Being in Mexico for Día de Muertos is an incredible experience. It’s as magical as Coco makes it seem with the vivid colors of cempasuchil and papel picado everywhere you look and the aroma of pan de muerto drifting out of panaderias. Inside Mexican households, the altars mix nostalgia, love and mysticism all in one. Ofrendas (offerings) have pictures of deceased relatives along with their favorite foods and drinks, some salt and water, candles, papel picado, pan de muerto, sugar skulls and flowers. The idea is that during the night of November 1 the souls of dead relatives will come to the ofrenda and will enjoy the food and drink left for them. Obviously the souls are unable to actually eat the food but people say that if you try some of the food left out after the 1st the flavor is gone and the texture is hard. Throughout Mexico families create ofrendas for their loved ones and there are some cities that make public ofrendas for important figures (like the Frida and Diego ofrenda at the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City) or have parades and celebrations. But there is one place in Mexico that celebrates Day of the Dead unlike any other: the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca.
The Sierra Mazateca is far away from Oaxaca City or the beach in Oaxaca that are more well-known by tourists and Mexicans. Its capital is Huautla de Jimenez and it is a beautiful yet isolated mountain range permanently blanketed in fog. The frequent rain means it is always green and plants are abundant in the mountains and towns alike.
The indigenous language of mazateco is spoken by almost everyone and they even have a language made up entirely of whistles to communicate across the mountains (seriously, watch this video after you read this, so cool). Probably its only claim to fame is its healer María Sabina, famous for using and promoting shrooms to achieve a deeper spiritual and emotional understanding of the world. Huautla is a Pueblo Mágico for this reason and many tourists still come to the area to try out the magic mushrooms.
However, as Dia de Muertos approaches, another unique phenomena begins in the Sierra. On October 27, the inhabitants of the city walk down to the cemetery at dusk, some dressed in their normal clothes and some in groups wearing ponchos, oddly-shaped straw hats and masks of the faces of old men. These groups carry instruments and laugh and speak in mazateco amongst themselves. Once everyone is gathered, older women light candles and then the singing begins.
In this song, they are calling on the spirits of the dead to rise from their graves and walk amongst them until November 2. The candles of the women guide the spirits and the people with masks and hats, called huehuetones, offer their bodies as temporary homes for the spirits during this time. In this moment the life-death barrier is broken and the huehuentones cease being who they are beneath the masks, but rather the people whose souls float up from the graves.
Once the ceremony has finished, the women slowly process out of the cemetery, leading the way with their candles lit in front of them. Suddenly, music begins from the groups of huehuentones and they begin to follow the women leaving the cemetery in groups. The music is rhythmic, repetitive and somehow eerily joyful.
As each group leaves the cemetery they form a procession leading up the streets going to the city center. Rather than playing the same song, each group walks together and plays their own songs one after another, with another group following them a bit behind playing their own.
The procession of huehuentones winds uphill through the city, finally ending at the central square where the groups disperse, some attending a mass and some staying in the square while others disappear down dark foggy streets, their music trailing behind them.
The ceremony at the cemetery and the procession to the city center mark the beginning of this special time when the huehuentones will go in their groups from house to house every night, playing music in exchange for food and drink. It is a real-life version of the ofrendas, the dead come to your house in the form of masked people with ponchos and hats and you offer alcohol or treats to them as thanks for their music. While the procession was not necessarily a solemn affair, the gatherings on the streets can become a little raucous, with licor de maracuya, mezcal and beer being passed around.
Being an outsider during this ceremony and procession is a strange and incredible experience. While the huehuentones wear masks, you are visible for who you are, though you may as well be hiding under one as this event is for them, not a show for you. Some huehuentones without instruments may ask you to dance if you are following around their group or they may even let you borrow your hat but this is not at all a tourist attraction. If no one was there taking pictures or videos they would be behaving exactly the same.
The music they play reminded me a bit of bluegrass, especially when the fiddle is featured. I love the haunting sound of a fiddle so I really enjoyed the huehuenton music.
Each group of huehuentones has a name and an identity and they begin composing and practicing their music months before Día de Muertos. They even record their music and you can buy CDs in Huautla with a mix of songs from different groups. While obviously each group has their own songs, they all fit within the same style and can sometimes begin to bleed together when they get stuck in your head in the days afterward.
The dancing is very simple, there are no salsa spins or bachata grinds here, just a basic step/hop back and forth from one foot to another. There are no limits on participation, huehuentones range in age from young children to those old enough to not necessarily need a mask.
The huehuentones make their way playing music and dancing through the streets of Huautla every night from October 27th to November 2nd. If you come to Huautla for Dia de Muertos you will find yourself with plenty of time during the day before the huehuentones start up again in the evening. Huautla as a city does not really have tourist attractions, there is always shopping at souvenir stands that may be set up in the center but the beauty here is not found in town but rather in the surrounding mountains.
I wouldn’t recommend, however, striking into the woods without a guide or an idea of where you’re going. If you’re able to find someone who knows their way around the area (and who you trust going with into the woods) or detailed directions, then there are lots of hikes in the area that take you up to the highest peaks nearby or to the many waterfalls in the area. While I was here for Day of the Dead I went on a hike to a couple of waterfalls that took me out of the city, past humble houses in the woods and valleys and finally out to Puente de Fierro.
Even if you were unable to get someone to take you to Puente de Fierro, it is a short trip from Huautla in taxi or micro and there is plenty of exploring that you could do once there. There is one waterfall at the curve in the road at the bridge and another further past the curve on the side of the road where there is a house that looks like once was open for tourists. Both waterfalls are beautiful, although the one on the side of the road is more impressive.
If you’d rather go below ground, Huautla also has some impressive caves nearby. Whatever you end up doing during the day, it is a wonderful place to breathe in the crisp clean mountain air, especially if you’re coming from Mexico City.
From Mexico City you can take an AU bus from the TAPO bus terminal which will get you to Huautla in about 9 hours. It costs around $350 pesos and it’s honestly a much better idea to go on the overnight bus. Going during the day will take more time and although you will get to enjoy the views the bus does not have a bathroom so you will likely spend some time squirming in your seat waiting for the bathroom stop. If you go during the night you can just take some melatonin (or something stronger) and bring a travel pillow and you’ll be out for most of the trip.
Another option is to take a bus to Tehuacán in Puebla, a micro to Teotitlán las Flores and then the transporte mixto up the windy mountain roads to Huautla. Although this option cuts off some time, it is not for the faint of heart or stomach. Transporte mixto means mixed transport and it is a pickup truck that carries people as well as cargo in the enclosed area of the truck as well as the semi-enclosed bed. I have never gotten one of the coveted inside seats and you get thrown around in the back as they tear around the curves. They also frequently stop along the road to pick up people as this is the most local transit in the area so be prepared to ride with campesinos with machetes and groups of school children who will make you want to scold them for dangling off the bed only holding on with one hand.
What to Wear
The Sierra Mazateca gets a lot of rain and when it rains it pours so be prepared with rain boots, a jacket, and an umbrella. Once your clothes get wet they will probably not dry during your trip so bringing a few pairs of pants is not a bad idea. It also can get pretty chilly in the evenings or indoors in Huautla so wear layers and bring a heavy sweater and jacket as well as hat and gloves.
Finding a place to stay in Huautla can also be somewhat tricky, especially for Día de Muertos. There is exactly one Airbnb (which is more like a hostel so there are multiple rooms and listings) which seems very pleasant. The few hotels don’t have listings online but you can call them to make a reservation before you arrive. Don’t expect luxury at the hotels here, there will be a bed and a bathroom but it’s better to keep your expectations low besides that.
Although the Sierra Mazateca is in Oaxaca, the food is not completely what you would find elsewhere in Oaxaca. There are always the Mexican classics that you can find anywhere but otherwise the food is very centered on meat. Poverty levels are quite high in this area so when people go out to a restaurant they expect meat, vegetables are what is served at home when there is not enough money for meat. If you are a vegetarian or someone who appreciates vegetables and fruit you may have to stock up on snacks at the market or stop by to get ezquites every day to at least get some veggies in 😉
As has probably become evident in this post, Huautla is not a luxury tourist destination and can be challenging to stay for long, especially as a vegetarian. However, if you’re looking for an authentic and unique Day of the Dead experience in Mexico that will be amaze you as well as anyone you tell the story to, then Huautla de Jimenez is the place to go. Celebrating the dead by dancing with the huehuentones amidst the smoke and fog will remind you that the distance between us isn’t really that far.
P.S. Have you watched the whistle language video yet? I’ll just leave it right here in case you haven’t, it’s honestly amazing.