Day of the Dead - Guanajuato
Mexico's Devilishly Dark SideBy: © Nancy Kilpatrick 2014
You've visited the ruins, napped on the beaches, drunk the tequila! But Mexico also offers a devilishly dark side.
Skeletons on stilts will parade through a number of cities around Halloween as celebrants gather for the annual Day of the Dead festivities. And in Guanajuato, mummies are the number one tourist attraction all year long.
El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is Mexico's popular two-day holiday honouring the dead. Oaxaca, 550 kilometres southeast of Mexico City, is one region where this strong holiday tradition survives.
For tourists, much of the fascination of the November 1 and 2 celebrations comes after sunset when everyone heads to the large Panteon Municipal (cemetery). The little road leading to it becomes congested with people carrying enormous bunches of colourful flowers.
Nearly a kilometre before the cemetery gates, a carnival is in full swing: neon amusement rides, music, games of chance, stands selling cooked cactus, and little cross waffles, flowers of every color, incense, even a carpet auction. The side-show atmosphere reflects the Mexican attitude towards death--it is part of life, we are all going to die, we might as well have fun with it!
Inside the cemetery gates, the graves are aglow with hundreds of candles. Sweet incense fills the air. Prayers are continuously repeated over a loudspeaker, and Mariachis play through the night. The dark beauty of this setting is far from eerie. One feels privileged to experience a culture that gives death its due, with a sense of humor.
The locals mark the occasion by building altars in their homes, beginning with a religious picture, often the Virgin of Guadalupe. Placed on the altar are candles, incense, fruit and nuts, special foods the dead enjoyed, perhaps a cigar, and always a glass of water--the dead get thirsty.
Altars also contain sugar skulls with sequin eyes, and pain de muertos (bread of the dead), a roll with a little wooden effigy baked into the dough. And there are also the humorous skeleton figures made from painted beans that poke fun at the dead. If a man was a drinker, you can expect to see a mescal-drinking skeleton on his altar!
The Day of the Dead begins at noon on November 1. The first afternoon and night are devoted to the children, the second to adults. Mexicans believe that the spirit of the departed, if honored at this time, gets to return home for a visit. This holiday has pagan roots but it's symbols have been influenced by Christianity. Celebrations take place in public, at home--where the culmination is a feast--and in the cemetery.
Families spend much of the holiday in the cemetery, crowding around the graves, cooking meals, sleeping, praying, telling stories of the those who are gone. Oaxaca has two cemeteries that are easily accessible. A small one enroute to the Mount AlbŠn ruins is crammed with graves. This is a lower-to middle-income neighbourhood, and during the day the people work very hard to clean and whitewash the limestone graves, and plant fragrant marigolds--the flower of the dead--in the pattern of a cross. Candles and Copal tree resin burn in the small altars.
Mariachi bands move through the grounds playing a favorite song of the deceased while children dressed as skeletons eat candy skulls. People are proud of their work and welcome photographers.
Flying to Oaxaca is the easiest way to get to this complex of towns nestled in an enormous valley encircled by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains. Renting a car is a great way to visit the nearby ruins of Mount AlbŠn, Mitla and Yagul, three of the 4,000 archaeological sites in this region.
The majority of the Indian inhabitants use Spanish as their second language. Little English is spoken in Oaxaca, and there is not much in the way of printed matter. Despite this, Day of the Dead tourists are encouraged to join the parades, visit the annual altar competition, and view the enormous colourful sand paintings in the streets.
Meanwhile, in Guanajuato, capital of the state with the same name, a sense of ghoulishness is provided by mummies.
The city's Panteon Municipal is responsible for the town's main tourist attraction, Museo de las Momias, or the Museum of Mummies. The arid climate of this region produces conditions that can result in mummification. Graves here are rented, and, if payment for upkeep ceases, the remains are exhumed. Only those buried in the concrete shelf-like vaults above ground make good mummies, and 108--about 2% of the disinterred--are displayed in wood and glass cases in the museum near the cemetery.
The oldest mummy is 200 years old--a French doctor who died in Mexico. Young children and infants dressed in fancy lace outfits resemble porcelain dolls. One mummy, identified as 'The Witch', is surrounded by herbs and charms. The museum boasts the world's youngest mummy, a fetus removed from its mummified mother.
At the museum's exit, vendors sell mummy candies, clear taffy twisted like the shape many mummies end up in because of how the body contorts post-mortem.
Guanajuato is located 400 kilometres north-west of Mexico City. It's possible to fly there, but modern buses from Mexico City take just four hours, provide movies and lunch, and travel on good highways. Lodging is not abundant, so look to the outskirts, places like Marfil, five minutes from downtown, for haciendas turned b&b that evoke a time when the Conquistadors roamed the land. Founded in 1570, Guanajuato became populated because of silver. The cobblestone city abounds with Colonial architecture, built over a complex tunnel system. Ninety percent of traffic travels these underground roads.
Shops above, along the main street, include two coffin-makers, with displays of frilly satin-covered boxes to bury the dead--one sells vegetables on the side.
Mexico is a truly a land where death is integrated into life, and where life is instilled in the dead.