No holiday celebrates death quite like Latin America’s Día de los Muertos, or ‘Day of the Dead’. The roots of this peculiar festival date back to number of ancient Mesoamerican cultures, all of which shared a fascination with death, but the main influence came from the Aztecs, who dominated central Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. The Aztecs had a specific annual festival for the dead, held in the middle of the year. When the Spanish began to rule the area, however, the colonial powers moved the festival’s date to November 2 in order to coincide with the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day.
Although many Catholic elements (and a smorgasbord of other influences) have been infused into Día de los Muertos, the holiday still retains the Aztec idea that life continues after death, albeit in a different form. The Day of the Dead is a time when the souls of the departed have an easier time visiting this world, aided by way of markers set out for them by the living.
At the core of the Day of the Dead celebrations are the ofrendas, or altars, which are built of sugar skulls, marigolds, food, beverages and other elements. These ofrendas are said to guide spirits back to Earth for a brief sojourn among the company of those they left behind. Other traditions vary by country and region, but the most common traditions connected with the holiday include mock funeral processions and all-night candle light vigils near the tombs of deceased loved ones.
For those seeking to get a taste of this unusual and fascinating tradition, here are some of the best places to catch a celebration, both traditional and modern:
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City may not sound like the most exotic locale to celebrate the Day of the Dead, but it’s a great place to see how the holiday has reinvented itself for the modern era while still retaining its historic roots. The city positively blossoms with marigolds and spontaneous ofrendas during the holiday, and impressive altars are set up in many museums and public spaces around the city, including those laid out in the great Zócalo (main square), where an altar contest is held. Major vigils are also held at the city’s largest cemeteries, Panteón Civil de Dolores and Bosque de Chapultepec. Activity in the cemetery usually doesn’t get going until well after dark, but by midnight the cemeteries come alive. Some families sit around eating and drinking tequila while minstrels and mariachi bands wander along the paths.
Mixquic, Tláhuac, Mexico
In Mexico City, the Day of the Dead is celebrated more as a folk holiday rather than something heavily spiritual or religious. This is not the case in Mixquic, a once small town that has become part of Mexico City due to urban sprawl. Yet despite being swallowed by the metropolis, Mixquic retains much of its rural village atmosphere. Its strong indigenous roots make Day of the Dead celebrations far more traditional here, and its proximity to the capital makes it an ideal destination in which to witness the celebration.
Day of the Dead is the most important celebration in Mixquic and although the holiday only officially takes place on November 1st and 2nd, preparations begin two or three months in advance. Days before the celebrations begin, tomb cleaning and repair commences, and plays, processions, poetry readings, concerts and folk dances take place around town. The celebration culminates with a mock funeral procession through the city, led by a coffin containing a white skeleton. The procession eventually ends up in the cemeteries, where families gather to observe an all-night candlelight vigil.
Experience the Day of the Dead in Mixquic on a day trip from Mexico City
Although the Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico, Oaxaca has become known for the ornately richness of its celebrations. In the state capital, Oaxaca City, the festivities begin a week before November 1st with the commencement of the “Plaza de los Muertos”, an elaborate initiation held in each city market, and a contest is held to judge the best the city’s best ofrendas.
Meanwhile, in many villages throughout the rest of Oaxaca, the holiday is most commonly known as Todos Santos, or All Saints Day, and is often the most festive day of the year, with cemeteries wonderfully decorated with candles, flowers and food. In addition to visiting homes and cemeteries, a great way to experience the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is to take part in the comparsas — carnival-like theatrical performances that represent the return of the dead to the world of the living.
Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico
One of the best places in Mexico to truly immerse yourself in the Day of the Dead is Lake Pátzcuaro, home to the indigenous Purépecha people, who have elaborate Day of the Dead rituals that retain a more spiritual, traditional approach than anywhere else.
Five hours from Mexico City, the sleepy streets of Pátzcuaro explode during Día de los Muertos week, with streets full of marigolds, stalls selling pan de muerto and the signature Catrinas — ornate handmade skeleton figures.
Besides the usual processions, music, folk dances and families gathered in the cemetery to spend the evening chanting and singing, the most impressive sight of Pátzcuaro’s Day of the Dead is when local fishermen row out in their boats to light up the lake with candles as the bells of the cemetery’s ring throughout the night, inviting spirits to return.
Note: Day of the Dead celebrations in Pátzcuaro are very popular and finding a place to stay can be difficult. Be sure to book well in advance.
Read more about planning your Day of the Dead in Mexico
In Ecuador, the Day of the Dead is seen as a time to ‘catch up’ with loved ones who have passed away. Although observed to some extent by all parts of society, the holiday is especially important to the county’s indigenous population. During Day of the Dead celebrations, many families pack lunches of traditional food, flowers and offerings, and head out to the cemeteries, where they spend the day talking, eating and performing routine maintenance on the grave sites of loved ones. Although this tradition is in decline in urban areas, outside the big cities you’ll find entire communities gathering at the local cemetery for the occasion.
The staple refreshment of the holiday is colada morada, a thick purple drink that is consumed along with guaguas de pan, a sweet bread baked in the shape of dolls. Weeks before the holiday, supermarkets and bakeries begin selling the ingredients, as well as store-made versions of the drink and bread.
One of the best places to visit in Quito during the festival is San Diego Cemetery, known as ‘the Corner of Souls’. Its formerly grand tombs and paths lined with angel statues, crosses and other statues are decorated in colorful flowers during the holiday, and packed with people on November 1st and 2nd.
Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala
Although the relationship between Mexico’s Aztec-based Dia de Los Muetos and Guatemala’s Mayan-based version is a little vague, their festive approach towards death is very similar. They also happen to be celebrated on the same day, a result of both pre-Columbian holidays being co-opted into the Catholic All Saints’ Day.
Like in Mexico, Guatemalans celebrate the Day of the Dead by visiting cemeteries and decorating gravestones with elaborate altars adorned with marigolds. Unique to the Guetemalan celebrations, however, are the barriletes gigantes — enormous, hand-constructed kites that are central to the festivities. Serving as a link between life and death, these impressive kites are adorned with special messages to the deceased and are flown in order to guide the departed souls back to the living world. Another unique feature of Guatemala’s Day of the Dead is fiambre, a special salad that is placed on altars to lure the dead back to life.
Guatemala’s best Día de los Muertos is held in the town of Santiago Sacatepéquez, near the city of Antigua, in the country’s central highlands.
Celebrate Day of the Dead in Santiago Sacatepéquez on a tour from Guatemala City
In communities with Mexican residents throughout the United Sates, Day of the Dead celebrations are quite similar to those in Mexico, with mock funeral processions and elaborate alters built for the deceased. Such traditional celebrations can be found in Texas, Arizona and California.
Elsewhere in the United States, interactions between Mexican tradition and American culture have resulted in unusual takes on the holiday. In Los Angeles, for instance, Mexican traditions have been extended to make artistic and sometimes political statements — as in Self Help Graphics & Art’s festivities in the Evergreen Cemetery in East Los Angeles, which features both traditional and political elements.
Similar traditional and intercultural-adapted Day of the Dead celebrations are held in San Francisco, where the familial focus of its large Latino population is blended with the creativity of its arts community. The Mission District is the focal point for the November 2nd procession and altar exhibit, which has been going on for more than 30 years.
In the Philippines, the Day of the Dead is called Todos los Santos (All Saints Day), or Araw ng mga Patay, and the devoutly Catholic go all out for the holiday. The tradition was first imported when the Philippines were governed out of Mexico City as part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and today it has taken on more of a family-reunion atmosphere. It is considered a very important holiday by many Filipinos.
During this time, tombs are cleaned or repainted, candles are lit, flowers are offered and altars are built. Entire families sometimes camp in cemeteries near their relatives’ tombs, and the card games, feasting, drinking, singing and dancing giving the cemeteries a carnival atmosphere. Perhaps the country’s most interesting cemetery to visit during this time is the Chinese Cemetery in Manila, where you’ll find some of the country’s most extravagant tombs. Some even have running water, electricity, TVs and swimming pools!
– David Jennings