I often stumble upon festivals through sheer serendipity while traveling around Mexico. The first encounter occurred during a solo week in Oaxaca in the 1980s. While sipping a beer at a sidewalk café one evening, I heard an astonishing clamor that brought me to my tiptoes. Devil faces were popping up over the hedges on the other side of the plaza. Drums, flutes and guitars played dueling harmonies.
Leaving beer and backpack behind (an act I wouldn’t recommend now), I rushed across the plaza and began photographing farmers bearing shrines on their shoulders and wizened ladies in black shawls carrying flowers and burning candles. The parade was a simple affair honoring a local patron saint, but its masked dancers and ear-rattling rockets fueled a desire to see every traditional religious celebration in Mexico.
I’ve come nowhere near fulfilling that dream, of course. But I have seen farcical puppets and gorgeously costumed dancers honor Saint Michael the Archangel in San Miguel de Allende. I’ve been jolted awake by midnight explosions in Mexico City only to find the neighbors beginning feast day celebrations. I’ve learned to steady my nerves and keep an eye out for angels, devils and saints.
Some religious festivals are national holidays and advance hotel reservations are essential at the festival’s home turf. Check Mexico’s official website for a comprehensive list of events. Here’s a sampling of significant religious festivals to whet your curiosity.
Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is Mexico’s most sacred site, said to be the second most visited Catholic site in the world (after Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican). Millions make their way to the Basilica on the Lady’s feast day — a crowd scene I’ve yet to brave. Instead, I visited the Basilica off-season and was able to leisurely tour the original 17th century church devoted to the Lady and the “new” Basilica constructed between 1974 and 1976. Abundant vendors sold holy cards, rosaries and other memorabilia as several pilgrims made their way up steep stairways to the old church on their knees. Despite the tacky souvenirs and Mexico City’s pervasive smog, the shrine felt special and sacred.
The UFO-shaped “new” basilica contains the cloak of Juan Diego, the peasant believed to have seen the manifestation of the Virgin Mary on a hillside in 1531. According to legend, the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego and told him to tell the Spanish bishop to build a church in her honor. To prove her existence, she had the peasant gather roses in his cloak for the bishop. When Juan Diego opened his cloak, the roses fell away and the image of the Virgin appeared in the garment, which now hangs in the Basilica.
Millions swarm the Basilica on December 12, while smaller commemorations take place all around the country. One year I followed boys wearing shirts with the virgin’s image to a procession at Puerto Vallarta’s Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Another time, while on Cozumel, I happened upon a parade passing a neighborhood church devoted to the Virgin. It’s nearly impossible to visit Mexico on December 12 without witnessing a celebration devoted to Mexico’s patron saint.
Semana Santa, March 31 to April 4, 2010
The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday brings out a fondness for drama and suffering among Catholics all over Mexico. Elaborate Passion Plays are held in cities and small towns, with residents vying for the roles of Jesus and Mary and entire communities laboring over costumes and floats. The performances, which normally start on Holy Thursday and last through Easter Sunday, depict the Last Supper, Stations of the Cross, Crucifixion and Resurrection. The re-enactments tend to be solemn and intense, with the actors vividly depicting pain and cruelty.
The Tarahumara in the Copper Canyon are especially devoted to Semana Santa. Elaborately painted dancers from far-flung canyon villages gather to drum and whirl day and night from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. The Passion Plays are particularly intense, with believers slaying Judas and actors faithfully copying Christ’s suffering. In Chiapas, residents build elaborate wooden structures depicting Judas and other hated figures and objects (politicians are especially reviled). After a lurid re-enactment of the Crucifixion, the figures are set afire as fireworks and sparks fill the air.
San Cristobal de las Casas is the epicenter of all religious and political festivals in Chiapas. Indigenous customs are vividly interspersed with Catholic ceremonies in nearby San Juan Chamula. Equally dramatic ceremonies take place in San Luis Potosí, while the performances are toned down in Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán.
Semana Santa coincides with Spring Break and is a popular weeklong vacation time for Mexican families. Hotels are sold out months in advance at beach resorts and colonial cities. Book your rooms long before your trip.
The Romeria, October 12
Also known as the feast of Our Lady of Zapopan, the Romeria hasn’t yet become a tourist attraction. Instead, it draws nearly one million pilgrims from throughout the state of Jalisco to the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan near Guadalajara. They come to thank the Lady for miraculously preventing droughts, floods and other disasters and to ask for her continued beneficence.
As the story goes, the Lady first appeared in Zapopan as a straw medallion worn by a Franciscan missionary. During a fierce battle between Spanish conquistadors and native peoples in 1525, the friar held his charm over the battlefield and fighting ceased. Countless miracles have since been attributed to Our Lady of Zapopan, dubbed “the Pacifier.”
Barely a foot high, the Lady’s statue travels around Jalisco during the year as difficulties arise. She returns to the Basilica on her feast day, accompanied by fervent believers who crawl on their knees and sleep on sidewalks as the Lady’s statue travels through Guadalajara and on to the Basilica. On October 12, the people amass in Zapopan’s main plaza and cheer as the statue rides high on the shoulders of a chosen few faithful. Dozens of priests, nuns, bishops and novitiates greet the Lady and accompany her to her rightful place inside the Basilica. The dancing, feasting and fireworks continue over several days and nights. It’s nearly impossible to get to the plaza on October 12 and local hotels are packed and noisy. Your best bet is to stay in Guadalajara and hire a tour company to help you understand and appreciate the festivities.