After three short days in México City, in which I explored La Condesa and San Angel, I headed to Morelia for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. Mexico is famous for celebrating this ancient tradition, which has been around since pre-Columbian times, and two of the best places in the country to celebrate are the states of Michoacán and Oaxaca. Having already spent two months in Oaxaca, I thought I should venture further afield for my Day of the Dead experience. I’d been to Morelia, Pátzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan on a previous trip and loved them, so was excited to go back.
I arrived in Morelia the day before Hallowe’en, which gave me some time to soak up the local atmosphere before the Day of the Dead festivities peaked. Already there were altars set up in the houses, many of the businesses and in Parque Central. On these altars, or ofrendas, offerings were placed – items that once belonged to the deceased and that the person enjoyed in life. I saw plates of food, fruit, pan de muertos, alcohol and altars decorated with sugar skulls, flowers, candles, papier mache skulls or skeletons and colourful bunting. The altars are also covered in marigolds, the traditional flower of Day of the Dead. The orange marigold was used by the Aztecs to remember their dead and is meant to guide the souls to their homes and altars.
From early October Méxican bakeries offer delicious pan de muertos (bread made with flour, butter, sugar, eggs, orange peel, anise and yeast). Strips of dough simulating bones are placed across the round bread and at the top a small round piece of dough that symbolizes teardrops and the whole thing is covered in sugar. These breads are placed on the altars and are also taken to the tombs in the graveyard. They are also eaten, including by me and I can assure you that they are delicious! Reminiscent of Italian panettone.
So what is Day of the Dead? It is a ritual during which the living remember their departed relatives. Families decorate altars (in their houses and businesses) to the memory of their departed loved ones and also decorate their tombs in the cemeteries. On the evening of 1 November families go to the cemetery and spend the night there remembering their loved ones. They light candles, eat and drink, play music and sing. Many sleep also there. In Aztec times Day of the Dead was celebrated during the months of August and September, but after the Spanish conquest the ritual was blended with the Catholic traditions of All Saints and All Souls Days and moved to 1 and 2 November.
On 1 November I set out for Pátzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan, probably the most famous towns in all of Michoacán for their Day of the Dead celebrations. Pátzcuaro is a lovely colonial town on Lake Pátzcuaro from where one can visit various islands, the most well known being Janitzio. Janitzio is home to many fishermen, who ply their trade with traditional butterfly nets for the waiting tourists crossing the lake in flat-bottomed ferries. They do occasionally catch fish too, as the many fish vendors on the island can attest to. The local specialities are white fish, served fried or grilled, and charales, tiny smelt-like fish fried whole and served with lemon and chilli.
The town of Pátzcuaro itself is well worth exploring. Of course for Day of the Dead it was busy and packed full of tourists, but I felt the big craft market and food stalls deserved some of my time Michoacán, being the birthplace of the Catrina figurines, is full of them for Day of the Dead and Pátzcuaro is where many of them are made. There were some wonderful examples on display in the Pátzcuaro public library and several roaming the streets as well. “La Calavera Catrina“ (the elegant skull) is one of the most recognizable images of the Day of the Dead celebration. The image of a skeleton of a high society woman is from a lithograph by José Guadalupe Posada and is one of the most well known examples of Mexican folk art. It was the inspiration for Catrina figurines, which are made from clay or papiér mâché.
Once night fell I took a collectivo taxi to nearby Tzintzuntzan to visit the cemeteries there. It’s difficult to put the experience into words, so I took a short video. The cemeteries were alive with the light of thousands of flickering candles, which had been placed atop and around many of the tombs. The scent of marigolds was strong and the flowers gave the place a sense of warmth as the candlelight illuminated their orange petals. Families were gathered around the tombs of their relatives, some laughing and singing, others more sombre. Food was cooking on open fires, which also served to bring warmth to the cold night. Contrary to what you might expect, it was neither ghoulish nor gruesome. It was not mournful or melancholic. It was gentle, beautiful, vibrant and moving. It was a celebration of life and it is one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had the privilege of sharing.
Do spend Día de Muertos in México one day. I promise you won’t regret it.