“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
~Marcus Tullius Cicero~
It’s about that time of year for DIA DE LOS MUERTOS (Day of the Dead)!
Last October/November, I had the opportunity to travel to central Mexico with an amazing friend I met rafting on the Grand Canyon.
There were several objectives for the trip: 1) She wanted to scope out potential towns for retirement (she also has this obsession with the smell of automobile exhaust – true statement – haha), 2) We both wanted to find some amazing silver jewelry, 3) We wanted to authentically experience the Dia de Los Muertos celebrations and, 4) Experience a road trip in central Mexico.
What is Dia De Los Muertos? If you don’t know what Dia de Los Muertos is (I didn’t fully understand it until this trip), it’s a Mexican holiday whereby family and friends gather to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. Those who celebrate it believe that at midnight on October 31, the souls of all deceased children come down from heaven and reunite with their families on November 1, and the souls of deceased adults come visit on November 2. I’m telling you, the movie Coco will educate you on the entire celebration – I’ve watched it 3 times already!
The visitations are said to occur at an altar via an Ofrenda. The Ofrendas generally consist of many things: 1) Their photos to identify who is being invited to the altar, 2) Religious artifacts, 3) Favorite foods and drinks to make them feel at home when they arrive at the altar, 4) Lit candles and sometimes soap/water so the spirit of the deceased can see and refresh themselves upon arrival at the altar, 5) Incense to keep evil spirits away, 6) Calaveras or sugar skulls, and 7) Marigolds to lead the spirits to the altar. (Thank you Wikipedia!)
Our adventure started at the Mexico City airport where we rented a car. The one unsettling thing besides actually driving in this gi-normous city is hearing the rental car attendant tell us, “I hope you know how to change a flat tire. No-one will stop to help”. Nice, we couldn’t wait for that flat tire…and no, I have no clue how to change one.
Our first stop was Puebla, roughly a two hour drive from Mexico City. Puebla is a Colonial town with a historic center crowned a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This second largest city in colonial Mexico, is full of surprises from beautiful hotels, Talavera pottery, doors, markets, churches and some of the most delicious mole chicken on the planet. How the heck they make it so tender is beyond my comprehension – then again, I don’t cook. We stayed near the El Centro part of town. In fact, we chose the central parts of every town we visited for convenience. No regrets!
Everyone talks about safety while traveling in Mexico – thoughts of what could go wrong definitely lingered in the back of my mind. The one thing I completely wanted to avoid was getting lost on a back road…and guess what happened? We got lost on a remote back road driving from Puebla to Cuernavaca!!! I was in the back seat while another friend was navigating. I made the mistake of not helping and next thing I knew we were on a dirt road in the middle of central Mexico!! Gah!
There seemed to be dirt road construction everywhere which conveniently blocked our direct route to the “freeway”. Every road had deep potholes (back to the flat tire issue), and took us to a dead end. After about an hour of trying not to completely freak, we finally saw what we needed and literally bushwhacked our way to the road.
A few hours and many episodes of the Dirty John podcast later, we made our way to Cuernavaca in good spirits, laughing about our adventure without a gruesome death (funny, but kinda not). Here, we immersed ourselves in the Dia De Los Muertos culture. We hired a guide who took us to a little town about an hour outside of the city. We experienced an official community Ofrenda – with less than 10 other tourists in sight – it was soooo much fun!
Essentially, the home of a recently deceased loved one hosts a neighborhood “dinner” of sorts, this one with tacos and homemade liquor – probably the deceased’s favorite meal/drink. Honestly, I don’t know what the liquor was made of, but I couldn’t NOT try it. We lined up and paid our respects to the deceased and their family. It was incredible to be a part of this tradition.
We ended our night sitting in plastic chairs outside of a seedy bar drinking Coronas; the owners trying to make us feel comfortable by playing Linda Ronstadt. LOL. Somehow I didn’t take that many photos in this town….boo
From Cuernavaca, we drove to Taxco. Mind you, we took the major toll roads throughout this trip for safety reasons – I would NOT recommend taking the cheaper toll roads in Mexico. Taxco is in the Mexican state of Guerrero (think Acapulco) which happens to be on the US Department of State as a level 4 – “Do not travel” list. Im pretty sure that means if something happens to us here, we are SOL. Perhaps we tempted fate – but we went anyway.
When we arrived, the first thing we noticed were the white VW beetles everywhere – the taxis. We had a blast in this town!! We found our most favorite jewelry in Taxco which is known for its silver and traipsed up and down the cobblestone streets until dusk. The only unsettling thing we encountered were the armed guards with machine guns lining the town square. We had not seen this at all up until this point in the trip.
We finally ended our adventure (without incident) in Mexico City watching Coco at a swank hotel – couldn’t think of a better way to end the trip! Mexico City is full of fantastic shopping, restaurants, museums, etc. We didn’t spend much time here, another visit needs to be put on the books to fully explore this city.
In the end we achieved nearly every one of our goals except the retirement part….we will be on our way to Chiapas this winter to continue the hunt for the perfect retirement community!