By Tim Leffel
Exploring abandoned structures built by men with big dreams—and the money to fulfill them—is a common pursuit in Mexico. Some of those dreams, however, blur the line between the real and the surreal.
As soon as I step out of the car and look up, it’s as if I’ve gone through the rabbit hole and ended up in Wonderland, only this bizarre place was created not on paper, but for real in the jungle. By one man and 40 laborers, over the course of 25 years. Concrete structures rise several stories, circled by stairs that suddenly stop. Huge support columns rise from the ground and tower above the trees, but don’t support a roof above—and never have. Around every bend is another surprise that makes no sense, simply a man’s dream images brought to life.
It hasn’t happened often, but occasionally I’ll see photos of a place and think, “Holy crap, I’ve got to go there.” Once that switch is flipped, it’s just a matter of when. It’s usually the bizarre, off-kilter places that look like they’ve come from another planet, or another dimension: Cappadocia, Jaisalmer, Tikal, Kasha-Katuwe, Petra, Howard Finster’s house. When I first saw photos in a magazine spread of surreal Las Pozas, in a remote area of Mexico near a town called Xilitla, the vow was made. Then I read about the place in Tony Cohan’s book Mexican Days. After I moved to Guanajuato for a year, I attended a party where the host had framed photos of several Las Pozas structures in his library. If signs come in threes, my time had come.
From Mind’s Eye to Marvel
Before that grand journey though, there are other opportunities to ponder what happens when big dreams meet with ample funds. Mexico is full of fantastic structures that required an army of workers toiling for years, then were left abandoned. Some, like Teotihuacán and Chichen Iztá, are restored to part of their former glory and are big tourism draws. Others have become mere mounds of rock covered by centuries of dirt, still hidden away in the overgrowth. Man can build great things, but the plants often take it all back when we leave.
Just before I visit the coastal vacation town of Zihuatanejo, a brief mention in my guidebook catches my eye. Sitting on a hillside there is another brash structure built by someone with big dreams and nobody to strike them down. “The Parthenon” stands abandoned on a hillside, on a prime piece of real estate with a panoramic view of the bay. Nothing was done halfway in this nouveau-riche homage to ancient Greece. There is a grand swimming pool and an outdoor disco, both surrounded by replica statues. Inside are stately marble columns, marble floors, and custom murals. The grand entrance gate is a replica of the one at Chapultapec Castle in Mexico City.
Arturo Durazo Moreno, the dreamer behind The Parthenon in Zihuatanejo, got his wealth up in a hurry through a manner powerful people usually get it in a hurry: through corruption. Much of the wealth came from the pockets of his direct reports in the Mexico City Police Department when he was their police chief from 1976 to 1982. His men in turn got it from their direct reports, on down the line to the hapless souls paying bribes and on-the-spot traffic tickets. He also got kickbacks from the very drug traffickers and crime syndicates his department was supposed to be arresting.
He spent lavishly on his friends though, flying them here and to his other mansions in police helicopters and throwing parties for hundreds. When he was arrested in 1984, his wealth was conservatively estimated at $12.5 million, even though his official salary was around $1,000 a month.
The pleasure palace is now surrounded by weeds, empty of furniture and the former gold fixtures in the bathrooms. Although the paintings are faded and the gilded mirrors cracked, it’s still easy to picture the mansion as it was before the chief met his fate and went to jail. As I walk the grounds alone, lizards the only signs of life, I imagine a Mexicanized night of Grecian debauchery, the pool filled with bathing beauties, both champagne and tequila flowing, and the disco lighting up the hillside until dawn. Power brokers, all in on the game, enjoying the fruits of their corruption in a luxurious bedroom on the second floor.
Surreal Dreams, Manifested
Finally though, a few months later, I am zig-zagging my way through the Sierra Gorda mountains in the Queretaro state, skirting steep ravines with an uncomfortably high number of roadside graves for lost loved ones. My wife and daughter have come along for the adventure and the little one is not helping. “Daddy, if you make one mistake on this road, we’re all dead! Just look over there; you would go straight down!”
Besides the inconsistent appearance of guardrails, there’s the inherent problem that it’s hard to constantly keep your eyes on the road when there is such stunning scenery in every direction. For the most part this biosphere is amply protected, with few signs of deforestation. The climate changes dramatically along the way, starting out with an assortment of cacti on brown hills, then rocky cliffs and pine trees. By the time we reach Xilitla, after a reported 1,000+ curves, it’s a full-blown tropical jungle, the humidity hanging on our bodies like a warm wet blanket.