Lots of gothic-y influences in the creations at Las Pozas
With most weekends booked up between MBA class & visitors, it took until February 2010 to find the perfect combination of 1) an open 3-day weekend, and 2) another friend dying to make the trip, to help pressure/offset my husband’s lack of interest. Emily & I set our expectations low (as any good traveler in Mexico has learned to do– then you can only be pleasantly surprised). John’s expectations were already entrenched in this category. 😛
Emily & I at the base of one of the waterfalls
I began researching up a storm, finding loads of information snippets about Las Pozas, Xilitla (the adjacent town of ~10,000 people), the Huasteca region, etc. The one thing I could not find, however, was any good-ol biased commentary saying “YES it is totally worth the 7-8 hour death march from Mexico City!!” or “NOoooo you fool! Turn back now!!”
So to cut to the chase, my opinion is: YES! Las Pozas + the beautiful scenery en route is worth the ~7 hour drive north of Mexico City. Let me explain why, as well as add a few caveats for potential visitors. Another post to follow with details on the drive to & from!
Waterfalls and concrete combine with amazing natural rock formations to make the multiple pools after which the site is named
Who built Las Pozas & what is it?
Edward James was born into riches in Edwardian England in 1907, but eschewed uptight British life to travel the world & collect surrealist art. The term “eccentric” might be an understatement to describe this man, who was also a poet. He ended up in Xilitla, Mexico through his quest to get as far away from the UK as possible, finding it the perfect spot for his castle in the jungle & for his beloved orchids . (Or see alternative story about his first visit to Xilitla & butterflies landing all over his naked body in a sign from the heavens here.)
Here I am with the man of the hour, Edward James, accompanied by a tropical bird.
One of James' many flower replicas-- if flowers dying makes you sad, just build your own permanent ones!
My understanding is that a freak freeze/snowfall killed off all of his orchids in 1962 (as well as much of the coffee bean crop that the locals harvested annually). After that incident, James decided to create “permanent” orchids & a garden that would never die. (just makes sense, right?) He basically employed the entire populace of Xilitla until 1984 (when he died) building amazing concrete structures scattered around the jungle just outside of town. Rumor has it he spent around $5M on the project at the time, selling off most of his art collection to finance the efforts.
In total, he & his trusty lead carpenter (Jose Aguilas) built 36 structures, formed by crafting long, thin pieces of wood into molds for the concrete. You can see the old molds at the “museum” (aka restaurant located in El Castillo); they are amazing pieces in and of themselves. James also shaped the river that passes through his property into 9 pools (after which Las Pozas is named). Entrance to Las Pozas is free for local residents, and one of the guides said the pools are abuzz with local residents during the summer.
Just a few of the handmade, wooden molds used to shape the concrete structures.
In the museum & talking to people in Xilitla, it was hard to get a feel for "What did everyone think of this guy-- bat-shit crazy, amazingly generous and giving, or a pompous englishman?" You don't really see any direct negative commentary, though I did find this photo & caption to be an interesting vignette of the boss/worker relationship... "Don Jose tells that when a log rolled & hit James, he was asked to construct this seat in which the englishman was then transported..."
Where is Las Pozas?
Las Pozas is located in Xilitla, a small town of ~10,000 in the gorgeous Huasteca region of southern San Luis Potosi state. As alluded to above, it is a solid 7-8 hour drive from Mexico City. Tampico is the closest airport (in Veracruz state), but that’s still a 3-4 hour drive.
View Larger Map
Our Visit to Xilitla and Las Pozas:
Xilitla map (click to enlarge)
We arrived into Xilitla around 5:30PM on a Saturday in February, after taking our time stopping at a few spots en route in the Sierra Gorda region of Queretaro. The town doesn’t have a lot to keep one busy, so I wouldn’t allot an excess of time for exploring Xilitla itself. That said, you can tell a few enterprising folk are trying to cater towards the tourist crowd with a few cute restaurants/bars/lodging options that veer from standard small-town Mexico.
Here's a pic of my Las Pozas map-- but please support them by buying one there!
Las Pozas is located downhill outside of town. While you could certainly walk there, I think it would take a solid 45 minutes down a rocky dirt road, so I might suggest driving/bus/taxi depending on how much energy you want to save for the running about the site. (There’s plenty of car parking near the entrance.) The site opens around 9AM, and I would suggest arriving early to beat any other tourists/rain/fog. You can buy a map at the Refresqueria/gift shop just inside the entrance for ~$15 pesos. The map is good for identifying the names of the structures, but really unnecessary for actually getting around– once inside, you’ll find yourself trying to cover every path that you see regardless of where it goes! Also– don’t be tricked into using the sketchy bathroom at this spot. There are much nicer bathrooms farther inside Las Pozas or just past the main restaurant on the other side of the road.
We wandered along the river first, marveling at all the stairs & formations and trying to imagine what things looked like in their prime, ala 1984. If I was less of a wuss, swimming in these cold-water pools would have been fantastic. It was fascinating to see how James’ additions blended in with the natural rock formations– amazing, giant slabs of rock that bordered the river, slanting downwards at a 45-degree angle. Then we backtracked along the path & began the exploration of the concrete jungle, starting with the most iconic Columna Gigante.
John & I perch along the edge of the formations along the river
John is the first to test the structural integrity of these floating stairs... (success!!)
While I am sure there are stories that accompany each of the structures in Las Pozas, the photos say it better than I can– though they are a weak substitute for actually being there, let me assure you!! A few more highlights below, and I will get more added to the Photo Gallery shortly so as to not make this post *too* crazy-long.
We offered a prayer to Virgin of Guadalupe in hopes of me not falling & ripping holes in my pants, as I am wont to do.
Here we are on the middle level of the Columna Gigante
Emily tried to figure out how to pilot this concerningly-heavy plane
Loved the concrete snakes with the exposed rebar doubling as a spiky tongue
Here I am in one of my favorite structures, the Palacio del Bambu (I think).
Meanwhile, Emily did some yoga in this hub of zen.
Can you see the stairs zig-zagging up this hillside? We took these on our way up to the treehouse lookout point.
In total, we spent about 3 hours running around Las Pozas and then another hour or so for lunch. I recommend wearing athletic clothing, as the air is plenty humid & you’ll find yourself doing lots of scrambling around– not an ideal combo for a tight pair of jeans + heels. 😉 I will admit to dripping with sweat as we trotted up to the treehouse look-out point atop one of the hills. (I’ve gotten soft here in the uber-dry climate of Mexico City!)
We came across this maze on the way out of Las Pozas, which we ran through like morons until discovering that it was actually pretty hard. I was super excited until I literally ran into a big puddle of standing water in one of the dead-ends.
For those interested in more of the details of Edwards James and how Las Pozas came to be, there are a number of excellent resources online. A few include…
Lodging in Xilitla:
John heads up the stairs between levels at Hostal del Cafe in Xilitla
The “de-facto” place to stay in Xilitla is El Castillo (built by James’s architect, Plutarco Gastelum), but it was already full our first nite in town, so we had a reservation at Hotel Hostal del Cafe instead. Hostal del Cafe is located on the highway (I use that term loosely) that runs through town, and consists of several levels built into the hillside. The rooms are all quite different, each nestled in dense, jungley vegetation. We got a bit frustrated during our check-in process while trying to explain that no, Emily would not be staying in the room that didn’t lock. Interactions improved when we met the owner Alejandro & his wife later that evening, who were very helpful and friendly. Our rooms were $500 pesos each, plus an additional $70 pesos if you want breakfast. It was pretty chilly there at nite, which was perfect for me– ensconced in a comfy bed with loads of blankets. It was also very quiet for being so close to the main highway.
The breakfast was quite nice with fresh orange or passion fruit juice, good coffee, and part of a zacahuil, “a huge tamal made with corn dough, filled with pork or chicken, soaked in a red chile sauce, wrapped in banana leaves, and baked in a wood-fired oven.” (BTW, check out this sweet zacahuil-making video here!) We were also accompanied by several hummingbirds in the morning while we dined. Overall, Hostal del Cafe was a solid budget lodging option in Xilitla– not super-glamorous but no major complaints.
The iconic footprints at the entrance to El Castillo
For our second nite, we moved to El Castillo (old website here). Rates range from $60USD to $130USD on their website. We stayed in the Vista and Don Eduardo rooms for $1100 pesos each; I think Don Eduardo is the way to go because of the gorgeous mountain views out your window. (FYI, there is a bit more road noise due to El Castillo’s in-town location, but if you are a light sleeper traveling in Mexico, you should have ear plugs with you anyway!) We enjoyed wandering around the El Castillo property (which had a lovely pool) & the rooms were cutely decorated. They did have in-room heaters for which you could pay an extra fee to fill them w/propane. Breakfast cost an additional $100 pesos, if I recall correctly; you could certainly get a cheaper equivalent elsewhere, but the food was decent. Overall, I would say it’s worth staying there for at least one night for the full “all-things-Edward-James” experience & scenic views, but I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily 2x as nice as other options in Xilitla that are 1/2 the price.
A shot inside our room at El Castillo, with the cool windows looking out towards the mountains
Specifically, a thumb mountain! Apparently Mount Thumb (as I like to call it) is a fan-favorite landmark in Xilitla
One other spot that looked decent (but we didn’t stay at) was Puerta del Cielo, Hotel & Suites. You won’t miss the massive, bright pink-n-yellow structure just off the main road through town. Prices range from $660 pesos to $1350 for the master suite & they also have a pool.
Last but not least, we spotted these cabins that are located just a few meters outside the entrance of Las Pozas. They are very small (i.e. no more than 2 people, I'd say), but have a bathroom/shower & a loft bed (with a very thin "mattress", more like a sleeping pad, to warn you). But they were very cute & conveniently located. No website that we saw, but you can call 045.489.100.3152 or 045.489.104.3224 to ask about pricing/availability
For visitors to Mexico who haven’t OD’d on traditional Mexican food, the world is your oyster. For Mexican residents looking for something slightly different, we sussed out four options.
1) The restaurant at El Castillo: the menu skews Italian with several pasta options & amazing garlic bread that accompanies your meal. We enjoyed the food, and it’s located in the museum, so you can check out some of the wooden molds used in the creation of Las Pozas for free!
2) Restaurante Ambar, on Hidalgo: cute spot with a nice covered terrazza that also offers lovely mountain views. Good spot for a snack, as they offer things like meat and cheese platters. We’d been given a recommendation for their pizzas, which were good enough but improved when washed down by bargain-priced red wine.
Having a snack on the terrace at Restaurante Ambar
3) Casa Vieja cafe, corner of Hidalgo & Ocampo: we only had drinks here, but the atmosphere is great & offers good people-watching since it’s right off the main square. Food menu looked promising though, AND the bar had stools made of horse saddles, so it is a must-visit.
Cute decor inside the Casa Vieja Cafe
4) Los Peristilos de James, restaurant at Las Pozas: we assumed that the restaurant located AT the tourist site would be crap. However, the food was actually surprisingly good & I regretted not being more adventurous in my ordering. They had a number of fancy-sounding entrees, but I went with a hamburger. The burger was actually homemade and tasted fantastic, as did the two different kinds of tacos that John & Emily ordered. This place is also a brilliant stop for a michelada after trotting around the grounds for 3 hours. Sidenote: The sign near the restaurant also says “Scottish Pub”, which I was all excited about. We were unable to determine the location of said Scottish Pub, so don’t get your hopes up. Mexican beers only, people!!
A view of the Las Pozas restaurant from overhead!
Caveats regarding your potential trip to Las Pozas:
- If you get carsick easily, I would not recommend making this drive (or at least not without heavy medication). The two different routes we took (via Queretaro State going & via Hidalgo returning) both had a solid 3-4 hour portion of twisty mountain roads. I was actually surprised by how well the roads were maintained, especially in Queretaro (no potholes & even protective guardrails in place!). But that doesn’t change the twisty-turnsy nature of the road that snakes along the mountainsides. Perhaps coming from the north (i.e. from Ciudad Valles) would be less tummy-angering, but I can’t say. Luckily the three of us had no issues, but if you have *any* remote tendency towards motion sickness, stock up on the dramamine.
Let's just say, this might not be a good drive to make if you are hungover. (Luckily, we were not!)
- Weather can strongly impact this trip, in 2 ways.
- At Las Pozas: I recommend allowing a “backup day” to visit Las Pozas in case it is raining heavily on the day you planned. We had a beautiful, sunny morning to explore the site, but the next day it was chilly & pouring rain (and this was in the “dry” season!). You could certainly still explore Las Pozas in the rain, but I think it wouldn’t be as fun & it would probably limit some of the hiking-up-the-trails that you could do.
- The drive through the mountains: We found the scenery in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in Queretaro State to be absolutely beautiful. Fog/mist put a slight damper on some of our views, but overall our trip to Xilitla was dry & gorgeous. On the way back through Hidalgo on Hwy 85, however, we could just vaguely tell how amazing the scenery was that we could NOT see due to heavy fog & rain. We spent between 3-4 hours driving through varying degrees of fog & rain on twisty mountain roads. Not only did we miss the views, but driving 40mph on curves in fog for a few hours sucks. Obviously this is out of your control, but I would at least attempt to check weather forecasts for whichever route you’re planning to take back.
- If you’re injured, not very sure-footed, or otherwise frail/delicate, you can still see a fair portion of Las Pozas from the flat, stone walkways that wind through the bulk of the site. However, you will miss out on a large part of the fun, i.e. climbing around like a billy goat on the multi-level sculptures & hiking up the hillside to the treehouse lookout. Those with bad knees may want to bring a hiking stick if you want to venture off the standard paths, as we found the trails to be leaf-covered & muddy, resulting in some slick spots if you’re not careful. (Though the hiking stick would just be an annoyance when climbing around the sculptures.) Regardless, I would recommend wearing good, traction-y tennis shoes or even hiking boots if you plant to climb up the trails in the hillside; athletic sandals would probably suffice for the remainder, esp if you want to wade into the river.
- If you take Hwy 85 south through Hidalgo going from or coming to Xilitla, be sure to take advantage of any Pemex’s/bathrooms you see en route. We filled up at the Pemex located right outside Xilitla where Hwy 120 hits Hwy 85, and I recall it being the last we saw for many moons. To that end, you may also wish to moderate your coffee/OJ intake at breakfast. At the risk of sharing too much information, I will admit that this drive was the first time I was forced to pee on the side of the a Mexican highway. Let’s just say, I wasn’t cursing the fog then.
Emily & I return from our visit to the "facilities" in Hidalgo State, which left something to be desired.
Despite those caveats, I am really glad we made the trip to Las Pozas and would certainly recommend it (and possibly even do it again, given a longer timeframe to be able explore more en route & around the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosi). More details to come on the scenic drive there and back! Has anyone else out there made it to Xilitla?? Anything we missed??