By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
While practically every town in Mexico observes the Day of the Dead holiday in one way or another, nobody does it quite like the people of Tempoal de Sánchez, in the eastern coastal state of Veracruz.
The tiny farming village in Veracruz’ northern Huasteca Alta region, with a population of just 15,000, has been celebrating the festival for more than 800 years.
What makes the Tempoal festival different is that every single able member of the town gets dressed up and puts on a mask of a real deceased relative and parades through town performing traditional dances that have been passed down for generations.
The practice is rooted in pre-colonial times, and is the most important holiday of the year for the local community.
Some people say that the Tempoal celebration was the inspiration for the Day of the Dead scene in the 2016 James Bond movie “Spectra.”
The festival, which coincides with the annual November Day of the Dead celebration across Mexico, is called Xantolo, and is believed to be a magical period when the dead come back to life in the borrowed bodies of their descendants.
There are over 100 distinctive Xantolo dances unique to Tempoal.
“Xantolo is a time when the living can laugh, dance and cry with the dead,” one native explained to me during a visit to the site two years ago.
“It is a time when the world of the living and the world of the dead come together.”
Preparations for Xantolo, with the handcrafting of the intricately carved and painted masks of the deceased and the production of massive quantities of food, begins more than a month in advance.
The entire population of the town pools efforts and finances to prepare special giant pork and chicken tamales known as Zacahuils especially for Xantolo.
The Xantolo festival is one of Veracruz’ most original cultural events, and the state is working to promote the celebration as a major tourist attraction, as an alternative to the more popular sites in Michoacán and Oaxaca.
This year, the government of Veracruz is investing nearly 1 million pesos to encourage people from around the country to attend.
There are very few hotels in Tempoal and most are not very suitable for four-star tourism.
But many of the local people open their homes and rent out rooms to visitors, and there are plenty of nearby cities where tourists can stay.
As the festival has gained renown in recent years, some visitors have resorted to setting up tents in a nearby campground or come just for the day.
Last year, about 80,000 people came to Tempoal to attend the Xantolo festival, and the state is hoping that that number will increase to at least 100,000 this year.
Getting there can be a trek, and the entire journey from Mexico City can take about eight hours, depending on traffic.
But if you are looking for a new perspective on an ancient Mexican holiday, a visit to Tempoal might be the best way to celebrate the Day of the Dead this year.