Every year on November 1st and 2nd, Mexico explodes into a festival of colours and celebration. It is called Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. It might sound a bit bizarre and morbid for the typical Westerner but it is a few thousand year old eccentric, spiritual belief celebration.
We were loitering on the sidewalk of a cobble-stoned street while nursing a Michelada (Mexican beer mix) at the main church square watching the locals go by. The sounds of a Mariachi band with a high pitch Vihuela guitar and a guitarrón (a small-scaled acoustic bass) streams into our ears while band members sway with the rhythm as they slowly march their way down the road. The music reminded us a bit of a mix between Polka, Country, Ranchera, Son de Mariachi and Corrido. It is typical lively music. Crowds of people follow the band, it is a loud, happy, festive mood where kids and dogs run amok and older folk drink, eat and chat the days away. Tequila, Margaritas and beers are consumed by the gallons.
The previous year we were lucky enough to meet up with our South African friends, an Italian and two American overland bikers in the small colonial-era touristy town, San Miguel de Allende for this peculiar festival. San Miguel is a pretty town with cobble-stone streets, magnificent old buildings, interesting town squares and a beautiful old church. San Miguel is one of the more prominent touristy towns where the event is held. This time around we were in Oaxaca, a bigger city with truck loads more people, but also a much more authentic vibe and more happening throughout the week.
Places are booked to the brim for this festival. Our hostel booking was made well in advance to make sure we had a place to stay, making sure the hostel was walking distance from the town church square. It’s much easier to stumble back to a hotel when a bit tipsy than trying to flag down a taxi.
Dia de los Muertos dates back about 3000 years and can be traced back before the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1519. Before the Spanish invasion, many indigenous cultures like the Olmecs, Mayans, and the Aztecs made up the Mesoamerican civilisations that flourished in Central America many, many blood red full moons ago.
These cultures shared a common belief, a belief in the afterlife. They celebrate the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties and especially with activities the deceased enjoyed when still alive. They believe that when people die, they do not cease to exist — instead, their soul carries on to the afterworld and the beginning of a new life. Dia de los Muertos is there to prompt us to rethink the nature of life and death, and results in a celebration of death and not a fear of death. Death is seen as the continuance of life in the world beyond the grave, maybe similar to the way the old Egyptians believed.
The Spaniards thought the Aztecs were Pagan barbarians. They tried to force, as most land grabbers do, their Catholic believes down their Aztecs throats. Well that did not go down well. In the end they made a compromise and shortened the length of the Mictecacihuatl festival to two days, which conveniently corresponded with two of their own Catholic holidays: All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Also the same time as the USA’ Halloween.
The most famous skeleton of them all is named La Catrina. The old Aztecs honoured the goddess Mictecacihuatl, also known as the Queen of the Underworld or Lady of the Dead. The role of the goddess was to guard over the bones of the dead and preside over the ancient festivals. Mictecacihuati was shown as a de-fleshed body with a gaping jaw to swallow the stars during the day. Mictecacihuatl found a new identity over time as the modern-day La Calavera Catrina, also known as “Dapper Skeleton” or “Elegant Skull”. Catrina depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat worn by the upper class Europeans in her time.
At night locals visit cemeteries around the city. Around the cemeteries it is a hive of activities with the smokey smells of barbecued foods hanging in the air. Vendors sells candles, flowers and everything else to pretty-up graves or whatever the dearly departed would have loved in life. Spending a night in the cemetery is commonplace. To most Westerners, it might sound like the script to a horror movie, but in some parts of Mexico, spending a night inside a graveyard, picnicking next to a dead family member’s grave, telling stories, listening to music is an act of love. People will set up altars with offerings, clean and decorate graves, hold all night graveside vigils, recall stories of the past and even have Mariachi bands playing at a loved one’ grave. Children and women carry orange and yellow marigolds to the processions and the cemeteries. Marigold scent could raise the dead and can point the spirits in the right direction. Their vivid colour also commands attention and is seen everywhere as they are used in flower arrangement and artworks. Marigolds may seem like a ubiquitous bedding plant but this simple flower means so much more to the Mexicans. It is not surprising that the luxuriant marigold is the traditional flower for Day of the Dead.
Confectionary sugar skulls and other sweets are common gifts while candles smells, believed to light the new path. Pan de muerto, which translates as “bread of the dead,” is another holiday treat. A sweet egg bread, it includes ingredients like anise and orange peel. Usually, pan de muerto is decorated with strips of dough arranged on top to look like crossed bones. The famous la calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls) are decorated with bright colours with the name of the departed inscribed on the head. The skeletons and skulls are seen everywhere on masks, artwork, candied sweets and dolls. Mostly portrayed as creatures dressed in fancy clothes, enjoying life.
Death is laughed at in its face. Some comical euphemisms are used for death, La calaca (the skeleton), la pelona(“baldy”), la flaca (“skinny”), and la huesada (“bony”). There are sayings, and poems that are popular with day of the dead. “La muerte es flaca y no puede conmigo” means “Death is skinny/weak and she can’t carry me.”
The entire weekend, a jovial happiness was in the air, with a celebratory atmosphere everywhere. The town was also a bit over run with both American and local tourists. Pubs and restaurants packed by patrons, street vendors with Mexican cuisine overflowing with flavours and smells. Small vendors were making their yearly ‘killing’ in selling art and food on the bustling cobble-stone streets to cheapskates trying to score another painted skull or item at a good price. Early evenings the town really came alive with hundreds of people gathering on the town square for shows and performances.
The plain would erupt in a cacophony of sounds, dance and brilliant colours. This must surely be the biggest dress up party in the world on those few days. Everybody is in the mood and most people get their faces painted to fit in, and those who quaffed down too much tequila ended up with unwanted tattoos! At night the old gritty well worn and weathered bars pull people through their doors. Pumping, noisy, cheerful music invites friends and family with a bit of a nostalgic atmosphere. We would leave the hostel at 10 in the morning only to return after 12pm each night. There was just so much happening everyday, it was an exhausting weekend.
The other reason we planned a visit is that Oaxaca is a stone’s throw from the coast and blessed with some of the best motorcycle roads in the world. Forget about Stelvio pass in Europe. The road snaking down to the coast is an engaging sit-up-and-focus rollercoaster wild ride for160km of non-stop fun. The road eventually ends at the coast at a nudist beach. While around Oaxaca there are numerous old villages with dusty old dirt roads to explore and visit.
Dia de los Muertos has turned into a true world festival with colour, flavour and fervor, the original ideas are still practiced by Mexicans. It’s officially a big deal, and not just for Mexicans.
Not only has the Day of the Dead been made a national holiday in Mexico, but it has also been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.