Don’t be fooled by the apparent civility of the remnant spectator stands and ballcourt of ancient Maya’s favourite game - if you lost playing in the ancient Zapotec capital of Monte Alban you were put to the death in a ritual sacrifice to the gods. The game wasn’t easy either; players had to manipulate the ball through a goal using only hips, shoulders, knees and elbows. Despite this ruthlessness, ambling around the Monte Alban ruins just outside Oaxaca, you’ll soon realise the remnant plazas, tombs, palaces and temples once housed the heart of an elaborate society spreading throughout the valley pueblos it still presides over. Just don’t play ball with the local Mayan descendants, lest they reinstate the rules of old.
The sweet bread of pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is one of many delicious ritual snacks you can eat on the Day of the Dead, Mexico’s most famous and elaborate celebration. Also known as Día de los Muertos or All Saints’ Day (1st Nov) and All Soul’s Day (2nd Nov), it is a time for Mexican families to gather to remember their deceased relatives and to welcome back their souls to give guidance. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased and covering them in trinket offerings: typically sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and drinks of the departed. And the ubiquitous pan de muerto. You too can join in the festivities, particularly in Oaxaca, where the lead up to the day is especially colourful. The city’s market and stores are festooned with offeratory trinkets that make great gifts, as much as sugary mid-tour treats.