Preparing to greet the dead.

They will commune with the dead. They will welcome the unliving into their lives, for one night only.

The people of Guanajuato join their compatriots in creating elaborate artworks and displays to honour their ancestors who will share the earth with them on this one night of the year. Mexicans young and old will hang ofrendas in homes and public places which carry images of skeletons and other macabre images. For on Dia de los Muertos, the deceased return to the earth and walk among us.

Mexicans will bring forth the dead so as to never forget them. To remember the relatives who were once part of their lives. To pay their respects again and again and not just at that person’s funeral. The annual tribute to their ‘antepasados’ allows families to honour the dead without the overwhelming emotions of a funeral immediately following a passing, when grief releases a torrent of sadness. They will honour all of the dead in colourful and striking public installations, over which they have laboured for hours and hours.

In a land all too familiar with drug wars, gang violence and death, perhaps Dia de los Muertos helps local people come to terms with death.

Mexico is colour. Vibrant colour. Bold colour, and this is true of the installations which welcome the deceased.

Mexicans will celebrate. They will laugh and smile and sing. They will eat and drink and be merry, even when surrounded by death and the unliving. Because even in death, Mexicans will find joy and fun and happiness. There is always an excuse to socialise and to party. Deceased Mexicans wouldn’t expect it to be any different.

The families preparing the public and private installations do so with pride and joy. They smile at the striking images of skulls and gore. They revel in their distinct indigenous customs which survived the Christian influence of All Souls Day and the cultural colonisation of Halloween, which fall on the same day. Yes, they celebrate both of these traditions, but they have never strayed from the expression of Mexican culture which is Dia de los Muertos.

Festival Internacional CervEZantino.

The Festival Internacional Cervantino began as a cultural tribute to author Miguel de Cervantes, but descended into such a celebration of ‘cerveza’ that it should be renamed ‘El CervEZantino’.

The author of Don Quixote has been honoured in the Mexican city of Guanajuato every year since the mid 20th century, when artists began performing his works in the city’s plazas for the enjoyment of the local people. The festival grew in fame and expanded into a multi-day festival which now attracts national and international visitors…and drunks.

Guanajuato’s beautiful colonial centre is decked in traditional Mexican cultural symbols and tributes to Cervantes line the streets and the preserved buildings. The streets are also lined with dishevelled drunks sleeping off their hangovers, urinating in public or lying in their own vomit.

Most visitors come for the culture, and some for the party. The festival program is devoted to artistic expression in the Spanish language and includes performances of the many works of Cervantes as well as celebrations of literature, opera, music, dance, theatre, art exhibitions, street spectaculars and academic events.

International performers who have participated in the festival include Joan Baez, the Bolshoi Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Some festival goers enjoy the culture, while many could not name a single work by the famed Spanish author, such is their drunken stupor. In this way the festival has in some ways become a victim of its own success. As the audience numbers grew year after year, many young people flocked to the city to simply have a good time and drink themselves to oblivion.

Some of the drunks are convinced they will meet their own Dulcinea. I wonder what Don Quixote would make of it.

Look, it’s your grandparents.

“Look, Kieran, it’s your grandparents,” called my travel buddies.

My grandparents, in Mexico? Where? How?

My grandparents are not in Mexico and I’m certain they’ve never been to Mexico. How could they possibly be in San Miguel de Allende at the same time as me?

They weren’t.

My companions were just playing a clever joke on me in reference to the enormous number of old white people in San Miguel de Allende. More accurately, the enormous number of old Americans.

The beautiful, small colonial town in central Mexico is a haven for retirees from the United States and it is often possible to see more gringos than Mexicans in this town. So many that my Japanese and Mexican travel buddies thought I should feel the most at home during our fleeting visit.

US retirees flock to San Miguel for its agreeable climate, it’s relatively low cost of living, its preserved colonial architecture and its relaxed pace of life.

They can spend their days taking brunch at any of the boutique cafes which have adapted their menus to suit the American palette. The old gringos can stroll over to the central plaza and admire the architecture of the old cathedral or engage in the age-old pastime of people watching. Those feeling more energetic could follow the tourists who make the short trip to the nearby Sanctuary of Atotonilco.

They can pop into one of the many galleries dotted throughout the town producing traditional Mexican and modern art works, or they can simply admire the facades of the buildings in the centre of the town which have been carefully preserved. So well preserved that the centre of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The old gringos created a little world for themselves and they are so pervasive that many of the store owners speak English and notice boards are full of activities targeted at seniors. In addition, the Biblioteca Publica (Public Library) which is housed in the former convent of Santa Ana, boasts the second largest collection of English language books in Mexico.

The town is also awash with signs imploring people to slow down.

Yes, nothing moves quickly in San Miguel de Allende.

Even the taxi driver joked about this fact as he crawled through the cobbled streets upon arrival in town. I never asked if he thought this was an advantage or a disadvantage in his line of work. It probably earned him fewer fares per day, but probably kept the meter ticking over for longer and increased the total cost of a journey. Either way, he must surely have been in constant demand in a town full of people with limited mobility.

Of course, in a town full of ‘gringos viejitos’, it’s no surprise that many stores stock an extensive range of walking sticks.