Halloween is upon us and with it, the excessive commercialism that has, sadly, come to characterise this holiday. I know some parents make the effort to teach their kids some context, but I suspect many young trick or treaters will have no idea about the origins of the occasion. In fact, trick or treating is thought to have started in Ireland, Wales and Scotland where knocking door to door resulted in the exchange of food for a song. The origins of Halloween go back further: an adaptation of the Celtic pagan festival known as Samhain according to some, while Christians mark it as the evening before All Hallows, an 8th Century attempt to eradicate pagan celebrations. Both however, have something in common: it’s seen as a time when the spirits return and the dead are remembered.
My issue with Halloween, my only issue, is its materialistic bent. Encouraging children to demand treats doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, it’s a bit of fun and what kid doesn’t like dressing up and carving pumpkins? I have no problem with that! However, it seems, as with Christmas, that the true meaning of the occasion has been well and truly buried under all that candy-begging and even harassment of the vulnerable. And if you’re still in any doubt that this is big business, then consider these statistics from a recent Daily Telegraph article:
- £283 million: predicted sales of Halloween-based products in the UK in 2015
- $6.9 billion: total Halloween consumer spending in the US expected for 2015
- $2.1 billion: total amount expected to be spent in the US on candy in 2015
- 3 million: number of pumpkins Tesco expects to sell this Halloween
If you’re a Halloween fan and still reading, and I haven’t well and truly pissed you off by this point, then let me tell you what I prefer about Day of the Dead. Known as Día de Muertos, it’s been part of Mexican culture for three thousand years. I first experienced this festival a few years ago with a visit to Oaxaca and was immediately struck by the way that it blended religion, respect, commemoration and celebration. And let’s not forget that last one. Day of the Dead is anything but dull: there are fancy dress parades, carnival floats and of course, much music, drinking and dancing.
At the heart of the festivities is the dressing of the graves of the ancestors and the construction of homemade altars built to honour their spirits and encourage them to return for a visit. Work starts on these ofrendas in the last few days of October, and every street corner is occupied by flower sellers surrounded by buckets of vibrant orange marigolds known locally as cempasuchil.
- On November 1st, the souls of deceased children are the focus, while on November 2nd, it’s the turn of the adult ancestors. Families visit the cemetery and sit at the graveside to raise a glass of Mezcal and eat a special feast. It’s all at once a poignant, private and public occasion, as visitors are welcomed and encouraged to join in.
Catrina, the elegantly dressed skeleton and iconic figure of Day of the Dead, is everywhere. Clearly, commerce plays a big part in Día de Muertos too: vendors sell everything from sugar skulls to folk art skeletons, Mezcal to garlands of marigold petals. I don’t have a problem with that. But in Mexico it sits side by side with ceremony and tradition, with both given their proper place.
Día de Muertos touched me as a way to remember my grandparents, much loved but long departed. Amid the hectic day to day activities of “life goes on”, over time, I found myself thinking of them less and less. It’s not that I don’t still love them, but I began to worry that as the memories faded I’d one day forget to remember what a significant contribution they made to my life. Their photos are on the altar we made:
When I went to Oaxaca, I took with me their photographs, and, having been privileged to help build an altar at Casa de las Bugambilias, felt a stronger connection to them than I’d had in years. So this year, I’ve built my own altar and on November 2nd, All Souls Day, I’ll raise a glass to toast these very special people and thank them for all they did for me when they were here.
For more photos from the Oaxaca trip, please visit:
September 16 is Mexican Independence Day. Outside Mexico, it is overshadowed by the Cinco de Mayo celebrations which many confuse with Independence Day. In fact May 5 is the anniversary of Mexico’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Mexican independence instead was won from the Spanish in 1821 after a war which commenced on September 16 1810.
The fight to extricate Mexico from Spanish rule began with what’s known as the Grito de Dolores, translating as the Cry of Dolores, a rallying cry designed to incite revolt. It was uttered in the small town of Dolores, located a short distance from the colourful city of Guanajuato in central Mexico. The exact words that marked a new chapter in Mexico’s history have been forgotten, but the man who spoke them has not, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest whose statue you’ll find in Guanajuato. Hidalgo was executed a year later but his country owes its freedom to his bravery.
I took a bus to Guanajuato a few years back, travelling from the pretty artists’ enclave of San Miguel de Allende. Arriving in the place they call the “place of frogs” because early residents thought the surrounding hills looked like one, I was struck by the city’s colour. Looking like a city that has shares in Dulux, almost every building is painted a vibrant shade. Individually, they’re pretty, but the overall effect is stunning and it’s no surprise to learn that they’ve earned a UNESCO listing. I took the funicular up to the statue of El Pipila and looked down over the Teatro Juarez immediately below. It really is a splendid place.
Once, Guanajuato was a mining town, sitting on vast reserves of silver, making it one of the most productive mining areas in the country. The La Valenciana mine, located in the village of the same name, brought huge wealth to the Spanish mine owners and provided many labouring jobs, but it was closed down when the Spanish were given their marching orders. The mine did reopen, but is now permanently shut, though tours are available. Even if you don’t descend underground, it’s worth heading to La Valenciana to see the ornate San Cayetano church.
Back in Guanajuato, one of the best ways to appreciate the city is on foot, wandering along the many alleyways, including the Callejon del Beso (the alleyway of the kiss) where it’s so narrow it’s possible to kiss your lover from balconies on opposite sides of the street. Cafes are another thing that the city does well, scattered in the plazas that are lined with museums, theatres, churches and historic mansions.
The day is marked with fiestas, flags, parades and partying. Whether you’re in Mexico or not, I’m sure you’ll join me in raising a glass to that. Viva Mexico!
Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the name given to the stretch of Quintana Roo coastline that extends from Cancun in the north (or a few kilometres south of it, definitions vary) to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the south. Together with the neighbouring state of Yucatan, it is a deservedly popular package and independent tourism destination. This guide is aimed at the first-time visitor and should help you to make the most of your holiday. Prices are shown in Mexican pesos, which at the time of writing had an exchange rate of about twenty to the pound. The information given was correct at the time of writing, but check locally as things change.
How to get there
Most visitors arrive at Cancun’s international airport just to the south of town, well served by direct scheduled flights from the UK, for example, with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. It is possible to fly to Mexico City and catch a connecting flight but this takes longer. A wide range of packages are available with operators such as Thomson, Thomas Cook and First Choice. From the airport, the best way of getting to your hotel depends on your location. ADO buses serve the centres of Cancun and Playa del Carmen on a half-hourly basis, with fares of 148 pesos per person to Playa and 62 pesos to Cancun. Airport shuttles are available to the main resort areas for around four times as much and private hotel transfers considerably more. If you’re on a package, transfers will usually be included but check your booking documents.
How to get around
Taxis are cheap but better still are the minibuses called colectivos that ply the main road at regular intervals. To catch one, simply flag it down and tell the conductor your intended destination. Fares are cheap so take loose change and small notes. In Playa, colectivos can be found in town at Calle 2 Norte between 15th and 20th, whereas in Cancun you’ll need to come out of the Zona Hotelera into downtown, where they congregate outside La Comercial Mexicana supermarket on Avenida Tulum. In Tulum, look for them opposite the ADO bus station in the town. Several bus companies serve a large network across Quintana Roo (the state containing the coastal strip) and neighbouring Yucatan (where you’ll find Chichen Itza). The best quality buses, with fewer stops and therefore slightly dearer fares, are run by ADO, whose website http://www.ado.com.mx is easy to navigate. Local routes are also served by the cheaper Oriente and Mayab buses, which tend to be a little less comfortable and stop more frequently.
Where to stay
Cancun is the largest of the Mayan Riviera resorts. Created from scratch four decades ago, it basically consists of two areas: downtown, where the locals live, and the Zona Hotelera, a narrow strip of land flanked by a lagoon on one side and white sand in the other. Its lively nightlife and many bars attract a young crowd, especially from the USA and Canada. However, Cancun’s too noisy and brash for many, who Instead head an hour down the coast to Playa del Carmen. Playa has grown immensely in the last decade, but its pedestrian street, Quinta, with a good selection of shops, bars and restaurants still attracts many people. Try Sur, which serves Argentine steaks in a swanky setting, or Blue Lobster for seafood and glow in the dark blue margaritas. The central beach, though eroded in places, is busy and lined with popular beach clubs playing music while its water is safe for swimming.
Alternatives to Cancun and Playa
Another hour by bus further south, Tulum is rapidly developing with accommodation strung out along the beach. Once home to a few hippy hangouts, it now also hosts beach clubs and luxury hotels alongside the hammocks. Puerto Morelos, midway between Cancun and Playa, is a small town that contains a few hotels, such as Casa Caribe to which the excellent Little Mexican Cooking School is attached. Akumal, a quarter of an hour south of Playa, serves those who like their resort to be local and relatively unspoilt. The easiest way to get to both Puerto Morelos and Akumal is by flagging down a colectivo on the side of the main road, known as the 307. Connecting Cancun to Tulum and beyond is a string of all-inclusive luxury resorts, gated from the main road and fiercely protective of their private patch of beach. These are well suited to families as the all-inclusive option makes budgeting easier and there are plenty of water-based activities for all ages. Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or a family seeking a fortnight of water sports and lazy days by the pool, there’s something on the Mayan Riviera that will cater for you. If you don’t mind being away from the beach, the town of Valladolid, two hours inland from Cancun, offers an alternative to independent travellers seeking a less touristy experience. ADO buses run frequently, costing 176 pesos each way from both Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Set around a charming plaza, there are a handful of hotels and restaurants, the best being El Meson de Marques right on the main square. From Valladolid, it’s easy to get to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam as well as to the pretty town of Merida to the north of the peninsula, itself a good base for visiting the ruins of Uxmal and Sayil. The town is busy and it can feel less comfortable in the heat without a cooling sea breeze, but Valladolid’s a useful stopping off point between the coast and Merida if you wish to tour the peninsula.
As you’d expect from a well-established destination, there’s a number of water and eco-parks to tempt holidaymakers out of their resorts. If you go to only one, make it Xcaret. Pronounced “ish-ca-rett”, the site was once a Mayan port. Its archaeological remains can be visited without having to pay the entrance fee to the main park, and cost 43 pesos, but the park itself is a fun way to spend the day. You can swim in a lazy river and visit the park’s wildlife including turtles and dolphins. The park features a reconstructed Mayan ball court as well as a typical hacienda and folk art museum. At night, stay for the spectacle that condenses a thousand years of history into a couple of hours. It features everything from Mayan sport played with balls of fire to dance and folklore set pieces representing Mexico’s diverse regions. This and other performances such as an equestrian show and the exciting display put on by the Voladores de Papantla are included in the ticket price. It’s simple to find booths selling tickets in Cancun and Playa del Carmen or you can book online. Tickets start from US$89 with some activities such as swimming with dolphins carrying a supplement. For more information visit http://www.xcaret.com or pick up a leaflet when you arrive.
Xplor is the go-to park for thrill seekers. Tickets cover four attractions: a ride in an amphibious vehicle, a lazy river swim, underground rafting and the highest zip lines in Latin America. Full instruction is given and a helmet mounted camera ensures that you have a selection of photos as a memento of your day. Tickets cost from US$119 and can be purchased in much the same way as Xcaret. Xplor’s website http://www.xplor.travel has all the information. As well as Xcaret and Xplor, there are a range of other attractions run by the same company, including Xel-Ha and Rio Secreto. Perhaps even more fun is to do what the locals do to make the best of the landscape. Beneath the peninsula, the limestone rock has slowly been weathered away to create a fascinating underground world of sinkholes and caverns into which water has gradually filtered. These lagoons, known as cenotes, form natural swimming pools popular with families at weekends but often quiet in the week. There are many close to the coast, but one of the best is Cenote Xkeken at Dzitnup. Located a little way out of Valladolid, it is a glistening turquoise lake lit through a hole in the roof of a huge cavern dangling with stalactites. Entrance costs 80 pesos.
The large number of historical sites in Quintana Roo and the Yucatan can leave the visitor ruined out. It’s best to choose a few and enjoy them, rather than attempt to tick them all off in one trip. The jewel in the crown is without a doubt Chichen Itza. A sprawling site surrounded by jungle, it centres around the restored Kukulkan pyramid and an interesting collection of other structures including an observatory and ball court. Every tour operator offers day trips, but the site is easy to visit independently. ADO buses connect Chichen Itza directly to Cancun and Playa del Carmen via good roads. Guides can be hired at the entrance if you wish. A ticket to get in costs 533 pesos for foreign tourists. (Mexicans enjoy a discounted rate, locals even more so).
The must-see on the coast is Tulum, not for its scale but for its location. Tulum’s temples sit right on top of the cliff above a small patch of sand and a turquoise sea and unsurprisingly as a result receives the highest number of visitors of any of the peninsula’s archaeological sites. Like Chichen Itza, the volume of tourists necessitates obvious management and many structures are roped off, but the grey of the stone against the blue sky makes this a very atmospheric place despite the crowds. It’s still just possible to find a quiet spot with just a lizard or two for company, especially first thing in the morning. Tickets are priced at 80 pesos.
Coba, just a few years ago off the beaten track but now increasingly in the tour operators’ sights, is situated an hour or so from Tulum. Once a thriving Mayan city, the ruins are scattered through an area of jungle crisis-crossed with Mayan roads known as sacbe. The pyramid here is less well preserved than that at Chichen Itza and for now at least can be climbed by anyone untroubled by vertigo – with just a single rope to cling on to, this is not a climb for those with a fear of heights. Entrance costs 80 pesos but due to the size of the site, many people opt to rent bicycles or take a ride to the ruins in a cycle rickshaw at extra cost.
Note that at present Coba is closed to visitors.
Less well-known and yet only twenty minutes by colectivo from Valladolid are the extensive ruins at Ek Balam. Relatively recently rediscovered, like Coba the site has a pyramid to climb, the Acropolis, its 106 worn steps rising steeply from the ground to offer extraordinary views of the surrounding jungle from the top. Ek Balam means dark jaguar in Mayan and as a result, the observant will spot jaguar motifs carved into the stone throughout the site. The entrance fee is 456 pesos for foreign tourists. Colectivo taxis from Valladolid cost upwards of 150 pesos each way; either pay for a seat and wait for others to join you or pay for the whole car. As they’re taxis rather than minibuses, you’ll find them on Calle 44 between 37 and 35, tucked inside the courtyard of a building rather than on the road outside.
Further afield, the attractive colonial town of Merida makes a convenient base if you wish to visit the Yucatecan sites of Sayil, Labna and Uxmal. It’s also close to Izamal whose ruins boast the largest surviving Mayan structure in the area. Getting to Merida takes around five hours by bus from the coastal resorts of Quintana Roo.
A coral reef extends from the Riviera Maya down past Belize and on to Honduras. The second longest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it provides excellent opportunities for both snorkelling and diving. The largest protected reserve in the area is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of the main tourist strip. Tours showcase its flora and fauna, in particular birds, dolphins and turtles, plus occasionally manatees for those lucky enough to spot them. Akumal’s public beach is a good place for green turtle watching. There’s no need to book a tour, as snorkelling equipment can be rented from the dive shop on the beach, from where it’s a short swim out to the reef. Even in busy spots such as the main beach at Playa del Carmen, you’ll see flamingos diving for fish and bobbing about amidst the breakers.
Off the coast
Cozumel, an established cruise ship and diving destination, is easily reached by ferry from the terminal at the southern end of Playa del Carmen. It offers the facilities you’d usually expect from a place where the majority of visitors are only in town for a short while. Island tours are expensive as are taxis. Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox, reached by ferry from Cancun, are better bolt holes if you want a more laid back island stay.