For some, it’s the mountainous villages of the Himalayas. For others, it’s the expansive vineyards of France, or the five star spas that dot the American Southwest.
For me, it’s the colorful spirit of Mexico that keeps me returning time and again — despite my world map being riddled with “to go” pins.
From the turquoise waters of the Yucatan’s Caribbean coast to the desert paradise of Baja California Sur, and from ancient Mayan ceremonies to the bustling urban mercados, Mexico’s people (love you, Claudia!), culture and food occupy a very special place in mi corazón.
There was a spectacular stretch of time when I ate more ceviche than tuna fish, and “hola” rolled off my tongue more naturally than “hello.”
But now, it’s been more than two years since I’ve set foot on Mexican soil. Despite a potent call to head south, my recent travel time and budget has been dominated by family and friend gatherings in New York, Michigan and other, well, far less Latin destinations.
I’ve been due for a taste of Mexico for quite some time.
But with no imminent plans to cross the border, I looked towards a more proximate alternative to tide me over — a twenty-minute trip downtown to Olvera Street on El Día de los Muertos.
On any given day, Olvera Street — which lies at the heart of the city’s birthplace, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument — sparkles with brightly hued textiles, ceramic and leather goods, and the sweet scent of sugary churros and horchata.
But on El Día de los Muertos, the street literally teems with life — and death.
It is far from morbid, however.
Celebrated primarily in Mexico, El Día de los Muertos has its roots in a pre-Hispanic festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, Aztec “Lady of the Dead.” Now associated with the Catholic All Souls’ Day, the holiday — arguably Mexico’s grandest — celebrates and honors the lives of those who have passed beyond this world.
And it offers up a colossal feast for the senses.
Everywhere you look, strings of orange, green, yellow, pink, purple, red and blue papel picado, or paper cut out designs of flowers and birds abound. The pan flute and mariachi music provide the day’s soundtrack, while Mexican flags and bougainvillea blow in the breeze.
The people are no exception.
Men, women and children dress up in “dandy” outfits, and paint on skeleton faces to embody and celebrate the duality of life and death.
Altars to those who have died are strewn with photographs, flowers, fruit, blankets, sombreros, bread, and calaveras de azúcar, or sugar skulls.
Some are poignant, honoring a young man, for example, whose life was extinguished several decades too early.
Others are more whimsical, giving a gleeful nod to the deceased’s penchant for popping open a cold one.
But no matter which way you turn, one thing’s for certain: El Día de los Muertos on Olvera Street offers up an intense flavor of Mexico — both figuratively and literally.
Now I think I’ll be able to hold out a little longer — at least until Cinco de Mayo.