One of the best travel experiences I had in 2021 was attending the world-famous Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) in Mexico.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated each year on November 1-2, not only in Mexico but also in all other Latin American countries. November the 1st is dedicated to the deceased infants and children. November the 2nd is the actual Day of the Dead dedicated to the deceased adults.
The meeting place of the living with the souls of the deceased, that are coming back to earth on that very night, is the pantheon (cemetery). For that matter, the decoration of the graves is an extremely meaningful process. More particularly, graves are adorned with marigold flowers and are illuminated with thousands of candles. The bright color and the smell of the marigold flowers will be attracting the souls of the dead, while the light of the candles will show them the way home.
The spirits of the people that have passed away will be arriving hungry and thirsty. Therefore, families create ofrendas with their favorite meals, treats, and drinks. The ofrenda is a sacred Mexican tradition prepared by the living in honor of the deceased.
Customs may vary across the country, but core traditions remain the same: From the set-up of the traditional ofrendas, to the use of marigold flowers, candles, and colorful papel picados (paper decorations hanging pretty much everywhere). And from the preparation of special delights like the pan de los muertos, and the sugar skull sweets to costumes and face painting resembling skeletons, and more specifically the iconic figurine of La Catrina.
Where Should I Spend The Day (And The Night) Of The Dead?
Locals will tell you that the state of Michoacán in Mexico is one of the top locations across the entire country to experience the unique celebrations of Noche de Muertos (the Night of the Dead). You cannot go wrong when heading to Michoacán!
Each village surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro has its very own candlelight ceremony to welcome the souls of the deceased on the night of November the 1st. On top of the list ranks Isla de Janitzio, a small island located amidst Lake Pátzcuaro. Janitzio is inhabited by the secluded indigenous community of Purepecha people, who run the island quite autonomously. At sunset time of the Night of the Dead, a unique ritual takes place. Local fishermen get on their candle-lit boats and, in an effort to awake the souls of the dead, they perform a beautiful “dance” by using their traditional butterfly-looking nets. Later on, everyone is heading to the island’s cemetery, one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the whole Michoacán. Unluckily, due to COVID-19 pandemic, in 2021 visitors were strictly forbidden from entering Janitzio during the Day of the Dead.
On that occasion, we decided to spend the Night of the Dead touring around Lake Pátzcuaro. Our most favorite location was the village of Tzintzuntzan, where the cemetery suddenly came into life, as soon as it got dark. Bands were playing music, while the local indigenous people were dancing all around the decorated graves. Contrary to this “louder” celebration, in other villages, like Tzurumutaro, the families were quietly settling in by the graves, awaiting the souls of their beloved ones. For a more inner experience, target visiting more than two villages and cemeteries over the course of the night.
Note for Attention: Remember to dress warmly! The souls of the dead are carried back home by the wind, making the Night of the Dead particularly cold…
Logistics Matter - Plan Wisely
Being one of the most popular festivals worldwide means that Mexico is attracting a high number of visitors every year. For visiting one of the country’s top locations for this festival, you should plan your accommodation and commuting options wisely!
It is no exaggeration that some accommodation options around Lake Pátzcuaro are usually booked one year ahead! With that being said, if you are determined to visit Michoacán, act fast so that you can safeguard at least your overnights! The tricky part here is that most hotels do not offer refundable bookings made especially for the Day of the Dead. However, I personally believe that it is well worth taking the risk!
My personal recommendation for your overnights is either the town of Pátzcuaro or the village of Tzintzuntzan. Janitzio, due to its small size, does not offer any accommodation options for staying there for the night. Visitors can get to the island by ferry from the nearby town of Pátzcuaro, but will have to depart with the very last ferry in the late afternoon. Considering the popularity of the site, Janitzio can get crowded during the days of the festival. The most adventurous travelers, who wish to experience the Night of the Dead quietly in Janitzio, skip the last ferry and stay on the island pretty much… homeless.
For last-minute reservations in Michoacán, head to the capital city of Morelia. We also stayed here for 3 nights, but we wish we could have been closer to the center of celebrations… Our first impression of Morelia as a city was disappointing, but when it got decorated (overnight) it became quite attractive! But, please, don’t get me wrong… Morelia does worth a quick visit during the Day of the Dead. You see, there are a lot of things happening in the city that can keep you entertained all day long. However, I would only suggest staying here if you have no other alternative OR if you have your own car for moving around.
Which brings us to the next big logistics topic – the car rental! A big YES to those who are wondering if they should be renting a car or not. You absolutely need to be able to freely move around the area, to get the most out of it. And the car is the best way to go. On the downside, the traffic on the roads (especially on the Night of the Dead) can be pretty unbearable.
Before And After The Festival
Even if the festival lasts for two days only (November 1-2), you should neither underestimate nor underutilize the days before and after. The preparations start at least a week in advance, while cities, towns, and villages remain decorated for a week longer. To get the best out of your visit, try to fit in your itinerary as many top-listed Dia de Los Muertos locations as possible!
Oaxaca City is such a location, which you should -by no means- miss! An extremely popular destination, and well-known for maintaining ancient customs and traditions relevant to Dia de los Muertos. Personally, I visited Oaxaca a few days after the conclusion of the festival, yet the decorations were still on. Alternatively, you may go to Oaxaca a couple of days ahead to experience the preparations for the big day. Another two fairytale cities that definitely worth your visit are San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. Note them down and make them part of your Day of the Dead experience!
Does It Worth It?
Hell, yes!!! The Day of the Dead in Mexico is more than just a festival. It is a well-preserved ancient tradition that is offering the ultimate cultural experience.
Only when you become part of it, will you be able to realize that even if it focuses on death, in reality it is a time for celebration. It is the time that the living reunite with their loved ones. And this magical moment can be relived year after year, after year…
Now read no further and make yourself a big favor. Plan your next trip to Mexico for the Dia de los Muertos! It is an experience that everyone has to live at least once in his/her lifetime. I promise… it will reward you with the most memorable travel memories of your whole life!