Erongaricuaro is a small town in the mountains of Central Mexico, where roughly 5,000 hardy souls call this “Place of Waiting” home. Aside from the very basic street food sizzling in ponds of oil set up around the plaza, you can count on one finger the number of restaurants (the consistently reliable Doña Mary) here. Activities and amusements are almost as rare. So when you hear of something going down, even if outside the town proper, you jump at the chance to see it.
Donald, one of the very few gringos living here full-time, rang up one day to tell us we absolutely must go to the Hippy Fair in Uranden, about 15 minutes away. Now, ordinarily, the words “Hippy” and “Fair” would spin us in the opposite direction. But since so little happens in these parts we thought, ehh, what the hell. Let’s go, if only to gawk at aging gringos who have been so off-grid for so long they don’t realize the word “hippy” had faded away with their tie-dyed head bands.
Leaving the three dogs and two cats dozing in the sun, our duties done for the next few hours, we jump in the car and weave down the winding road toward Patzcuaro. Nearly 15 minutes later, we see rows of cars parked along the street. Off to the side, in front of a terra-cotta coloured building etched with a lively mural, stood a couple of big white canopies under which crowds milled about, perusing goods for sale. We pulled onto a grassy parking area, got out and joined the throngs. Mariachi music drifted from behind tall wooden double doors next to a small silver dome. We edged our way inside, squeezing through an even bigger crowd. We stopped dead as we gaped at the walls. Every square inch was covered with paintings of garishly attired skeletons and freaky grim reapers, their bony fingers thrusting from their dark robes and clutching tall scythes. These jostled alongside images of Jesus Christ and other religious icons and artifacts. Throughout the room, full-sized skeletons were dressed in formal gowns, shiny crowns perched atop their crazily grinning faces.
Clouds of smoke drifted from the floor above, so we climbed the well-worn stairs to find its source. A long line of people stood patiently waiting their turn for an agent (of death?) to shroud them in the choking incense, apparently sending their sins up in smoke. We looked at each other and at the same time said, “I don’t think this is the hippy fair.”
It wasn’t. We had stumbled into a temple devoted to Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, saint of the dead. Deeply frowned upon by the Catholic Church, this freak fest of a cult, which has seen a recent resurgence with several million followers, has its roots in Mesoamerican folk lore in which devotees believe Santa Muerte will deliver them safely to the afterlife. But we saw nothing safe or serene in those ossified faces and ghastly images that would convince us to entrust our souls to this creepy saint. There are many more such macabre shrines in Mexico City, but this incongruous temple of death out here in Santa Ana Chapitiro, in the bucolic Lake Patzcuaro countryside, was truly bewildering.
Back outside, brushing past the stands and shops selling reaper figurines, candles and incense for magic spells, we jumped back in the car in search of a more zen hippy fair to chase away the chills.