Photo by ML Harris/Shutterstock
Photo by Auribe/Shutterstock
Día de los Muertos, which can be traced back to the Aztecs, holds great significance in Mexico’s indigenous communities.
Day of the Dead rituals take place in many parts of the country from October 31 through November 2, but the annual festivities in these four locations are particularly worth experiencing.
In Mexico, the annual holiday of Día de los Muertos (also known widely as Day of the Dead) is celebrated to honor the cycle of life and death. The festival rituals can be traced all the way back to the time of the Aztecs; in 2008, Día de los Muertos was even added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as “a defining aspect of Mexican culture.”
As part of the tradition, people decorate ofrendas (altars) dedicated to ancestors or lost loved ones with papel picados (paper banners), marigolds, and other personal offerings. Many people also paint their faces as calaveras (the holiday’s skeletal symbol) and partake in candlelit evening processions. You can witness Día de los Muertos celebrations in many parts of Mexico, and the rituals tend to vary from region to region. Here are four destinations where the festivities are particularly colorful.
One of Mexico’s most famous Día de los Muertos celebrations takes place on the small island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, located in the Mexican state of Michoacán (directly west of Mexico City and below the state of Jalisco). Every year on November 1, thousands of visitors gather in the local panteón (cemetery) to watch as the indigenous Purepecha people perform lively Día de los Muertos rituals late into the night. There are processions with music and folk dance performances, but the most impressive sight might be when local fishermen in rowboats illuminate the lake with torches.
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How to get there: The nearest airport is in the state capital, Morelia, which is about 90 minutes away from Pátzcuaro by taxi. You can also take a direct bus from Mexico City’s western bus terminal to Pátzcuaro. Once in Pátzcuaro, local boats depart frequently from the muelle (dock) for Janitzio.
The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is known for its regional cuisine, mezcal distilleries, traditional artisans, and generally well-preserved culture. During Día de los Muertos, colorful celebrations take place in Oaxaca City as well as in smaller villages across the region. From October 31 through November 2, the largest graveyard in Oaxaca City, Panteón de San Miguel, is decorated with pan de muerto (sweet bread), marigold flowers, candles, and other offerings. Just a 20-minute taxi ride from the city in the Oaxacan village of Xoxocotlán, both the Panteón Viejo and Panteón Nuevo (also called Panteón Mictlancihuatl) attract hordes of crowds on October 31 to admire candlelit gravesites while listening to the sounds of live mariachi bands in the background.
How to get there: You can fly into the Oaxaca City Airport (OAX) from Mexico City (the flight is about one hour). OAX also receives daily international flights from Houston and Los Angeles. Once in Oaxaca, taxis and buses between the city and smaller villages are plentiful.
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In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Day of the Dead celebrations are known as Hanal Pixan, or “feast for the souls.” During the holiday, many families in the Maya region prepare elaborate traditional dishes for the return of their ancestors (in addition to participating in evening processions and setting up ofrendas in their homes). Intricate altars go on display in the zócalo (main square) of the Yucatán capital, Mérida, and the decorated gravesites in local cemeteries are also well worth seeing from October 31 through November 2.
How to get there: The Mérida International Airport (MID) receives daily international flights from Houston, Miami, and Toronto. You can also connect to Mérida from Mexico City on flights from Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX), which take approximately two hours.
The inaugural “Desfile de Día de Muertos” parade in Mexico City was held in 2016. (It was actually inspired by the opening scene of the James Bond film Spectre, which features a crowded procession in the city’s streets.) The following year’s celebration took place barely a month after a devastating earthquake hit the area in September 2017—but in response, the city put an emphasis on making the parade even more festive. Every year since, on November 2, millions of people gather in Mexico City’s Plaza del Zócalo to watch people parade around dressed as colorful alebrijes (mythical creatures) or the elegant La Calavera Catrina (the skeletal symbol of Día de los Muertos). On the outskirts of the capital in the southern Xochimilco neighborhood, decorated canals and chinampas (floating gardens) set the scene for special night Día de los Muertos rides by trajinera (gondola boat) on November 1.
How to get there: Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX) connects 52 domestic and 50 international destinations spanning Latin America, North America, Europe, and Asia. Flights to the international airport are available via United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Aéromexico, Volaris, Interjet, and more.
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