PUERTO ESCONDIDO, MEXICO — When Walt Disney Films released its animated movie Coco in 2017, the world gained a better understanding of Dia de Las Muertes, or Day of the Dead, which is held in Mexico every November.
During that period, the dead have permission to visit their loved ones, who in turn honour them with colourful costumes, complete with skull masks; ofrendas, altars that contain favourite items and pictures of family and friends; and grave sites decorated with flowers.
While it was certainly educational, the movie intensified my desire to experience the holiday firsthand. So, when the opportunity arose to travel to Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s picturesque Oaxacan coast, I took it.
Surprisingly, though, Day of the Dead wasn’t the only highlight.
By the time I arrive on All Saints’ Day, the celebration has already begun, and I see the first inklings of it at Vivo Resorts where I’m staying. There, staff have created their own altar, and that night they hold a parade, where participants don painted faces and colourful costumes and dance to a live band.
Above: Mexicans don masks and erect alters to honour the dead during the festival.
I see a more authentic altar the next day at the Benito Juarez Market. It’s piled with numerous items to honour the dead, including bananas, peanuts and bags of tortillas. Although the market is usually bustling, as this is where locals come to get fresh meats, cheeses and produce, it’s quiet today. On All Souls’ Day, the locals apparently spend the day with their families. However, there’s still plenty of vendors on hand and they eagerly showcase their products to me — produce like peanuts, corn and sesame, all of which grow in abundance in this fertile region.
It’s a different story when darkness falls, though. The locals take their partying public. And I’m unprepared for the intensity of activity I encounter in Chila, a small town 15 minutes from my hotel.
“You don’t get any more authentic than Chila,” says my guide, Jesus, who drops me off in the middle of the action.
It’s not yet 7 p.m., and already hundreds of people have gathered in the streets to walk, dance like there’s no tomorrow and drink mezcal. As the night wears on, the crowd swells.
Many of the locals are dressed in costumes, their faces either painted or covered by a skull mask. It’s the men who intrigue me the most, though. Many are wearing dresses. They also speak in a shrill voice and are holding dolls. I can’t find anyone, however, who can explain the significance but I quickly learn that if you make eye contact with one of the men, you’ll be their next dancing partner.
Meanwhile, locals line the sidewalks to watch the procession. Houses and businesses along the route have flung open their doors. Vendors selling pastries and bottled water roll their carts along with the procession. Following the parade is what looks like a high school band. Every time the parade stops the band stops in front of houses whose families have contributed money for the band to play. The band plays its music and the crowd dances. I marvel at how fast the locals move their feet to the beat of the music.
A few hours later, I officially hang up my dancing shoes. I may still be among the living, but my feet feel like they’ve joined the dead.
Above: Releasing turtles back into the sea is another activity festival goers like to do.
It’s only appropriate that I cap my visit to Puerto Escondido with another celebration of life. Vivo Resorts, which lies on a 20km stretch of Palmarito Beach, has partnered with Palmarito Turtle Camp to release baby turtles. The camp collects eggs the turtles deposit on the beach and safeguards them until the hatchlings can be released into the ocean.
I’m here during turtle release season, so at dusk, I participate in the release of 45 golfina baby sea turtles collected about a month earlier. They’re in a white bag, their little feet pushing against the cloth. Once the sanctuary director digs a hole in the sand, he gently places the turtles in the hole.
He then scoops two turtles into a bowl called a jicara, an ancestral container made from the fruit of the calabash tree, and hands it to me. I’m instructed not to touch the turtles or it could further reduce their already low 10 per cent chance of survival. Moving gingerly, I place the bowl on a safe area in the sand and let my two feisty youngsters go.
I watch them waddle to the water with their peers, the ocean waves sweeping many into the water.
After they disappear, I stand by the water in silence for several minutes. I honour not only these creatures but also those in my life who have passed.
While I may not have an altar, I can at least embrace the spirit — literally — of the Day of the Dead.