Papel picado in a rainbow of hues was strung across the streets and plazas of Puerto Vallarta's Old Town. The Malecon, the bustling pedestrian walkway along the beach, was lined with altars honoring both national legends and beloved locals in addition to its usual collection of restaurants and shops.
Mexican teenagers sat in a public amphitheater painting each other's faces in the traditional black-and-white calavera skull style.
In early November, Puerto Vallarta prepared for its Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, one that would be more colorful, robust and tourist-friendly than ever before.
The city promoted a parade that wound from the cemetery, the traditional site of observance, down into the city center, where locals and tourists alike awaited the pageant queens, rodeo riders, musicians and other performers.
At the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta, which sponsored a press trip during the week of the Day of the Dead, the resort was busy unveiling programming for the annual tradition. The changes are part of a handful of initiatives to give guests a more in-depth look at the culture, history, traditions and, in particular, tastes of Mexico.
A double oceanfront guestroom at the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan
Interest in the Day of the Dead as a cultural attraction is up. The extravagant Day of the Dead parade depicted in the most recent James Bond film, "Spectre," and other pop culture representations, such as the animated movie "Book of Life," brought more attention to the celebration. This year, several cities, including Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta, threw more support behind tourist-friendly processions.
In previous years, the staff at CasaMagna built altars in the employee area for each department, out of sight from guests, according to Lourdes Bizarro, CasaMagna Puerto Vallarta's marketing manager.
With the heightened interest in the Day of the Dead, the hotel decided to make the altars public for the first time, positioning them in a ring around an outdoor patio. We explored altars dedicated to everyone from Walt Disney to the deceased child of a staff member, each adorned with the favorite items of the honored. Then we sat down to a three-course Day of the Dead dinner on the patio, also a first for the resort. Guests can even get their faces painted to look like a skull from makeup artists, who can be booked at the resort's salon.
CasaMagna pastry chef Mauricio Romero taught the visiting cadre of journalists how to make pan de muerto, the soft, sweet bread dusted with cinnamon and sugar to resemble a skull and bones. We worked up a sweat kneading the sticky dough before enjoying the finished product with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.
While the pan de muerto is a seasonal treat, the resort makes other cooking lessons available year-round.
"There was a family with a couple children that was interested in cooking classes," Bizarro said. "We arranged for them to take classes with one of our chefs, and they learned traditional dishes like enchiladas and Puerto Vallarta-style ceviche."
Pastry chef Mauricio Romero sprinkles cinnamon and sugar on pan de muerto at the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa.
In addition to the Day of the Dead additions, CasaMagna has introduced other options for guests that serve as a great introduction to the country's culinary history.
Every Tuesday and Friday the resort offers Sunset Guacamole. With the bay as a backdrop, we enjoyed margaritas made in an array of flavors and fresh guacamole whipped up in a molcajete (mortar and pestle) just as the sun dipped below the horizon.
The hotel also recently introduced a private experience in a tucked-away herb garden dubbed Dine Around Mexico. From dish to dish we took a six-course gastronomic journey through the cuisines of several Mexican regions — skirt steak from Sonora, Veracruz-style crab enchiladas, Chiapan cornbread — each inventively presented and accompanied by an expert explanation of its culinary significance. The meal was paired with a tequila tasting featuring the hotel's signature brand, made with blue agave grown at the resort.
"The new programs are designed to be fun and rich in experience while also informing the guest a little about the country, its history and traditions," Bizarro said.
All of the programming adds to the existing amenities at CasaMagna Puerto Vallarta, including multiple meetings and event spaces, four restaurants, several bars, a full-service spa and gym.
The hotel also participates in sea turtle conservation, with an onsite hatchery operating from June to December. Biologists survey the beach at night for eggs and then place them in protected nests to keep them safe from predators. When the turtles hatch, hotel guests are invited to participate in their release at dusk.
CasaMagna Puerto Vallarta is in the Marina district, a five- to 10-minute drive from both the airport and Old Town. With the new programs' focus on both education and experience, the resort has amplified its position as a base for exploring the rich culinary and artistic traditions of Puerto Vallarta and offers the opportunity to better understand and experience Mexican traditions such as Day of the Dead.