We’re all mad, but some of us are more mad than others
It’s my theory that all of us are mad. Some of us area just more mad than others, that’s all.
No one else, for example, would endure five hours in a sub-zero overnight bus and three hours of waiting for the sun to rise in a bus station, only to change their mind and jump on another two buses for a total of eight hours to get to their next destination. But then, it seems that Xilitla is the kind of place that inspires such madness - the reason for my visit, after all, was Las Pozas de Edward James, the world’s largest piece of surreal art that cost over US$5 million to build in the middle of the Huastecan rainforest in north- eastern Mexico.
I arrived at my destination at four in the afternoon, desperate to get off the bus and move my legs! My first priorities though, were food and accommodation. Luckily, neither was too difficult. Fruit and vegetable vendors squatted by the curb along Xilitla’s streets, most likely indigenous farmers who had from the surrounding Sierra Madre mountains to sell produce from their farms: corn, tomatoes and fragrant, verdant bunches of coriander. If I wanted anything more, behind them were tortillerias, carnicerias and pollerias, although with the latter two showcasing their dead animal carcasses in the shopfront, I wasn’t sure if I wanted that.
Dying of hunger, I bought some excessively ripe cherries that I hoed into without washing (I’m still alive! Although I did pour some water into the bag and rinse the cherries briefly after eating a few and deciding I was hungry, but not hungry enough to get diarrhea), before following the map* to Lonely Planet’s recommendation of Hotel Dolores, a cheerily orange building set in the side of the mountain.
The hotel and most importantly the bathroom looked clean so I dumped my stuff and hightailed it out. I desperately needed a stretch.
Unfortunately, the town itself wasn’t all that interesting. I spent my time wandering the streets and going to two museums that were disappointingly closed. One had actually been closed for two years (thanks Lonely Planet) but at least was still open as a restaurant that contained pieces from the museum’s collection, so a friendly waitress let me have a look and even explained some of the pieces.
For dinner I had a delicious fillet of fish fried just so - crispy but not oily, and covered in a garlicky sauce with a touch of smokiness and chili, accompanied by one of the saddest looking salads I’ve ever seen in my life. After dinner, I went to an Internet cafe to let my Mexican family know I’d arrived and then perched myself in the plaza, where some youths were practicing traditional dance for an upcoming competition - information I gleaned from the friendly and good-looking Jehovah’s Witness guy who started talking to me. He was from Chihuahua, and had moved to Xilitla to proselyte in the surrounding indigenous villages. Bet he never thought he’d meet a Mormon there though. The dancing itself was fairly impressive - the girls twirled traditional rainbow-colored maxi skirts around them, while the guys jumped around and clashed swords for a startling rhythmic effect.
After that, I headed home, jumping slightly when a convoy of brand new Beemers drove past blasting dance music because logically, I thought they might be narcos. But it was nothing. At my hotel, I plonked straight onto the bed. It had been a long day and I was damn straight ready to sleep to get ready for Las Pozas the next day.
Las Pozas was the reason I had come all the way to this side of the country. Built by British aristocrat Edward James, an eccentric who seems to have taken his wealth and ran away to the Mexican rainforest in the name of art and existentialism, Las Pozas is the product of his imagination and pure, utter craziness. It’s 36 hectares of concrete structures, soaring arches and random platforms; eery and nonsensical sculptures that mimic, albeit in sad, faded colour, the incredibly mad world of Alice in Wonderland; and twisting staircases that dance upwards around each other only to end at nowhere. And all this in a lush setting reminiscent of the world of Avatar, complete with oversized vines, people-sized ferns and a soaring mountain backdrop - but without the gigantic fauna, thank goodness.
It took me about 20 minutes to walk there along the dusty Paseo a Las Pozas. Although I had seen pictures, I was still amazed when the slender arches of the first building reared out of the rainforest like some sort of concrete monster. I paid my 50 pesos to get in and was directed off to the right. But passing under the staircase of the first building, I was intrigued by the fact that there weren’t any signs saying ‘Do not climb’ or similar. Did that mean I could mount those crazy stairs? I decided to try, crouching down so the entry staff wouldn’t see me and slowly and quietly placing my hands and feet one after another, up one level and then the next.
It turned out I needn’t have bothered with crouching, because the place was apparently open to curious members of the public - the only sign I saw said the structures were fragile, so only 10 people at a time were allowed. You have to love Mexico’s concept of OHS: the whole place was actually pretty precarious, with no railings, guards or banisters despite some of the bridges being 20 or 30 metres in the air. It’s nice to know some countries still trust you to take care of yourself.
The place was a bit of a maze and a mess - I needed a map! Several times I trekked off into the forest only to have the path suddenly end. Once I stumbled upon someone’s camp. Most of the time I just found myself going round in circles - after a while, all the crazy structures started to look the same. After plugging along in this vein for about two hours, I gave up and followed a path to las pozas themselves - the name means ‘the pools’ - where several people were enjoying themselves in the series of clear, aqua ponds situated at the foot of a tall but gentle waterfall. Although I’d forgotten my swimmers, I sat down to dangle my feet in the chilly water and enjoy the tranquility after the madness.
Walking back up to Xilitla, I passed several people running and thought ‘good on them’ for running on this hilly, dusty road. They too looked at me curiously. I’m sure they were thinking, ‘What is this random Asian doing here?’ A fairly valid question, given the remoteness of the town. Was it worth the trek? In retrospect, no. But sometimes, as Edward James showed, you have to put the madness into practice. Otherwise it’s just your imagination then, and where would the fun be in that?
*Okay I lie - someone did help me out. The map was pretty useless and anyone who’s ever travelled Latin America knows an address is the last thing you can rely on when looking for a place.