By Veronica Lescay
The mariachi band moved from grave to grave, performing festive rhythms for the celebratory families, who were gathered around their ancestors’ vigils. Thousands of elongated, thin candles lit up the cemetery as families feasted while welcoming their loved ones’ spirits home from Mictlan, a sort of spiritual waiting room from which they can return home once a year at this time.
It was Dia de Los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico. And I was wandering from cemetery to cemetery, visiting three in total that night. Not only were the festivities visually stunning, but also emotionally-charged, and provided me with a new way to interpret how the living view death and the afterlife.
I arrived in Oaxaca a week earlier, wanting to soak up the atmosphere prior to the start of the Day of the Dead festival, which officially runs from October 31 to November 2. Upon arrival, I was immersed in the festive ambiance – sugar skulls, dancing skeletons, and markets full of striking flowers that would later be adorning gravesites and alters.
As if the theatrical aspect of Mexican daily life was not overpowering enough. The Day of the Dead festival is far from the United States’ version of Halloween and is based on a belief system inherited from the Aztecs. Altars are erected in every home, hotel, store, and restaurant, and are ornately decorated with offerings to the spirit visitors. Flowers, candles, tamales, fruit, corn, pan de Muertos (bread of the dead), Coronas and cigarettes surround photos of the dead.
Street parades can be found day and night, and usually make their way to Calle Alcalá, the main artery of Oaxaca’s central old town. Here you will find extravagantly dressed Carmelitas and indigenous skeletal spirits.
During my days in Oaxaca, I ventured out to explore some of the natural and archeological highlights that are strewn about in and near the town. Hierve el Agua is a stunning, vibrantly-colored natural spring and rock formation that resembles cascading water. Its position atop a mountain is dramatic, and you can take a dip in the calming waters. Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden is another must-see, as it perfectly combines artistic sensitivity with scientific expertise.
Its walk ways of cacti, each plant taller than a man, is a dramatic sight. The UNESCO-listed Monte Alban archeological site is a short bus ride away from Oaxaca’s old town, so I clambered its terraces, dams, canals, and pyramids during a half-day excursion.
The UNESCO-listed Monte Alban archeological site is a short bus ride away from Oaxaca’s old town, so I clambered its terraces, dams, canals, and pyramids during a half-day excursion.
I may have come to Oaxaca mostly to experience Day of the Dead, one of the world’s most well-known festivals, but I soon discovered that the region has so much more to offer. From indigenous culture that is thriving to this day, to extraordinary natural and historic sites and the opportunity to taste mezcal, the regional agave-plant derived alcohol, Oaxaca offers visitors an unbeatable combination of things to do.
Day of the Dead celebrations take place all over Mexico, but its core is in southern Mexico, where indigenous culture is strongest. Oaxaca is a town in Southwestern Mexico, reachable by both plane and bus (6 hours from Mexico City). It is advised to book your accommodation well in advance of the Day of the Dead festival (October 31st to November 2nd), and I recommend arriving 2-3 days prior to the official start of the festival, as Oaxaca has many must-see fascinating archeological and natural sites.
While theoretically, it is possible to visit the three major cemeteries in and around Oaxaca independently on October 31st, the major day of Day of the Dead celebrations, it is recommended to take a tour that will drive you to the graveyards. This would ensure that you see all three cemeteries, which each have a unique character.
Hierve el Agua can be visited on a day trip from Oaxaca. To see Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden, check times for English tours, as the garden is not open to the public and you must go as part of a scheduled tour (it’s well worth it). The UNESCO-listed Monte Alban archeological site can easily be visited independently or as part of a group.
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