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If you came back from the afterlife only once a year, shouldn't you count on a blow-out bash? For the past 3,000 years, that's just what south-of-the-border spirits have come to expect during the annual Dia de los Muertos. In Oaxaca, Mexico, visitors are warmly welcomed during these Day of the Dead festivities, providing you with a novel and non-commercial experience -- a rarity for travelers today.

The Festival

Already an epicenter of art, cuisine and history -- Oaxaca shines even more boldly heading into November when the city is decked out in ghoulishly grand skeletons engaged in mundane activities. These folkart sculptures, called calaveras, are a humorous means of mocking death -- simultaneously acknowledging and making light of our own mortality. It's not unusual to see a children biting into brightly frosted, sugary skulls; ceilings adorned with papel picados, intricately cut tissue paper banners; and ofrendas -- altars adorned with photos, candles, bright yellow marigolds, elaborate sand paintings, food and water for a soul hungry after the long journey from the other side.

For most of October, these public displays are the visitor's only indication something is brewing. It's only at the culmination of the event, from October 31 to November 2 that the celebration spills on to the streets and into the panteons (cemeteries).

October 31 is when los angelitos, the souls of deceased children, return home, followed shortly by the adults. (The day before is reserved for those poor souls who died violent deaths to return.) Townsfolk walk around Oaxaca with candles lighting the way for spirits to return to their former houses -- where families and the elaborate ofrendas are waiting. These beautiful processions are easily observed by simply being in the cemetery or on a path to it.

To get the most authentic Day of the Dead experience go with a local guide who can provide a more intimate tour, even including dinner at the home of an area family. For this, we recommend Florencio Moreno (tel. 011 52 951/518-4728; www.mexonline.com/academictoursinoaxaca.htm) and Mariana Arroyo & Aurora Cabrera (tel. 011 52 951/516-1165; www.lasbugambilias.com/muertos.html). A Spanish language school, Instituto de Comunicación y Cultura (tel. 011 52 951/63443; www.iccoax.com) offers many English-speaking tours to various Day of the Dead festivities, also including dinner with a local family.

For independent travelers, the tourism office (Av. Independencia No. 607 Col. Centro; tel. 011 52 951/6-0717; fax 011 52 951/6-1500) publishes a brochure of events taking place around the city and in the San Miquel cemetery.

Our guide picked us up in Oaxaca's city center, we drove to El Tule, a village a few miles away. Like many of the smaller pueblos surrounding Oaxaca, it has one feature that seems to appeal to a good number of tourists: allegedly the oldest tree in the world (in the case, a 2,000-year-old cypress weighing over 500 tons with 33-foot plus diameter).

We were greeted by large collection of the town's people were gathered in a square wearing remarkably realistic and gruesome costumes. Plastic injection-molded blood seeping from heads and chests -- typically with axes or knives still implanted in heads are mixed in amongst those with almost-missing limbs and in various stages of decomposition. In keeping with the calaveras theme many were dressed as skeletons with huge black circles under eyes and big skeleton grins. It's all part of the holiday's main purpose: to simultaneously respect the dead and mock death.

At first, like any other party, there were a few dancers but most of the people (including the tourists) were collected in self-conscious groups. Our talented guide -- who had no doubt experienced this situation for years -- passed out cups amply filled with tequila. Meanwhile an emcee speaking both English and Spanish skillfully facilitated the event -- in about 20 minutes the dance floor was filled with locals and tourists happily interacting and dancing together.

Our guide handed out flowers and had us join the main procession to the cemetery. The beauty of the cemetery outshined even what we had seen around town. Graves were completely covered with candles, food and the marigolds characteristic of the holiday. Families equipped with food, booze, chairs and music gathered around the grave until wee hours of the morning partying with the "returned relatives." Several people sold food, holiday treats and alcohol for anyone who didn't bring their own.

At around 10pm we were warmly welcomed into to a local family's home to have dinner. This included traditional Mexican holiday dishes like chicken mole, hot chocolate, tortillas and pan de muertos -- a sweet egg bread adorned with colorful faces, leaves and folk figures. Several family members were eager to try out their English on us, but even the ones who spoke only Spanish went out of their way to engage us and communicate. When we left around midnight, the party was still going strong all around the town.

According to tradition, the souls depart on November 2 not to return for another year, no doubt taking much of that time to recover from the intense drinking, dining and dancing of the last few days. Our recovery took slightly less time.

Related Activities in Oaxaca

As is the case in most Mexican towns, the heart of the city is the zocalo -- the pedestrian area containing a large cathedral, a plaza with a gazebo and several shops and restaurants. Much of the city's entertainment takes place for free in the zocalo. On any given day you could be treated to an orchestra performance, some pieces done by the local dance troupe and other artistic displays. It's a delightful place to wallow away the day drinking cerveza and eating mole from any of the good local cafes with open air seating facing the zocalo (you can find more on that by clicking here). The rest of the city is easy to navigate, as it is laid out in a grid with clearly labeled streets.

Within a few blocks of the center are over 15 galleries showing the work of local and national Mexican artists. During this time, many of them will have exhibits with Day of the Dead themes. The Guia Cultural available from the tourist office or many of the local establishments is a listing of the music, dance and art offerings available during the month.

In addition to the well-known galleries such as the Rufino Tamayo and Museo De Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca that we review online at www.frommers.com/destinations/oaxacacity/0930010029.html, you should consider these spots as well:

  • The Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center -- Housed in an 18th century building, the center serves as a organization to promote Mexican artists. There is an exhibition space that has seen the works of internationall talents such as Man Ray, the gallery's namesake and Sebastiao Salgado. (Open 9:30am-6pm Wednesdays through Mondays; located on Murguía 302; tel. 951/41933)
  • El Sol y Luna: This restaurant and bar is a great place to glimpse the works of local artists while listening to jazz music and meeting locals, and admittedly other tourists.
  • La Mano Magica (www.frommers.com/destinations/oaxacacity/S29189.html): No longer much of a secret -- as the prices will attest -- this gallery is owned by a Mexican weaver and his American wife. Still, it's the place to head for tapestries and some folk arts.

Accommodations

It's easy to find affordable, clean and safe accommodations in Oaxaca that are roughly the equivalent of a B&B. Don't expect quiet or luxury, but for prices ranging from $33 to $60 per night you're getting a decent place to lay your head. Good budget options include the Hotel Trebol Flores Magon No. 201 Centro Historico; tel. 01-9-516-1256) and Las Mariposas (Pino Suárez # 517, tel. 951/515 5854). For other recommendations, please read our complete reviews beginning at www.frommers.com/destinations/oaxacacity/930_indacc.html.

For information on the festival, click over to www.day-of-the-dead.org. For our complete guide to Oaxaca, go to www.frommers.com/destinations/oaxaca.

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