Promenading down a cobblestone street with face paint and a headdress after dark was not on my 2021 Bingo Card.
And yet here I was, swept along with a crowd of brightly dressed revelers (and several giant puppets) at San Miguel de Allende’s annual “Parade of the Catrinas,” which steps off in front of famous Rosewood Hotel to celebrate Dia de los Muertos—or Day of the Dead.
Although I was surrounded by throngs of costumed participants—each one more elaborate than the last—I was also with a group of 13 women I felt safe with. We had met just a few days earlier at the stunning Casa Calderoni bed and breakfast, our home for our Next Tribe six-day experience, and we already felt like a tight-knit group of girlfriends.
It’s impossible to feel like strangers when you’ve shared such intimate details of love and loss.
No doubt our inaugural—and impromptu—Happy Hour on the rooftop of our hotel the day we arrived helped. Our group included artists, writers, lawyers, and a woman who’d had several successful exit strategies from startups she’d overseen operations for. We arrived from New York City and Los Angeles; Texas was well-represented. One woman—another Texan—now lived in Panama with her husband. A woman from Minnesota was a retired business executive now working to improve services to seniors.
Apart from all being women “of a certain age,” on the surface, we couldn’t be more different. But over the course of our week in San Miguel we bonded in many ways precisely because of our juncture in life. So many conversations, in our rooms, in the hallways, over food, while walking and shopping, explored our common experience about this unique time in life. We discussed transitions. Old careers and new. New loves and lost ones. Husbands and partners—or not. We talked adult children and in at least one case, new grandchildren. We discussed our beloved dogs and delighted in the antics of the many canines around town. We broke bread each morning at two long wooden tables to plot out our day’s adventure.
As the Day of the Dead approached (in Mexico the celebration is actually two days) we built an “ofrenda” (altar) in the lobby, decorating it with marigold petals, sugar skulls and votives. Tour guide and NextTribe Co-Founder Jeannie Ralston had asked each of us to bring photos of departed loved ones to place on the altar. As the evening progressed, we took turns telling the group about our people and their significance to us. Each story was profound. Some were shocking. Everyone was moved to tears. It was a powerful experience and brought us even closer together. It’s impossible to feel like strangers when you’ve shared such intimate details of love and loss.
The Girls are Back in Town
After a year with no travel under pandemic lockdowns, Ralston was delighted to return to the colonial town in the Mexican highlands, where she once lived with her family when her sons were young. “There is no place more magical than San Miguel during Dia de los Muertos,” she said. “It’s both a spiritual and a powerful experience, particularly for women. I love introducing people to this town.”
Putting things off was back in the Before Times.
Dia de los Muertos dates to pre-Hispanic times in Mexico, and it is widely celebrated throughout the country. While in the States Day of the Dead has been popularized as an opportunity to dress up in elaborate skeleton costumes and drink, it’s a scrupulously observed tradition in Mexico. Families visit the graves of family members to honor them, often setting up picnics with the departed’s favorite foods and drink. In the week leading up to the two-day celebration, locals decorate the doorways of their homes and businesses with marigolds and skull motifs. You see Catrinas everywhere. (Catrina is the skeleton woman in the wide-brimmed hat, first created by the artist Jose Posada around 1910 as social satire—the idea being that even the wealthy will die like the rest of us. Only later did she become associated with Dia de los Muertos.)
I’d read about this trip two years earlier in the Next Tribe’s newsletter. I knew I’d love to partake one day, having fallen in love with Mexico during a trip to Mexico City and Oaxaca in 2018. One day when I had the extra money/vacation time/braincells/etc. Then came 2020. When this trip was offered, tentatively, for the fall of 2021, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Putting things off was back in the Before Times.
A Fitness Program Too?
I don’t normally opt for group travel. But I really liked the idea of exploring a city with someone who knew it well and spoke the language. I liked the idea of letting somebody else organize activities and making travel arrangements. After a traumatic 18 months, I wanted to travel and I didn’t want to worry.
I lost almost five pounds even as I ate three big meals a day and drank my fair share of wine and margaritas.
Jeannie took care of all those details. We were picked up at the airport via van service for the 90-minute drive to San Miguel. My friend Stacy and I arrived at Casa Calderoni, which our group had to ourselves. We got to know everyone over dinner at a lovely restaurant that night. Jeannie had activities planned for each day, along with suggestions for shopping and dining. We were free to participate or not…but group participation made things more festive. And there was ample free time built in for wandering and shopping.
Over the course of the next week, we walked. A lot. My pedometer app showed between 10,000-12,000 steps every day. We walked up hills and down cobblestone lanes. Jeannie apologized for walking so fast, but in fact I lost almost five pounds even as I ate three big meals a day and drank my fair share of wine and margaritas.
Our B&B was well-located, not far from the town square—El Jardin (the garden) and the elegant La Parroquia church, tall and pink-hued. While there we were witness to a wedding promenade, complete with Mariachis and huge dancing puppets called Mojigangas. Throughout our stay, the many churches in San Miguel were packed with local families taking care of the milestones they couldn’t do during the pandemic—weddings, baptisms, funerals. The joy and cadence of everyday life was on colorful display.
- Dinner at a rooftop restaurant at sunset with sweeping views of the town and distant mountains.
- A local tour guide who explained the history of the town and its many churches—there are 35 of them. Each of them working and an integral part of the community. Church bells peal throughout the day.
- A trip to a local hot spring—the area is known for its hot springs—where we had a good soaking amidst friendly local families.
- An invitation into an expat couple’s private home and a viewing of the owner’s award-winning documentary, Birth Wars, about Mexican midwives.
- Face painting in preparation for the Day of the Dead celebration and “Parade of the Catrinas”
- A visit to the town cemetery to observe local families tend the graves of their loved ones, bringing food and other favorites of their departed as they prepare to honor their memories.
- A hike through a local botanical garden.
- Plenty of shopping.
Some of my personal highlights include late night churros with Mexican hot chocolate, watching local children having their faces painted for the upcoming holiday, and observing locals build extravagant ofrendas to dearly departed in the town square. I also enjoyed roaming the artisan’s market for treasures. I came home with a beautiful, hand-loomed wrap from Oaxaca and the silver necklace of my dreams. And of course gifts for my friends and family.
Our week ended with a spectacular meal at The Restaurant where the food and service were on par with anything I’d experienced in New York or London.
Our Next Tribe experience in San Miguel was extraordinary and worth every cent. I think every one of us aims to return in the future to this magical town. I know we all returned with memories we’ll never forget and new friendships. Hats off to Jeannie Ralston who brought us together in what was for many of us our first post-pandemic trip.
Top photo of Corinne Smith with a near-perfect re-creation of a Catrina by Janice Johnson.