Mexico: Inside the surreal Day of the Dead

By Nikki Ekstein

Dia de los Muertos has come into the collective conscience for its zombie bride costumes and kitschy skeletal face paint, but the holiday is a spectacle unto itself.

For an authentic Dia de los Muertos experience, plan in advance and work with a local guide. Photo / Getty Images
For an authentic Dia de los Muertos experience, plan in advance and work with a local guide. Photo / Getty Images

Don't even think about calling it Mexican Halloween.

Though Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, has come into the collective conscience for its zombie bride costumes and kitschy skeletal face paint, the holiday is a spectacle unto itself.

"It's a very deep and mystical experience," said Mexico travel specialist Zachary Rabinor, who has been taking travellers on Day of the Dead trips for two decades and is considered one of the country's forefront travel experts.

A family pauses to view candles lighting the crypts of San Miguel cemetery in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo / Getty Images
A family pauses to view candles lighting the crypts of San Miguel cemetery in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo / Getty Images

Each year, from October 31 to November 2, villagers throughout Mexico empty out of their homes and into local cemeteries to welcome the souls of their dearly departed. There are bouquets of marigolds and candles as far as the eye can see, and gravestones are cleaned and festooned with flowers. Families don embroidered indigenous dresses for feasts, for which they cook their deceased relatives' favourite foods. And of course, there's tequila.

Rabinor has participated in at least a dozen of these events, mostly in the 14th-century city of Pátzcuaro, a few hours west of Mexico City, and in Oaxaca, where the festivities are among the largest and most vivid. Yet he still says they're very difficult to describe.

"It's spectacular," he said. "One of those experiences that gives you goosebumps."

Especially with pop culture references - as in the dramatic opening scene in the James Bond thriller Spectre - helping build awareness for the immense drama of Dia de los Muertos, travel requests are outpacing Oaxaca's capacity for travellers. (The state of Michoacan, where Pátzcuaro is located, is not as safe as Oaxaca, making it less viable for do-it-yourself trips.) So if you want to witness the magic, you'll have to start planning well in advance.

A costumed family take part in a  Dia de los Muertos parade in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo / Getty IMages
A costumed family take part in a Dia de los Muertos parade in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo / Getty IMages

Rabinor suggests booking hotels now for 2017's event because the small number of luxury spots in Oaxaca book up far in advance. Ben Gritzewsky, a Mexico specialist at travel agency Frosch, said you can wait until February and still get a great room. But when it comes to flights, the data experts at Kayak said you're most likely to get the best fares if you hold out until the last minute, booking any time from August 15 to October 31-the same day the event begins.

That said, you'll want to arrive a little earlier. Parades flood Oaxaca's streets as locals begin to prepare the cemeteries for their all-night affairs, and the traffic leading up to the holiday can be pervasive.

A women selling traditional 'Bread of the Dead' at the Oaxaca Market. Photo / 123RF
A women selling traditional 'Bread of the Dead' at the Oaxaca Market. Photo / 123RF

Rabinor and Gritzewsky both stressed that the Day of the Dead isn't a big carnival or party-it's a solemn affair. But in the last five to 10 years, locals have added an element of masquerade to the proceedings. Some argue that the elaborate face painting traditions are the product of Halloween-style commercialisation; others say globalism and the influence of European Catholicism gradually turned up the volume on these festivities over hundreds of years.

Regardless, you have two experiences to choose from: the made-for-Instagram revelry and the more authentic cultural encounter that involves staying up all night, communing with the spirits, and feasting by a candle-lit tombstone. Rabinor and Gritzewsky make sure their clients see the latter, hooking them up with local guides with deep connections in the smaller surrounding villages.

Costumed revelers parade through the streets of Oaxaca. Photo / Getty Images
Costumed revelers parade through the streets of Oaxaca. Photo / Getty Images

"You need someone who has not just access but who knows the people and is part of the community," said Rabinor. "You don't want to just observe from outside and be a gawky tourist."

Gritzewsky agreed. "You're at a loss if you try to do it on your own, because a lot of this isn't written down in guidebooks," he said. But as much as the experience can be overwhelming to plan, it's also overwhelmingly beautiful.

Villagers visit the graves of relatives during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca. Photo / Getty Images
Villagers visit the graves of relatives during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca. Photo / Getty Images

"Oaxaca deserves to be a top destination in its own right," said Gritzewsky of the emerging culinary capital, which has always been prized for its authenticity. The city plays host to some of Mexico's best chefs, such as Alejandro Ruiz, who runs Casa Oaxaca, which ranks among Gritzewsky's and Rabinor's favorite places to eat and sleep in town.

The area surrounding Oaxaca is a hotbed for agriculture, giving Ruiz a multitude of indigenous ingredients-including 500 herb varieties-to add to his fancified ceviches and taquitos. (He also teaches cooking classes, by special request.)

Workers cut the Cempazuchitl flower, used in the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Photo /  Bloomberg, Susana Gonzalez
Workers cut the Cempazuchitl flower, used in the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Photo / Bloomberg, Susana Gonzalez

Rabinor describes the topographically diverse landscape as a "sort of Shangri-La," which you can see on display at the city's public Ethnobotanical Garden; it contains towering walls of nopal cacti and fig trees, sculptures made from cypress wood and super-sized agave plants. Everything that's planted there relates, in some way or another, to the edible or artisanal culture of Oaxaca.

About the artisanal culture: This is a bona fide crafts mecca. Visits to the nearby artisan colonies of Teotitlán del Valle, San Bartolo Coyotepec, and San Martin Tilcajete are musts if you want to buy loom-woven rugs, black pottery, and mythical wood figurines, respectively. All are iconic Mexican art forms that originated within a shockingly compact radius from Oaxaca.

People in ghoulish costumes participate in a parade for the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. Photo / Getty Images
People in ghoulish costumes participate in a parade for the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. Photo / Getty Images

Also nearby are the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán and Mitla, each less than 45 minutes away by car. "They're unlike anything you'd see in the Yucatan," said Gritzewsky, when asked how the ruins stack up to such landmark spots as Chichen Itza, near the Riviera Maya. "The ruins in Oaxaca are distinct-smaller but just as important and unique."

Most visitors to Mexico are looking for a beach vacation, so you can take a short puddle-hopper to the Pacific Coast destinations of Huatulco or Puerto Escondido, where Grupo Habita operates the stunning Hotel Escondido, a clutch of 16 ultra-modern thatched roof bungalows. Also in Puerto Escondido: the Tadao Ando-designed art complex called Casa Wabi, which owner Bosco Sodi has called a "contemporary version of Marfa."

A woman sits by a relative's grave for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca. Photo / 123RF
A woman sits by a relative's grave for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca. Photo / 123RF

It's currently showing a conceptual, diorama-like exhibition by Dutch artists Michel François and Harold Ancart. Huatulco, meanwhile, is ideal for adventurers who want to scuba dive or snorkel in its pristine bays.

Prefer to stay inland? Gritzewsky and Rabinor frequently combine Dia de Los Muertos trips with visits to Mexico City and Puebla, another up-and-coming inland destination with a soon-to-open five-star retreat by Rosewood and a stunning new art museum (shown above) designed by conceptual Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

- Washington Post

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