January Fair and the Festival of San Sebastian the Martyr
Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas: Despite its origins, this spirited festival is more merrymaking than martyrdom. Highlights of the Fiesta de enero, or January Fair, are hundreds of Parachicos masked dancers sporting exotic wigs, and special dishes. The fair starts in mid-January, and festivities culminate in a staged naval battle on the river Grijalva and a fabulous fireworks display on Jan. 21.
Tip: Accommodations are limited in Chiapa de Corzo, so plan to stay in Tuxtla Gutierrez (nine miles west). www.travelchiapas.com
San Miguel de Allende: This celebration, marking the midpoint (Feb. 2) between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, is a hybrid of Catholic and indigenous rituals. Juarez Park is a profusion of color with a huge weeklong plant sale.
Tip: Stay at one of San Miguel's many B&Bs;, such as Casa de la Cuesta, where your hosts help you gain insider information about cultural festivals. www.internetsanmiguel.com
Veracruz, Veracruz: Carnaval kicks off with the Quema del Mal Humor, the burning in effigy of bad humor. Daily parades with imaginative floats, coronations of a queen, an ugly king and child king, dances and riotous concerts follow. Gyrating dancers, revelers in outlandish garb, and noisy musicians fill the streets. On Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the celebrations end with the burial of Juan Carnaval, the symbol of wanton excess and revelry, as the abstinence of Lent begins.
Tip: West Coast residents might find cheaper flights to La Paz or Mazatlan, where they celebrate carnival with similar excess. www.carnaval.com/cityguides/veracruz/vc_carnaval.htm
Palm Sunday Folk Art Market
Uruapan, Michoacan: The largest open-air folk art market in Mexico starts the weekend of Palm Sunday. On Saturday morning, artisans in native dress parade through town to the central plaza, where a week of selling begins.
Tip: The finest handicrafts can be found at the Concurso, a juried exhibition. www.michoacan-travel.com
San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato: Palm Sunday is celebrated with a procession from the Parque Juarez down Sollano Street to the Parroquia church. The week culminates in a Good Friday re-enactment of Christ's persecution in the central plaza. San Miguel's many churches hold extravagant paschal Masses on Saturday evening. In the late morning, people crowd in to watch as papier-mache figures of Judas, rigged with firecrackers and suspended from wires above the plaza, are exploded.
Tip: Book at least six months in advance; the week before Easter is the busiest for tourism in Mexico. www.internetsanmiguel.com
San Marcos Fair
Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes: Among the oldest in Mexico, the San Marcos Fair is also one of the country's largest and loudest. Beginning in mid-April, this agricultural fair runs for three weeks and features spectacular fireworks displays and a wine pavilion.
Tip: Like many state fairs, this festival covers a large area, so wear good walking shoes. www.aguascalientes.gob.mx
Oaxaca City, Oaxaca: For lovers of folk music and dance, attending Guelaguetza is an incomparable experience. The modern festival's main attraction is a folk dance competition at the open-air auditorium on Fortin Hill. The Guelaguetza takes place every year on the first two Mondays after the feast of St. Carmen on July 16. For 2009, the dates are July 20 and 27.
Tip: Make sure to catch the Calenda, a colorful musical procession through the city on the Saturday before the first Guelaguetza. www.go-oaxaca.com
International Mariachi and Charro Festival
Guadalajara, Jalisco: Guadalajara teems with visitors during the world's premier mariachi competition, held here in early September. More than 500 mariachi bands participate.
Tip: For those seeking a quiet refuge from days and nights of music and dancing, stay in suburban Tlaquepaque (20 minutes from downtown Guadalajara). www.mariachi-jalisco.com.mx
International Cervantino Festival
Guanajuato, Guanajuato: Begun in the 1950s as a student tribute to "Don Quixote" author Miguel de Cervantes, the Cervantino has become Mexico's most prestigious arts and music festival. World-renowned artists flock to this European-style colonial city to perform opera, ballet and music, and to exhibit their art during the first three weeks of October.
Tip: Be sure to attend at least one performance at the ornate Benito Juarez Theater, the performance hall named for Mexico's most beloved president. www.guanajuatocapital.com
Day of the Dead
Patzcuaro, Michoacan: While the Day of the Dead is celebrated all over Mexico, the villages surrounding Patzcuaro are epicenters for activities.
Early on Nov. 1, village cemeteries overflow with people adorning graves with flowers, photos, candles and fruit. The evening atmosphere becomes introspective as families return to hold candlelight vigils.
Tip: The two large cemeteries hugging the main road through the lakeside village of Tzintzuntzan (about 12 miles north of Patzcuaro) and the crowded island of Janitzio are popular tourist sites. www.patzcuaromexico.com
The Yucatan Bird Festival
Merida, Yucatan: Bird-watchers have flocked to the Yucatan peninsula for the last six years to count species during the popular three-day event. This annual fund-raiser gives visitors the chance to explore the lovely colonial town of Merida while attending workshops. www.yucatanbirds.org.mx
Night of the Radishes
Oaxaca City, Oaxaca: Christmastime throughout Mexico is a treat, but Noche de Rabanos, the Night of the Radishes, is a must. Each year on Dec. 23, lowly radishes are transformed into miraculous creations. These piquant root vegetables, some fantastically large, are carved into nativity figures, saints, revolutionaries, animals, dancers and musicians, then displayed in Oaxaca's festively decorated central plaza.
Tip: Snag a table early at one of the numerous sidewalk cafes on the Zocalo for the best view of the evening's festivities. www.go-oaxaca.com
-- Judith Gille
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
If you go
Because many of these festivals are very popular, it's recommended that you book at least six months in advance. These websites can help in planning your trip:
www.mexconnect.com Whether planning a visit or retiring in Mexico, everything you need to know can be found here.
www.mexonline.com Book both hotels and flights, or learn more about cultural events in Mexico through this informative, easy-to-navigate site.
www.discoverymexico.com Another site providing useful information on Mexican hotels.