Mexican Pyrotechnics: From Gunpowder to the Marigalante-Main

Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Winter/Spring 2007 issue.

Spend enough evenings around downtown Puerto Vallarta and you'll find you no longer need a watch, especially around 9 pm, when the daily Marigalante pirate ship fireworks light up the night sky. Here in Mexico we need practically no excuse to set off fireworks. From handheld sparklers, known locally as "luces de bengala," to firecrackers loud enough to set off your car alarm, fireworks are an intrinsic part of Mexico's holiday and religious celebrations. And we take our fireworks seriously! Last year, Mexico City fireworks company Lux Pirotecnia took first prize from Chinese, Italian and Czech teams in Vancouver's prestigious Celebration of Light, arguably the most important musical fireworks competition in the world, attracting over 1.5 million spectators.

The earliest references to fireworks come from ancient China, where gunpowder was invented around 140 A.D. We could have delved into fireworks history by pursuing the countless references we found online. Instead, we decided to specifically trace the aforementioned 9 pm Marigalante fireworks to the place they are manufactured, a small compound about an hour from Puerto Vallarta. The road we traveled took us as far as you can get from the sophisticated milieu of fourth of July displays found in cities such as Boston or Chicago. But it was just as fascinating.

There are only a handful of firework manufacturers in Banderas Bay, and it was relatively easy to find José Guadalupe Rodríguez, the man behind the Marigalante fireworks, and his centrally located Pitillal office. Finding the unmarked location in El Colexio, a small "ejido" in the middle of nowhere near the road to Las Palmas northeast of Puerto Vallarta, was a different story! However, driving along the highway for 35 minutes and then following dirt roads for another 20, occasionally stopping farmers and asking for "los coheteros," or firework makers, finally paid off. Rodriguez's factory is actually a six-man operation located in the middle of a beautiful valley near the Sierra Madre mountains. While he manufactures fireworks year round, it is hard to conceive of anyone willing to drive to his remote location late at night, let alone during the rainstorm season. Nonetheless, it was comforting to find a lightning rod positioned right in the middle of the compound full of highly flammable materials.

Rodriguez, who has been in the fireworks business for nine years, specializes in aerial shells, or "bombas," the most common and well-know type of firework, which he supplies to the Marigalante on a daily basis, as well as to many of Vallarta's most important hotels. Made mostly by hand, the process of assembling a bomb takes up to a week, beginning with the manufacture of gunpowder. A mixture of potassium nitrate and charcoal is placed in a wooden barrel. The barrel is then placed in a makeshift mixer powered by a motor engine, shifting gears and all, allowing the ingredients to mix and grind for up to seven hours, the size of the granules of powder defining its burn rate. Once the mixture is finished, an assembly line is put in place, each worker specializing in a specific task, from adding other chemicals to the mixture to produce specific colors to the actual assembly of the bomb, which is eventually sealed with a papier mâché paste.

The crew also assembles spectacular towers of fire, known locally as "castillos," structures of varying sizes made of bamboo and wood, upon which fireworks are attached, creating recognizable shapes, letters, even faces, when they are ignited with a common fuse.

Whereas castillos stand on the ground and are to be enjoyed from a distance, the most intimate interaction between people and fireworks on the planet takes place here in Mexico in the form of "toritos," the portable equivalent. Toritos are papier mâché structures in the shape of a bull and worn like a backpack. A lighter, castillo-like structure is then placed over the bull. When lit up, the torito comes to life and chases people around, very much like Pamplona's famous running of the bulls. Toritos can vary in size, from the one-person economy model to complex contraptions that must be carried by as many as a dozen people. Of all of Rodriguez's workers, 16-year-old Arturo Piazola from nearby El Ranchito is the one who valiantly carries the torito at local festivities.

On any given week, Rodriguez and his crew turn out approximately 200 bombs and a few castles and toritos, depending on the time of year. It is quite ironic that so much detail and care goes into the creation of one of our leading attractions when it provides just a few precious seconds of viewing pleasure. The memories of a spectacular fireworks display, however, last a lifetime.

Your own fireworks display

While companies such as José's usually cater to large hotels, concert promoters and tourist attractions, it is not uncommon to receive a request from a private home owner. And why not? There is no better way to wrap up a special evening celebration at your own villa than with a personal fireworks display. We learned that, when it comes to pyrotechnics, you usually pay not for the duration of the display (say, by the minute) but rather by the number of fireworks. Depending on the type you select, an average three- to four-minute display will set you back between $500 and $1000 USD. Special permits that must be obtained from City Hall and a couple other government agencies are included in the fee.

Tultepec: Mexico's Capital of Pyrotechnics

If fireworks are your thing, there is no better place to enjoy them in Mexico than in Tultepec, a small town just north of Mexico City. Considered Mexico's capital of pyrotechnics, and the one place in the country with more firework makers per capita than elsewhere, Tultepec hosts a week-long national pyrotechnics fair during the month of March, usually around March 8. On that day, locals and visitors pay tribute to San Juan de Dios, considered the patron saint of firework makers. Here, imposing "castillos" light up the sky night after night in fierce competition, while daredevils thrill with the traditional burning of the bulls.