Last year, Disney's movie "Coco" gave the world a pretty good glimpse of the beautiful Mexican tradition of honoring death during Day of the Dead. However, if you want to experience the real thing, you should consider visiting these spots.
Besides my birthday (because, yes, I’m a very egocentric person), my favorite festivity of the year is Day of the Dead (known in Spanish as Día de los Muertos). Like many Mexicans, in my family, we don’t see Day of the Dead as a day for mourning. On the contrary, it's a time to celebrate and an opportunity to connect with those who have departed before us. This is why, I’ve always remembered the festivity as a party, with all the solemnity it deserves, but a party nonetheless. My grandma would always say to us that she didn’t want us to cry when she died. Instead, she wanted us to remember the moments we shared and to cherish them forever. However, when she passed, we were all really sad, but we also knew that she wouldn't be gone as long as we remembered how happy she made us. So, for us, Day of the Dead is a date to celebrate that, despite the physical death, we're still together in spirit thanks to our memories, and that one day we'll join our departed loved ones in the afterlife.
Now, if this is such a big deal for my family, imagine how big it is for the entire country. Starting toward the end of October, every city and town gets ready to celebrate this unique festivity, and naturally, there are some places that always go the extra mile with their celebrations. So, if you’re wondering where to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in Mexico or planning on visiting the country this season, here are some spots that really take things to the next level.
San Andrés Mixquic
We had to start with what’s probably the most important spot in the country when it comes to Day of the Dead. As one of the original indigenous communities in Mexico City, for centuries, San Andrés Mixquic’s activities have revolved around the festivity. This town goes back millennia, and it's a place with strong beliefs about life and death. Every year, thousands gather at Mixquic’s huge cemetery to decorate the graves and set up "ofrendas" for their dead. Until November 2nd, the entire graveyard turns into the venue of a great fiesta with mariachi music, food, dancing, and celebrating. Some of them wear traditional catrina and skeleton costumes, bringing life, laughter, and that Mexican creativity that defines us. The best moment to witness this unique celebration is at night, when all the candles of the ofrendas light up the cemetery, showing the colors of the cempasúchil flowers and the "papel picado."
Teotihuacán is Mexico’s most popular tourist spot thanks to its imposing and well-preserved pyramids. Well, as one of the most important remaining pre-Columbian archaeological sites, it's also deeply rooted in the celebration of the famous “Fiesta de las Ánimas” taking place in the town from October 31 to November 5. Among the events of the festivity, you can experience their traditional ofrendas with thousands of candles and a beautiful liberation of butterflies to honor the dead. Of course, there’s also a lot of traditional music and food, including the delicious “pan de muerto” (a sweet bread that symbolizes the bones of the skeleton and the fourth paths of the universe) and the classic "calaveritas de azúcar" (sugar skulls).
Though Mixquic is actually part of Mexico City, and Teotihuacán is just a few miles away, the capital also has important spots that celebrate the festivity. For instance, you could go to Xochimilco, where you can go through the remaining canals of the lake in their iconic “trajineras” (gondola-like boats). During Dia de los Muertos, the town also has major events, but perhaps the most beautiful one is the performance called “La leyenda del Nahual” (the nahuales were thought to be half-human, half-animal creatures) through which you can learn the story of Mexico.
Other impressive must-sees are the many ofrendas, like the “Mega-Ofrenda” at the National University or the one set up at the home of movie legend Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, honoring the most important figures of Mexican culture, including Frida Kahlo, and some of the most notable movie legends of the Golden Age. As it was his daughter’s tradition, there’s live music and delicious traditional food for the visitors. The Frida Kahlo And Diego Rivera Museums, as well as the Dolores Olmedo Museum also feature some of the most impressive and beautiful ofrendas in Mexico City, that you must see. Definitely, something you won’t want to miss.
Island of Janitzio
Pátzcuaro Lake in Michoacán is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the whole country, not to mention that the town is full of history of tradition. For Day of the Dead, the surrounding towns organize the best celebrations, but perhaps one you shouldn’t miss is the one that takes place in the small island in the lake called Janitzio. In the old tradition of the Purepechas, it was believed that when a person died, their soul would fly like a monarch butterfly over the lake to reach Janitzio. As you can imagine, the spectacle is one-of-a-kind and something worth experiencing at least once in your life.
Just like Michoacán, another state full of tradition and beauty is Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. Though it's a must any time of the year, for Day of the Dead is unmissable. Besides the common celebrations involving huge ofrendas, music, and delicious food, one of the unique things that the capital of the state does is colorful rugs with sand and natural pigments that portray intricate and gorgeous designs to honor death. On top of that, there's the beauty of the many pre-Columbian archaeological sites surrounding the city, the wonderful gastronomy, and the unique and awesome crafts.
Mexico is one of those countries you need a lifetime to explore to really absorb all of its beauty, but of course, we all know that's easier said than done. Though there are great things to do throughout the entire year, I always tell everyone to come and visit during the Dia de los Muertos festivities, since it’s a unique time to see our beautiful colors and traditions at their best.
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