Written for Unconventional Magazine by Kerry van der Jagt
In the opening scenes of Spectre, James Bond pursues a villain through a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. This is the hyped Hollywood version – the real story began 3,000 years ago amid Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cultures with festivals dedicated to the goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. Over time the Day of the Dead or Dia de Muertos has evolved into an annual celebration, where spirits of the departed return to earth briefly to spend time with the living.
Fortunately, you can still enjoy these ancient rituals in the indigenous community of Oaxaca (pronounced “wha-ha-ka”) in southeast Mexico, where ancient traditions are still intact. You’ll need a week (not a day) to attend cemetery vigils, visit altars built to honour the departed, enjoy the daily parades and to appreciate the uplifting celebration, so exalted it has been inscribed by UNESCO on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Start in Mexico City, the brightest jewel in the Mexican treasure chest. While holding onto its centuries-old traditions the city is also going through a culinary and creative renaissance with a host of contemporary galleries, cafes and restaurants. If you try only one local dish make sure it is a suadero taco, made from flank steak fried in its own fat, served in a warm tortilla and topped with onion and coriander. Adventurous types might enjoy an escamol (ant larvae) taco. The charm of this passionate city is that it grabs you by the wrist, twirls you around and begs you to try something new.
For passion of a different kind spend the morning in the ‘Blue House’, former home of renowned artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), now a museum dedicated to her life and turbulent times with husband Diego Rivera. Further afield at the Teotihuacan archeological site history is spread across verdant fields in the form of square-topped pyramids that have stood since the third century. A perfect evening is one spent watching a Mexican folkloric ballet at the Palace of Fine Arts. When the curtain opens and the music swells you’ll feel the energy of this vibrant city snap and crackle its way into your very bones.
If Mexico City is the opening act, Oaxaca is the main performance. Just a few hours flight south brings you to Oaxaca, an exploding piñata of colour and costumes, of skeletons and she-devils, spirits and sprites. The markets are plump with Bread for the Dead and sugar skulls leer from every corner.
In the lead up to the main parade on November 1 the city takes on a carnival atmosphere as restaurants, galleries and bars get into the spirit. There’ll be an elegant Le Catarina mannequin on one balcony, a zombie bride on another, while street parades burst like firecrackers from every corner. Some parades are for ethnic groups, of which the region has 16 clans; others are for children and pets. All are inclusive and as hypnotic as a kaleidoscope. Don’t ever leave your camera or smartphone back at the hotel; there are fresh photogenic surprises around every corner.
The main square or Zócalo is the place to see and be seen. Trimmed with tall trees and fringed with elegant arcades, it’s where the mariachi bands start their parades, old couples dance and people gather to watch passers-by. For a coffee fix head to Calle Alcalá, the bustling thoroughfare bookended by Oaxaca’s 16th-century cathedral and the Templo de Santo Domingo. Neither should be missed.
To delve deeper into local culture head to the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, housed in the monastery adjacent to the Templo de Santo Domingo. On the outskirts of the city the Monte Albán archaeological site, with its pyramids, tombs and temples, is a palimpsest (manuscript) of 1,500 years of Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec cultures.
Another way to appreciate Oaxacan culture is through its cuisine. From street vendors selling fried grasshoppers and steamed corn, to high-end restaurants featuring some of Mexico’s best chefs, the food of Oaxaca is reason enough to visit. Order a thick and rich mole negro, so complex it boasts over 30 ingredients, and mezcal, the local equivalent to tequila, and you’ll be mistaken for a local in no time.
The final act takes place on the evening of October 31 when families set up all-night cemetery vigils, laying out favourite foods for their loved ones and lighting candles in their memory. The aroma of sweet-smelling marigolds helps the spirits find their way back to earth for this brief rendezvous. Visitors are welcome; to share a shot of mezcal or to place a candle on those graves without families.
November 1 is the grand finale, the time to dress-up like a corpse bride or groom, to have your face painted and to join a parade for a night you’ll never forget. Ultimately, the festival is a time to recognise that while death is a part of life, the fragility of life deserves to be celebrated. Preferably with enough capes and cloaks worthy of a Hollywood thriller.