Las Pozas: Surrealist Garden in the remote jungles of Mexico created by a British eccentric

Katerina Bulovska
The main building with 'Staircase to Heaven' at the highest point. By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia – CC BY-SA 2.0

The spectacular rainforest sculpture garden Las Pozas in part owes its existence to a rare snowstorm that hit Mexico in 1962.

It was created by a wealthy British aristocrat and poet named Edward James. He was an avid patron of the arts, sponsoring several notable poets and painters throughout his lifetime, including Salvador Dali.

In the early 1940s, while living among the artistic community of Los Angeles, James decided that he wanted to create his very own “Garden of Eden.” It would be a tranquil retreat from the bustle and liveliness of city life.

James discovered the small hillside town of Xilitla, in the state of San Luis Potosí, in 1945. With his guide Plutarco Gastelum, he set about procuring the ideal site to create his paradise. Gastelum would become James’ assistant and life-long friend.

Initially, they planted a beautiful orchid garden on a former coffee plantation not far from the village.

Las Pozas, Xilitla, Mexico. Rod Waddington. CC BY 2.0

James traveled a lot but returned often to the jungle. However one day, after a trip to New York, an unpleasant surprise was waiting for him.

He discovered that not a single orchid had survived the unexpected weather conditions. Devastated, James decided that nature would not so easily destroy his next creation.

With the help of Gastelum, he spent twenty years building unique series of Surrealist sculptures in the tropical rain forest.

The unforgettable sculptures are surrounded by turquoise waterfalls and pools, and massive green trees, adding to the uniqueness of the garden and inspiring their name, Las Pazos, meaning “the pools.” It was something new and never seen before.

The fact that James was a great eccentric and “crazier than all the Surrealists together” as Salvador Dalí described him, contributed a lot to the final look of the garden.

Sir Edward James’ surrealist garden, Las Pozas, Xilitla, Mexico. Bernardo Bolaños. CC BY 2.5

James spent a small fortune in his ideal of Eden. He hired hundreds of gardeners, craftsmen and artisans to realize his vision of mixing fantasy with elements of Egyptian, Greek, Mayan and Victorian architecture.

Walking the narrow labyrinthine paths, one becomes part of a mystical world of giant flowers, teetering towers, secret rooms, and staircases that appear to lead nowhere.

James even gave intriguing names to the architectural structures, such as Temple of DucksThe House with a Roof Like a Whale, and The House With Three Storys That Could Be Five.

The main building with ‘Staircase to Heaven’. Rod Waddington. CC BY-SA 2.0

The garden also had a menagerie of exotic animals like crocodiles and kinkajous that James loved very much.

One night in the late 1970s, James invited everyone from the town to the garden for a spectacular sight they would never forget. He had put multicolored lights all around, revealing the beauty of the jungle in a light they had never seen before.

The fantasy garden was significant for James. He loved spending time there and even slept in a sleeping bag under the bamboo trees, although he was a millionaire.

Sculpture in Las Pozas, Mexico. Rod Waddington. CC BY-SA 2.0

It is believed he left the sculptures intentionally unfinished as he liked to think that some day in the future, archaeologists would discover them, thinking they found a long lost city of some ancient civilization.

In 1984 James passed away as a result of a stroke, not in his beloved garden, but in Italy. After his death, Plutarco Gastelum and his family continued to take care of the garden.

Gastelum married a local woman and they had four children. Throughout his life, James was very close to the family and the children called him Uncle Eduardo.

Stairway in the surrealistic garden. Pavel Kirillov. CC BY-SA 2.0

However, in his will, James didn’t provide any resources for maintaining the 80 acre plot that the garden occupied, and the Gastelums could not afford to do it.

The garden came to look like ruins of an ancient city only a couple of months after his death, and not in the distant future as James had imagined. The unfinished sculptures were soon overgrown with foliage and his exotic animals were released into the rainforest.

A turquoise pool in Las Pozas. Rod Waddington. CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2007 Las Pozas was acquired by Fondo Xilitla, a charitable organization that was founded to maintain the garden and to restore the unique sculptures.

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Since then, James’ “Surrealist Xanadu” has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mexico. Every year, more than 100,000 people visit Xilitla to admire James’ eccentric artwork.