Magic places loom in one's consciousness, confected with a plot and a set of characters. It was Leonora Carrington, a Surrealist painter in her eighties and living in Mexico City, who first told me of Edward James and Xilitla. Between 1949 and 1984, in a tropical rain forest, James built 36 concrete follies and named them Las Pozas ("the Pools"). Among these creations are the House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof like a Whale, and the Staircase to Heaven. A British aristocrat, James was rumored to have been the illegitimate son of Edward VII. He was a poet who married the dancer Tilly Losch, for whom he produced a ballet chanté with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill, and from whom he was divorced because she wanted no part of him physically. Unhappy at his family's country seat, a 300-room mansion at West Dean, in England's foxhunting ter-ritory, he had a vision of light, with trees and plants surrounding it, "the circle of all creation" turning faster and faster to the strains of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.
He traveled to Cuernavaca, and there fell in love with the manager of the telegraph office, Plutarco Gastelum. They bought sleeping bags and went in search of a valley where orchids grew wild. Xilitla (pronounced "hee-leet-lah"), a day's drive south of the Texas border, on the central Gulf Coast of Mexico, was the most exotic place they saw. Plutarco later fell in love with a woman of the village, married her, and had four children. They all lived with "Uncle Edward," as the children called James, in a house Plutarco had built, a mock-Gothic cement castle, now a hotel—La Posada El Castillo. This is where I stayed when I became acquainted with a fraction of the region named Huasteca, site of ancient settlements preceding even those of the Maya, beneath the cloaked skies of the Sierra Madre.
I had imagined a week in a small inn; the sound of birds; wandering a park admiring outlandish pavilions, terraces, porticoes, arches. I didn't know how wild and rampant the vegetation would be. The butterflies, the enveloping humidity, the sweetness of the air took me by surprise. It was a setting for an extravagant group of characters, starting with James himself, the presiding ghost (he died in 1984), whose curious doings still draw people to the remote village he called home for more than 30 years.
Those who come to live here are often eccentrics. There was a British painter, James Reed, who arrived one morning at La Posada El Castillo—beneath a straw sombrero and leaning on a stick with a serpent's head for a handle—and started shouting in flawless Spanish through the wrought-iron bars of the garden gate about the failure of his brand-new "ecological" oven to roast a chicken the previous evening. The cook Gloria emerged: she was sympathetic but had not herself fallen for the gadget some progressive Xilitlans had adopted. The dishes she prepared in the following days involved a few frying pans, with which she conjured up wonderful small handmade corn tortillas and cesina, dried beef rubbed with orange, then grilled, in the Huastecan style.
Donaji, a reedy young woman with long chestnut hair and almond-shaped brown eyes, also turned up. She was living at the time in Edward James's studio at Las Pozas, where a wall is inscribed with one of his poems: "My house grows like the chamber'd nautilus...."
In Xilitla, everyone walks, and the sound of a car engine is rare. From my window, I could see children heading for school wearing perfectly pressed red tartan uniforms with white shirts, their hair neatly combed; they walked in endless mist, for that is the climate of the rain forest, the mountaintops nearly always obscured by billowing clouds. The town's main adjoining streets, Calle Alvarado and Calle del Medio, offered a greengrocer, Cayos restaurant, a brothel, a doctor, and a coffin shop. I walked across the square, past the market stalls and down along a congested store-lined street to where a single car stood—the communal taxi. Seven people were already inside. The ride down the hill to the entrance of Las Pozas was mercifully brief.
I took a rocky path shaded by trees on one side, avoiding the sun's glare. After a few minutes I encountered a young man in running shorts. This was Plutarco's son and heir, also named Plutarco—Kaco for short. He lived in a cabin on Las Pozas property, 80 acres in all, before moving to a larger house on its outskirts.
Farmers who come to market in Xilitla from the surrounding 40 communities dotting the mountainside trek for two, sometimes three hours under heavy loads on rugged paths. The Huasteca is a land of coffee and citrus plantations. Workers build their houses out of cement block, and most live on a few dollars a day. They raise chickens, and when they need money they sell their stores of coffee.
I had a sense that there was no end to the place. Through a narrow orange iron door, you enter an instant archaeological site: it was left unfinished to be assailed by humidity. Iron poles were allowed to poke out from the concrete structures so new rooms might be added on. (James would often leave on a trip and return with a sketch for another part of Las Pozas.) Today, the poles have mostly rusted right into the core of every column and wall.
At a clearing, a group of boys splashed noisily in a deep blue pool formed by one of the many waterfalls.As I walked—advancing with a multitude of butterflies and invisible insects—the sound of one waterfall receded as another drew near. I entered a state of hypnotic striving: the paths, bridges, and staircases led me from one vantage point to another, and each held the promise of "arrival." But every new platform, terrace, tower led to another path, another climb. Cement in fading colors competed with moss. Tall concrete poles shaped like bamboo stalks or organ pipes oscillated at the lightest touch or breath of wind. Staircases leading nowhere spiraled upward vertiginously. James's architecture belongs to the forest—and Las Pozas is the land of vertigo, a cathedral to nothing celebrated by nature's highest pomp: tall trees growing skyward into a screened cupola of branches and leaves just above the source from which majestic torrents come crashing down.
I had left Mexico City early in the morning. Andrés Zamorano Villamil, an artisan of wrought iron and an amateur archaeologist, met me at the airport in Tampico to drive me first to Ciudad Valles, then Xilitla. Swarms of white and yellow butterflies scattered before our windshield. We passed a villa modeled on the Kremlin, built by a prosperous pensioner who had made his fortune in America. The cluster of exotic colored domes overlooks a vast cement factory. We stopped at the roadside store of Alberto Rosa in Huichihuayán, in the plains, before the road climbed into fog-capped mountains. Rosa left Xilitla after witnessing a murder in the shop of a friend, but he remembered James: "He was the illegitimate son of a king of England, Eduardo No-se-qué [Edward I-Don't-Know-What], and his mama was a Lah-dy No-se-qué. He held a little pig in his arms and let him eat from his plate. Once I saw him sitting on a rock at Las Pozas, with his feet in the water, wearing only a pair of shorts, writing."
Rosa offered us a stool. He was pleased I am Italian, because every Sunday he eats spaghetti and drinks Barolo. He could not confirm what a physician in Mexico City had told me: that James fixed the roofs of the houses in Xilitla and built a clinic. Everyone seems to agree, though, that James supported as many as 40 families through the construction of Las Pozas, which continued for 35 years and cost more than $5 million—forcing James to sell his collection of Surrealist art at auction. There were paintings by Salvador Dalí, Leonora Carrington, and René Magritte, all of whom he had met at the start of their careers. Magritte did a painting of the back of James's head as he stood facing a mirror that reflected the back of his head.As for Carrington, James offered her $200 for 20 canvases when she was still relatively unknown and expecting her first son. Having agreed on that sum, he tried to lower it, but she kicked him out of her studio. Months later he returned and bought the paintings.
At the Posada El Castillo, where James lived with Plutarco and his family, Carrington, a frequent visitor, painted on the walls flanking the front portico two tall women-beasts with spirals for breasts—a joke, she told me, surprised to hear they were still there. She also recounted how James had been so exploited by friends and acquaintances as a wealthy young man that he became picturesquely tightfisted: at the end of a meal in a restaurant he would pull a wad from his pocket— bills individually wrapped in tissue, for he was obsessed with hygiene—and since there was never enough to cover the check, he would ask Leonora to pick it up. Once she decided to leave her money at home, and when the bill came, she said, "We'll have to wash the dishes, or you can go and get some more money."
In the documentary Edward James, Builder of Dreams, made by the current leaseholders of La Posada El Castillo, Avery and Lenore Danziger, there is a clip of Carrington at Las Pozas, a cloud of hair framing her long, beautiful face as she sketches on a canvas with James sitting nearby. She recites a fragment of "sinister poetry" retrieved from childhood: "When babies' cries were hard to bear, they popped them in the Frigidaire." In one scene, James has two green parrots on his head, another on a stick, one on an arm, and one in his palm. "I'd be like Noah with the ark, if I could," he says. Wearing a vermilion dressing gown, he feeds deer from a plastic bowl. James owned hundreds of birds and about 40 dogs, and once took his pet boa constrictors to the Hotel Francis in Mexico City. In the film, Carrington says of James, "He had learned the great art of treating animals as intelligent beings and that we are not necessarily superior to them."
"Surrealism," James said, "is a process by which the illogical becomes logical"—and thought frees itself of reason.
near the entrance to Las Pozas is a separate house called Homage to Max Ernst, which was left to one of Kaco's sisters and is now owned by an architect. The garden has 200 flowering trees and plants that give off a huelo de noche, a night fragrance. Next to it, Reed, the painter, built a house on another piece of land Kaco had given him.
"What room are you in?" Reed had asked me. I described the one overlooking the back of town. "Oh," he exclaimed, "I lived there for a year. One afternoon there was a terrible explosion and the windows shattered and fell on my bed. We never found out who the bomb was intended for." Before leaving, he took my hand, held it a moment, then remarked, "Long fingers—so Leonora Carrington."
On my last night in Xilitla, at four in the morning, there was a scratching at my window. It was raining hard, with thunder and lightning. I lifted a corner of the white curtain: hovering on the cement ledge on the other side, its head hunched into its shoulders as though to avoid the torrents, was a mouse, most human. So Leonora Carrington, I thought, and dropped the curtain. I opened the kitchen door, switched on the light: a velvety moth grazed my forehead. I went to sit beneath the portico, facing the gate and the giant white cast-cement pawprints of an imaginary beast leading up to me through the rustling garden. Xilitla is for children and Surrealists.
GINI ALHADEFF is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
Xilitla, a town of 10,000, located 3,281 feet up the slopes of the Sierra Madre, has a 16th-century church and mission. It's in the tropics; the best weather is found July through February. To get there, fly to Mexico City and catch a connecting flight to Tampico (about one hour) on Mexicana Airlines. In Tampico, rent a car. Arrive early in the day, as it's a good four-hour drive to Xilitla— or spend the night at the Hotel Camino Real, which has a pool, or at the Best Western Inglaterra Hotel, on Tampico's town square. The first stretch of the road is potholed; later it winds into the mountains but is in good condition.
WHERE TO STAY
Posada El Castillo
Ask for Carmen Arroyo or Henry Miller, the managers. There are eight rooms. One overlooks a swimming pool, another faces the courtyard and its concrete footprints. On the second floor, three have cathedral-like windows and high ceilings. Delicious dinners can be ordered in advance and are served in the communal dining room. Breakfast is usually huevos rancheros and tortillas huastecas.
DOUBLES FROM $45. 105 CALLE OCAMPO, 52-489/365-0038; www.junglegossip.com
Casa de los Peristillos
Recently restored by architect Christopher Owen in the Surrealist manner, this house on the ground of Las Pozas is now available for rent.
WHERE TO EAT
Tacos are sold on the main square all week long; market day is Sunday.
A large restaurant on the main square, with a jukebox, a view over palm trees, and good, basic food: tostadas, carne asada, and fantastically crunchy fried chicken. Enchiladas huastecas—fried, cheese-filled tortillas topped with red salsa—is one of the house specialties.
CALLE ALVARADO, NO PHONE
This restaurant in Huichihuayán, at the foot of the mountains before the climb to Xilitla, serves delicious seafood. (Ask for directions at La Posada.)
Las Pozas, just down the hill from town, can be reached by car (park at the main entrance), on foot (a 20-minute walk through the woods), or by communal taxi (near the main square— pile in with eight or nine people, and it will cost $5). There is a terraced café overlooking a waterfall just past the admission booth. (You could spend the whole day there.) It is best to avoid the site on weekends, when crowds appear. If you follow the loop clockwise you'll see most of the structures. The stairs can be steep, and most have no railings; some spiral upward and are not recommended for anyone prone to vertigo. A thorough tour will take a couple of hours. See the house called Homage to Max Ernst, across the street from Las Pozas: make an appointment through La Posada.
There are many waterfalls in the region, including the 345-foot Cascada de Tamul; set aside a full day for this excursion, as it takes two hours just to cross the river. The Huastecs have inhabited the region for thousands of years. Huastec women can still be seen wearing quechquémitls— folded white cloth head-wraps. Visit the village of Aquismón, a 45-minute drive, with its pink-and-white church and enchanting park and waterfall, on Saturday, which is market day; see Tancanhuitz, or Ciudad Santos, a town tucked into a narrow tree-covered valley, on Sunday.