Mexico’s Colonial Heartland 2012 Trip Report

By Terry Eggers, Photos by Terry & Julie Eggers on Feb 14, 2013

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is one of the most colorful and charming holidays of the year. It is the time when people welcome the dead back to earth for a visit—while even mocking death itself. To experience the festival in Guanajuato, where the bright colors of the celebration reach into the city’s back streets, is an amazing experience. To culminate holiday in San Miguel de Allende—at one of the largest festivals in Mexico—is the highlight.

The Day of the Dead is regarded as the time of year when the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. It is the best time for the souls of the departed to slip back home for a visit with the family—and the family does all it can to entice them to return. A picture of the dead person will top the altar, along with favorite food and beverages. Beer is common, but tequila or mescal even better! A glass of fresh water to ease the strain of breaking through the death/life barrier. And, perhaps, a pack of cigarettes, a favorite candy, or some personal possession such as a pocketknife or key ring.

We began our trip in Guanajuato, one of the most picturesque colonial cities in Mexico. The tightly winding colorful streets are perfect for photography—strikingly simple and bold images are around every turn of the road. Our group was rewarded with perfect conditions each day and evening photography from the city’s highest point of the city was superb. Colorfully-painted houses with twinkling lights kept everyone’s shutters lively at day’s end.

On the fourth day we traveled to San Miguel de Allende to photograph preparations for the Day of the Dead celebrations. En route we made two stops. First in Dolores Hidalgo for the Tuesday market—great ice cream and vendors in the central jardin or plaza—and the town’s churches and Independence Museum. Our second stop was the Sanctuary of Atotonilco—a stunningly beautiful church and World Heritage site. The simple lines of the church under the bold blue sky made this a great photo stop. The Mexican “folk Baroque” art work on the ceiling is renowned and wonderfully preserved.

In San Miguel we were up early each day to photograph streetscapes in the warm twinkle of lantern light when cars and people are fewest. After the morning shoot we returned to our hotel for an excellent breakfast. Midmornings we visited numerous locations in town, including the market, the public wash rack, museums and churches. As the days unfolded, preparations for the Day of the Dead celebration increased. One special part of the preparations is a visit to the cemetery to clean grave markers and decorate the graves with flowers. Golden marigolds are in abundance to welcome the spirits and may even be placed along the pathways back to homes to guide deceased relatives. Evenings we were in special photo locations—from shooting panoramic views from high above the city to capturing the distinctive terraces at dinnertime.

Then the two-day celebration of the Day of the Dead was underway. The first day is for the children—there were many young people in costume in the main jardin—and the second night is for the adults. The costumes were “over the top” and the atmosphere lighthearted.

This year’s celebration was much larger than in past years and the festival was well sponsored. Art displays and events were daily happenings all around the city. It should continue to grow. The photo possibilities throughout this trip are endless. Locations are unique and colorful, and the people of the colonial heartland cities are most welcoming. Oh, and by the way, have I mentioned the delicious meals?!