Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos is more than a holiday, it is a cultural experience. Celebrated particularly in the Central and Southern regions of Mexico, this multiday holiday is all about commemorating the return to Earth of friends and relatives who have passed. The vibrant and colorful celebrations, which take place over Nov. 1 and 2, are packed with processions, decorated altars, concerts, food, and dancing. It’s one of the most unique experiences in Mexico and was named an intangible world heritage by Unesco. For travelers who want to see Dia de los Muertos done in its true glory, here are five of the best places in Mexico to celebrate.
San Miguel de Allende
Unlike most other places in Mexico which welcome the dead at midnight on Nov. 1, San Miguel de Allende throws a weeklong public party, known as the Festival La Calaca (Skull Festival). The week is packed with a calendar of parades, all-night parties, art exhibits, public altars, talks on the dead and more.
Yucatan and Quintana Roo
In Mayan Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebrations are also known as Hanal Pixan, or the feast for the souls. For this celebration, families prepare decadent meals for the return of the dead. A must-see are the cemeteries in the capital of the Yucatan, Merida.
For something geared more toward tourists, Xcaret Park in the Riviera Maya, hosts an annual celebration of Day of the Dead. Over the course of four days in October and November, the park celebrates the Festival of the Traditions of Life and Death. During the celebration, travelers are able to sample the region’s cuisine, as well as partake in workshops, buy crafts and observe offerings and altars. Visual art exhibitions include painting, drawing, photography and short films. During the evenings the tours through the cemetery are lit by candles.
There are two places in Mexico City that best exemplify Dia de los Muertos. In San Andres Mixquic, a community in the southeast of Mexico City, the Day of the Dead is the most important celebration. In fact, the village and its church have become famous for the tradition, which is often prepped for two to three months in advance. The graves are decorated with brilliantly colored marigolds, while the cemetery comes alive with hundreds of glowing candles. The city bursts with street stalls, household altars and parades through the street.
Also in Mexico City, Xochimilco’s canals and chinampas put on a special Day of the Dead excursion by boat after the sun goes down.
Perhaps the best-known location for Day of the Dead is on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacan. Locals take part in private meditation, carrying offerings to the cemetery and holding a vigil over the graves of their ancestors until dawn. The indigenous Purepecha people perform rituals in the cemetery that last late into the night. It’s an experience that draws thousands of spectators every year, which has somewhat marred the authenticity of the event, but it is still one of the most beloved spectacles in the entire country. Alternatively in Michoacan, consider the city of Morelia for its celebration, or the celebrations in the surrounding villages of Santa Clara del Cobre, Tzintzuntzan and Patzcuaro.
Just three minutes from Cuernavaca lies the ancient town of Ocotepec. Here there is the belief that on the night of Nov. 1, the departed saints return to the town and remain for eight days. In the mornings and evenings of that week, the spirits walk the streets and visit the places they frequented when they were alive. Preparations for this celebration begin at the graveyard where people bring candles as tribute to the dead. On Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 bells ring and masses are held for the dead. Stalls are set up in the streets where visitors can buy everything they need to decorate altars, such as pumpkins, sugar skulls, flowers, incense and candles.