Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Puerto Vallarta Part 3: On the water and in the air

A gentle surf rolls in from Banderas Bay. Looking north, you can see the new high-rise hotels and condos across the arc of Bahia de Banderas. Like most seaside resorts, the focus of Puerto Vallarta is toward the ocean expanse and the clear blue skies above. I decided to devote this segment of my Puerto Vallarta series to some of the many interesting activities we observed on the water and in the air. Some of these encourage participation and some are spectator sports. All are eye-catching and amusing to the casual stroller along the Malecon.


Sailboat glides gracefully along the curve of the Bahia. I was a little surprised we didn't see more sailboats while we strolled the Malecon. This one was beautiful and silent, like a huge swan moving across the turquoise water of the Bahia. For information about marinas in Puerto Vallarta, click here. Someone once described a pleasure boat as "a hole in the water into which you pour money." For those of us lacking deep pockets, there are less expensive ways of getting around on the water.

A less expensive way to get from point A to B.  The water taxi owner seen above was engaged in preparing his boat for the morning's business. For information about water taxi routes and prices, as well as those for other forms of Puerto Vallarta transportation, click here.

Looking for more than simple transportation? How about a classic "party boat." The three-decker above is one of the larger versions which do half and full-day cruises around the Bahia. Most make one or more stops for snorkeling, or hiking around a remote cove. Most also provide meals, and drinks of various degrees of strength, hence the name. For a selection of the various kinds and prices of party boats, click here.

And then there is the low-cost party boat. A pescador (fisherman) anchored his vessel just off shore, and pelicans immediately took up residence. These feathered squatters keep a close eye on the local fishermen. When a net is hauled in and the catch is dumped in the bottom of the boat, sharp-eyed pelicans can often deftly steal a quick snack. Such minor thefts seem to be treated with good-natured tolerance by the pescadores. Brown pelicans like those above have some unusual characteristics. Because they swallow their food whole, their tiny tongues are only about the circumference of a toothpick, since a larger tongue would get in the way. In addition, they are able to drink seawater, a very unusual adaptation.

The air above the sea also provides opportunities for amusement. A parasailor will be clipped into a harness while the crew member inflates the parachute. A long line is connected to a speedboat which takes off as the parasailor skips a nervous step or two down the beach and is quickly airborne. To get a feel for what this experience is really like, click here for a short video.

The full experience is quite exhilarating and worth doing, at least once. The cost at Puerto Vallarta runs about $35-$40 (USD). The view from several hundred feet up is stunning, with no window or other obstruction between the eye and what is beheld. While I didn't venture up into the air on this trip, I have previously parasailed in Cancun. The only time I really felt a qualm was when, as I dangled under the parachute hundreds of feet in the air, I noticed that the only things connecting me to this whole contraption were a couple of metal clips attaching my harness to the parachute. The technology held, however, and I survived to tell the tale. For more information about a variety of heart-thumping activities available at Puerto Vallarta, click here.

Voladores of Papantla climb to their perch before beginning their ancient performance. A tall pole, 42 meters (138 ft.) high, lined with triangular steps, stands not far from the Los Arcos amphitheater on the Malecon. The pole might easily be mistaken for an unusually tall flag pole, except for the odd square "crows nest" on top. Several times a day, 5 indigenous men from the Vera Cruz community of Papantla climb the pole to the very top, past long dangling yellow ropes attached to each side of the crows nest. What is seen today as a tourist amusement originated 1,500 years ago among the Totonac people as a way to propitiate the gods of water and fertility.

The first Volador up the ladder is a musician. He sits in the middle while beating on a tiny drum suspended from the end of a flute that he plays simultaneously. The other 4 Voladores sit facing him on thin pipes hanging over a lot of empty space. During an ancient drought around 500 AD, a small group of brave young men decided to take action to save their people. Wanting to draw the attention of the fertility god Xipe Totec, among others, they selected a tree in the forest, cut it down and brought it to their village where they trimmed it and raised it erect. They adorned themselves with the feathers of colorful local birds and climbed to the top.

At a signal from their leader, the piper, the Voladores drop over backward and begin to spin. The intent of the young men in ancient times was to imitate the swirling appearance of birds. Unlike the nylon ropes of today, the ancients used vines collected in the lowland jungles of Mexico's Gulf Coast.


As the Voladores whirl, the ropes unwind enabling their gradual descent. This photo provides a sense of just how high the pole stands, and the potential consequences of an accidental slip. However, the Voladores train for this performance from childhood and make few errors.


Safety equipment is minimal. The Volador loops the rope loosely around his middle, and holds himself in place by hooking one foot over the extended rope. There are no complicated harnesses or protective gear like the parasailors wear. It's all in knowing how to do it.

Back safely on the ground, the Voladores pose for a quick photo. Their costumes are full of fringes and tassels and are vividly colored. Each carries the small, multicolored conical hat he wears during a performance. The Voladores perform at night under floodlights as well as several times a day. While they gladly accept donations, there is no charge for spectators.

Dragon kite floats lazily above the beach. Flying kites is another popular activity carried out in the air above the beach. The elaborate dragon kite above swooped and dived with the gusts of the ocean breeze, creating the illusion that it was a living creature. Kites were invented at least 3000 years ago. It is a matter of dispute whether they appeared first in China or among the South Sea Islanders who used them for fishing. The Chinese version was supposedly invented by a general who observed the motions of his hat when it flew off. He devised a set of kites that he flew over his enemy's camp at night. The sound of the wind moaning and singing in the kite strings terrified his opponents. They thought they were being assaulted by evil spirits and fled the field.

This concludes Part 3 of my Puerto Vallarta series. In the next part, I will take a look at some of the charming areas away from the beach. If you could like to comment, you can do so in the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Puerta Vallarta Part 2: The art along the Malecon

Sculpture celebrating the Xiutla Folkloric Ballet. Strollers along Puerto Vallara's Malecon (waterfront) can't help being enchanted by the many wonderful sculptures and other art works that adorn the seafront walkway. Jim Demetro created the one above in 2006 to honor a local dance group called the Xiutla Folkloric Ballet. Xiutla means "the place where the vegetation grows" in the Nahua language of the pre-hispanic inhabitants. The Xiutla group was started in 1993 by Professor Enrique Barrios Limón, one of the foremost teachers of dance in Mexico. He used local Puerto Vallarta children to form one of the best troupes in Mexico, one which has toured internationally. Jim Demetro also sculpted the indigenous woman washing her clothes on the rocks seen in Part 1 of this series.

Art of a more temporary nature. Every day, local sand sculptors utilize this free medium to create elaborate sculptures on the beach next to the Malecon. This one is putting the finishing touches on a Valentine to which he will apply the names of strolling lovers who stop for a look. He asks for a small donation of course. Artists have to eat too.

Sand sculpture of a medieval saint. The sand sculptures were amazingly detailed. It was a little sad to think that a creation like this will only last until the tide comes in. Part of the trick to sculpting like this is to keep the sand moist while sculpting. After the sculpture is complete it is sprayed with a stabilizer coating and allowed to stand for a time before it is demolished and another begun.The art of sand sculpting has developed over the last century and there are even a World Sand Sculpting Academy and regional, national, and international competitions.

Local painters display their works against a stunning backdrop. These easels stand at Los Arcos, an amphitheater roughly in the middle of the 1.25 mile Malecon. Los Arcos is used to present a variety of the arts, including performances and dancing.


Angel de Esperanza. This evocative statue (called Angel of Hope in English) stands a few feet behind the columned arches of Los Arcos. The original sculpture washed away in the huge Hurricane Kenna of 2002. The sculptor, Puerto Vallarta native Hector Montes Garcia, replaced his work in 2007, making it one of the newest sculptures of the Malecon. The inscription on the statue reads: "Angel of Hope and Messenger of Peace.  Always with the hope of Welfare and Equality for all, Wisdom, Love, and above all Peace to all Mankind."

More temporary art. Talk about making something from nothing! This guy created temporary art by stacking rocks on top of one another. Doesn't sound like much, until you really look at it and wonder just how he manages the incredibly delicate balancing act.

Stacked rocks: a closer look. The rocks are rounded by the pounding of the surf. There are few, if any, flat spots on any of the rocks, so placing them one upon the other up to 4 feet tall is quite an accomplishment. The artist's only recompense is small donations by passersby.

Unnamed sculpture. These two pieces reminded me of World War II sea mines used to blow up ships. There was no information on site about the name of the sculpture or the artist.

Triton and Nereid by sculptor Carlos Espino. There are a number of mer-people along the Malecon. The most famous of these is the statue of Triton and Nereid, completed by sculptor Carlos Espino in 1990. The mythical Greek figure of Triton was the son of the sea-god Poseidon, and is usually depicted with the body of a human and tail of a fish, as seen here.  Nereids were a sea-nymphs who surrounded Poseidon. They were friendly to sea-farers and helped them fight storms.

Mermaid violinist, sculptor unknown. This little mermaid played away on her violin under the shade of the fronds of a large palm tree along the Malecon.

Jammin' by the sea. Not far away, another mermaid tootled away on her saxophone, apparently by the same unknown sculptor.

Caballito del Mar, symbol of Puerto Vallarta. This statue, by Rafael Zamarripa, was installed in 1976 and has become one of Puerto Vallarta's most recognized symbols. It was the Malecon's first statue and its name is English means "Little Seahorse".

Sculptures at La Rotunda del Mar by Alejandro Colunga. These two are part of a larger group of surreal sculptures created by Colunga, a self-taught sculptor and painter. The bronze pieces are chairs in the form of sea creatures or other odd figures with a mix of human and sea animal depictions. Many folks can't resist the artist's unspoken invitation to have a seat, rest their feet, and contemplate the sea. And, of course, have your picture taken while doing it.

In Search of Reason, by Sergio Bustamante. Like Colunga's creations, this 1999 sculpture by Bustamante invites participation by the viewer. Innumerable tourists have had their pictures snapped while joining the statue's children on the ladder. The children and their mother are portrayed with Bustamante's trademark triangular heads.

Triangular-headed mother calls out to her children on the ladder. I wondered whether she was exhorting them to go higher, or pleading with them to come down. It is typical of Bustamante to leave you speculating about his work. Bustamante started out studying architecture, but then moved on to the fine arts. He is not only a noted sculptor but also makes beautiful jewelry.

St. Pascual, Patron of the Cooks, by Ramiz Barquet. This 2008 work honors the chefs of Puerto Vallarta. St. Pascual was a 16th Century Spanish friar of the Franciscan Order who became the patron saint of cooks, the kitchen, and domestic animals. He is also helpful in finding lost animals. Here he quietly gazes out to sea at the end of a beautiful afternoon along the Puerto Vallarta Malecon.

This completes Part 2 of my series on Puerto Vallarta. If you'd like to comment, you can leave one in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question PLEASE include your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, November 8, 2010

Puerto Vallarta Part 1: The Malecon

Beach view along Puerto Vallarta's Zona Romantica, looking south. Last winter, Carole and I visited Puerto Vallarta (or PV as some know it). For a Google map of Puerto Vallarta, click here. Carole was eager for some beach warmth after weeks of chilly weather at Lake Chapala in Jalisco State, where we live. I must confess that my expectations of Puerto Vallarta were very low. I had never visited, but I had been to other Mexican beach resort towns such as Cancun. I expected to find myself enclosed in a similar foreigner-oriented "bubble," with little of the ancient history and deep authentic culture for which we so love Mexico. To my somewhat grudging surprise, I came to like the place. I still don't care much for the glitzy high rises that dominate the northern end of town, but we stayed on the south end. Our hotel, the Tropicana, lies within the Zona Romantica, which contains some of the older and more charming establishments. It also turned out to be adjacent to the gay section of PV, lending it an additional level of interest. I decided to devote the first of my series on Puerto Vallarta to its centerpiece, the Malecon. This long cement and stone walkway along the beach provides a wonderful way to get an initial feel for this coastal community.

Statue of indigenous woman washing clothes on beach rocks. Ironically, this statue sits on the Malecon in front of one of the larger and more ostentatious of the beachfront hotels. It provides a reminder of what all this wealth and ostentation is based upon. Little is known about the pre-hispanic history of the Puerto Vallarta area. Archaeological evidence indicates that the early indigenous people were part of the Aztatlán culture (900-1200 AD) which existed in what are the present-day States of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Michoacán.

Stern and rugged, a conquistador stares out of the past. A visit to the Naval Historical Museum on the Malecon provides a newcomer with an interesting perspective on Puerto Vallarta's past. The museum is located on the Malecon next to the Los Arcos Amphitheatre. Opened in 2006, the museum is one of only four in the country dedicated to Mexico's naval history. The site was originally the office of the naval commander of Puerto Vallarta and later functioned as a naval hospital. The crisply dressed young sailors who run the museum are extremely polite and helpful. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area, their primary interest was the wonderful Bahia de Banderas, the crescent-shaped bay overlooked by present-day Puerto Vallarta. They were seeking safe harbors along the coast that could protect treasure ships from storms and pirates. In 1524, Hernán Cortés himself arrived in the nearby Ameca valley to lead the fight against an army of as many as 20,000 indigenous warriors who were resisting the Spanish incursion. The colorful flags, or banderas, carried by the local warriors gave the bay its name. Population around Bahia de Banderas remained small for centuries, and the local fishing village was called El Carrizal or Las Peñas. The village which became Puerta Vallarta was not called that until well into the 19th Century.

Scale model of a colonial Spanish fort. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Spain was the preeminent military power in the Europe and the New World. The model above represents a state-of-the-art fort for its time. It was surrounded by an outer wall that was backed by a deep moat. If an attacker managed to breach the outer wall and cross the watery moat, he would then be confronted by high stone walls protected by 5 bastions surmounted by cannon. These guns could fire not only forward, but were sited so that they could sweep attachers off the walls in either direction from each bastion. The garrison troop and their supplies were contained in rooms within the inner walls, facing out into the central courtyard. Piracy necessitated such formidable defenses. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, English pirates such as Sir Francis Drake regularly attacked the Manila Galleons and Spanish towns and ports in the New World. They stole the treasure, sacked and burned the towns, and massacred the populations. Drake returned regularly to England, turning over a share of his treasure to Elizabeth. In return, the English Queen mildly rebuked him but took no other action. Ultimately, this policy resulted in an attempt by Spain's Phillip II to conquer England with a great fleet called the Armada. His failure started the long and glorious history of England's Navy, while the Spanish power began to decline. Pirates from various nations continued to plague the Spanish well into the 18th Century.

Spanish ship San Pedro was the one which opened the treasure route to the Philippines. The Philippine Islands were discovered by Europeans in 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan stopped there for supplies on what turned out to be the first circumnavigation of the earth. Although Magellan was killed in a battle with Philippine natives, his Spanish crew finished the voyage. In 1565, the Spanish King decided to send Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to conquer the Philippines. The Spanish viewed the Philippines as a strategic point for collecting the riches of the orient, which could then be shipped to New Spain (modern Mexico).  Mule trains hauled the treasure overland to Mexico City and then to Vera Cruz on the Gulf Coast, where the final journey to Spain and the European market began. Manila, with its excellent harbor, was the collection point. From this, the famous treasure ships called the Manila Galleons gained their name. It was an immensely profitable venture and helped maintain Spanish power for centuries. The San Pedro, seen above, was one of Legazpi's ships, sailed by a captain named Andrés de Urdaneta. This intrepid captain found a better route back to New Spain, although at the cost of the lives of most of his crew who died of hunger and disease along the way. The tiny San Pedro did not carry nearly the supplies required for this exploratory venture, nor did it have the capacity to bring back the quantity of treasure that quickly began accumulating in Manila.


Manila Galleons were large, very seaworthy, and heavily armed. The tiny and humble San Pedro was followed by centuries of great ships that carried the wealth of the orient to Spain, financing a great Empire. What were these treasures? They included spices, porcelain, ivory, lacquerware, and silk. All were purchased using silver from New Spain's prolific mines in Guanajuato and Zacatecas. The galleons followed the route pioneered by Urdaneta's San Pedro, taking advantage of the prevailing winds to sail from Manila to the California coast of North America. They then followed the coast down to New Spain and ultimately to Acapulco, the only port with the royal charter to receive their goods. Along the way, they needed natural harbors for stopping points to bring on water, food, and to make repairs. Such harbors could also protect against the violent Pacific storms, as well as pirate attacks. Bahia de Banderas provided one of these safe harbors. Not all Spaniards were pleased with the Acapulco monopoly on Manila treasure. In later years, Bahia de Banderas also served as a smugglers' refuge to off-load goods which were then secretly transported up the Ameca Valley through Mascota in the coastal mountains and on to Guadalajara. Partially as a result of the smuggler's trade, Mascota--now a sleepy mountain village--at one point rivaled Guadalajara in size.

Malecon footbridge spans lovely Rio Cuale. This quiet river is one of 7 that empty into Bahia de Banderas. The River divides the Romantic Zone from Viejo Vallarta (Old Vallarta). Just beyond the bridge is a sail-like structure that provides shade for one of the many view points. In the far distance stand the recently-built hotel and condominium complexes that dominate the northern part of Puerto Vallarta.

One of the Malecon's many beach-side bars. The Malecon is lined with similar bars and restaurants. Some are attached to hotels and some, like this one, are stand-alone enterprises. Many of the bars and restaurants provide live entertainment late into the evening. Accordingly, a stroll along the Malecon at any time of day is entertaining, even if one chooses not to stop for a drink or meal.

Tourist police are easily recognizable by their brilliant white uniforms. In order to support the tourist trade, Mexican cities across the nation have created Policía Turistica (Tourist Police). Although they cooperate with the municipal police, they are a separate force created specifically to keep an eye on the safety and security of the tourists who provide the backbone (and ribcage and mostly every other bone) of Puerto Vallarta's economy. The existence of several different police forces can be confusing to foreigners. There are Federal, State, Municipal, Transit, and Tourist police forces, among others. All wear different uniforms and answer to different police bureaucracies.

What would a beach be without a "knick-knack" shop? Hand-painted plates, embroidered clothing, woven hats, jewelry and who knows what are sold in this palm-frond structure called a palapa. Cast even a casual glance in their direction and the proprietor will appear in a flash offering special deals. Even though the mark-up is huge, the prices are still fairly modest to those who may have a spare corner in their luggage for such items.

Typical condo along the Malecon in Viejo Vallarta. I thought the modest dimensions of this condo were appealing, although the price is probably stratospheric, given its location. The condos and apartments in the southern part of Puerto Vallarta are more human-scale than what you find in the more recently-built northern area.

A room with a view. Even though I don't care for dwellings of such dimensions, these stacks of balconies appealed to my photographic sensibilities. There are a number of tall structures like this on the south end of Bahia de Banderas, but I didn't feel they overwhelmed the rest of the community.

Coconut palms along the Malecon provided welcome shade from the mid-day sun. Although these trees are decorative, many areas of the Mexican Pacific Coast are devoted to growing them commercially. The coconut palm, or cocos nucifera, is an amazing plant. Nearly every part of the plant provides something useful. The oil is used in cosmetics and soaps. The meat is a popular treat in various forms. The milk from the coconut is used in curries and other dishes. The sap can be distilled into an alcoholic drink. The fibre is made into rope, mats, and brushes. Builders use the trunk of the tree, and the coconut shells are utilized by craftsmen. Finally, the fronds are made into roofs like that of the knick-knack palapa seen earlier.

Restaurant of our hotel, the Tropicana. The Tropicana is an older hotel in the Zona Romantica. The food and service here were good and not too expensive for a beachside eatery. Rooms in the hotel were clean, quiet, and ours faced onto the ocean. For more information on Hotel Tropicana, click here.

Los Arcos Amphitheatre is toward the south end of the Malecon. In front of Los Arcos (the arches) is a seating area where concerts and other planned or impromptu performances occur on a regular basis. Here I am alone, except for the man in the background washing down the paving stones. This photo was taken during an early morning stroll along the Malecon. Later, the beachside walkway comes alive with strollers, joggers, vendors, musicians, jugglers and any number of other folks out to enjoy the view and the ocean air. The Naval History Museum faces this amphitheatre.


Rocky beach stretches away under the seawall looking toward Los Arcos. Not all of the beaches at Puerto Vallarta are smooth sand. For a considerable distance the sea has washed up smoothly rounded stones. In a later post I will show how local artists have used these stones to create interesting, if very temporary, art.

Viewpoint extends out, perpendicular to the Malecon. When the tide is up, the base of this viewpoint is awash and it becomes a sort of pier. You can get a wonderful view in both directions down the beach, as well as out to sea and back toward the coastal mountains that tower over Bahia de Banderas.

Sunset over the Bahia de Banderas. We had a spectacular view from our balcony at the Tropicana, one of the reasons Carole wanted this particular hotel. Evening strollers wander along the beach as the last of the light fades over the Pacific. A beautiful end to another gorgeous day in Puerto Vallarta.

I hope you enjoyed the first part of my series on Puerto Vallarta. In my next posting, I will show some of the wonderful art that is displayed along the Malecon, some of it created the very day we came by. If you would like to comment on my blog, you can either use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim





Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A walk along Chapala's Street of the Dead

Faces out of a nightmare? Not at all! Mexico's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time of fun, warmth, fond memories, and family bonding. Visitors from the US or Canada are often disturbed, or at least baffled, by this celebration of death held each year on November 1 & 2. The first night commemorates los Angelitos (the little angels), children who died very young and so immediately joined the angels in heaven. The second night is for older children and adults. Because it comes so close to Halloween, a US celebration which is gradually catching on in Mexico, the two occasions are sometimes confused by outsiders. They are very different. North-of-the-border folks tend to be skittish about death and dying and refer to it in euphemisms if they can't avoid talking about it altogether. The Day of the Dead is an expression of how comfortable Mexicans are with death. From the Mexican point of view, death is simply a passage to another state of being where the dead continue as part of one's family life, even visiting the living periodically. The Day of the Dead is a time when such visits are especially encouraged and facilitated. The dead are welcomed back as treasured visitors who have returned from long and distant journeys.

Altar for Felix Guzman Aguayo (Sept. 15, 1941-April 5, 2010). To encourage dead relatives to return, Mexican families create altars at their homes. I found this one along Calle Cinco de Mayo, a street in the small city of Chapala a few miles east of my home in Ajijic. For a map, click here. The people who live along several blocks of this street have a tradition of placing their altars in front of their homes. Over time, a friendly competition has developed and both sides of the street are now lined for blocks with altars, some simple and some outrageously colorful, complex, and even hilariously funny. This display draws visitors from all over the Lake Chapala area and as far away as Guadalajara. I was attracted to Sr. Guzman's altar because of its simple elegance. Family members can often be found nearby, so I asked one young woman if Sr. Guzman was her relative. "Mi tio," (my uncle) she answered shyly. She seemed pleased that a visiting gringo had chosen her display for a photograph.

Those commemorated by an altar don't need to be related, just dead. The white-haired gentleman above is Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the man who launched the War for Independence from Spain in 1810. Since this year is the Bicentennial of that important event in Mexican history, the family who built this altar decided to dedicate it to Father Hidalgo. Although the initial revolt that he led came to a bad end, as did he, Hidalgo is revered as the hero who emancipated Mexico's indigenous people.

Altar for a villain. Not far from Hidalgo's altar, I was astonished to find one for General Porfirio Diaz. He was the dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1910, when he was overthrown at the start of the Mexican Revolution. 2010 is also the Centennial of the beginning of the Revolution. Diaz did much to develop and industrialize Mexico, but at huge cost to everyone in Mexico except for the rich elite at the top. He is famous for his remark "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States." Unlike the great majority of Revolutionary leaders who followed him over the next 20 years, Diaz died peacefully after living out his days in luxury in France.

A great artist is celebrated. One family assembled an altar for Diego Rivera, Mexico's greatest muralist. Rivera became world famous for his huge murals depicting the history and culture of Mexico. His mural in the Rockefeller Center in New York was demolished after Nelson Rockefeller discovered that Rivera, a dedicated Communist, had painted a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the middle of it. Rivera had a sense of humor, but Rockefeller apparently did not.

In memory of Mexico's Charlie Chaplin. This altar display includes the Hollywood star won by Cantinflas whose real name was Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes (August 12, 1911-April 20, 1993). He was a brilliant comedic actor who always portrayed the little guy who managed to outfox the rich and powerful. He followed an old principle: "if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with B.S." Charlie Chaplin himself once called Cantinflas "the best comedian in the world."

The central element of a Day of the Dead altar is a photo of the one honored. The photo above is of Freda Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera and a great artist in her own right. An altar is generally constructed like stepped pyramid, and the photo is usually displayed on the top level.

Votive candles are used throughout the altar displays. The candles represent light, faith, and hope and help guide the spirit of the dead person to the altar. They also help light the scene for the living and are used to highlight various of its aspects and to line the borders.

Family member makes final preparations. The stepped pyramid design and use of candles can clearly be seen here. In addition, there is often a yellow pathway made of marigold blossoms leading up to the altar. The scent of marigolds, called cempasúchil by the indigenous people, both attracts and guides the dead. Where the marigold path meets the altar is a cross with 4 candles representing the 4 cardinal points. The cross itself is laid down with ashes. The dead person is cleansed of his sins by proceeding up the yellow path and standing on the cross. The young man in the photo is lighting an incense burner.

The use of incense for religious and ceremonial purposes is very old in Mexico. The small clay incense burner above smokes with burning copal. The incense clears the area of negative energy and evil spirits and, along with the cempasúchil, assists the dead person in finding the way. One of Hernán Cortés' young officers, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, often wrote of Aztec priests "fumigating" Cortés and his men when they came to visit Aztec cities and temples. The indigenous people used the name pom for the the resinous sap of a tree of the genus Copaifera. It later became known to the Spanish as copal, and is still used in indigenous ceremonies such as sweat lodges. Since incense had long been used by the Catholic Church in its ceremonies, there was a natural connection. The Church often converted aspects of indigenous religions, such as copal burning, to its own purposes. However, the deep pagan origins of the Day of the Dead were initially too much for the Church to stomach, and for a long time the authorities attempted to suppress the fiesta. Finally, they recognized that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

His soul cleansed by incense, the dead person can then clean up the rest of himself. Other typical features of an altar are a bowl or pitcher of water, soap, and a towel. These are included just as you would provide them to a weary, dust-covered traveler who has completed a long journey to your home.

Next, a bit of refreshment. Once cleaned up, the wraith will want a bit of refreshment to restore his spirits (pun intended). The bottle shown above is probably the favorite brand of the departed one.

And now, to dinner! The person for whom this altar was dedicated probably was an aficianado of mojarra, also known as tilapia, probably caught in Lake Chapala. Up until recently, fish in Lake Chapala were contaminated by effluents from upstream factories and farms. Hopefully the diet of the departed did not contribute to his passing. Mojarra are served whole, as shown above. Another typical item on the altar is sliced lime or lemon, seen on the plate.

Pan de muerto (bread of death) is a tasty treat. This sweet bread, covered by granulated sugar, is very popular and is found on nearly every altar. Sometimes the bread will be shaped as a human figure.

Sugar skulls are also ubiquitous on Day of the Dead altars. They are made from sugar paste called alfeñique and come in various sizes, sometimes wearing hats like the one above. The skulls can be ordered from your local baker with a name or message of your choice on the top. Often, a large skull is placed on the top step of the altar pyramid to symbolize the Eternal Father, Giver of Life. When they are grouped in threes on the second level, like you see above, they represent the Holy Trinity. The cloth on which the sugar skulls sit is purple, the color of mourning. You will find purple somewhere in most of my altar photos.

Returning family members like to have familiar things about them. In order to further encourage the departed to return, some of their favorite possessions, or objects that represent activities they enjoyed, are displayed. This part of the displays is very idiosyncratic, which makes it especially fascinating. The person celebrated here had a favorite doll, but also liked to play with a yo-yo, seen between the doll's legs. The doll leans back against a keyboard, indicating that the dead person was a musician.

Proud proprietors of the Graveyard Cantina. Many of the displays included living tableaux. Here, the couple above have created a bar called the Panteon, which means graveyard in Spanish. Under the grinning gaze of a skeleton, they display their wares. It was not a real bar, however, just a tableau for fun. The owner appears to be wearing a devil's horns, as well as a Che Guevara t-shirt.

An apparently satisfied customer at the Cantina Panteon. The young daughter of the couple in the previous photo was also part of the tableau. She sat at a small table with a glass and half empty bottle of Bacardi rum. My guess is that she didn't drink the other half.

A rather sad-looking young catrina. Dressed as one of the famous skeletons of José Guadalupe Posada, this young girl was part of another tableau portraying a whole restaurant full of skeletons, including the waiter. Although her make-up made her look rather sad, she immediately grinned at me when I finished taking the photo. Posada was a 19th Century cartoonist who lampooned the pretensions of the wealthy upper classes by drawing them as skeletons, called catrinas (catrinos for men), dressed up in 19th Century finery including the extravagant hats favored by the women of those days. Fittingly, this catrina's hat is purple. Posada, who profited little from his hugely popular catrinas, died poor and was buried in a common grave. Diego Rivera, among others, named Posada as a major influence on his work.

Brothers share a piece of sugar cane. The older boy holds his younger brother on this lap in the hotel tableau. I often marvel at how Mexican children take care of one another. I'm sure there must be squabbling, but I rarely see it. Much more often, I see older children, even teenagers, carrying the little ones or holding their hands, or playing with them lovingly.

Wanna play a hand? The skeleton in this display appears ready to deal a hand of cards for your soul, or whatever else you might have to offer. As far as I could tell, she has a winning hand, as well as a winning smile.

Free food is also part of the Day of the Dead tradition. A group of friendly teenagers hands out fresh pan de muerto to passersby. There were many options for snacking as we progressed down the street, including fried mojarra, tamales, and tacos. The kids were very polite, charming and sweet.


A wall of the dead. For those who wanted to participate but don't live on Calle Cinco de Mayo, or perhaps didn't have the resources to pay for an altar, there was a bulletin board display at the end of the street. Pictures with brief descriptions were shown on both sides of this board, and there were other boards as well. I remember the picture of one man who had a large family and made his living with a small bicycle-repair shop. Gone, but not forgotten.

An especially poignant reminder. Glancing down, I found this little display on the ground at my feet. What caught my eye was the US currency. The message on the white paper says "In memory of our brothers who died crossing the border while seeking the North American dream. Rest in peace." As I examined the scene more closely, I realized that the skeletons strewn about the sandy ground represented the many who have died of heat or thirst in the scorching desert country shared by Mexico and the Southwestern US. Millions of people have crossed and recrossed the border desperately seeking work from US employers who profit hugely from their low cost labor. As usual, the victim gets blamed, while those who have profited from the desperation continue to do so.

This concludes my posting on the Dia de los Muertos. I hope you have enjoyed it, and perhaps learned a bit about this unique Mexican celebration. If you would like to leave a comment, please so do in the Comments section below, or by sending me an email directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim