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Each year, on November 1 and 2, the cities, towns and villages of Mexico are transformed into a nationwide celebration dedicated to the souls of the departed. Nowhere is the cultural diversity and spectacle of ritual more colorful than during the magical Día de los Muertos -- The Day of the Dead. A synthesis of ancient traditions from the Aztec and pre-Aztec civilizations of Mexico and Catholic practices, the Day of the Dead is a unique display of the richness of Mexican traditional life and culture. Although this festival is celebrated throughout the Latin American world, it has become synonymous with Mexico.

Each city and village has its own traditions and way of commemorating the dead, and for many communities the preparations begin several weeks in advance. If you thought Halloween in the U.S. brought out gruesome and ghoulish costumes, you're in for a real treat in Mexico. From mid-October through the first week of November, markets and shops fill their shelves and window displays with special Day of the Dead accoutrements including include skeletons in all shapes and sizes, macabre plastic and rubber masks, gruesome toys, ornate wreaths and crosses, silk flowers for adorning grave sites, candles and votive lights. Instead of your stereotypical sequined sombrero and Mexican hammock, Day of the Dead paraphernalia can make excellent souvenirs. Even foods take on scary forms, with chocolates, pastries and candies in the shape of skulls, bones and coffins. Eaten by the living, these are intended as offerings to the dead.

Although you might imagine that this would be a solemn occasion, the hoiday is in fact a joyous celebration where the commemoration of the dearly departed becomes a party atmosphere with singing, dancing, processions and copious quantities of eating and drinking, albeit often in cemeteries. Whereas in contemporary western societies, cemeteries are more often than not seen as a place of contemplation and solitary remembrance, in Mexico, especially on the Day of the Dead, families gather for graveside celebrations, welcoming the spirits back for the day, enticing them with food, music, candles and colorful flowers. In Mexican homes, in the days preceding the Day of the Dead, altars are erected, likewise with various candles, sculptures and burning incense to help the dead find their way back into the land of the living for this short time.

In the larger cities, the Day of the Dead can often take on a rather commercial Halloween-type feel, with merchandise, advertising, and Day of the Dead themed sales on everything from cars to clothing. But in the smaller towns and villages, the traditions remain authentic and the day is considered one of the most important and sacred on the Mexican calendar. As most of the events and activities surrounding the Day of the Dead are public and outdoors, they are quite accessible so organized tours and guides are not always required. If you speak some Spanish, you can always ask locals about the best things to see and do to experience the festival in an authentic manner. In general, the main square of every town will feature a Day of the Dead marketplace with a variety of stalls lined with decorations, flowers, assorted foods and regional specialties. emeteries will always be free and open to the public and although very crowded during this period, they will provide a ringside seat to the best show in town

The historic and stunningly beautiful city of Oaxaca is host to some of the best Dia de Los Muertos celebrations. The Instituto de Comunicacion y Cultura (ICC; tel. + 52 951 63443; www.day-of-the-dead.org) runs a variety of tours and activities that start during the final week of October.

The following tours are all $40 per person:

  • On October 27, 2005, take a tour to Zaachila, a Zapotec town that features the Market of the Dead, where you can purchase all the necessary Day of the Dead accessories, decorations, food etc. The four-hour trip also includes lunch, an English-speaking guide, a visit to the famous ruins of Cuila'pan and a 16th century chapel.
  • On October 28, ICC offers a multiple "Markets of the Dead Tour" (Ocotlan de Morelos). Starting with a local Oaxacan market, considered one of the best indigenous markets, visit others at the neighboring towns of Coyotepec (black pottery), San Martin Tilcajete (wood-carved animals) and Santo Tomas Jamietza (black strap weavers). As part of the six-hour tour, lunch is provided in the beautiful colonial house of famous painter, Rodlofo Morales.
  • On October 30, take a six-hour tour to visit Mitla (the City of the Dead), the indigenous market of Tlacolula and the magnificent tapestries of the famous weavers of Teotitlan del Valle. Lunch will be provided in the home of a well-renowned Zapotec weaver plus visit a mezcal factory and the famed ancient Tule tree.
  • What better way to spend Halloween than in a cemetery? On October 31 the five-hour "Cemetery Teotitlan del Valle Tour" visits the tombs of the "Little Angels" and the famous candle maker Sofia Ruiz Lorenzo. Share the ancient tradition of having chocolate, bread of the dead, mezcal and tamalitos with a local Zapotec family in the house of a traditional Zapotec weaver.
  • An evening tour on November 2 takes you to the Cemetery of San Felipe del Agua. Visit the cemetery and enjoy a typical Day of the Dead dinner in the colonial ICC building in downtown Oaxaca.

The following tours are $20 per person:

  • On October 30, the five-hour "Oaxaca City of the Dead Tour" visits Oaxaca's local market of the dead and includes building a traditional altar on the colonial patio of the ICC building.
  • On November 1, tour the cemetery of Teotitlan del Valle on this afternoon/evening "Walking Tour of Oaxaca's Cemetery" and witness elaborate Day of the Dead altars being constructed from all seven regions of the state of Oaxaca.

The cost of each tour includes an English-speaking guide, lunch/dinner and transportation. Discounts are available for combining several excursions. Call the number above or e-mail info@oaxacatimes.com for reservations. All tours depart from the ICC in Oaxaca's historic center.

Las Bugambilias Bed and Breakfast (tel. 321/249-9422; www.lasbugambilias.com/index.html) a small hotel group with three local properties in Oaxaca, also organizes a variety of tours, excursions and even cooking classes around the Day of the Dead theme. My person favorite on offer is the $70 "Purifying Ritual with a Healer, Temazcal Bath and Massage Tour" on November 1. What could be better than spending the Day of the Dead cleansing your mind, spirit and body? Their "Black Mole Cooking Class" on October 29 or the "Tamales Class" on October 30 (each $50) sound almost as appealing.

Day of the Dead festivities in villages throughout the state of Michoacan, in the central western part of the country, also have a distinctive flavor highlighting the indigenous culture of the area's Purepecha Indians. In particular the island of Janitzio, located in Lago de Pátzcuaro, is a popular lure for tourists although equally colorful celebrations can be observed without the hustle and bustle of the tourist crowds in many other Michoacan villages. In these towns, it is predominantly the women and children who participate in the festivities, from the processions to the singing, playing of musical instruments and preparation of gravesites and altars. Characteristic of this region are the wooden arches that families create and adorn with flowers and fruits around cemetery tombs. Before dawn on November 1, local communities start the festivities with a ceremonial duck hunt, the spoils of which are later cooked and along with other delicacies, are brought to the cemetery in a procession of thousands of candles. Apart from Janitzio, other cities that carry out these Michoacan traditions in a spectacular fashion include Patzcuaro (where you catch the boat to Janitzio from), Tzintzuntzan (the ancient Purepechan capital), Jaráuaro and Erongarícuaro.

Equally enchanting are the celebrations in Mixquic, a small town on the edge of Mexico City. In Mixquic, bells toll to mark the beginning of various rituals, with offerings at home and at graveyard being performed in a regimented and orderly manner. The cemetery here is ornately decorated and candle-lit vigils are held throughout the night creating quite a spectacle for locals and visitors alike. Other notable towns where Day of the Dead festivities are considered especially inviting are Huejutla (in Hidalgo), Chiapa de Corzo (in Chiapas) and Jesús María (in Nayarit).

Airfares to Mexico in late October and early November range in price according to actual city destination. Examples include (late October departures and early November returns):

  • Los Angeles to Guadalajara: $290 on Mexicana
  • Dallas to Guadalajara: $327 on Mexicana
  • Chicago to Mexico City: $333 on United
  • Boston to Mexico City: $402 on Continental Airlines
  • Los Angeles to Oaxaca: $431 on Mexicana
  • New York to Mexico City: $476 on Delta Airlines
  • Miami to Oaxaca: $564 on Mexicana

For additional travel and tourism information, contact the Mexico Tourism Board, (800/44-MEXICO; www.visitmexico.com). You can also read one reporter's account of the holiday's celebration in Oaxaca by clicking here.