Carnavál Fireworks: Behind the Scenes


Mike Toth on the right, our connection Ted Allen on the left

I just love how social media and blogging work. Somebody commented on one of my photos of this year’s spectacular Combate Naval fireworks, saying, “My friend is down here from Canada helping with the show.” Really? How cool is that?! So I wrote back, “Please introduce us, and I’ll interview the person.”

Turns out that  Mazatlán’s annual fireworks show, put on when Raúl Rico is head of CULTURA by Lux Pirotecnia (Jorge Márquez) of Mexico City, involves not only Canadians but a German expert as well. Want to know the story?

Mike Toth, the gentleman I interviewed, works for Big Bang Fireworks out of Calgary, one of Canada’s top five fireworks outfits, owned by Dan Roy. Mike’s pyrotechnic journey started out like many of us; he lit off backyard fireworks that gradually gained in size and grandeur. Eventually he had to take a one-day safety course and become licensed. That was ten years ago, and he’s been learning on the job ever since. In Canada his fireworks job is pretty much May through September, plus Christmas and New Year’s.

He tells me the crew here are like brothers to him; they have a whole lot of fun together. They stay in touch throughout the year on WhatsApp and Facebook, despite huge language and culture differences. Two of the crew, Mauricio and Ramses, speak English (as do the three team leads), but most do not. Rodrigo comes from Durango: he’s a cowboy through and through, and César is evidently quite the comedian. Mike shared a few snapshots of his visit with me, below. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Mike’s technically not down here in Mazatlán working, but rather on vacation—hanging out with the pyrotechnists who are. But he did bring down with him a bunch of equipment: $40,000 worth, more or less. He brought seven panels and even some modules. Why? Well, fireworks equipment is expensive, especially the computerized kind that syncs music and explosions. Thus, Lux and Big Bang often collaborate in order to pool their resources and put on bigger and better shows.

Jorge (Lux) and Dan (Big Bang) are good friends; Jorge’s equipment often helps out during Canada Day (when Big Bang might have 30-40 shows in one day) or Edmonton Klondike Days (10 straight days of fireworks), and Dan’s equipment supplements shows in México during events on Constitution Day, Independence Day and Carnaval. I love fireworks, I’m all about collaboration, and this story is intercultural, so I find this trifecta of my passions very cool!

dsc_0211How does a fireworks show—our Combate Naval, for example—come to be? Jorge designs the show and its accompanying music and scripts it on paper, indicating the type and size of each firework, it’s color combination and time delay. I’m sure CULTURA is involved in some way at the design phase, too, though of course Mike doesn’t know about that. The shells are fixed into a string of ten or so and then put carefully into mortar tubes. There is no wasted space. Inside is an electric match; when the button is pressed, it launches.

Lux Pirotecnia is responsible for four major shows during Carnavál: the three coronations in the stadium, and the Combate Naval on Saturday night. I forgot to ask Mike about the crowning of the King of Joy. The fireworks are stored on a rancho just north of town.

Combate Naval 2017, for the first time ever, involved five barges; this allowed us to see the fireworks closer than we would if shooting exclusively from a ship in the bay. To me it was a HUGE improvement in the show! Unfortunately, however, one barge flipped over before the show due to the heavy waves. We ended up seeing fireworks from four barges or platforms. The barges are first put into position, then the pyrotechnicians go out in small boats to wire them up and turn them on. There was also a ship out there—yes, a real ship. Mike tells me they set up what looked like a helicopter landing platform on the deck of the ship, and from there the fireworks are launched. The capsized barge was rescued after the show, though of course the fireworks were ruined.

Wide-angle shot of Combate Naval

Wide-angle shot of Combate Naval

The main fireworks panel is just above where the Queen and the VIPs sit: at the Pedro Infante statue. All the music is precisely choreographed to each burst of the show, as we all know and so thoroughly enjoy each year—it’s computerization converting gunpowder into beauty for all our enjoyment.

Just how many people are involved in Mazatlán’s Carnavál-related fireworks? There are the three bosses: Jorge, Juan and David, from Lux. There are ten shell crew members, and ten one-shot crew members. There are also three drivers: two trucks and one van. I get a total of 26 fireworks technicians involved in Carnavál. How much does such a show cost? Again, Mike doesn’t get involved in that, and he can only quote Canadian pricing, which averages $1000/minute.

And where does the German connection come in? That would be Klaus Ulrich, the flame expert. If you attended any of the coronations in the stadium, you felt the heat as the  flames reached from the front of the stage towards the sky. That was Klaus’ work. We also experienced the heat of Klaus’ flames from the barges in the bay during Combate Naval.


Innovative round or wheel-shaped fireworks: crane wheels, with some of Klaus’ flames coming off two of the barges in the bay.

While I love my photos of multiple bursts at once—sort of the panoramic view, Mike’s favorite photo of mine, he says, is that of the crane wheels. Crane wheels? He explained to me the names for some of the effects that we saw in Mazatlán during Carnavál 2017:

  • The most common fireworks effects are often called by flower names, just as they are in the original Chinese and Japanese:
    • Peony (most common)
    • Chrysanthemum (peony with a spark trail)
    • Dahlia (peony with fewer and larger stars)
  • There are also a couple of effects named after trees, including:
    • Palm: Rising tail that bursts at the top with large tendrils.
    • Weeping willow: long-burning stars in a dome-shaped, weeping willow-like arrangement.
  • Aquatics: fireworks that fly into the water and then blow up. Mike says everyone has them. Jorge’s are 8-inch Kamuro shells: a dense burst of silver or gold stars that leave a glitter trail.
  • Camaros: double dome-shaped weeping willow with twinkles that fall to the water or ground.
  • Crane wheels: a one-shot wheel that can shoot sunbursts or a wheel shape. About one meter round, clamps to a plate. One set of fireworks is set at an angle to rotate the wheel, the others are set for the display.
  • Fountains or Gerbs: a thick-walled tube with a narrowing in the tube that produces a long-lasting jet of sparks. We saw these in the stadium and during the Combate Naval.
  • Horsetails: heavy long-burning fireworks in the shape of a horse tail that only travel a short distance from the shell burst before free-falling as glitter to the ground. They’re also known as a waterfall shell.

    Horsetails over Mazatlán

    Horsetails over Mazatlán

  • Rings: launch into the sky and burst into circles, smiley faces, hearts, clovers…
  • Roman candles: long tubes containing several large stars which fire at regular intervals. This Carnavál they used roman candles up to 4 feet tall anchored to a wooden frame, mostly arranged in fan or crisscross shapes, at close proximity to the audience. We see these on the beach during Combate Naval, and also during the coronations.
  • UFOs: one of my favorites of Combate Naval, the best way I can describe it is a spinning top that launches into the air, leaving a twirling vertical tail. Ours then burst at the top to result in a palm tree-like shape. Mike says that in Canada they usually use a round plastic frame, but here in México it’s bamboo. Bravo for México! Our UFOs had 4 herbs to push up and 4 to rotate.

    Slowly rising fireworks that felt magical and looked like palm trees: UFOs

    Slowly rising fireworks that felt magical and looked like palm trees: UFOs

Below I share some of the terms Mike used during the course of our interview, in case you like getting inside the world of a pyrotechnist as much as I do.

  • One-shot tubes: just like the name sounds.
  • Cake: multiple tubes connected by a fuse. When connected they look like a box.
  • Shells or mortars: during Carnavál we saw 3 to 8 inch shells. They are round and look like bombs, which is probably why, in Spanish, they are called “bombas.”
  • Racks: stands that hold multiple fireworks tubes. These include:
    • Flat racks
    • Half moon racks
  • Panels: the computerized panel of buttons that controls the show.

He explained to me that a firework has a lift charge. The fuse wraps around a ball, and a couple of sticks are timed as fuses. That’s how they set timings. The pyrotechnicians can then launch a firework, it goes into the air with the lift charge, and in four seconds, or six, at the height of its trajectory, the secondary fuse sticks will fire and the effect will explode.


We all know that here in México people build fireworks. They do so in the USA also. But Mike told me that in Canada it’s against the law to build fireworks! The country’s last firework maker was Hands Company. One of Mike’s dreams is to work in Lux’s shop in Mexico City for a few weeks, so he can have the experience of building fireworks.

Another huge difference that stands out for Mike is, of course, safety. The hand-held bottle rockets that lead every parade in Mazatlán would never be permitted up north, nor would allowing people to sit so closely to the fireworks. He was amazed that people hang their legs off the malecón during the Combate Naval, for example, and loved hearing that people here consider ash burn lucky, just like bird poop. In Canada to launch fireworks you need insurance and permits (which I believe you need here in México as well, at least for the large ones), you have to launch on private property, and you can not shoot fireworks near a lake or river because it upsets the fish. I know fireworks are environmentally hazardous, but they definitely light up my soul.


July 3, 2016 on the Lake Michigan waterfront in Milwaukee

We love Juan José Ruiz of Mazatlán Fireworks, our local expert. He and his guys put on a beautiful 45-minute show for our wedding anniversary party that thrilled all the kids who got to push the buttons on the panel. Juan José tells me that his firm has often done Carnavál Fireworks, also, but that he tends to be asked to do them when the PRI is in charge of the government.

I got hooked on fireworks as a child in Wisconsin, and deepened my love for them living for over a decade in Japan. Mike told me about a couple of fireworks competitions that I need to add to my bucket list, including GlobalFest in Calgary and Montreal’s L’International des Feux Loto-Québec, the world’s biggest fireworks festival. During my research I also found the Tianguis de Pirotecnia San Pablito Tultepec, which is coming up March 4-11 right here in México—we all remember seeing video of the huge explosion in a warehouse there last December. Frequent winners of the international competitions are, of course, Disney, and also Zambelli Fireworks out of Pennsylvania.


Fireworks over Lake Tichigan, Wisconsin, July 2, 2016

Next time you attend a fireworks show, stop and think about all of the people, time, preparation and work involved in delivering the performance you are enjoying. You just might find yourself appreciating the spectacle even more!

Loads of Pics of Carnavál Parades 2015

DSC_0711 - Version 2We absolutely LOVE the Carnavál parades every year. There is nothing better than a bunch of Mazatlecos in good humor, with their dancing shoes on and ready to party! Everyone from toddlers to grandparents get in on the fun. Mazatlán’s first Carnavál was 117 years ago (1898), and 2015’s parades had 31 floats. Dance troupes from studios and schools all over town participate in our parades. I love all the youthful exuberance and excitement as these kids, who’ve rehearsed for months and raised money for costumes, get their big day in the limelight. It is a city tradition, involving at some point in time nearly every family in town, it seems. I enjoy watching them in the parades, and also as they put on their makeup, chat, eat and warm up prior to the parades. I especially love the young couples in love. Here are just a few of my favorite Carnavál faces of 2015’s parades. Click on any photo to see it larger or view a slideshow (highly recommended).

The parade on Sunday had 300,000 spectators, not to mention those on Tuesday! The city supplied free bleachers with 15,000 seats this year, making Carnavál fun accessible to more people.


Most of the people in our condo building prefer to watch the parade from the pool deck. From there they can take photos of whole floats, with the bay and the sunset in the background. We prefer our annual street-side party, where we can cheer on the dancers and join with them when they invite us to do so. It’s great fun! Click on any photo to see it larger or view a slideshow.

This year the pre-parade came round and we all caught beads, hats, t-shirts and other gadgets. The main parade, however, was well over an hour late. It started fairly on time; we saw the fireworks. But then it stopped. We waited. We drank and danced. We talked with our neighbors and friends. We enjoyed the clowns and vendors passing by, and the families and kids playing in the street. And we wondered what had happened to the parade.

It seems a generator failed on one of the floats, and it took quite a while to get it functioning. Also, a huge group of people were blocking the parade route, and the police had to restore order to the scene. Finally, about 8:00 pm, the first parade reached us.

The theme this year, “Dreams of Momo,” the god of merriment, was interpreted as one of fantasy and mystery, including a variety of entries such as Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, dragons, fairies, Indian goddesses, unicorns, a Medusa-like octopus, China, Japan, Egypt, and Native American chieftains.

As you know, Maestro Rigo Lewis, who designed our royal floats for over 50 years, passed away last year. This year of course was a transition year. I’m afraid it was a rather disappointing one. The royal floats were not nearly as regal, intricate, realistic or impressive as we have grown used to—no one gasped or said “wow” like they usually do. We have been told by some of the designers that CULTURA was afraid of losing Rigo’s legacy, so they wouldn’t let them create freely, but rather had them attempt to honor his baroque style. On the other hand, we’ve heard and read that CULTURA is eager to forge a more modern, minimalist style of floats.

All I can say is, I hope the outcome is better next year. The regular floats were uneven; some were really quite cool, and some looked like they were put together by high schoolers. For the first time ever, some of the commercial pre-parade floats were better than those in the main parade! We saw plain, undecorated iron rods and scaffolding; generators right in the middle of floats, blocking the view of key elements; floats that were very obviously made for third-story rather than street viewing, which ruins the whole tradition in Mazatlán of a street party and caters to the privileged; floats such as that of Momo that were so plain as to be embarrassing; people showing through sheer fabric on the floats when we weren’t supposed to see them; lights that were too direct and overbearing; and floats that had so many elements to them that there was no viewing angle from which you could see the main points clearly. All in all, the floats were not up to the standard that CULTURA has set for us. But, it is a transition year, and we can hope that 2016 will be better than ever.

There were quite a few LED floats, which we saw the first time a few years ago in the children’s parade on Monday night. This year, there was no children’s parade, nor were there fireworks on the malecón on Monday night. We really missed this, as did tens of thousands of Mazatlecos and tourists. The Espinoza Paz concert in Olas Altas was great, but not a replacement for a family-friendly, easily accessible and free-of-charge activity like the parade and fireworks.

Want to know one of the best parts of the pre-parade on the second day? A bunch of girls in one of the comparsas spotted Espinoza Paz dining in a sushi shop just down the street from us. Check out the hysteria that ensued:

In the end, it was a TERRIFIC couple of parades, with everyone feeling joyful and happy. Beautiful community-building was had by all. Complaining that some of the floats weren’t up to the incredibly high standards set in previous years doesn’t diminish the unbelievable wonder of the event. Thank you, Mazatlán, CULTURA, dancers, and everyone involved!

Annual Schedule for Carnavál de Mazatlán

Those of us who are privileged to live in Mazatlán either look forward to Carnavál as the best event all year, or hightail it out of town as the tourists pour in to enjoy this most wonderful event. Carnavál here is a festival of the people. Teenagers rehearse their dance moves for months, and joyfully don their costumes for the big parade days. There are events for children, for adults, and for the whole family to enjoy. Each year the party zone includes dozens of live bands playing each of the six nights of Carnavál, plus four main concerts/coronations.

Each of the coronations involves the pomp and circumstance of the coronation itself, dance performances and music, a concert by a major national or international performer, and a gorgeous fireworks show. Attendance at at least one if not several of these is a must!

The schedule of the main events for Carnavál doesn’t change year-to-year, although the dates do. In 2015 Carnavál de Mazatlán is February 12th through 17th. It is always the six days prior to Ash Wednesday.

PLEASE NOTE: In 2015 on Monday night it appears there will NOT be a second fireworks show on the malecón as in prior years, but instead a concert by Espinoza Paz in the Olas Altas party zone at 10 pm.

In the past, I’ve published a schedule to help people remember what happens when and where. In this age of infographics, it’s now possible for me to create and share one with you. I hope you’ll print it off for easy reference, and that it will help you plan your very busy and fun-filled week! If you click on the infographic below, it’ll take you to a page where you’ll see it larger, and you can view it even larger again in “presentation mode” on the upper left of that screen. This is my first time to make an infographic, so thank you for helping learn to do it as well as possible.

Don’t forget that we have loads of posts about past Carnavál events, as well as numerous videos on the VidaMaz YouTube channel. Here’s the infographic; please share it around!

See you at Carnavál!

Carnaval Schedule 2015



Día de los Muertos, Mazatlán 2014

La Pareja: Together in life and death

La Pareja: Together in life and death

What a welcome home! The callejoneada (alley parade) this year for Day of the Dead in Mazatlán was the best ever, if I dare say so! It was a perfect evening weather-wise: clear skies highlighted by a gorgeous crescent moon, and warm weather that was cool enough for comfort. More people and especially more complete families participated, more dressed up, the beer flowed more freely and was better organized, and the main costumed characters were spectacular!

This year’s event was a tribute to Maestro Rigo Lewis, the long-time creator of our unbelievably gorgeous Carnavál carrozas/floats, so the callejoneada for Day of the Dead had a Carnavalesque air to it this year; it was a beautiful fusion of two local traditions for which Mazatlán has international fame. Kudos and thanks to CULTURA and to the Centro Municipal de Arte staff and students! By the way, I’ve been told we will STILL this year AND next year in the Carnavál parade will have carrozas designed by Maestro Rigo! His legacy lives on, thanks to his hard work and passion.

Click on any of the images below to see it larger or to view a slideshow.

I am sorry to have been so long away from this page, but after seven years it was wonderful to reconnect this summer with family and friends north of the border in a lengthier, more meaningful way. We were able to celebrate my aunt’s 80th birthday, be with my sister-cousin through surgery, and settle Danny into his dorm room and college life. For that I am ever grateful! Plus I had a month of work in Europe, where I met incredible people and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Of course we missed home, and our friends and family here, terribly.

Saturday night felt like our personal welcome home party, as we hugged loved ones everywhere we went. Funniest, to me, was how often I had to ask, “Who are you?” as the costumes were so excellent that they disguised identities quite effectively!

I can’t imagine not dancing in the parade with the live music, if one is able to do so, as it is just so much fun! There are, however, many people who line the route to watch and enjoy, as well as those who camp out at front-row-seats in bars and restaurants to watch the parade pass by.

Life in the Plaza Machado after the callejoneada was a sight to behold as well. I unfortunately can’t tell you anything about the event inside the theater, as though we waited in line at the Machado for about 90 minutes to get tickets, they ran out long before it was our turn.
We met one woman who was here in town to celebrate her 50th birthday, all the way from Washington DC with two of her best girlfriends. They obviously brought complete Day of the Dead costumes with them for their holiday! We saw store-bought costumes, handmade costumes, traditional and modern versions, and fortunately there were many of us who were still alive and un-costumed to enjoy the rest!
My absolute favorite moment of the evening, and there were so many awesome ones to choose from, was as the callejoneada entered the plazuela. Just in front of the theater, a group of young men started cheering loudly, dancing and jumping around. “Güero! “Güero!” they were shouting. As I turned around to see what all the happy commotion was about, I realized they were cheering on my partner, Greg. He was dancing happily, having been soaked with beer head to toe earlier in the evening.
CULTURA TV is going to stream it’s video of the callejoneada this Wednesday, November 5, at 5:00 pm local time. Be sure to check it out! There are many more aspects of Day of the Dead in Mazatlán; the callenjoneada is just one activity. This blog post can give you a broader idea for your trip. I know my favorites include making an altar to remember my departed family members and friends, as well as remembering them in Mass each year. We hope you’ll join us so we can dance with you all next year!

Carnavál Parade 2014


How in the world could we possibly top last year’s amazing Carnavál? The theme in 2013 was the movies. Everyone loves a good picture show, and last year’s parade most definitely made the most of that love! I figured there was no way anyone could top last year, so I was mentally prepared not to be sent over the moon by this year’s parade. NOT! Both 2014 Carnavál parades were incredible! The 34 floats, 23 dance troupes and 16 musical groups made for an absolutely fantastic nearly four hour event!

I love that we have two parades. For us, living here on the north end of the malecón, the first parade is an evening into night affair, making for a tremendous street party. The floats in the parade are all aglow, and the dancers are in party mode, grabbing us from our seats and cena on the curb to join in the merriment with them. The second parade, on Tuesday, has the floats lining up in front of our house from just after noon, ready for picture taking in the full light of day. The dancers and royalty come out about an hour before the parade, and it’s the most incredible photo opportunity of the entire year—dancers putting makeup on each other or rehearsing dance steps, bands warming up their instruments and tunes, people stretching, eating, laughing. I absolutely love both these events.

To me the very best thing about Carnavál Internacional de Mazatlán is that it’s a family affair. Nearly every family in town has a member who’s been Carnavál royalty, even if it’s a cousin or aunt, and nearly every Patasalada has danced in Carnavál at some point in his or her life. Royalty celebrate their silver and golden anniversaries, and what a joy it is to see them relive the original thrill, often accompanied by their children! Young children and grandparents dance in the parade, even though it’s such a long route. Several years ago I had a good friend from Mexico City who just hated Carnavál. She thought it was low class and tacky. What she hated most were what she called the beauty contests—that young people were taught to value superficial beauty rather than brains or talent. While I tend to agree with her about beauty contests in general, and I am very much saddened by the shadow cast over the voting for Queen of Carnavál the past few years and hopeful the process will become more transparent, the fact is that Carnavál is a festival of the people. It is much, much, MUCH more than a beauty pageant, involving literature, poetry and painting competitions, concerts galore, fireworks, a food festival, bullfight, several “manifestations” or pre-Carnavál energy-building events, the pomp and circumstance of the coronations, the parades and, of course, the huge street party in Olas Altas for six nights straight. Mazatlán has over a month’s worth of Carnavál-related events, and there’s enough variety to please everyone. Click on any photo below to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Kids rule at the parade. Most of the dancers and musicians are teenagers, children or young adults, joining their friends from dance class, gymnastics, or school. They’ve worked for months to raise money for costumes and props, and have rehearsed their hearts out. They are eager to burst with joy and energy during that first parade. Then, by the second parade on Tuesday, they transform into relaxed, experienced parade marchers, more confident of themselves and the crowd around them.

The other star of the parades is the setting—the route goes along the malecón, south to north on Sunday, then north to south on Tuesday, with a clear view out to the ocean and the islands of our bay, the glittering lights of downtown, and the changing colored lights of Valentino’s on the northern end.

So, what made 2014 stand out for me? The most notable difference for me was the crowds! Usually people set out their chairs the night before the big day, but this year was unreal. There were solid chairs from one end of the parade route to the other, and it was reported that over 800,000 people—twice the population of the city—turned out to watch the first parade! We had three families that did not join our party because they couldn’t get through the crowd to get to us! It was a-m-a-z-i-n-g! The mayor tested out a bleacher system which seemed very popular with those wanting a seat at the last minute, but that met with huge pushback from those opposed to selling seats along the malecón. While I’d love to see seats and space continue to be free of charge, something obviously has to give if the crowds keep growing like they are. I’m sure we had many more spectators this year who joined us from Durango, Zacatecas and beyond, thanks to the new highway.

Last year you’ll remember that CULTURA invited a special group from Brazil to join us. They were scantily clad and a huge hit. I believe that is perhaps what influenced another change that we noticed this year: much sexier costumes, and many more scantily clad dancers. Several of the floats had hired models dancing on them, fortunately including scantily clad men as well as women, so everyone could enjoy. I noticed quite a few of the kids’ dance groups had sexier-than-usual garb, also. Perhaps that was in keeping with this year’s theme, Piel del Mar or “Skin of the Sea.”

My personal favorite float this year was the Venetian float that Francisco Igartúa made for Marcela I, Queen of the Floral Games. It transported all of us to the Palazzo Ducale, complete with a couple of gondola rides, and beautifully honored the style that Maestro Rigo Lewis established for royal carriages of Carnavál these past 50 years.

Queen Lorena’s float was also incredible, representing Rio. It was begun by Maestro Rigo himself, and finished up by his family after his death. Suzset, the Child Queen’s float was also made by Maestro Rigo and the Lewis family, representing New Orleans. Maestro Jorge González Neri had a huge hit with the King of Joy, Adolfo Blanco’s, exuberant and colorful Cuban float. You can definitely see the different styles of the floats’ creators!

There were so many terrific floats, and also the LED-lit cars that we’ve grown to love these past few years. At least four continents were represented this year: the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. It was all definitely a feast for the senses!

Here are a few final pics of some of the dancers in this year’s parade. I hope you enjoyed it all as much as we did!

The past couple of year’s I’ve put together a video of Carnavál. This year, Mahatma Millan has already put together such a terrific one, that I figured I don’t need to bother. Let me share with you his terrific work:

Today is Ash Wednesday; Lent begins. Time to rest, reflect and recenter, after the exuberance and sleep deprival of the past week! Please, share with us your favorite part of Carnavál, in the comments below.

See you all next year!