As mentioned in an earlier post about San Cristobal, the whole purpose of our trip to Mexico was to experience Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead – DOTD) as authentically as possible. In order to do this, we hired a guide to take us to a few of the indigenous villages outside of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. The villages visited were Romerillo, Chamula and Zinacantan.
Each village has their own way of celebrating the Day of the Dead. In fact, styles and customs differ by region, depending on the predominant pre-Hispanic culture. This particular region celebrates during the day as Mayans worshipped the sun.
My friend KR very eloquently described the premise behind Dia de los Muertos in this region of Mexico:
“The life and death of loved ones are celebrated in Mexico during Día de los Muertos, November 1-2. The people of Chiapas are descendants of the Mayans and practice ancient rituals involving the balance of dark and light, earth and air, grief and joy. Here, the festivities take place throughout the day, as the Mayans worshiped the sun.
Each village has their own traditions and energy. Ofrendas, or offerings, are built to honor and welcome the ancestors when the veil is at its thinnest. Spirits are guided back with the sweet smell of orange sempasúchil flowers (marigolds) and incense, the glowing light of candles, purification and protection of salt, cherished photos, and the lure of favorite food and drink.
Alters and graves are covered in pine needles to represent the Earth, the gentle movement of tissue paper represents the element of Air, Coke and local corn alcohol, pox, represent the dark and light. An extraordinary experience, that touched close to the heart.”
The first stop on the tour is the Romerillo cemetery, about 30 minutes from San Cristobal. The town of Romerillo consists of 99% indigenous people from the Tzotsil ethnic group.
While some Mexican families choose to discretely celebrate their departed loved ones, they celebrate BIG here with a yearly fiesta. The State Fair-like atmosphere included loads of food booths, merry-go-rounds, lightening fast ferris wheels, and other puke inducing rides like the swinging pirate ship.
Our tour company Experiencas Chiapas beautifully describes the Romerillo experience on their blog, “When you walk among them, the smell of incense and sempazuchil flower (marigolds) invades your senses and your mind is transported to a mystical place where everything you have heard about the celebration of Day of the Dead takes meaning and becomes reality.”
The crosses below are typical Chiapas Maya style, characterized by the use of turquoise, teal, and blue colors and serve as portals of entry to communicate with ancestors. Blue is a significant color for the Maya as they associated the color with their rain gods. When they offered sacrifices to the god Chaak, they would paint them blue in hopes he would send rain to make corn grow. Artifacts painted “Maya Blue” remain vibrant today due the components used to create the pigment.
Loved ones are buried under the mounds of earth and spirits are kept secure by placing a wooden board on top of the gravesite. The mounds represent mountains and the boards remain on the grave all year until the sprits are ready to be released for contact during Dia de los Muertos. More than one family member can be buried in the same space as indicated by more than one cross. Families and friends will congregate around the gravesite and conduct their personal ceremonies. Sometimes they’ll hire mariachis to provide an uplifting experience.
Even though there was lively entertainment with mariachis and roving musical mashes (“monkeys”), there was still an element of sadness. Some families were mourning a recent loss of a loved one and it was sad to see the heaving backs and tears of the grieving.
One of the key traditions of this festival is to drink Pox (Posh) and Coca Cola (not necessarily together) at the gravesites to represent the dark and light of DOTD. Pox, a liquor of corn, cane sugar and wheat, is commonly used for Mayan ceremonies but in Chiapas, it’s a regular cocktail for the locals. Too much Pox and you end up like the barracho on his back below! We were able to have a shot of our own – I’ll just say it’ll put hair on your chest if you drink too much. Fun fact: Chiapas residents drink more Coca Cola than any other state in Mexico.
Next stop: San Juan Chamula, 6 miles outside of San Cristobal with a population of ~3,000. The town sits at roughly 7,200 feet (2,200 meters). Per Wikipedia, “The town enjoys unique autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the village. Chamulas have their own police force.” Sooo, if you decide to do something crazy while visiting, it might be tough to free yourself from jail.
This stop was not part of the original tour, but our guide Rudy was incredible and wanted us to experience as much as possible. He knew how much we were loving the experience, so he took us on a bonus trip to Chamula. Since the make up of the population is identical to the town of Romerillo (Tzotsil ethnic group), the DOTD celebrations are very similar in nature with mariachi’s and mounds of gravesites, but without the merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels.
I sure hope the barren gravesites below were tended to after we left. Those pine needles which represent eternal life, were SLICK. The shoes I was sporting didn’t have much tread – can’t tell you how many times my feet nearly slipped out from under me. Pretty sure I would have been kicked out of there had I done a face plant on a gravesite. One additional thing to note, the locals didn’t appreciate picture taking….We had rocks thrown in our direction because of me….so embarrassing and I felt absolutely horrible. I momentarily forgot where I was. UGH.
The last town on the itinerary was Zinacantan, also a Tzotsil Mayan community about 6 miles outside of San Cristobal. This particular village is known for gorgeous flowers and woven and embroidered clothing, so their native dress is much different than their Chamula/Romerillo counterparts. Garments for both men and women incorporate floral patterns instead of the standard black or cream colored sheep’s wool. A boatload of greenhouses dotting the landscape are seen as you make the drive to the main town square. Flowers grown here are distributed throughout Mexico.
We arrived at the cemetery late in the afternoon, seemingly after the majority of families celebrated their loved ones. This particular village is more subdued in their DOTD celebrations and incorporate a more catholic take on cemeteries as noted by the structure of the gravesites.
As expected, flowers are the centerpiece here. I have never seen so many stunning arrangements in my life. The cemetery sits on a hill with sweeping views of the valley below. It was a very peaceful experience.
We had such an amazing time on this tour! The authenticity of this part of Mexico is OFF THE CHARTS.
Here’s to hoping this post peaked your interest! Our tour guide was EXCELLENT and I could not recommend them more.
My travel companions and I are meeting for Christmas drinks in a couple of weeks – we’ll hatch a plan for our next Mexican adventure :-).
Viva la Mexico!
…i choose this…