Día de Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is famous around the world for its colorful embellished sugar skulls, hauntingly beautiful painted faces and carnavalesque processions involving giant, elaborately dressed papier mâché skeletons called calaveras. This important Mexican holiday that dates back to the pre-Columbian era takes place November 1st and 2nd, to remember and honor those who have passed.
Make no mistake though, this is not a sombre celebration, rather one full of love, reflection and remembrance. On these two days it’s believed that the dead are allowed to live again by returning to their earthly homes to reunite with their families. No two Día de Muertos celebrations are alike – with different traditions, festivities and specially prepared meals occurring all over the country— but the biggest ones are concentrated in southern Mexico where the indigenous culture is strongest. Here are our top picks of where to best observe these otherworldly events.
The Island of Janitzio, Michoacán
If you’re looking for the single best place to witness Day of the Dead festivities in all of Mexico, head straight to Janitzio, an island in the middle of Patzcuaro Lake in the state of Michoacán. Visitors from all over the world come to this tiny town to observe the elaborate rituals the indigenous Purepecha people perform day and night, including an eerily bewitching ceremony where all the town’s fishermen go out on the lake at sunset, their canoes lit up by candles as they perform something called the butterfly net dance, moving their nets up and down like a butterfly’s wings to awake and guide the dead souls into the cemetery. This is followed by a village wide torch lit procession where altars, flowers, and foods are offered to the spirits by the island’s women and children. The townspeople also make their traditional Day of the Dead dish, pato enchilado or chilli duck, which is offered to the deceased but also enjoyed by all.
For an all out city-wide Día de Muertos experience in an urban setting, there’s no place quite like the country’s capital. The entire city takes on a magical vibrancy as flowers – marigolds and and dark-red terciopelo, the two traditional Day of the Dead varieties – are everywhere, from market stalls to traffic medians. The typical snack sold at bakeries and supermarkets during this holiday is pan de muerto, or “bread of the dead,” an orange-flavored, sugar-dusted, puffed-up baked good. Although you’ll find plenty going in all of the city’s 16 boroughs, there are two locations in the south worth checking out: In San Andrés Mixquic, a community in the in the borough of Tláhuac (which has strong indigenous roots), graves are decorated with marigolds in their cemetery lit by hundreds and hundreds of candles, forming a sea of soft, glowing light. The multitude of colorful street stalls, elaborate household altars and nighttime processions attract thousands to this neighborhood each year. In the borough of Xochimilco, the canals and chinampas (floating man-made plots or gardens used for agriculture) are the background for special night-time Day of the Dead excursions by boats called trajineras. With built in tables and chairs to allow for eating and drinking on board, this is an ideal setting to take in all of the holiday proceedings from the city’s waterways.
Yucatán and Quintana Roo
In this region in and around the Riviera Maya and Cancun, Day of the Dead celebrations are known as Hanal Pixan or feast for the souls, with rituals that celebrate the death of ancestors dating back over 2,500 years. Within each family, everyone has a special role: the women get dressed in white traditional embroidered blouses and prepare elaborate meals (often involving the departed’s favorite foods), while the children bring flowers and decorate the altars. The men are in charge of wood (for building and burning) and agricultural products from the field (like corn and fruit) to be placed on the altars. The cemeteries in the Yucatán capital Mérida are worth seeing as well, as are the graveyards in many smaller surrounding communities. More touristy locations offer their own versions of Day of the Dead celebrations too, like at the Xcaret theme park in the Riviera Maya, where they hold their own Festival of Life and Death (Festival de la Vida y la Muerte) featuring parades, rituals, concerts, theater performances and dancing.