It can be argued that no better spot in Mexico exists to honor los Dias de los Muertos than the city of Aguascalientes.
The hometown of the venerated 19th century satirical newspaper cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created the now archetypal image of “La Calavera Catrina,” serves up a ten-day festival that transforms the idea of “state fair” into a “state of the art” extravaganza for all ages.
My spouse and I joined some friends last year for a weekend visit to the Aguascalientes festival – just days after our move to Guadalajara.
We were completely unprepared for the sophistication and breadth of the fair. Stretching over a vast landscape, the day and evening programming includes big-time music acts, lectures, theatre and dance performances, combined with large-scale dining, food and tequila tastings, and great tented exhibition halls that feature locally grown and preserved foodstuffs for sale from all over the country – not to mention the acres of fine handicrafts offered in long trains of sales booths. We made our way through fair in the evening hours, and I believe the fair is truly best enjoyed after dark.
In keeping with Posada’s mindset, the festival is ironic, irreverent and raucous, illustrated by the room-sized exhibitions of vividly decorated “Altares de Muertos,” sponsored by local civic and business groups and dedicated to local and national public figures, usually pricking a bubble or two of vanity in their portrayals. The festival is also crowded at times, with visitors from all over the country thronging to enjoy the seemingly endless variety of pleasures.
Not only is the festival itself a draw, but also two museums in the city center are significant contributors to the atmosphere: the Museo Nacional de la Muerte and the Jose Posada Museum.
The National Museum of Death preserves a small but exquisite collection of pre-Columbian and contemporary ritual objects, all centered on Mexico’s unique fascination with the end of life. The Jose Posada Museum is a superbly organized multi-media chronological journey through the artist’s life and career, with rooms showing examples of his work and its cultural significance that resounds in Mexican society today.
A walk around the city center offers the expected weekend market as well as several sidewalk galleries, along with a varied selection of well prepared and presented touristic dining. While exploring the center, we found ourselves serenaded by “Tuna” musicians – university students in traditional garb performing on the streets both to busk for money and keep a medieval tradition alive, singing and playing lutes, tambourines, guitars and bandurrias.
Aguascalientes denizens are obviously proud of their city’s security and sophistication as a focus for international commerce and manufacturing, and they apparently aim to make their small state a year-round tourist destination. Upscale hotels, including the lovely Quinta Real in which we stayed, offer affordable and often elegant lodging. While the Festival de Calaveras is only one of the several festivals that consume the town throughout the year, certainly it must be the most ebullient.
Fiesta de Las Calaveras takes place October 31 through November 9 at Boulevard San Marcos (Isla San Marcos), Aguascalientes. For more information about Aguascalientes, its museums, the festival, lodging and dining, visit www.vivaaguascalientes.com.