A curtain is pulled back and I descend a set of stairs to a tiled floor below. Huge masks and multi-hued skirts hang on racks lining a long, dim hallway. On the walls and on the floors sit a variety of props—drums on shelves, baskets filled with fruit, stacked headdresses. Every once in awhile a person with face paint walks by as if on a mission.
I am behind the scenes of Mexico Espectacular, a grandiose production with more than 300 performers covering hundreds of years of Mexican history in just over two hours. I’ve been invited to step backstage in the minutes leading up to the start of the night’s show, and even in the neat and clean staging area, it feels like I’ve stepped into an entirely different world.
Held in a giant arena, Mexico Espectacular is part variety show, part cultural experience, part sporting event. It’s also a massive operation involving not only a huge number of performers but also countless costume changes, animal management (there are a few scenes with horses) and complicated staging with actors arriving and leaving the arena from four different places on the floor (additional scenes place them high in the audience and even dangling from an acrobatic platform).
My host leads me from one stage opening to another. We rush past actors getting into place and press ourselves up against walls to avoid being detected by the audience when curtains are pulled back and doors opened as performers flood into the spotlights. Several men hoist another man atop a platform before marching into the arena. Children wait patiently for their cues then confidently step onstage in front of thousands of audience members.
As a former theater geek, I’m ridiculously excited and elated to be surrounded by the buzz of anticipation that fills a backstage area. These actors perform almost every night, and I’m pretty sure I am more wound up right now than the people getting ready to take to the stage. The performers talk quietly, calm and collected before putting on their game faces and making a grand entrance. I peek through slots in the staging area and watch the action on stage from a point of view few people ever get to experience.
On stage, several men knock a ball engulfed in flames back and forth. It’s a demonstration of uarhukua, an ancient game played with a flamelit wood ball (representing the sun) and sticks. This game, along with a demonstration of pok ta’ pok, or hip ball, kicks the show off, marking the start of the travel through time to modern day Mexico.
Swirling colors. Vibrant music. Elaborate costumes. Over-the-top props. Detailed dance steps. Back in the audience my attention is glued to the stage as the show moves through the country’s cultural history. Mariachi bands play popular Mexican folk songs. Adults and children alike clap their hands and sing along. It’s a festive, fun show with the side bonus of history and education built in.
Mexico Espectacular is at Xcaret, an eco theme park in the Riviera Maya. Visitors can either buy tickets only to the show or shell out a few extra bucks and add a full dinner onto the performance price. I had a three-course meal, which turned the show into a dinner theater of sorts. Though Mexico Espectacular can feel a bit long with a running time of more than two hours, it’s a great way to fly through Mexico’s history through the song, dance and cultural passion that have helped shape the country over hundreds of years.
My visit to Mexico Espectacular was paid for by the Riviera Maya tourism board, but all opinions are my own.