Had anyone told me, ever, that one night I’d paint my face like a dead person and follow a Mariachi band through the streets of a Mexican city, I’d have stared in wonder. Which is what I did as I followed the music in San Miguel de Allende and celebrated Dia de los Muertos—The Day of the Dead.
I joined NextTribe’s trip to San Miguel, soaking in the abundant beauty of Mexico’s culture and the kindness of our Southern neighbor.
Fourteen women, most of whom had never met, danced together through the streets, sharing meals, and new adventures. Some expected. Others not.
We’re offering this same exciting trip next year for the first 14 women who sign up first. This trip is very popular and sells out fast. Just sayin’. Click here for more info.
We were a varied lot. Engineer, writer, fashion executive, attorney, jewelry artist, paralegal, photographer, and a tutor. A distiller, a rancher, a grantor of educational grants, a real estate agent, a Spanish teacher, and a journalist. Some retired. Some not. A few engaged in new exploits of business. Others only wandering the world.
We came from the Catskills, Colorado Springs, Austin, California, Scotland, New York City, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Tennessee.
We were loquacious, pensive, on-time, late, introverts, extroverts, energetic walkers, and taxi-flaggers.
Commonality? Explorers. Every damn one of us were curious and eager for fun. San Miguel de Allende certainly offered that and more. Fun far beyond the yellow ochre, terra cotta, and burnt sienna hues of the buildings, beyond the doorways and narrow streets decorated with hundreds of thousands of marigolds as the festival of several days began.
Little did we know how this adventure would bind us into a tightly knit group.
The Home Base
Arriving at Casa Calderoni’s unadorned front door on a narrow street, we walked through green double doors and found a large atrium filled with red, white, and pink bougainvillea and fig trees promising a delightful stay. From the air above, a few bougainvillea petals fluttered down from balconies, while the gentle flow of a wall fountain provided the sound track.
A 360-degree view of the city allowed us to savor beautiful sunsets over the distant mountains.
Saltillo-tiled floors and stairs led to a common room for breakfast and the many floors of rooms. Each room was named after artists such as Diego Rivera, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Frida Kahlo. Mine was Matisse. Immediate karma, as he is my current favorite.
On the roof, a 360-degree view of the city allowed us to savor beautiful sunsets over the distant mountains, the colors matching San Miguel’s buildings. It was also a perfect gathering venue for late night conversation.
With our tribe inhabiting the entire casa, I easily meandered in my morning stupor to the dining area, pajama-clad, in search of coffee and creamer.
Casa Calderoni is located in the historic district, a short walk to the Parroquia, the large neo-Gothic cathedral with huge bells that seemingly rang with no particular schedule I could ascertain. The 1800’s-era tall spires, made from the pink stone of a local quarry, served as a beacon for lost women. Find your way back there while wandering the streets and you could gather your bearings and make your way home.
One day, while reorienting myself, I did receive a wave from the gentleman manning the behemoth bells. I heartily returned the gesture.
The 1800’s-era tall spires, made from the pink stone of a local quarry, served as a beacon for lost women.
The guide for our walking tour on day one was Anjelica, a lovely local woman; she shared culturally rich personal stories of her family as she led us through the streets and plazas explaining history and tradition. Her inclusion of the indigenous people’s contributions incorporated into the artwork and structure of the churches, and unseen by the ignorant eye of the ruling Spanish, was quite entertaining. Quetzalcoatl, you snake you, surviving in the carvings of the chapel’s spires.
The spires reminded me of the strong women I meet in NextTribe. Strong columns of women, unafraid to venture, even with those they don’t know.
Surrounded by churches that exemplify Baroque, Plateresque, and Neoclassical architecture, we followed Anjelica along the narrow sidewalks and cobblestone streets. We swam in hot springs and visited the old village of Atontonilco, where the Sistine Chapel of Mexico had us staring, open-mouthed, at the ceiling.
Walking, walking we did. I averaged 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day as we toured. Factor in shopping to those numbers.
I’m not a shopper. I last maybe an hour before I’m scouting out the nearest cantina. I still found the cantina and had my share of Mezcalritas, but my purchases far surpassed my usual small trinket collected for my travel bookshelf. So many fine textiles. And hats. It was hot in the day. Needed a hat.
We ate Peruvian, Mexican, TexMex, and Mexican fine dining delights and tapas. Beautiful desserts. And, no, waiters don’t pass out fourteen separate checks.
This check situation is where my head blows up. Salud to the one woman who puts it all on her credit card. Mayhem in the morning when women attempt to remember their food and drink orders and how to activate their Venmo. Me, an English major, attempting the peso to dollar math in my head. Most entertaining.
I did pay everybody, right?
All this, in itself, made a grand adventure. However, this trip brought a bonding much more complex. As San Miguel prepared for the Day of the Dead celebration, altars appeared around the city. Photos and mementoes of lost dear ones accompanied these altars in the plazas and on doorsteps and stairways. As Aztec tradition dictates, marigold flowers, with their heady scent and bright colors, offer the dead souls a path to their loved ones. Sugar skulls and small toys, traditionally made from bone and egg whites, are left as well. Pan de muertos (Day of the Dead bread) also has a special place on the altar.
We were no longer just fourteen women on a trip.
With a “When in Rome” attitude, our tribe participated as well. Two tables were placed in the atrium of our casa, adorned with marigolds, bread, skulls, and salt—a hot commodity in old times—leaving a trail for souls on their journey.
Each of us brought photos and keepsakes from those we honored. One night before dinner, we poured wine and one by one, we stood by the altar, sharing our stories of those so cherished. Tears. Laughter. Tears. More tears.
As I listened to tales of lost brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and friends, an understanding rose that all those we honored and summoned had served to knit us tightly together. We were no longer just fourteen women on a trip. The revelry and celebrations ahead would bring great fun, but by having pooled our vulnerability in this tendering of hearts, we were now a tribe. A tribe bound by a singular experience, forever in touch with one another’s hearts.
The Paint Job
The next night, with the dining room laden with tamales, black bean dishes, and drink, three local women painted our faces as we prepared to march in the Catrina parade—a rowdy affair where those dressed up as characters who have come to represent Day of the Dead promenade around town.
My phone did not recognize me when I opened it.
After my paint job, I laughed as my phone did not recognize me when I opened it to photograph others. Hell, I didn’t recognize me either. I sort of liked that anonymity.
In our selected costumes, complete with headdresses we had made or purchased, we paraded through the plaza in search of the parade. At an intersection, the lead Mariachi band marched by and we elegantly snuck in behind.
While reveling along, waving to the crowd, I said with great gratitude to my traveling buddy, Beth, “What a life we lead.”
We paraded around and around the park where thousands in the crowd sang traditional Mexican songs, swaying back and forth.
Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay/Cantas y no llores might have been the only portion of Cielito Lindo we may have known, but we belted it out. Later we had drinks on the rooftop of a fancy hotel, where we returned the next night for dinner and were most pleased when a fabulous fireworks display added to the evening.
On Dia de los Muertos, we visited one of the public cemeteries in San Miguel. A festival atmosphere prevailed as vendors lined the walls outside the cemetery with three-foot long bouquets of marigolds and many other flower varieties. Inside, colorful banners spread out above, and families carried shovels and pails to tidy gravesites. We heard Mariachi bands, a Mass in progress, families singing to loved ones. Altar gifts were placed near headstones as families celebrated their dead.
A festival atmosphere prevailed at one of the public cemeteries.
Each day brought hordes of people into the center of San Miguel, yet it never felt overcrowded. The people were all very kind and respectful. As with visits to Mexico City and the beach in Troncones (again with NextTribe), San Miguel reminded me of the varied culture of Mexico and its rich traditions. Passions are deeply and freely expressed in art, literature, food, music, and love.
For our partied-out tribe of fourteen? Weather affected some of our returns. Changed flights. Six hours circling Dallas. An extra day for a lucky few. And we are now well-versed in how to replace a lost passport in Mexico—not that that will ever happen again.
Most important, we are richer in our friendships. More curious than before and grateful for the opportunity NextTribe offered.
A magical trip. Just like our magical destination—San Miguel de Allende.
Julie Sucha Anderson is a writer of personal essays, short stories, and two novels. She is an editor and contributor to many publications including Grrl Talk – Sass, Wit, and Wisdom from the Austin WriterGrrls. Please visit her blog—Midlife Roadtripper.