May 08, 2011
Lighten up... teenagers celebrate the Day of the Dead festival. Photo: Getty Images
Ben Groundwater joins the locals celebrating life among the graves and tombstones of Oaxaca.
It's midnight at the cemetery. Among the crumbling headstones flickering in the candlelight and the dim ruins of what must have once been a church, dark figures are moving around.
Actually, they're not just moving - they're dancing, clapping their hands and swinging their hips in that easy Latin way. Others are singing, chanting soft rhythms that float into the night sky. Some are just enjoying the mariachi band, laughing and clinking drinks together as they sit perched on the tombstones. Others choose to lean quietly against graves and wait.
Strangest of all, there's a small girl in a bridal gown and veil perched on a tomb, flanked on each side by other young girls draped in the dark robes and black lace worn by widows in mourning.
Death is all around us. It's in the ghoulishly painted faces of the revellers. It's in the fake skeletons being carried by partygoers. It's in the silent vigils upon tombstones. Most of all, it's six feet beneath the earth at our feet, every step we take.
However, here in central Mexico, death isn't feared. It's not even a cause for sadness. Well, not tonight at least.This is the Dia de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead. It's a time for Mexicans to get back in touch with friends and relatives who have passed to the other side. For some, that means a long, silent night perched at the end of a grave, waiting to meet up with lost souls. For others it means singing, dancing and drinking tequila by candlelight. The only rule is to stick to what would have made your loved ones the happiest.
Xoxo (pronounced "ho-ho") is a small town just outside Oaxaca City, in the state of the same name. It's not even a blip on most travellers' radars for 363 days of the year but come the Day of the Dead, Xoxo and neighbouring Oaxaca come alive in celebration.
Coinciding with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day at the beginning of November, the Day of the Dead is a quintessentially Mexican tradition that has its roots in Aztec times, long before Catholicism had taken hold. It has been adapted over the centuries into something that's now part party, part paying of respects and part arts festival.
Families celebrate the Day of the Dead in different ways but what's most common is to build an altar to lost loved ones at home and then visit their graves to spend quality time with the no-longer alive.
It's all quite morbid, really, and the festival would be pretty disturbing if it wasn't for the fact that everyone seems to be having so much damn fun.
Back at Oaxaca City's main square, the Zocalo, everyone from small children to middle-aged women have their faces painted in ghoulish themes. Zombies, skeletons and murder victims are laughing and jostling each other as they wander around looking at the stalls selling fake skulls and glow-in-the-dark daggers.
Outside Oaxaca's main cemetery, a funfair complete with shooting galleries and Ferris wheels has been set up to catch the overflow from inside the graveyard's walls.
It's at the Zocalo where the real action is, however, particularly as the late afternoon stretches into a manic evening. Ringed by crumbling colonial buildings and with the stately Oaxaca Cathedral towering over one side, it's the natural meeting point for revellers and a perfect place to people-watch.
At the foot of the cathedral, huge amounts of sand have been trucked in and painstakingly sculpted into the shape of large skulls. Oaxacans are fiercely proud of their artistic skill and the Dia de los Muertos is a chance to show off those abilities.
Skulls are a clear obsession. Further into town, on Macedonia Alcala street, a series of papier mache skulls has been painted by groups of local artists, some opting for modern landscapes, others going for the traditional garish colours to be seen at the festival.
It's not all fun and games, though. Back at the Zocalo, several people have stopped to look at a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe - Mexico's patron saint - covered with a gas mask. Below her sit rows of sand skulls with dark, hollowed-out eyes and silently screaming mouths. Each has a name above it stencilled in small letters.
"They've been lost in the war," a local lady whispers, pointing out the names. "No one knows what happened to them."
The "war" is Mexico's struggle against its powerful drug cartels and it's a stark reminder that while this may be a time of celebration, there's a dark side to Mexico. Death truly is all around us.
That ever-present fear might explain the locals' wholehearted attitude to this celebration. Around the Zocalo, those not just wandering around devouring elote - Mexican corn slathered in lashings of mayonnaise, lime juice and cheese - are sitting in the bars lining the square, drinking Indio beer and eating peanuts drenched in lime juice.
Not wanting to miss out on this carnival of the cadaverous, most of the city's bar and restaurant owners have set out their own altars of marigolds. One bar at the Zocalo has a couple of gaudily dressed skeletons sitting at an outside table, while out the front of another, a man dressed as a bride is weeping over the coffin of another dressed as his/her husband.
The weirdness serves as good preparation for the cemeteries, which most locals begin to flock to about nine or 10 o'clock in the evening. Oaxaca Cemetery is closest to town and would be an eerie place to visit at night if it weren't for the thousands of people wandering its dark alleyways.
The main part of the cemetery is walled in by a huge mausoleum, each tomb in the wall lit with a single candle. The rest of the cemetery is a warren of graves lit only by small candles or the lights that revellers have brought with them. It's here that I find the small girl dressed as a bride, perched on a tomb flanked by the two in black. There's no one else with them; nothing to explain what they're doing here. They just sit, keeping a silent vigil.
A half-hour drive away, Xoxo Cemetery is another world again. A much smaller graveyard, it has also been allowed to fall into a stylish state of disrepair. Here, every grave is covered in candles, draped in marigolds. There are also small figurines placed on many graves, designed to show how the inhabitants liked to pass time in their more animated years. Some hold small cameras - photographers, no doubt - and others clutch small bottles of mescal, the local tequila-like spirit.
While old women wait silently by some graves, others are surrounded by families chatting and passing mescal between them. Some have even broken into song. Among this phalanx of mourners and revellers, hundreds of tourists pick their way between the graves taking photos, some sharing drinks with locals. Even as an outsider, it's hard not to be swept up in the fun of it all.
Death might be all around us but tonight it's our friend.
Most visitors fly to Los Angeles where several airlines, including Delta, have connections to Mexico City (1800 144 917, delta.com). The best way to get to Oaxaca is by bus, a six-hour journey (adogl.com.mx). Flights are also available (aeromexico.com).
Accommodation ranges from budget hostels to five-star hotels. Hotel CasAntica is a centrally located, mid-range hotel with double rooms starting from $65 a night (hotelcasantica.com).
1 Even if you don't make it here for Day of the Dead, there is still plenty to do in Oaxaca City. The most enjoyable of those is also the most basic: eating. Oaxacan cuisine is intricate and unique. Its moles (dark, complex sauces) are a must-try, as is the local version of the taco. For food on the go, try a tostada from a street vendor or head to the market south of the Zocalo for grilled meats.
2 Oaxaca is a famous chocolate-producing region and the best way to have it is hot. Order a cup of hot chocolate at a cafe and you'll get a sweet brioche to dip in it as well. Once the sun's down, Oaxaca is also the home of mescal, the smoky, agave-based spirit that seems to be drunk with everything. Several plantations outside the city run guided tours.
3 The city itself feels like a film set, with artfully shabby buildings lining cobblestone streets. It's a former Spanish colonial town and is small enough and interesting enough to wander around all day. Local tour operators also run trips to neighbouring villages in the Valles Centrales — ideal for picking up handicrafts at local markets.