SAN ANTONIO -- As I made my way past the steps leading down to the river level of the Paseo del Rio and headed toward La Villita, I found myself surrounded by an army of black-clad figures, faces painted a luminous white, giving them a skull-like appearance. It might have been a scene from "The Walking Dead."
It wasn't the "Walking Dead," however, but those walking in honor of the dead. I was here for San Antonio's annual Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead celebration. The multiday holiday (Nov. 1-3), which originated in Mexico, brings family and friends of the deceased together to honor them and pray for their spiritual journey. It is not a time of sadness, but indeed one of celebration.
And when it comes to celebrations, San Antonio is no slouch. With its rich Mexican heritage, the city holds the largest Day of the Dead celebration in the United States. It can be seen in the gaily painted ceramic skulls throughout the city, in the elaborate clothes and even more elaborate face painting of the participants, and especially in the altars, decorated with photos of the deceased, candles, flowers (most commonly marigolds), beads and food, the latter providing sustenance for the dead who, it is believed, are allowed to return on this day.
Ground zero for the celebration is La Villita (Little Village) founded nearly 300 years ago as one of the city's first neighborhoods, and this is where I'm headed when I encounter the black clad revelers with their skull-like visages.
I find a viewing spot facing the Arneson River Theater, and for the next hour watch entranced as barge after barge, decked out in colorful finery and known as "trajineras," wend their way down the river in a floating parade.
Most of the floats feature tall female skeletons sporting elaborate hats with feathers, known as Catrineras. They may put you immediately in mind of the Disney film "Coco," but the figure actually represents La Catrina, the Aztec goddess of death who protects the departed and assists them into the afterlife. To say the parade is pageantry in its highest form is an understatement.
If I had thought the pageantry would end after the River Parade, I was in for a surprise. The celebration continued nonstop for the entire three days.
At the marvelous Witte Museum, a special exhibition Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids (through Jan. 12) includes a section on Alebrijes, brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of mythical creatures. Not to be left out, there is also a Texas legend, the gruesome Chupacabra, which got its name from sucking the blood of goats.
While at the Witte, don't pass up the Texas Wild Gallery, a fascinating look at the flora and fauna inhabiting the eight ecosystems of the state from swamp and bayou to mountains and desert, from piney woods and Gulf Coast beaches to prairies and rolling plains.
As food plays an important role in Day of the Dead rituals, it's essential to book a table at some of the city's best restaurants, which contribute their part to the celebration.