On Día de los Muertos, the marigold-framed gravestones at the Xoxocotlán cemetery in Oaxaca City glow an amber hue, lit by hundreds of votive candles as people eat and drink into the morning around the gravestones of their ancestors. It’s “lit,” too, with throngs of skeleton-faced American tourists stumbling between tombstones, drawn to the coastal region by the movie Coco, the endless fountains of mezcal, and bottomless pits of mole.
Walking through the middle of it all is Omar Alonso. In a wide brim white felt hat and billowing black serape, Alonso guides tourists through the best of Oaxaca at least five days a week and nearly 24/7 via his travel porn Instagram account. Seeing the city with him doesn’t feel like a tour as much as it feels like following a really cool dude on a normal day. Everyone seems to consider him family, from artisans to market vendors to chefs, and that courtesy extends to his guests. When I ask him his favorite thing about Día de los Muertos, the answer is easy: the food.
A perfect storm of cultural and food tourism has made the region an incredibly popular destination. In 2018, National Geographic named it the fifth best place to visit and Travel & Leisure called Oaxaca the sixth best city in the world. This year’s Día de los Muertos festivities are the biggest Alonso has ever seen, with over 80 parades and concerts. There are more DSLR cameras in the cemetery than there are tlayudas—and there are a lot of tlayudas.
People come from all over the globe, putting the hotel occupancy at 98%. Tourism is invaluable for the region, especially given the horrific destruction caused by the 2017 earthquakes (for which Omar raised $35k in charitable donations), but along with American dollars come problematic Americans. Día de los Muertos is a joyous party honoring the deceased with revelry and gravitas, but what happens when we come to crash it?
There might not be a better Oaxacan wingman than Alonso. Born and raised in Oaxaca City, food was always a big part of his life. His favorite thing to eat is enfrijoladas, a simple dish of fried tortillas dipped in mashed black beans with avocado leaves, cheese, onions, and cilantro. It’s a common regional breakfast item, served with beef or eggs. “If you give me enfrijoladas every day, I’ll be happy every day,” he says.
His mother cooked in cafeterias, as well as alongside future Casa Oaxaca chef Alejandro Ruiz—in a Greek restaurant, of all places. He has a big family: for Día de Los Muertos, they’d prep 10 kilos of mole paste. “We’d have mole every day in our lunch going to school for the next two weeks. We had it any time and form. In a torta, on a tortilla, on a tostada,” Alonso explains.
After graduating high school in 1998, Alonso crossed into the US at the Tijuana border. On his first attempt, he says his coyote turned out to be more of a drunk than a guide. He doesn’t know how long he walked, but remembers passing out from exhaustion. Alonso typically speaks with a rapid-fire swagger, but his voice slows down and drops an octave when discussing his experience. “When I opened my eyes, I saw boots in front of me. It was the US Army,” he says.
He was detained, fingerprinted, and bussed back to Tijuana. A few days later, he tried again with a more experienced guide and a bigger group. For three days, he hid out in a house in the mountains, then trekked through a valley. The last person in line wiped away footsteps with a tree branch. A car arrived to pick them up—since Alonso was the smallest, they stuffed him in the trunk. He was in Tijuana at 5 PM, and in an apartment in San Diego by 9.
Alonso spent the next 10 years in Los Angeles juggling kitchen jobs. He took English classes and settled into the city’s vibrant Oaxacan community, where with the right tips you can find all of the same ingredients from home. He enjoyed life in the city, and even went to Coachella once (to see Madonna), but living without documentation was a constant struggle, one that he says gets erased from many immigration success stories.
“What I don’t like is for young guys being productive in Mexico to cross the border and waste their talent over there. Nobody talks about how you have to sleep in somebody’s living room or kitchen. There’s guys that didn’t have regular clothes, they were always in their uniforms because they were working three jobs,” he explains.
Alonso was tired of the struggle. He hadn’t obtained a green card and was still working completely illegally. He missed his family. In 2008, his friends noticed and bought him a plane ticket as a birthday present. It was a bittersweet gift, as it meant he wouldn’t be able to return without another arduous journey.
“I didn’t even think about it,” he says.
A few days later, he was back in Oaxaca and found work as a concierge at a B&B. The role evolved as the clientele changed with an influx of social media influencers. Instead of just giving recommendations, he led tours. It grew into a full-blown business; when we met up he had worked 13 days in a row. With the exception of Día de los Muertos, he mandates that groups be small and everyone know each other beforehand, which makes excursions feel more like the best vacation day ever rather than a contrived itinerary.
“It’s not like a commercial tour—it’s more like an experience,” says Alonso.
That’s Not Mezcal, This is Mezcal
The sun is setting on October 31st at the Lalocura palenque an hour south of Oaxaca City. The hillsides in the distance are planted with families of agave plants, ranging from babies to 20 year old grandpas. Omar’s tour group of 30 stands around a pit oven passing a gourd the size of a salad bowl filled with mezcal. Most wear new hats purchased from the previous stop of the tour, an Ocotlán artisan named Don Alberto (don’t bother Googling him, but Alonso hopes to eventually stock his products in his online store).
Today is the one day each year that Lalocura makes a mezcal called pechuga, named after the chicken breast that hangs over the third distillation. Eduardo “‘Lalo” Angeles is a fourth generation mezcalero who carries on the tradition of this recipe. For years, he also helmed the brand Real Minero, before leaving for the US to pursue an American dream, which ended up translating to a year and a half of cleaning carpets in Huntington Beach and San Jose. He returned to start a new palenque (his sister now oversees Real Minero).
“There's a lot behind the shot glass in your hand. There's families, stories, and hours of labor,” says Alonso.
Angeles is ill on the day of our visit, so Alonso conducts the action, holding a raw chicken on a string over his head and dancing the rhumba like a goofball. He’s dead serious about his love of Oaxaca, but turns almost everything else into a joke. He shuffles over to a pair of clay pot stills and starts barking out the names of ingredients like a culinary drill sergeant.
“Oranges! Bananas! Anise!”
Demand for mezcal is huge, which has led many tequila companies to pivot and outside investors to launch buy-and-bottle brands. Lalocura mezcal sells for $40 a shot in the US, but Angeles only makes $15 profit per bottle. Since an agave plant takes up to 20 years to mature, and few brands invest in sustainable replanting, a bubble looms.
More small batch mezcals are making it to the US, but exported mezcal is lower in ABV (here it’s 98-104 proof), and with much smokier flavors, which here can be considered a defect since the only time smoke should contact the agave is pre-distillation.
“When you lower the alcohol content, it takes away the flavors and aromas. What you should taste are the flavors of the cooked agave and the sweetness of that particular plant. Some are herbal, fruity, minerally,” says Alonso.
Those flavors are on full display at dinner. Hot chocolate and bread, corn tortillas fresh off a comal, steaming white rice, and chicken legs that’ve stewed in black mole all day comprise the menu, prepared by a chef who cooks for the nearby village during special events.
Meanwhile, one of the mezcaleros walks around the community table with a water jug of mezcal and a funnel. Before he pours each shot, diners hold out their hands and he splashes mezcal into them to showcase the aromas. He makes three rounds, a different varietal each time. Tobasiche tastes pinier, like a hot gin. Cuishe has earthy notes, bringing to mind the pit oven. And the pechuga, served hot from the still, bursts with fruit flavors (and a fiery proof).
“I hate to break it to you,” says Alonso, “but what you drink in the States is not as good as what we drink here.”
The Night of the Living Dead
Stuffed with mole and mezcal, the hour long drive to the Xoxo cemetery is quiet except for the swigging of a Lalocura bottle being passed, Coco playing on the van TV, and the muffled sound of several grown men openly weeping at the film’s ending.
When we arrive at the cemetery it feels like a tailgate. A brass band plays La Bruja, a traditional Día de los Muertos song that we’ll hear a dozen more times. Vendors line the entrance selling cream-filled pastries, mole tamales steaming in huge pots, tacos, and tlayudas frying on big circular grills.
Entering the first small cemetery is small and quiet. Families gathered round graves holding modest midnight picnics, the sepia candlelight reflected on gravestones gives the scene a holy glow. Typically Alonso brings flowers and his clientes decorate unadorned graves, but with this big a group we just scatter and take in the scene.
There’s a respectful energy to most tourists, but we’re still all buzzing around like jpeg-snapping flies. I find myself trying to be discrete, hovering in the distance around a family celebration and trying to hide behind other graves, but an elementary school aged girl notices and her eyes follow me like a spotlight. Still, Alonso encourages us to take photos and share on social media. It’s part of the reason he’s noticed twice as many cultural events happening this year than last.
“People are used to dealing with tourists and taking photos, I think it became like a challenge to make their graves prettier or make an extra effort to make it nicer,” says Alonso.
The second cemetery is the real rager. It’s the size of two soccer fields and there’s barely room to walk. Bands are everywhere, from traditional mariachi tunes to covers. Instead of DSLRs, there’s full video crews. Mexicans walk arm in arm, mezcal bottles swinging at their sides. Here vendors not just line the outside, they traverse the crowd holding trays of tostadas topped with chorizo, guac, and red sauce. The gravestones are more elaborate, families surrounding them sipping hot chocolate.
I stop at a grave painted with red and blue Spiderman pattern, and Alonso informs me that the cartoony decoration means that a child is buried here. We pause for a moment, then rejoin the party. Día de los Muertos is a joyous holiday, but death is still death.
Beyond the Grave
Our tour ended at around 3:00 AM at the best taco trailer in the universe. Although Oaxaca City has plenty of street vendors, tacos aren’t typically on the menu. Taqueria El Lechoncito de Oro is the exception, and it is truly exceptional. There’s only two things on the menu: suckling pig with leg meat or suckling pig with chicharrones, served on either a taco, torta, or tostadas. Alonso orders approximately 30 tacos for the group. We’re passing around the bottle of mezcal, salivating over the sizzling pork inside the trailer, which are truly some of the best tacos I’ve ever tasted.
This trailer is far from secret. It may be the only street vendor in the city with a Facebook page and show up on a lot of lists, but visiting with a local like Alonso unlocks the story. For years the owner was a notorious grouch who wouldn’t offer limes or salsa, but his daughters took over and shifted to a policy of light-your-cigarette-for-you style hospitality. They now offer green salsa and limes, as well as a second off-menu salsa that’s one of the spiciest I’ve ever tasted.
Like any shameless travel writer, I snap some photos for the ‘gram. I’m always a little embarrassed to ruin the moment, but if it weren’t for that time-sucking app, this tour probably wouldn’t be nearly as big as it is now. Most everyone here found Alonso via social media. “Social media has allowed more people to see everything that we have. Oaxacans have lived off of tourism forever.” To him, social media has brought a new pride to the region—and his charitable efforts after the 2017 earthquake would’ve been impossible without it, but it’s also brought a flood of outsiders looking to make a quick buck off trends.
By now everyone on the tour is exhausted, but half of the group still mills about after the tacos, enjoying each other’s company. There’s still a bottle of mezcal floating around, and nearly everyone has a couple bottles in their bags to bring home and further spread the gospel of real Oaxacan agave.
Naturally, the last thing we all do is trade Instagram handles.