The Best Places to Celebrate the Day of the Dead in Central Mexico
When you finally die, don’t you want your family to remember you with a party every year? You will be welcomed home with your favorite foods, music, jokes, and elaborate personal decorations. Two days will be devoted to the good times you share and keeping the fun going. We love this lighthearted look at death and celebration of life, which takes place all over Mexico every November 1-2. Elements of Día de Muertos go back thousands of years, though when Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, indigenous traditions and Christianity had to find a way to coexist. For practice under Catholic rule, the Aztecs adopted All Saints’ Days and All Souls Days and other trappings of Christianity by adding altars and crosses to their pagan offerings. What began as a workaround is now one of the culture’s most poetic expressions, to the point of earning UNESCO status. We were thrilled to be back on our third Day of the Dead – this time on an assignment for Lonely Planet and Visit Mexico. To find the best places to celebrate the Day of the Dead in central Mexico, we explored five cities in five days—from marching as a skeleton in the world-class Mexico City Parade to decorating altars in the homes of indigenous families. Discover Day of the Dead traditions, must-see events, and what you can expect when you go to Mexico for this mundane celebration. An ofrenda dead track crash day off Machado Square, Mazatlan. Photography by HoneyTrek In the fall of 2014, we were lodged in Mazatlan, a gorgeous colonial city on Mexico’s Pacific coast, excited that our sojourn overlapped the Día de Muertos…but not quite sure what that would entail. Bakeries are starting to fill up in Amán de Muerto, colorful picados are hanging in the streets, and an icon of Catrina – the skeleton of the Grand Lady of Dia de Muertos – seems to preside over town. We plunged into a costume shop, and the Dracula and Sponge Bob outfits we were expecting in late October have been replaced by bundles of black lace, red roses, and bodysuits. As we’ve learned, stripping down to the bone reminds us that death is the great equalizer. No matter how refined society you live in, there is no escaping your maker, and just to remind politicians and socialites of this fact, newspapers have been publishing literary “calaveras,” satirical epigrams with a critical cartoon about the mayor’s advisor. Whenever we chatted with Mazatlikos, we realized that Día de Muertos was a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously and that even when we die, the party is far from over. Costumes: It’s not a Halloween costume like Katrina in Mazatlán’s Caligonida. Photo by HoneyTrek This is one of the most festive holidays in Mexico, so when we asked our neighbor Julia for costume advice, she brought out a box of face paint, boas, wigs, gowns, and a huge black hat decorated with feathers and flowers. Putting a rose in my hair wouldn’t cut it. Her entire body has been professionally painted into a skeleton and we’ve made our way through YouTube tutorials to transform ourselves into the sugar skulls of the parade. Tip: Mazatlan is one of many cities across the country to host a multidimensional parade. In addition to the central Mexican cities below, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Merida, and Lake Patzcuaro are excellent destinations in Dia de Muertos. Callegonida: Join a parade march among the floats of Dia de Muertos in Mazatlan. Photo by HoneyTrek Sunset fell on November 1 and we took to the streets, along with thousands of Catrinas and floats with displays of art in honor of the great citizens of Mazatlan. We stopped at major altars across town—everywhere from government buildings to historic homes—to pay our respects with candy, coins, and prayers. Unlike most cities, Mazatlan’s favorite parade is a donkey hauling barrels of free beer. Catch him if you can. Ofrendas: Our friends Ale & Kiko ofrenda’s offerings of love, laughter, and plunder for their ancestors. Filming HoneyTrek is more than just a great show, Day of the Dead is a family holiday. At the heart of the tradition is the construction of an ofrenda (offering altar) to honor and welcome family members who have passed away. Ofrendas are very symbolic. Aromatic marigolds and candlelight are used to guide the way from heaven; Salt is placed to cleanse their souls and water to quench their thirst, while candy, alcohol and nostalgic decorations encourage the dead to linger a while. We’ve been living in Mazatlan for six weeks, and we’ve been fortunate to have friends who invite us into their homes to take part in the most intimate celebrations, gather around the table to reflect and laugh and take a stroll down memory lane. Tip: Try also planning a homestay on Airbnb, Couchsurfing, or Homestay.com To increase your odds of having a similarly intimate experience, see our video gallery of Mazatlán Día de Muertos. Graveside Fiestas Mariachis Sing the Dead. Photography by Alan Doran; Wikicommons We got up at 10am the next morning, washed off what was left of our skeletal skin, and made our way to the All Souls’ Day Cemetery: Día de Muertos Part Two. The cemetery was a sea of velvets, candles, and families. You’d think a cemetery would be a gloomy place, but every gravestone was having its own party. To return the spirits to their resting place, families gathered around decorated graves for picnics, with an additional service for the deceased. Banda Musicians went from plot to plot to take requests for the dead’s favorite song. We’ve seen more personal moments of prayer and even some tears, but when everyone shares a day to “grieve,” no one feels alone. The Día de Muertos Grand Tour of Central Mexico The grandson of a deceased agave farmer made this beautiful tour. Photography by HoneyTrek After our Mazatlan experience, we knew we’d be back in Mexico for the Día de Muertos. With deep indigenous roots, each region has its own interpretation of the holiday. On Lake Pátzcuaro, there is a procession of candlelit boats, as fishermen spin their butterfly nets to attract spirits to the grand festival. In Tuxtepec, locals create elaborate sawdust carpet designs along the streets. So for Día de Muertos 2017, we traveled to central Mexico and explored five cities to see how the festivities unfolded from one place to another. Mexico City Parade Our latest excursion began at the Día de Muertos in Mexico City, a metropolis rich in history and culture. Although the intriguing Day of the Dead wasn’t on CDMX’s slate of festivals – until 2016. When the James Bond movie Spectre released worldwide, with an opening scene of Día de Muertos’ march through the Centro Historico, everyone was begging to come to Ciudad de Mexico for the festival … that just wasn’t there. Mexico was an innovative country, and it saw this as a call to turn fantasy into reality, with a parade that more accurately displayed the meaning of the Day of the Dead, with a single film festival. The show was so successful, it’s staying. The theme for 2017 was La Muerte Viva and the Carnaval de Calaveras with more than 1,000 performers, dozens of floats and imaginative shows running seven kilometers from Estrela de Luz, up Avenida Reforma to the Zocolo Grand Square. Using our Lonely Planet credentials, we went backstage with the performers and then walked the show, skeleton makeup and all. Watch the fire-breathing Diablos, Aztec marching bands, and hundreds of catrinas as we go behind the scenes for the ultimate celebration of life and death. The dual celebrations of Puebla and Cholula’s Casa de Cultura are the focus of the Dia de Muertos celebrations in Puebla. Photo by HoneyTrek Sunday morning we made our way south to Puebla & Cholula. We chose these neighboring towns, with UNESCO written all over them, because they speak to the religious mix of Día de Muertos. Puebla is a classic colonial city and very Catholic, while its neighbor Cholula was a pagan religious center dating back to AD 1 and still has a thriving indigenous population. Together they form a vibrant cultural scene with plenty of events around the Día de Muertos, including a 50 skulls fair, a pre-Hispanic carpet weaving competition, and Catrina and Ofrindas fashion shows all over town. See our Facebook gallery and our Instagram Stories highlights from these two cities. From house to house in Huaquechula following the trails of marigolds in local homes to celebrate life in Huacachula. An hour southwest of Puebla, the indigenous village of Huaquechula is known for its massive pyramidal altars. It is not on display at a cultural center, it is only in the homes of those whose family member died in that calendar year. You’d think on such a gloomy occasion, you wouldn’t want house guests (less strangers) passing by, but it’s heartening. On November 1, paths made of marigold petals are sprinkled in the street so that visitors and the honored dead can find their way to the ceremony. We went to one house with a three-story swing for a 10-month-old baby. Just when I felt my eyes watering, the mother came to offer me hibiscus juice and told us to stay for the mole. While we adored the glittering parade and dazzling artwork throughout central Mexico, this was perhaps our most memorable moment in Dia de Muertos. Up all Night in San Andrés Mixquic Sitting front row at Ulama Match, a Central American ball game brought back to San Andrés Mixquic’s Dia de Muertos. Choosing the absolute best place to celebrate the Day of the Dead in central Mexico on the night of November 1st – the height of the Dia de Muertos celebration – is a very difficult choice when there are thousands of festivities going on. How did we choose? A recommendation from a taxi driver (always ask locals) led us to San Andrés Mixquic on the edge of Mexico City. This 11th-century city has kept its pagan traditions alive and holds the Día de Muertos as the hottest time of the year. They begin their festivities when the church bell rings midnight on October 31st, marking the arrival of the departed children’s spirits. On the first morning, while the other towns are waiting for the parade at night, they put breakfast in the ofrendas. By nightfall, the spirits swap places and the adults’ festivities begin. We entered the cemetery as the families finished decorating it and getting ready for a night of fun. The street festival stretches to blocks with displays of Catrina and Aztec art parading through the city centre, homes decorated with signs welcoming their dead (like “Bienvenida Maria Elena!”), tons of food vendors, and a scholars’ court. Played with an 8-pound rubber ball and hit in the thigh, this Mesoamerican game is one of the oldest continuously played sports in the world, so seeing it played in full costume with a religious festival was unreal! We pushed fun until 3 a.m. (long but fun story, here). Real-Time Fun There were so many amazing moments captured on social media that we had to create a special HoneyTrek page to share them all at a glance. I can’t wait to go back and celebrate our 4th Dia de Muertos in Mexico!