This was the first magical moment.
We had just spent an hour at a rooftop bar watching the sky become blurry stripes of gold and red over the mountains to the west. Closer in, the entire town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, was laid out before us. Glowing in the light from the setting sun were the crown-shaped, grapefruit-colored main church, called the Parroquia, and a grid of cobblestone streets edged by rows of colonial buildings in vibrant paprika and mustard tones. The air was cool and fresh, and the 10 of us who were taking part in NextTribe’s maiden trip (the first time in a long time any of us had been involved with something termed “maiden”) probably would have been happy if this had been the highlight of the day.
Behind the Mojigangas—like pied piper recruits—were 30 or so people, dancing and shouting to the tune of the mariachis who brought up the rear.
I was leading the group, thrilled to show off the town where I lived for four years (the town that was named the number one destination in the world by Travel + Leisure readers), and I thought the evening couldn’t get any better. But when we walked down the four flights of stairs to the street, it did. We heard mariachis as we reached the ground floor of the building, and then we saw two huge, lumbering papier-mache figures enter the courtyard. These big-eyed figures, manned by humans inside, are called Mojigangas and are rented to make an appearance to help gin up the festivities. Behind the Mojigangas—like pied piper recruits—were 30 or so people, dancing and shouting to the tune of the mariachis who brought up the rear.
The thing you have to know about our group of 10 NextTribers is that we’re not wallflowers. Or if we are wallflowers individually, we certainly weren’t as a group. That meant we dove right in with the 30 others who had just entered and started dancing to the music. I even slipped the musicians some money to play my favorite Mexican tune, “Mariachi Loco.”
Dancing in the half light, spilling out into the street with those swaying Mojigangas felt like a scene from a movie. And it sure felt like it just could be the peak of our trip.
But I was wrong. Through the rest of our week in San Miguel, as we immersed ourselves deeper in the culture, our experiences became richer, more meaningful, more fun. That’s because real magic happens when you get 10 adventurous souls together in an exotic location.
We started the week as 10 individuals. Some of us were friends before. Lori Seekatz and I are business partners in NextTribe. I lived next door to Kimberly Cihlar in college, all those years ago, and we’ve stayed tight ever since. But many of us were completely new to each other. One of us had never been out of the U.S. before and had found the strength and motivation to say yes to this trip. Another had health concerns that could have been an excuse not to sign up, but she decided to challenge herself. We were all ready to soak in a new culture. We were open to friendship and possibility, so the bonding was quick and deep.
We were all ready to soak in a new culture. We were open to friendship and possibility, so the bonding was quick and deep.
“I made some new friends, learned some things about myself, and had an adventure in a place that I’ve wanted to visit for decades,” reported Beth Woods, from Austin.
“The trip was like Girl Scout Camp for grown-ups, but with margaritas instead of cookies,” said Ellen Williams, from New York City. “I’d go almost anywhere with this terrific group of women.”
Let’s Do This: Day of the Dead
We certainly did go almost everywhere in San Miguel. Other magical moments were swimming through a man-made cave in the hot springs outside of San Miguel, cuddling together under blankets at another rooftop bar while looking out at a full moon over the city, and a five-course dinner with wine pairings at the finest restaurant in town (a grilled beet and goat cheese dish with beet foam, seared tuna with plum marmalade, and on and on).
Topping everything off were the celebrations for Day of the Dead, one of Mexico’s most beautiful and poignant holidays. On November 2nd, a guide took us to two of San Miguel’s cemeteries and explained the festival’s traditions, which are geared to celebrating life rather than obsessing about death, a sentiment I appreciate more with every passing year.
The food and the smell of the flowers are an invitation for the spirit of that person to visit you in your dreams.
Families turn out at gravesides with picnics, flowers, beer, and music to reminisce and honor the person buried within. People make small shrines for loved ones who have passed—gathering photos, food, and drinks the person liked—and lots of marigolds, which are part of the ritual. The food and the smell of the flowers are an invitation for the spirit of that person to visit you in your dreams.
The holiday had a special resonance for me since I had lost my father only a week before the trip. I brought a photo of him and bought a bottle of his favorite wine, Pinot Grigio, to place on an altar in the lobby of our beautiful hotel. When I lived in San Miguel, I once created an altar for my grandmothers and great aunt. That very night I dreamed of them—a vivid, moving dream. I had hoped I would dream of my father while we were on this trip. But alas, I didn’t. But I feel sure that someday soon I will.
Painting Our Faces…Painting the Town
As special as that day was, I think that it was the night before that was our group’s favorite experience. On that night, November 1st, people throughout San Miguel get their faces painted like the famous Catrina character—a skeleton in beautiful Victorian clothing—from Mexican tradition. The background is that a political cartoonist drew Catrina around 1910 to make a comment on the shallowness of the rich and to emphasize that death was the great equalizer, taking rich and poor alike. Her white face was also a jab at indigenous people who tried to pass as the higher class Europeans
Church bells were thrumming; lights were flickering in trees; incense filled the air, adding to the dreamlike quality.
Most of us had our faces painted at one of the salons or temporary make-up stands in town. A few wore masks. We all had flower crowns in our hair. Then we set off to San Miguel’s main square, called El Jardin, where we saw swarms of other Catrinas and Catrins (her male counterparts), and watched a parade of dancers and drummers. Church bells were thrumming along with the drums; lights were flickering in trees; incense filled the air, adding to the dreamlike quality. Being masked felt liberating—no one could tell our age or if we were locals or tourists. We looked at each other and laughed and hugged and knew that we were blessed to be able to still have such extraordinary adventures and carry these searing memories with us from here forward.