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Traveler’s Guide to Mexico’s Top Festivals

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Day of the Dead

Mexico’s lively festival calendar offers something for everyone. From celebrating the solstice, the dearly departed, donkeys, saints, and radishes. The festival season is perfect for those who seek to explore the culture behind Mexico’s stunning beaches, mysterious ruins, and enchanting forests. Here are a few can’t miss festivals in Mexico.

Day of the Dead, Mexico City 

Taking place from October 31st to November 2nd, this 4,000 year-old-tradition unfolds over three days in an explosion of color and noise. The theme is death, but the deceased are joyfully remembered in colorful parties and parades. Families build altars in homes and cemeteries that they cover with candles and gifts to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. This Mexican festival spills into streets and public squares at all hours. Skeleton costumes are part of the fun. Revelers wear shells and noisemakers to rouse the dead and keep them involved in the party.

Mexico City’s Day of the Dead Parade includes 700 costumed performers who parade through the city on floats featuring giant skulls and elaborately decorated altars. Many onlookers wear macabre costumes. Cemeteries are “party central” with lots of food, music, and informal celebrations. The states of Michoacan, Chiapas, and Oaxaca are known to have the most elaborate displays and celebrations, but for the best parade, head to Mexico City.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca

This Mexican festival goes back more than 100 years and was inspired by radishes carved by food vendors to attract customers at the Christmas market. Today, the radishes are grown in a special field and fertilized to an inedible degree, so they grow large enough for creative carvings. Some are two feet long. Carvings range from Egyptian gods and scenes of daily life in Oaxaca to wildlife, architectural, and religious themes. The art lasts for just a few hours as radishes wilt. Artisans and amateurs compete for the cash prize and visitors enjoy fireworks, parades, and craft booths. During the festival, carts sell buñuelos (fried pastries coated with syrup) and esquites (grilled Mexican street corn mixed with a spicy mixture.

Fiesta de Santa Cecilia, Mexico City

St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, is celebrated in Mexico City’s famed mariachi square each year. Mariachis and regional musicians gather in Plaza Garibaldi for a tribute concert. Dressed in the traditional black and white clothing and huge sombreros, the mariachi play violins, guitars, and trumpets. Many statues of the saint are on parade. An open-air party with enthusiastic dancing, drinking, and singing is part of the fun. Street vendors line the streets selling religious items, artisanal bread, desserts, and snacks. Organizers offer game opportunities to festival goers. While St. Cecilia is celebrated all over Mexico, the event in Mexico City is said to be the largest, loudest, and most colorful.

La Morisma, Zacatecas

In the colonial section of town, 2,000 participants re-enact battles between the Christians and the Moors in old Spain in 1571 while roving bands of musicians spur them on. In late august, people dress in brightly colored uniforms with swords and scimitars. Warriors from the pages of European history clog the streets to battle to a Christian victory. The climactic moment is the execution of the Moorish king. The Moors never win. The battle is preceded by a colorful, boisterous parade of about 10,000 residents of the barrio of Bracho.

The festival includes religious processions, secular parades, fireworks, and living history tableaux that help to tell the story. The roots of the festival are in medieval Spain, and the celebration originated in Zacatecas, Mexico, in the early 17th Century.

Zacatecas is a UNESCO world heritage site with vibrant street life and music year-round, world-class museums, and historic churches. A cable car swings up a cliff for stunning, unobstructed views of the city and its surroundings. Some people come for the view and stay for the festival. It is an hour from Mexico City by plane.

Donkey Festival, Otumba

Where else but in Otumba, a major center for the donkey trade during Spanish Colonial times. Once a small, local celebration, it now attracts more than 40,000 visitors on May 1st eager to see donkey races, donkey dancing, the Donkey Queen, and donkey shaped hot air balloons. Games of polo are played on donkeys. The costume festival is one of the most anticipated events, and townsfolk dress up their donkeys for prizes. A recent winner dressed up as Donald Trump. There are fireworks displays and burrito booths, a craft fair and contest, folk dancing, and playful socializing. Pulque, an agave-based drink, is consumed in large quantities making even the most humble citizen a vocal proponent of the virtues of this humble beast of burden.

Solstice and Equinox Celebrations, Chichen Itza

The Mayan marked the longest and shortest days of the year plus the spring and autumn equinoxes in the well preserved Chichen Itza complex. During the solstices, two sides of the Temple of Kukulcan are illuminated and two sides are fully shaded. From the sky, the temple pyramid appears to split in two

On the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun shines on the western side of the El Castillo pyramid’s stairway forming seven triangles that create a 120-foot long snake-like shadow. It creeps downwards until it joins the huge rattlesnake head at the bottom of the stairway. Thousands of spectators from around the world, both religious and pagan, gather to witness these ethereal spectacles, the most popular being the spring equinox.

Judas Burning, Holy Saturday, Mexico City

On Holy Saturday, people Burn effigies of Judas, the man who betrayed Christ. This festival originated in Spain, but soon became popular in Mexico. The effigies grew larger, then they were stuffed with firecrackers, and soon the burnings became too dangerous. Laws were passed to limit the demonstrations to safer dimensions. Effigies of Judas became effigies of unpopular politicians and government officials. Today, most of the burnings are sponsored by artisans and local governments who do not want the tradition to be legislated away. The Santa Rosa Xochiac section of Mexico City is the best place to witness exploding Judases, both historical and contemporary, in a party-like atmosphere where adults cheer and children scamper after body parts. The entire community participates in crafting the giant figures.

No matter which Mexican festivals you choose, you will gain insight into another culture as well as having fun and participating in an awesome experience. Food is usually an integral part of the festival. For as you will often hear in Mexico: Barriga llena, corazón contento, meaning,  full belly, happy heart.

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