Deep in the Mexican Jungle, One Man Created a Surrealist Paradise
An English dandy with an abundant inheritance from the railroad industry, Edward James voraciously collected surrealist art, rare orchids, and parrots. He took up mysticism, rubbed elbows with Salvador Dali and Aldous Huxley, and fancied wearing ponchos sans pants.
To those who knew him, James was “the last of the great eccentrics.”
James’s outlandish nature, however, was best captured in his magnum opus: Las Pozas, a fantastical sculpture garden nestled deep in the Mexican jungle. Forged over the last 22 years of his life, what he called his “Surrealist Xanadu” would become one of the globe’s greatest curiosities.
Las Pozas isn’t an easy place to find. The pilgrimage requires an eight hour drive from Mexico City—much of it on rough, circuitous roads—to a swath of rainforest teeming with turquoise pools and flower-studded trees aptly named framboyanes (or “flamboyants”). Inside the grounds, 36 concrete sculptures careen high into the sky, tangling with the landscape’s flora and fauna.
There are stairways that lead only to the clouds; groves of faux-bamboo forged from stone; arabesques that tower several stories tall like mammoth leaves; and a soaring structure mischievously dubbed La Casa de Tres Pisos que Podrían Ser Cinco (or The Three-Story House that Might Be Five).
The landscape reads like a wild surrealist canvas sprung to life—and this was, at least in part, James’s intention.
“If I asked my heart and conscience, the incentive behind building a tower, I have to admit it was just pure megalomania,” James mused in a 1978 documentary about his life. He is referring to Las Pozas’s most spectacular structure: a multi-level concoction of floating staircases, archways resembling thick rainforest vines, and cupolas topped with giant stone petals.
While James’s ego might have inspired this particular tower, his motives for Las Pozas were more complex—and more benevolent—than he let on.
James was born into ostentatious wealth in Sussex, England in 1907. His American father’s railroad and steel fortune afforded the family a lavish lifestyle, which James’s mother relished. She spent most of her time entertaining European nobility (James’s godfather was King Edward VII), and left the children to their own devices. James, the youngest child by seven years, was free to explore his own world of make-believe.
His elaborate childhood dreams would later transform into an obsession with the newfangled art movement of Surrealism. “If I’m a surrealist, it’s not because I got linked with the movement. It’s because I was born one,” James says in the film.
After James’s days at Oxford, he fell in with a bohemian community and penned books of whimsical verse (Salvador Dali called him “an immensely rich English poet). James felt more comfortable with creatives like Rene Magritte and Dali than with the English upper crust and soon became the first major patron of Surrealism. His West Sussex mansion, Monkton, metamorphosed into a Surrealist temple: curiosities and canvases by Magritte, Dali, Picasso, and Leonora Carrington spangled the home from floor to ceiling. Trompe l’oeil dog tracks decorated one carpet; a crimson couch (designed by Dali) was shaped like Mae West’s lips.
(Upon James’s death in 1984, Monkton was sold. The home’s art collection was dispersed between the Edward James Foundation and auctions. Proceeds from the sale of artworks were used to support the upkeep of what portion of James’s collection remained unsold and the continued maintenance of Las Pozas.)
Monkton was certainly idiosyncratic, but James still longed to find a home that had room for his love of art and his interests in horticulture and the animal kingdom. He referred to this elusive place as “Eden.” It wasn’t until a nasty divorce from dancer Tilly Losch that he began searching for his dream world in earnest.
James discovered the wonders of the Mexican jungle during a stint in Los Angeles, and in 1944, with the help of his local guide and friend Plutarco Gastelum, bought a defunct coffee plantation in the small town of Xilita, an eight hour drive north of Mexico City. It came with a surrounding tract of jungle: the ideal perch for James’s ever-growing collection of orchids and birds. He built a small home on the property where he could write, and employed locals to help care for the property.
It wasn’t until almost 20 years later, in 1962, that Las Pozas would begin to take shape as the surrealist Shangri-La that still stands today. After a rare snowstorm (which locals referred to as “white ashes”) killed off all of James’s orchids, he vowed to create an immortal garden—out of concrete. James wanted “something that couldn’t be killed by freak weather,” he said. “Only then did I start building.”
The spellbinding landscape of sculptural flora that multiplied there over the next 22 years would become a haven for both the local community and creatives from around the world. James’s dear friend, the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, made frequent trips and gleaned inspiration from the immense, spindly stone structures that served as a gateway into the lush jungle—and the fantastical recesses of James’s own mind.
James’s death in 1984 cut his vision for the project short. But while he didn’t complete every structure he’d set out to build, he’d already achieved his goal to erect his own Eden. “I have seen such beauty as one man has seldom seen; therefore will I be grateful to die in this little room, surrounded by the forests, the great green gloom of trees my only gloom—and the sound, the sound of green,” he wrote.
Since then, James’s parrots have flown off into the jungle, and his ponchos have been laid to rest. James’s eccentric and generous spirit, however, lives on in the towering structures that make up his Surrealist Xanadu, perhaps his greatest act of patronage. It’s not only a site of artistic pilgrimage for some 80,000 visitors a year, but a well of inspiration for many, too.
“They make the vivid come to life,” once mused James of the Surrealists. “In the way that dreams can sometimes be more vivid than actuality.” The same could be said of James and his open-air oasis.