It’s that time of year again when our thoughts turn to ghosts, pumpkins, witches and oversized cobwebs. Over in Mexico, it’s a slightly different story as they roll out sugar skulls and marigolds.
Dating back to pre-Hispanic times, Dia de Muertos is a time to remember and honour the deceased with food, drink and parties. Most of this activity falls on the nights of the 1st and 2nd of November, known as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day respectively. Families attend local cemeteries to spend the night celebrating the lives of those that have departed and make offerings at church altars and tombstones.
In many places across Mexico, festivities begin with colourful processions, displays of handicrafts and elaborate flower creations. These celebrations attract visitors from across the globe looking to embrace Mexico’s traditional spirituality and playful attitude towards death. You can witness Day of the Dead celebrations pretty much anywhere in Mexico, but there’s a few standout destinations and here’s our pick of the best.
Rich in indigenous traditions and folklore, Oaxaca city is known for its artistic rituals when it comes to celebrating the Day of the Dead. Contests are held for the best altar displays, known as ofrenda in Spanish, and for the most elaborate sand tapestries with displays of these artworks found in public spaces across the city. Over the nights of the 1st and 2nd of November, the cemeteries are brought to life as families spend the night enjoying each other’s company and singing with the accompaniment of a played guitar.
Located on Lago de Pátzcuaro, the island of Janitzio offers some of the most spectacular Day of the Dead celebrations you’ll find in Mexico. It’s especially popular with Mexicans who travel to the island from all corners of the country. The region is home to the indigenous Purepecha people who have maintained a true soulfulness in their celebrations, despite the increasing commercialisation of the event as it draws more and more visitors each year. Night-long rituals are held in the cemeteries, offerings are paraded through the streets and the local fishermen adorn their boats with candles that create a particularly evocative sight in the black of night.
If you want to experience Day of the Dead in a similar vein as James Bond in Spectre then Mexico City is your best bet. The festival is given a modern twist with large-scale processions of colourful floats and costumed participants. The magnitude of these processions brings city traffic to a halt with streets closed for the annual parade. The main square is awash with marigolds and ofrendas while the city’s top museums contribute with displays of papier-mâché calca – figures of dressed skeletons. Celebrated as a folk tradition, festivities in Mexico City may lack the spirituality of smaller towns but the city cemeteries still become a hive of activity as families honour their dearly departed.
The once-small-town of Mixquic in the southwest of the capital retains much of its rural ambience and folk traditions. Thanks to the strong indigenous roots found here, celebrations are imbued with a tangible sense of reverence. Cemeteries are the focus of the event with beautiful marigold and candle arrangements decorating the graves. A highlight is the street procession that follows a cardboard coffin and marks the beginning of the first all-night vigil. In the weeks leading up to Dia de Muertos, a variety of events are held including poetry readings, plays and dance performances.
Not to be confused with the tourist town that has built up beside Machu Picchu in Peru, the provincial capital of Aguascalientes in Mexico is noted for its Festival de las Calaveras (Festival of Skulls). Beautifully dressed skeletons are given centre stage with a fabulous parade of themed troupes and floats and La Catrina’s face becomes an inescapable vision. A symbol of the festival, La Catrina is the work of renowned artist Jose Guadalupe Posada who was born in Aguascalientes in the 19th century. Needless to say, the city honours its most famous citizen with hundreds of La Catrina adornments. You can also visit the original metal engraving of La Catrina at the Posada Museum.
Capital of the Yucatan state, the city of Merida has a strong Maya influence who refer to the Day of the Dead as Hanal Pixán – “feast for the souls”. Unsurprisingly, food plays a starring role in local celebrations with specially prepared food offerings laid at tombstones and altars. Families enjoy traditional dishes together, including pibipollo, a special tamale made with chicken and highly seasoned. It’s wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground pit. Over the course of the two days, a range of cultural events are held across the city including live music.