places i have been

Confessions of "Una Gringa Estupida"
Exploring the sculpture gardens in Xilitla, Mexico

Dear sandy,

How lucky you are to live on beautiful South Padre Island! In addition to sandy beaches, swaying palms and gulf breezes you are just miles away from Mexico and all of its seductions. I bet you must travel down there a lot!

Well, sure I know my way around Matamoros pretty well.... um, Garcias anyway. And there was that media tour to Monterrey about 13 years ago, and --

Actually, that was pretty much it - until last week, anyway.

This month's column is directed at other pale scaredy cats like myself who never progressed beyond 3rd year high school Spanish and could only imagine the horrible things that could happen to them in deep dark Mexico because they don't speak the language and don't look or sound like they belong anywhere south of Grand Rapids. Thanks to Kelly Casey and other locals who travel south of the border on a regular basis, this stupid gringa screwed up enough courage to venture south - way south - and lived to tell about it.

And you can too.

Las Pozas, Xilitla

"Las Pozas" is a hard place to describe...

kirk, bus wait

Waiting for the bus, SPI

My friend Kirk - a fellow sand sculptor from CA - and I discovered a few months back that we both really wanted to see "Las Pozas" - the sculpture garden in the jungle created by the eccentric Englishman Edward James. A quick net search turned up the name "El Castillo" - a B&B in Xilitla (Hi-LEET-la) - about a two mile walk from the gardens where were able to reserve two nights. So on a recent Tues. evening we slipped into our backpacks and walked across Padre Blvd. to catch the bus to Brownsville.

From the bus station in Browntown it is a quick hike across the bridge to Mexican customs. Showed our passports, answered a few easy questions, paid a $20 permit fee and we were ready to catch a cab to the bus station in Matamoros. The bus to Ciudad Valles leaves about once an hour so there is never a long wait. Our 8 PM bus got us to Valles at about 4:30 AM, where we caught another bus to Xilitla. It was still dark when we arrived at 6:30 but two little local guys immediately picked us off as "El Castillo people", grabbed our backpacks and led us to our destination for a few pesos each.
el castillo


We had arrived safely without having to use the English-Spanish dictionary that neither one of us had thought to bring.

Our room was still occupied, so after breakfast in the dining room, we explored the grounds a bit. This is a very cool place. The web-site describes it thusly, "Architecturally, the home is an intriguing blend of Mexican, English and Moorish styles. The result is very dramatic and full of whimsy." Yup. That pretty much nails it. I knew I was gonna love this place the minute I saw the row of cast feetprints leading up to the main entrance.


cool bathroom After we had settled into our room - (the "Gran Vista" on the top floor with breathtaking views and enough room for twice as many people) - and made use of the huge marble bathroom with walk up bathtub/shower, we set off for Las Pozas - about a 40 minute walk from the guest house.


Left: loved the bathroom - Above: breakfast at El Castillo - Below: sf in the jungle

good memories

We had seen the pictures on the 'net and in a couple of magazine articles we had found, but there is just no way that mere photos can do this place justice. (Of course this did not stop us from clicking away at a fast and furious pace.)

To get the full experience you must be able to hear the insects buzzing and the birds calling and all the butterflies! They don't sit still long enough to pose for a picture. You must stumble up and down the stairways, linger over a picnic lunch in a cool grotto off the main pathway, stop to smell the flowers and basically just let yourself get lost. What you don't want to do is spend too much time wondering why someone would spend all this money and energy to create this place because there is simply no logical explanation for it.

Left: Kirk at lunch break

Right: feet strikes a pose

sandy feet


Above: The falls at Las Pozas

Right: Dinner at Cayo's

We returned to El Castillo shortly before dusk, just in time to witness a tremendous thunderstorm blow in over the mountains. It was very dramatic. Unwilling to expose ourselves to these elements, we turned off the lights and finished the remains of our picnic lunch by lightning.

The next day we explored the town of Xilitla itself and contributed to the local economy by buying some trinkets at an artisan's shop and dining at Cayo's (the most expensive items on the menus will run you about $4.00).

Kirk at Cayo's

Xilitla church, plaza

Above: The church in the city plaza

Our hostess at El Castillo had given us detailed instructions on how to get to Xilitla's other main attraction, "cueva de salitre" (cave of the mineral salts) where every evening at dusk about a million wild parakeets start screeching and flying around in preparation for the evening roost. It is quite a sight and we didn't have to share it with anyone which made it even better.

inside the cave

expedition woman

Left: View from inside the cave. Lots of birds here but you will have to use your imagination to see them

Above: the mouth of Cueva de Salitre

We would have liked to have seen more of the area - according to Kelly there are lots of interesting things to see and do in a 50-100 mile radius - but Kirk had to get back to California and I had a couple of fairly important deadlines looming, so we caught the bus the next morning and were back on the Island by 11 PM that same night.

feet on feet

Left: feet on feet

Right: Kirk enjoys the view from our room

Kirk in room

If you go:

Don't put off your plans too long. This place is relatively undiscovered but way too cool to stay that way for long. Visit it quick before someone turns it into a "mundo del Disney" or something.

Plan to travel at night. (We made the mistake of returning during the day - welcome to screaming/puking baby land.) The buses are air conditioned and spacious .... if you are lucky there will be one or more movies in English to lull you to sleep. Our total transportation costs from SPI to Xilitla and back ran about $100 each.

El Castillo - rooms run $35 - $60 a night, add a very tasty full breakfast for $4.00 per person. There are only 8 rooms available so get your reservations in as soon as you know your travel dates. They don't take credit cards so expect to wire your deposit money to them - visit for details. The couple that manages the place are very helpful, friendly and bilingual.

What to bring - good walking shoes, especially if you are going to the parakeet cave. A bottle of cheap red wine and some picnic munchies for the bus ride. Spring and fall are reportedly the best times to get good weather - days are warm, nights cool so a couple pairs of shorts/T-shirts and a sweatshirt or two should be sufficient.

What to leave behind - laptops, cell phones, and ... er, thoughts of any deadlines you may be missing back home.

The hill to the plaza

Lots of hills, lots of stairs - the climb to the Plaza from El Castillo

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