Experience Mexico's Day of the Dead

One of the biggest festivals in Mexico, Día de los Muertos (Mexican Day of the Dead) is an expression of the Mexican psyche which honors those who have passed through colorful ritual and celebration.

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Photo © Getty Images/oleg elkov

From October 31 to November 2, Mexico celebrates with the colorful, famous festival, Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. During this ancient festival, markets, shops, homes and cemeteries are emblazoned with mini coffins, butterflies, calaveras (skulls), colorful flowers, papel picado (pierced paper bunting), calacas (papier-mâché skeletons) and many other offerings.

One of the biggest misconceptions of this festival is that it is Mexican Halloween and that couldn't be more farther from the truth.

So if you want to indulge in a lighthearted vision of eternal life, it's time to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in a ~2500 year old celebration of life and death.

Day of the Dead Festivities

Locals prepare for the festivities by joining the crowds at the market to purchase the biggest, brightest bunch of cempazúchitl (marigolds) and other flowers. They will also head to the local bakery for a few loaves of the season's signature delicacy, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) or prepare their own. The bread is decorated is often decorated with bones and skulls, then eaten graveside or offered to the deceased. It's a serious and draining journey traveling to and from the afterlife.

At midnight, Mexican families decamp to the cemetery, loaded up with the dead person's favorite meal (generally a classic Mexican dish such as envueltos—wrapped tortillas stuffed with chicken mole). Elaborate ofrendas (altars) feature candles, flowers, personal mementoes, photographs and more often than not, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Until the early hours, families gather around gravestones, eating, drinking tequila and pulque (a sweet, fermented drink made from agave sap), singing songs and reminiscing about the departed.

As the dead bless their living relatives with prosperity or affliction according to how much effort their nearest and dearest have devoted to the preparation of their ofrenda, there's a fair amount of one-upmanship. In some Mexican cities and towns, there are competitions for the altars, with the biggest and most beautiful ones winning awards. 

In touristy spots, a more opportunistic mood prevails with mariachi bands offering their own classics (for a fee) and children hawking religious figurines.

Dead of the Dead Around Mexico

If you are keen to participate or observe one of Mexico's indigenous traditions, it's important to plan ahead and choose your location wisely. Celebrations reach mythical proportions in southern Mexico where indigenous culture is strongest. If you can leave behind the tourist trinkets and abandon the vigil-come-party frenzy, Day of the Dead comes about as close to an out-of-body experience as you can get. It's worth remembering that in remote locations, infrastructure can be basic and finding a place to stay can be challenging.

Lake Pátzcuaro

It's no surprise that in the native lingo, Lake Pátzcuaro translates as the "place where one finds stones that mark the entrance to paradise." Clearly, the indigenous Purépecha have always lived with one eye focused on the next world. Even (or rather, especially) outside of Día de los Muertos, the six islands of Lake Pátzcuaro (Jaracuaro, Tecuena, Yunuen, Pacanda, Janitzio, and Uranden) represent one of Mexico's most intense spiritual experiences.

For Day of the Dead, as many as 100,000 tourists converge on Pátzcuaro to witness the Purépecha commune with the netherworlds and perform outlandish rituals in the local cemetery.

Janitzio Island is the feverish epicenter for tourist activity; the arrival of canoes draped with flowers ushers in the nocturnal celebration in honor of lost souls.

On the islands of Yunuen and Uranden, the preternatural aura remains tangible despite the festival's increased commercialization and tendency towards inebriated revelry.

Pomuch

On Day of the Dead, in a small town called Pomuch in Campeche, custom dictates that relatives visit the cemetery, exhume the bones of their deceased relatives (they must have been dead for three years) and participate in a ritual cleaning of the remains. The newly buffed bones are placed on a wooden box and covered with a cloth mantle embroidered by the deceased person's significant other. The skeletal remains are then placed in open ossuaries until the following year when the bones will be cleansed once again.

The tradition, which dates to ancient Mayan practices when the skulls of ancestors were revered, is fervently observed. Any families caught slacking will incur the wrath of the dead relative who will prowl the streets of town for eternity.

Xochimilco

Designated a Unesco Word Heritage Site, the placid water ways and artificial islands (known as chinampas) of Xochimilco (30 miles from Mexico City) are the last vestiges of an ancient system of farming that became the economic foundation for Aztec hegemony.

Day of the Dead is a kaleidoscopic extravaganza as local families, resplendent in their traditional dress and visitors navigate the maze of islands on whimsically decorated wooden boats called trajineras.

You can hire your own boat, complete with a mariachi band, and purchase samples of the season's culinary offerings from entrepreneurial vendors on passing boats. Around midnight, a more ethereal mood holds sways as locals head to the cemetery of San Gregorio Atlapulco for an all night candle-lit vigil beside graves carpeted with marigolds.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca loves a party. With its renowned artisanal flair, strong indigenous traditions and acclaimed molecular cuisine, observances of Day of the Dead in Oaxaca are rich and highly seductive.

The city's cemeteries provide the stage for a theater of the absurd with fun fairs, vendors selling candy crucifixes and dance troupes performing with atavistic abandon. There are countless evening processions called comparsas and homes are lavishly decorated. Many Oaxaqueños dress up as Catrina, an icon of Day of the Dead celebrations.

The creation of famed Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, Catrina (with her white painted face and aristocratic glad rags) satirized women who denied their indigenous heritage in favor of what they deemed European sophistication during the pre-revolutionary era.

Travel Tips for Day of the Dead

Día de los Muertos is one of Mexico's most popular and honored festivals. As such, hotels and hostels book up way ahead of time and delinquent planners will find getting around a complete headache.

As always, common sense protocol should apply in crowded settings.

When visiting cemeteries, even a basic knowledge of Spanish will facilitate your immersion into the festive rituals. In most locales, you'll find an upbeat spirit prevails and, generally, families are keen to share stories about their departed and welcome you into their jovial enclave—a few shots of tequila can help you quell any residual First World cynicism. While most Mexicans will happily debate their supernatural proclivities, some families prefer to maintain a dignified silence and would clearly like to be left alone.

While photography is common, always discretely ask permission before taking closer shots.

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4 Comments

  • Ken Brown said

    An "authentic" location is where 100,000 tourists arrive to gawk!??

    Pretty sure it's been comercialized, then..

  • Sergio Tohtli said

    Hola!, I´m mexican, and very interesting in the celebration of the souls (day of the death). I was reading what you wrote about Pomuch, and this enigmatic town is in the state of Campeche.
    I live in Bacalar, Quintana Roo, in the Península of Yucatán. I was in Pomuch 4 years ago and in the mayan tradition is called Hanal Pixán (Food for the Souls); the bread from this town is very famous in the area and specially in this days, one of them is Pan de Pichón, inside with ham, cheese and chile jalapeño.

    Another good and interesting place to go is in Aguascalientes, to the Festival de las Calaveras, from there is Guadalupe Posadas (you can search him in the internet).

    Gracias :)
    Sergio Tohtli
    Nomad Freelance Photographer
    Tlatemoani Ye Nelhuatl


  • Cecy said

    Hi, just wanted to say Pomuch is actually in the state of Campeche, and not in Yucatán. Another place worthy checking out is Naolinco, in Veracruz, and neighboring towns. During the festivities most locals open up their houses and let people take a peek at their altares, and invite them tamales and champurrado. People also dress up, attend masses as well as the cemetary, and decorate the whole town with Catrinas. The place fills up with people but the atmosphere is most joyful.

  • Linzi Clark said

    Looks amazing - definitely on the wish list and I'm now currently researching trips!

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