One of Mexico’s most celebrated holidays is Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Held in the beginning of November, it marks a celebration of the lives of loved ones who have passed away. The night of November 1st is dedicated to deceased children and infants, especially those passed away in the last year. This night is known as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). The holiday climaxes on November 2nd, when Mexicans spend the entire night at the gravesite of their deceased loved ones, bringing traditional offerings such as flowers, sugar skulls, and candles, as well as food and drinks enjoyed by their deceased relatives in life. These two days are nearly always given as holidays in Mexico, and the country blossoms in a colourful and spiritual celebration of life, death, and the dearly departed.
There are several places in Mexico that are known for their notable Day of the Dead celebrations: Merida, Mixquic, and Oaxaca come to mind – but I decided to head to the town of Pátzcuaro, on the edge of the impressive Lake Pátzcuaro, in the central state of Michoacán. The island of Janitzio and the villages around the lake are known for their particularly beautiful cemeteries and Day of the Dead festivities.
We stepped off our bus from Guadalajara and headed to our small hotel, the simple and hidden away but charming and central Posada de los Angeles. We didn’t waste any time in exploring the picturesque town, which had the unmistakable buzz of celebration in the air. The main plazas were bustling, bright orange marigolds adorned doorways and windows, and the streets brimmed with food and drink vendors hawking their specialities with more gusto than usual. After grabbing a couple of micheladas to get into the festive mood, we hopped on a combi (a small van used as public transport) and headed to the small lakeside village of Tzintzuntzan.
To get our bearings in Tzintzuntzan, we hiked up a hill to the ruins overlooking the town. At the end of the hike lies a plateau on which stands an impressive archaeological site, the ruins of an important Purépechan city. The most rewarding part of the climb, however, is the splendid view over Lake Pátzcuaro, its islands, and the mountains beyond. We descended back down to the town and explored the crafts market, as well as the ex-monastery and church behind it, hidden away by a stone wall framing a grassy courtyard dotted with ancient olive trees.
The best part of Tzintzuntzan, however, is the town’s cemetery. During the Día de los Muertos celebration, you can practically smell the cemetery before you see it, and when you enter its gates you see why; the whole site is covered with beautiful orange marigolds as far the eye can see. Wandering through the cemetery is an unforgettable experience, as any aspect of morbidity or sad nostalgia typically associated with cemeteries floats away thanks to the efforts of the townspeople to commemorate and pay tribute to their dearly departed in an explosion of colour, fragrance and creativity. Flickering candles dot the gravestones, pan de muerto (literally bread of the dead, a type of sweet bread) and other favourite treats such as sugar skulls are left out for the deceased, and standard cemetery mementos such as incense and notes and photographs are scattered around, pinned to garlands. The soft buzzing of bees, attracted to the flowers and sugar, adds to the peaceful atmosphere.
This cemetery, not unlike so many others in Mexico during Day of the Dead, best encapsulates Mexico’s unique way of looking at death. Unlike the rest of western culture, it is not viewed with sadness and fear, but as an inevitable part of the cycle of life and not something that necessarily means the end. Day of the Dead illustrates this, as in theory the spirits of the departed return to celebrate with the living, feasting over their favourite foods and recounting memories until the sunrise on November 3rd. Mexico’s fascination with death is also tinged by a touch humour and cheekiness, as the general air of celebration indicates, as well as the anecdotes and funny stories that relatives sometimes recall about their deceased loved ones around their graves.
After the cemetery, we continued by combi to explore a couple more of the towns further along the edge of the lake. As the sun fell, we decided to hop onto a boat to take a tour of some of the other islands on the lake before making our way to the most famous one, Janitizio. The other islands were small and charming, and relatively free of tourists as they are not easy to access. They also housed small cemeteries, lit by candles and attended to by families spending the night with the spirits of their loved ones.
We eventually made it to Janitzio, which is unmistakably recognizable thanks to the gigantic statue of José María Morelos, a hero of Mexico’s independence, which towers atop of the plaza overlooking the town. Janitizio is the place to be on the night of Day of the Dead, as evidenced by the massive crowds on the island. The town’s cemetery was indeed very beautiful, but I found it a little disturbing. There was a woman silently crying over the grave of one her relatives, which I overheard a fellow villager explain in Spanish was her son’s grave, who had died just a few days before. This was followed by a small group of drunken German students snapping pictures of her with their camera phones. While the cemetery was undeniably atmospheric, the sheer amount of people bustling through it and their general lack of respect detracted from this atmosphere, unlike the more tranquil cemeteries in the other islands and the villages around the lake.
Eventually we made it up the town’s winding paths to its highest point, the square that houses the giant 40-metre statue of Morelos. It’s certainly an impressive statue, and there are great views of the surrounding lake from its base, but don’t even think about entering the statue to go up the stairs inside to reach its summit – the line of people snaked around and around the stairs from top to bottom then continued outside. We eventually battled our way back down through the increasingly drunken crowd and made it to the docks, where we hopped on a boat back to Pátzcuaro, away from the madness of Janitzio and back to salvation.
All in all, Pátzcuaro and the surrounding area is an excellent place to celebrate Day of the Dead and I highly recommend it to any traveller desiring to truly immerse him or herself in Mexico’s fascinatingly unique culture of Día de los Muertos. A word of advice? Visit the famed island of Janitzio during the day, and retreat to one of Pátzcuaro’s excellent dining options once night falls to witness the chaos of the island from the tranquillity of your dinner table, gazing out at the twinkling lights of the islands on the lake from beyond the windows. Then say a toast and brink to the departed in your life, filled not with sadness but with peace, inspired by the unique view of death you will witness during Día de los Muertos in Pátzcuaro.
WHERE: Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. From Mexico City, you can take a bus to Morelia (4 hours) then change to another bus to Pátzcuaro (1 hour).
WHEN: Every 1st and 2nd of November.
HOT TIP #1: Don’t leave Pátzcuaro without taking an hour to hike up to el Estribo, a panoramic viewpoint atop an extinct volcano that you can reach by going up a very scenic, wooded road, passing by several picturesque hotels and farms and soaking in the consistently great views of Lake Pátzcuaro all the way to the top.
HOT TIP #2: Check out the restaurant Lupita off to the left of Pátzcuaro’s basilica for an excellent traditional meal of the region’s specialities.
HOT TIP #3: Make sure you try the small fried fish that you can find being sold along the lake and all over Janitizio – douse them with a bit of lime and chili and listo! Qué rico.
HOT TIP #4: It can be freezing during the night of Day of the Dead, and a warm coat will serve you better than tequila, trust me.
HOT TIP #5: Make sure to book your bus tickets and accommodations well ahead.