by Steve Larsen
Most US residents have little understanding of one of the major celebrations of our neighbors to the south in Mexico. The Day of the Dead event (Desfile de Día de Muertos) is one of the oldest Pagan holidays and a majority of Mexican people wholeheartedly embrace and participate in the multi-day event. It mixes sadness and fond remembrances of family and friends who have passed away, the creation of elaborate altars with raucous, tequila-fueled partying, fireworks, and parading through the streets in costumes and elaborate face paintings.
The Day of the Dead could more accurately be described as “Days of the Dead” as it begins Oct. 28, with a focus on children who have passed. The major festival kicks off on Nov 1 at 3 pm when fireworks welcome the arrival of the spirits of dead loved ones. Until noon the following day, the dead are believed to cross back into the land of the living and visit families and friends, as long as they are remembered. To ensure these memories, families create elaborate altars with brilliant marigold flowers, incense, food, water, and photographs of the deceased, often with “Ofrendas” (offerings) in the form of favorite items of the deceased. Fireworks at noon the following day, Nov. 2, announce their leaving.
My partner on this trip is Kevin Brown. He and I land in Mexico City on October 29. We are met at the airport by MotoDiscovery Tours, who get us to downtown Mexico City Hotel in one piece and brief us on the following day’s travel to Puebla to pick up our rental motorcycles. We’re immediately grateful to have competent and professional oversight, as Mexico City and its 22 million souls are intimidating. Leaving the Grand Hotel Ciudad De Mexico on the largest downtown square in the center of Mexico City the following day involves over two hours of navigating streets snarled with cars, bicycles, buses (like our bus and many even larger), each competing to move forward a few yards at a time before the road clears and we speed off toward Puebla.
A terrific primer on the Day of the Dead celebration is the Disney animated, award-winning movie “Coco,” which I jokingly refer to as the “Day of the Dead Documentary.” Surprisingly, it gets a lot right about this ancient celebration, one of the only pagan festivals not “culturally appropriated” for modern times. Most of today’s revered religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, All Saints Day, and more were “baptized,” as the good Reverend Doctor Kevin Brown would say, making them no longer pagan celebrations, but Christian. And while the Catholic Church in Mexico largely ignores the celebration, the Day of the Dead has incorporated numerous religious observances such as All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day, albeit it without the solemn tone.
After a fun day in Puebla, we ride roughly 500 km (310 miles) south to Oaxaca, to spend two nights at the Casa Conzatti Hotel, a small establishment centrally located across from a beautiful park. Oaxaca is the epicenter of Mexico’s Day of the Dead activities. Shiningly bright Aztec marigold flowers are everywhere. Altars appear along the street, in hotel lobbies, and in most business places. (When riding to the top of Mexico’s tallest building in Mexico City we even passed an altar on the way to the elevator). After parking the bikes in front of the hotel and storing our bags, we head out to explore in the late afternoon. We join a group of revelers, along with a marching band ensemble, and trek down a 2-mile long street, past various squares, courtyards, and markets. Participants sport ornate face paint, all with a “dead” theme, and some Halloween-type costumes. Turning in after a 9 PM dinner start time, we heard celebrations continue long into the night.
MOTORCYCLE RIDING MEXICO
While the ride from Puebla to Oaxaca was an incredibly fun ride, it does not compare to what comes next. One of the premier twisty roads on planet earth runs for 180 miles (270km) from Oaxaca to Huatulco on the Mexican Pacific coast. Highway 175 leaves Oaxaca and runs mostly flat, with nice sweeping turns for just short of an hour until you pass San Bartolo Coyotepec. Then it turns into tight, technical, and tremendous. Turn after turn, quick climbs and drops snake us through lush mountain forests. We ride through small villages with names like Miahuatian de Porfirio Diaz, Rancho la Soledad, El Portillo Paxtlan, and San Mateo Rio Honda. Most memorable are the suspension destroying topes (speed bumps), sometimes with “Reductor” signs indicating a slower speed is prudent. It feels like a continuous Tail of the Dragon, but for 6 hours instead of the 15 minutes/11-mile Deals Gap road in Tennessee. “I don’t think I ever got to third gear,” one rider exclaimed, wiping sweat dripping from his neck, breathing in the rich humid air as we arrived in the parking lot of the Quinta Bella Hotel, with its 4 restaurants, two pools, beach access and views of palm trees and the Pacific Ocean.
We owe this magical day and road discovery to Juan Stanglmaier of MotoDiscovery, who learned of it during the years he worked with the La Carrera Panamericana race. Revived in 1988 from its historic beginnings, the Panamericana is a competition for cars made between 1940 and 1965 in a variety of categories. In 2009 the race moved to these roads in southern Mexico beginning in Huatulco, here in the State of Oaxaca, and became the most important classic car rally-type automotive sporting event in Mexico. Paying critical benefits for the riders on this trip is Juan’s near-encyclopedic knowledge of the sort of roads that appeal to adventure seeking motorcycle riders.
We take a rest break near a town named San Jose Del Pacifico, 3 hours south of Oaxaca and home to the renowned magic (psychedelic) mushrooms, harvested in the local forests. Nearby villages are homes to the artists best known for creating “Alebrijes,” the brightly colored animal-like sculptures, which we learn much more about later in our trip.
Before leaving Oaxaca, MotoDiscovery had arranged for us to visit a family living in the town of Teotitlan del Valle, about 30 minutes directly east of Oaxaca. The family’s business and home are fully dedicated to weaving and they graciously talk us through and demonstrate each step in the process of converting sheep’s wool into beautiful rugs and artistic woven wall hangings. After the demonstrations, they serve a meal of traditional foods, all fun and delicious. The dried and flavored grasshoppers I’d acquired at an open-air market hours earlier were welcomed, although the lime taste flavoring on the ones I’d bought was not as good as the spicier ones they served.
Most fascinating to me about the weaving demonstration was how they colored the yarn, all with natural ingredients. The red-colored dye comes from the cochineal, a soft-bodied, oval-shaped insect that penetrates prickly pear cactus leaves and lives on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. The insect produces carminic acid which is extracted when they pinch the bug between their fingers and use it to create red carmine dye.
After lunch and just before 3 pm, the patriarch of the family, a spry 60-ish man who’d guided his 23-year old son through the demonstrations for what looked like his first solo effort, allowed us into a back room of their home. There we found a substantial alter he’d created to his father, who’d passed away at 91 years of age, just 40 days earlier. As 3 O’Clock approached, he lit a large bowl of incense and began to wave the billowing white smoke over the alter with the photograph of his father – a wrinkled face with gentle eyes and Mona Lisa-like smile. Then as if on cue, the fireworks began, louder and closer than any of us expected. Moved, I asked Juan to translate my condolences to the man, but we both failed as our emotions got the better of us and we began to cry. The only way to communicate our feelings was to put our arms around each other.
Eight of our nine rental bikes are from BMW, two 1250GS’s, two 1200GS’s, an 850GS, 750GS, 310 GS, and one lone Honda Africa Twin. Tour leader Juan Stanglmaier rides his own (non-rental) 1150GS and Bill Eakins commands the chase vehicle containing our luggage, tools, bottled water, and snacks besides pulling a trailer in the event of a mishap.
Road rules in Mexico are similar to many countries in Europe, pure heaven for some motorcycle riders but absolute terror for others. Essentially, motorists on Mexico’s roads expend more effort on keeping traffic moving than on obeying what any particular traffic sign indicates. For instance, roads painted with large yellow double lines (as in the USA) down the center meaning it is unsafe to pass. In Mexico, this translates to mean if you are traveling at a moderate pace, you should move over, putting your right passenger side wheels off the road onto the shoulder, allowing enough of a gap for someone to pass, counting of course on oncoming traffic doing the same thing, creating a center “okay to pass” area. If unaccustomed to crossing double yellow lines to pass, especially with limited visibility, it takes a bit of getting used to. But with a motorcycle, it presents less risk and is easier than in a car. As in Europe, drivers in Mexico focus on their driving, not cellphones, radios, or conversations with passengers. There is little of the “competitive” driving you see in the states. While people will push and crowd with their vehicles, the sense of “we’re all on the road together, let’s do the best we can to get everyone through this,” best represents how most drivers behave. Traffic police are essentially non-existent and you’re free to ride at whatever speed appears appropriate for you, the weather and traffic.
Arriving back in Oaxaca, we began the next day off the bikes with local guide Benito Hernandez. His first stop is a several-hour visit at Monte Alban, an expansive pre-Colombian archaeological site above the plains in the Valley of Oaxaca. This ancient city is estimated to have had over 800,000 inhabitants, covering thousands of terraces and dozens of mounded clusters. It is believed the city lost significance around AD 500-700 and was abandoned and only used, since that time, for smaller reoccupations and occasional reuse of the structures and tombs built by the former inhabitants. The site reveals some of the earliest evidence of written language and a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of time and calendars. Only small sections of the site have been excavated and the site has thousands of unexplored layers, rooms, tombs, and commercial spaces.
After lunch, our second stop was a family enterprise along the lines of the weavers we’d seen a few days earlier, but this one involved the creation of colorful Alebrijes sculptures. One can’t spend much time near and around Oaxaca without running into the brightly painted, whimsical carvings. This marriage of native woodcarving traditions began with Mexico City artist Pedro Linares. In the 1930’s, Linares, an artist specializing in papier mâché sculpture, fell ill. While unconscious, he dreamt of a place with weird trees, animals, and rocks which turned into strange animals. On recovery he began sculpting donkeys with butterfly wings, roosters with bull horns, or a lion with an eagle’s head, meshing together horns, antlers, wings, and fins onto various animals. In his dreams, these creatures all were screaming “Alebrijes!” and so that is what he named them. Over the years the medium moved from paper mâché to wood and this part of Oaxaca state is famous for their creation. Some people believe Alebrijes are “spirit animals” who guide the souls of ancestors as they make their way back and forth between the living and dead during the Day of the Dead period.
Like the weavers we visited the prior day, we got to know this local family business. We watched the steps in the six-month process from a piece of wood to the finished piece. It is all done by hand, with a level of precision and detail hard to believe, as you watch paint being lovingly hand-applied with tiny brushes and the use of a powerful magnifying glass.
There are two levels of Alebrijes production. The first, this stop, offers unique, high-quality, labor-intensive pieces. The best of these pieces gain reputations for the artists and command high prices. It is not unusual to find, as we are seeing here, entire families involved. There is a lower level of repetitive, average quality inexpensive pieces which can be found anywhere. Having the chance to visit and meet this family of carvers was unusual. They typically sell through middlemen who move the products to dealers in Mexico and abroad. While dogs and cats were plentiful, we also saw many armadillos, iguanas, giraffes, elephants, deer, and fish.
The first step in creating an alebrije is carving. Copal is the most commonly used wood and comes from the healer tree family called Bursera. The tree was sacred to the Maya people, particularly because of the resin, now known as “Mexican Frankincense,” but is related to Frankincense and Myrrh and can be found in sweat lodges and Day of the Dead ceremonies. Sometimes woods like walnut, willow, cedar, and sabino are also used. Once the appropriate wood is selected, the artist “sees” the shape and decides the most appropriate shape into which to carve it. Carving may take several days, depending on how complicated the piece. The next step is drying, which is done naturally. It is the longest part of the process. Then it’s off to polish and sand it, then apply liquids to preserve the wood and ensure it will never attract insects. Then any imperfections are addressed using natural materials mixed with sawdust arising when they cut and sanded the wood. It then goes through repeated sandpaper steps, using finer and finer grains of paper until it’s super smooth and the final sealer is applied. This sealer is designed so that the colored paint adheres easily and is permanent. Painting is the final step. It appears as if they use hundreds of different brushes, some to shade, others to anchor, and other finer ones to make the decorations. Depending on size, this step can take from 2 to 4 months, as the colorful decorations representing life and joy are each unique.
Just as we are about to leave, it turns noon, and fireworks erupt all around us, as the living bid goodbye to their ancestors who’ve they’ve been around for the previous 21 hours and will now begin their trip back to the spirit world. A special Alebrijes was featured in the Disney film “Coco,” which was released in 2017 and is now available on the Disney Channel.
Another highly visible aspect of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration is the elaborate and colorful altars erected in private homes and public places. They are created to help guide the dead back from the spirit world to those who remember and cared for them when they were alive. They feature photos of those souls who have passed, memorabilia, things they loved (a piece of jewelry, model of a car, or favorite tool), along with representations of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. We saw toys of dead children, bottles of tequila, mescal, or special foods like candied pumpkin or sugar skulls. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls of those who have passed, so they will hear the prayers and words the living send in their direction. We found these altars in the private homes we visited and saw them in public places like libraries, museums, and especially cemeteries.
The bulk of the celebratory activities are concentrated over 3 days. Most families visit the graves of loved ones and decorate them with altars (ofrendas), almost always including bright orange Mexican marigolds. In Mexico, marigolds are known as the flower of the dead, with the belief the bright color and scent attract the souls of the dead. I was able to photograph many of these alters and found all of them moving and significant. Some pictures below:
Perhaps due to over-caution and some questionable judgment on my part, Kevin and I ended up with a day to kill in Mexico before flying back to the US. We chose to spend it in Puebla, an industrial and rapidly growing city of over 2.2M people. We stayed in a terrific hotel (the Azul Talavera) where the final tour dinner was held. It is close to historic and older areas of the city, beautiful parks, and massively large old Catholic Churches. We hired Omar and his son Brandon (who is studying to be a pilot and acted as our interpreter) to give us a tour of the city. You can’t imagine a more generous-natured and accommodating pair to guide one through a city. Unfortunately, their kindness was not equaled by a knowledge of the city. We had a pleasant enough time, saw some new buildings with terrific architecture and compelling designs, but didn’t learn a whole lot more about the city. (See photos below.)
Thus we found ourselves at the terminal for the luxury buses to take us to the Mexico City airport around 2 PM. The terminal and buses are quite posh and our $17 bought us wide seats with tons of legroom with significant recline capabilities. And we could watch a movie in Spanish through the provided sterilized earbuds.
It felt so good to get back on the road and ride again after Covid had shut so many doors. Mexico is a fascinating country, a close neighbor with a different language and culture, full of family-oriented and gentle people. The roads were incredibly good, well-paved, and full of twists and turns, to the delight of our group of riders. True to its reputation, MotoDiscovery delivered the goods, providing spectacular hotels, fun and interesting places to eat, but mostly thinking through all the hard stuff so we clients could concentrate on having a great time.
Traveling in Times of Covid: Crossing a pedestrian overpass from Mexico City’s International airport we spend the night in a crowded airport hotel. We spend two hours attempting to get the eVerifly app to work. This app is a complete joke and our biggest complaint on the trip. First, it is horrendously slow, then when asked to enter the date and time of our Covid tests (the primary purpose of the app), it gives a range of dates and times to select from that does not include the dates of when we had our tests. Entering dates and times from amongst the ones offered, although incorrect, allowed us to move to the next step which is to upload our “proof of negative Covid test documents.” An automated message in the app then told us those documents would be evaluated and they would get back to us. About an hour later, we got emails indicating we could go online and check our results, which were not accepted because “…there was a discrepancy between the dates on our Covid test paperwork and the information we entered on their form.” The only reason they were wrong is the application would not allow us to enter the correct ones! Fortunately, when we got to the airport, this eVerifly step is not at all required, and our paper documents showing we’d had our test within the 72-hour window were more than sufficient. Any claims by eVerifly indicating they are simplifying the process for getting onto your flight is entirely and utterly false. We wasted 2 hours the night before and another hour the following morning, only to find this step completely unnecessary.