‘Street art!’ we shouted, as we finally rounded the corner into Xilitla, the third destination on our road trip through Guanajuato, Querétaro and San Luis Potosí in the heart of Mexico’s Central Highlands. It was a running joke that made reference to my obsession with finding street art in every place I went; although, in the end, Xilitla was like no other place I’d ever been before.
We’d enjoyed, for the most part, a smooth and overwhelmingly picturesque ride to Xilitla, a teeny town built on the hillside, with a name that’s practically impossible to pronounce. The good old Mexican X’s really throw of anyone unfamiliar with this regional branch of Spanish, so deeply influenced to this day by Nahuatl. (Ex-il-IT-la? Kilitla? No, it’s Hil-itla, although you’ll need to throw in a bit of throatiness with that H and Spanish-ify that second I to get it just right.) In fact, we’d rolled round lazily curved roads which cut straight through the heart of Querétaro’s Sierra Gorda, a place that took us all by surprise and offered some of the most beautiful views in Mexico along with a bewildering number of butterflies, many of whom probably (definitely) met an ungracious end against our windscreen. Sorry, nature.
In the end though, arriving in Xilitla happened at just the right time; nerves were frayed and patience’s were running thin. It was almost refreshing then (metaphorically not literally of course, because Xilitla is as humid as you’d expect for a mountain town surrounded by jungle), to get out of the car and have a baffling conversation with an old man who I could barely understand. He said something about bananas, I think, but really, I have no idea what he was mumbling through his mouthfuls of mango.
Rather appropriately for the town Edward James deemed surreal enough in which to build his world famous, half-finished, brutalist yet sumptuous, lush and surprisingly curvaceous sculpture park, Las Pozas, our arrival in Xilitla started with a hunt for a house that didn’t exist and a search for streets that weren’t streets, but rather narrow staircases, leading to houses that looked abandoned but were likely homes full of life.
We were hoping our AirBnb would be found behind the colourful walls of a pink (or was it yellow?) building set a little way up the hillside and painted in a distinctly more pigmented tone than its neighbours. But no. We actually ended up in a pastel purple house high on the hill, with a patio affording views over the valley. It was there we spent our one evening in Xilitla, sat on an AirBnb terrace above the clouds, drinking beer and wondering whether the shower would have hot water. (It did.)
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We still hadn’t even found the place yet.
Our search continued with a half spoken, half shouted conversation with two women on balconies above me, who had no recollection of the fulana de tal we were looking for, or her house for that matter. While I, a sweaty Brit shouting at them from a slippery street, was likely of little long-term intrigue – their conversation filtered around me, flowing over my head as I paced up and down the street, searching for a place we’d never find – they still watched curiously as we looked around first in confusion and then in frustration, searching for internet, signal, signs of life. Anything that could point us in the direction of our lodging for the evening.
Their hints of half-amusement almost made me feel like we were the victims of some town-wide ploy to leave us stranded indefinitely looking for a room that didn’t exist. A sort of Waiting for Godot kind of vibe, except with travel bloggers and AirBnbs.
As it turns out, we had been, in the end, ironically thrown off by the modernity of life, thwarted in our fruitless house-hunting efforts by the uselessness of Google Maps. This happens all the time, said the AirBnb owner’s husband as I spoke with him on the phone after finally finding his number. Oh, OK, we said, confused and a little annoyed but actually just pretty damn relieved.
After a heart stopping, tyre-screeching scramble up the steep, slick backroads of Xilitla to reach our accommodation, practically the entire remainder of the evening was spent in a plain looking restaurant, which was recommended to us by the husband of our AirBnb host, a pleasant man who spent breakfast time plonked unnervingly still on a wooden stool in his kitchen as we enjoyed coffee and pastries, snapping back into life only when we asked if there was more coffee left in the pot.
And yet, to reel this tangent back in, the view from that restaurant (the name of which escapes me right now) was surreal. I don’t want to say magical, because, well, I’ve not quite gone off the cheesiness deep end just yet, but it was certainly something.
Even with a stomach full of cold beer and great food, I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed to round the damp and dreary corner and emerged into the petite plaza where stallholders were setting up a veritable smorgasbord of all my favourite Mexican antojitos. It was like they knew I was coming, but I never did get to try their tamales or platanos fritos, stuffed as I was after a plate full of cecina. It was time to call it a day.
They say Mexico is a surrealist country, and I don’t think I ever really believed that until I arrived in Xilitla, an objectively ugly looking town with a tiny central square, and slippery roads that made my heart jump into my mouth as the car tried to speed its way up them without grinding to a halt and sliding backwards down the precarious hillside. (Or, at least, that’s what I was picturing would happen anyway.)
It felt, to me at least, like this place didn’t exist, as if it was just a figment of my imagination that had appeared when I needed it the most yet never fully revealed itself from behind the frothy clouds which engulfed it, an act which would have proved its existence, and possibly broken the spell, once and for all.
I know, I know, this is a weirdly visceral reaction to have to a place I was in for less than 24 hours, but honestly, Xilitla, quaint and quiet, yet neither overwhelmingly beautiful nor incredibly unique, charmed me more than Las Pozas, a tourist attraction that brought us screeching back to reality as we rounded the corner and saw the hordes of visitors queueing up to strap on a rubber wristband and explore the precarious sculptures left by an eccentric Brit all those years ago. There’s nothing more jarring than seeing a group of Mexicans in matching neon caps to bring you swiftly back down to earth, after all.
To be fair though, our visit to Las Pozas seemed to be a classic case of right-place-wrong-time, given that we decided to travel during the peak national holiday season (hence, Mexicans in abundance).
But Xilitla? That was something entirely different. It was very much right-place-right-time when we arrived. I really don’t know if I would feel this way if we’d stayed there for longer, as time would most likely have allowed cracks in the bizarrely surreal façade of this odd little place to appear, but for the handful of hours we were in Xilitla, it was everything I needed. Hot shower and all.
TIPS FOR VISITING XILITLA + LAS POZAS, SAN LUIS POTOSÍ
If you want to stop by Xilitla, I recommend making your visit as fleeting as mine was and most definitely avoiding travel during the final two weeks of July, the Mexican national holiday high season. Instead, go literally any other time of year, but preferably in the low season and when it’s not rainy. Those slippery Xilitla streets freaked me the fuck out, people.
As for Las Pozas, the website will detail when the down season is and you’ll get a discount in accordance with visiting during that time. We paid MXN$70 to enter and arrived 30-ish minutes after the place opened and still had to queue for roughly another 20 minutes to enter, for reference. Be aware that some of the most iconic structures, which are still being used on Las Pozas promotional materials, are actually now closed for climbing to the public, as they await repairs. Also, we didn’t see the iconic hands sculpture once.
Oh, and wear decent shoes, the floors run the gamut from muddy to slimy to slippery and anything and everything in between.