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It's not too late to decide to visit Mexico next week -- so why not take an impetuous vacation and experience Mexico's most exciting and appealing cultural festival -- Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). The holiday is celebrated throughout the country on November 1 and 2, 2006 -- but try to arrive a bit earlier to soak in the atmosphere and the intricate preparations.

There is nothing morbid or sad about this festival and although it does have some similarities to Halloween in terms of its decorations and displays of coffins, skeletons and tombstones, it is actually a joyous occasion when the country celebrates the memory of its ancestors and the continuity of life. During Día de los Muertos the souls of the departed are said to return to visit the living, and family members both visit the graves of their ancestors and execute elaborate feasts and special delicacies in celebration. Although celebrated throughout Central America and in parts of South America, the holiday has its roots in ancient Mexico and combines traditions of indigenous cultures and Catholic practices.

The way in which the holiday is celebrated varies regionally but Oaxaca with its large indigenous population is particularly synonymous with great Day of the Dead festivities. Other well known centers of activities in Mexico featuring processions, feasts and fiestas include Mixquic, located on the southwest tip of Mexico City, Janitzio and Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Chiapa de Corzo in the southern Chiapas region and Merida in the Yucatan.

When doing the search around Mexico hotel websites, there was still some availability for rooms during the Day of the Dead holiday but you will have to be extremely quick.

At Mexico Hotel Guide (www.mexicohotelguide.net), four night's accommodations at the Hotel Aitana Oaxaca, a beautiful colonial mansion was $388 per room (with up to three guests) including all taxes. 1st Mexico City Hotels (www.1stmexicocityhotels.com) had dozens of hotel rooms available ranging in price from $95 to $200 a night per room.

Through Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), I found a package departing from New York on October 30 in the evening with round-trip airfare to Tuxtla Gutierrez and three-nights accommodation at the Holiday Inn in San Cristobal in Chiapas (which is still a traditional looking Mexican property), a short drive from Chiapa de Corzo, for $748 per person including all taxes. For $754, they have a four-night package from Los Angeles to Oaxaca, that includes round-trip airfare departing L.A. on October 30, 2006, four-nights in a deluxe king room at the three-star Hotel Mision San Felipe and all taxes.

Different World (tel. 888/903-9512; www.differentworld.com) also has accommodation options available for the Day of the Dead period at two different hotels. Casa Oaxaca is a romantic and traditional hacienda property with only seven tastefully furnished rooms. Rooms with a queen sized bed start from $163 a night. Rates are per room per night for up to two people sharing and exclude taxes (currently 18%).  Breakfast is included, as is a daily complimentary drink at the bar with snacks from 6-7pm and Internet access. Stay for three-nights or more before December 31, 2006 and receive a complimentary three course dinner for two in the hotel's restaurant. Request the "complimentary dinner" offer when making your reservation. 

The second hotel, the gorgeous Hotel Caribe in Merida, is a converted convent with a central shaded courtyard and a ton of charm. The rooms are simply decorated but at this price (with a great pool as well) you can't go wrong. Standard rooms start from $42 per night or $46 for a room for three people, $49 for quad share. Superior rooms starts from $48 for a double and suites start at $72. Traveling solo isn't a problem here, with rooms ranging from $39 to $72 a night for singles.

Vista World Travel (tel. 800/880-8068; www.tomzap.com) has some vacancies for its Oaxaca "Day of the Dead" tour for 2006. The five-night package runs from October 29 to November 3, 2006. You can choose different arrival and departure dates as well as additional nights. The package includes airport transfers, five night's accommodations, a dinner and lecture at the Hotel Camino Real followed by an escorted cemetery tour to the village of Xoxocotlán, a Mitla archaeological site tour and palapa lunch. Rates start at $409 per person based on double occupancy staying at the Hacienda la Noria. There are also several other hotel options including the three-star Hotel Gala from $414, the three-star Marques del Valle from $509 or the five-star Hotel Victoria from $574. 15% tax is additional.

For a last-minute package deal at discounted prices, try Site59 (www.site59.com). Because they specialize in weekend getaways and Day of the Dead falls on a Wednesday/Thursday this year, you will have to depart on October 28 and return on November 1, but you should still be able to take in most of the lead up and first day celebrations. Alternatively, you can check Site59's website this week for prices for packages departing on November 1 and catch the some of the first day and all of the second day of the festival.

Round-trip airfare and four night's accommodations (with taxes and fees included in the price) to Mexico during this period include:

  • New York to Mexico City staying at the Hotel San Francisco from $634
  • Los Angeles to Guadalajara staying at the El Tapatio Hotel and Resort from $598
  • Chicago to Puerto Vallarta staying at Hotel El Pescador from $618
  • Dallas to Monterrey staying at the Radisson Plaza Gran Hotel Ancira from $715
  • Washington DC to Mexico City staying at the Hotel San Francisco from $554

Fancy an authentic Day of the Dead celebration but would prefer to visit a different country? Perhaps Guatemala is the solution. One of the key villages for celebrations is Todos Santos Cuchumatán located about 31 miles north of Huehuetenango. It is known for the brilliant colors, costumes and traditions centered around the Day of the Dead. In particular, the city hosts an alcohol-charged horse race and traditional dancing. In the race, male participants ride bareback back and forth from one point to another, taking a drink at each stop. The winner is the last person to fall off his horse. The Tuj Qman Txun Mayan ceremonial ruins where many of the festivities take place is located a steep ten minute hike away from the town center. Bands play traditional marimba music and the locals dance the "El Toro" and "El Venado." For a list of places to stay in Todos Santos and Huehuetenango visit www.larutamayaonline.com. Unfortunately many of these hotels don't have websites so it may take some phoning/faxing around to find a room.

Getting there:

Round-trip airfares to Mexico in late October, 2006

Los Angeles to Torreon $172 from Mexicana (www.mexicana.com)
  • Miami to Cancun $179 from Mexicana
  • Washington DC to Mexico City $279 from Mexicana
  • San Francisco to Michoacan $536 from Mexicana
  • Miami to Oaxaca $526 from Delta (www.delta.com)
  • Boston to Oaxaca $551 from Continental (www.continental.com)
  • New York to Oaxaca $553 from Aeromexico (www.aeromexico.com)
  • Round-trip airfares to Guatemala in late October, 2006

    • Philadelphia to Guatemala City $452 flying Delta through Orbitz (www.orbitz.com)
    • Miami to Guatemala City $472 from TACA (www.taca.com)
    • New York to Guatemala City $477 from COPA Air (www.copaair.com)
    • Los Angeles to Guatemala City $462 from COPA Air
    • Atlanta to Guatemala City $462 from US Airways (www.usairways.com)