When you eventually pass away, wouldn’t you want your family to remember you with a party each year? You would be welcomed home with your favorite foods, music, jokes and elaborate personalized decorations. Two days would be dedicated to the good times you shared and keeping the fun rolling. We love this light-hearted look at death, and celebration of life, that manifests around Mexico every November 1st and 2nd. Elements of Día de Muertos date back thousands of years, though when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, indigenous and Christian traditions had to find a way to coexist. To practice under Catholic rule, the Aztecs adopted All Saints and All Souls Days and other trappings of Christianity by adding altars and crosses to their pagan displays. What started as a workaround is now one of the most poetic expressions of culture, to the level of earning UNESCO status. We are thrilled to be back for our third Day of the Dead—this time on assignment for Lonely Planet and Visit Mexico. From October 26th through November 2nd, we’ll be partaking in everything from Mexico City’s world-class parade to altar offerings in traditional villages to find the best places to celebrate day of the dead in Central Mexico. And we want you to join the fun! Find out more about Day of the Dead, our first-hand experience via #DíadeMuertosLP, and what you can expect when you make your way to Mexico next year for the celebration.
Day of the Dead Crash Course
We housesat in Mazatlán October-November of 2014, excited that our stay overlapped with Día de Muertos–but not fully sure what that would entail. Bakeries started to fill with pan de muerto, colorful papel picado was strung across the streets, and the icon of Catrina—the grand dame skeleton of Día de Muertos—seemed to preside over town. We dipped into a store selling costumes and the Dracula and Sponge Bob outfits we’d come to expect in late October, were replaced with reams of black lace, red roses, and skeleton suits. As we learned, stripping down to the bone reminds us that death is the great equalizer. No matter how high society you are there is no escaping your maker; and just to remind politicians and socialites of this fact, newspapers were running literary “calaveras,” sarcastic epitaphs with a boney caricature about the mayor’s counsel. The more we chatted with Mazatlecos, the more we realized Día de Muertos was a reminder to not take ourselves to seriously and that even when we die, the party’s not over.
This is one of the most festive holidays in Mexico, so when we asked our neighbor Julia for costume advice, she brought down a box of face paint, boas, wigs, ponchos, and a massive black hat adorned with feathers and flowers. Wearing a rose in my hair was not going to cut it. Each Day of the Dead she has her whole body professionally spray painted into a skeleton, and we hacked our way through YouTube tutorials to turn ourselves into sugar skulls for the parade. (FYI Mazatlán is one of the many cities around the country to host a parade; Oaxaca, Puebla, Guanajuato, Merida, and Lake Pátzcuaro are also excellent Día de Muertos destinations.)
Sunset fell on November 1st and we took to the streets, alongside thousands of Catrinas and floats with artistic displays honoring the great citizens of Mazatlán. We made stops at grand altars around town—everywhere from government buildings to historic homes—to pay our respects with candy, coins, and prayers. Unlike most cities, Mazatlán’s favorite parader is a donkey hauling kegs of free beer. Catch him if you can.
More than a fabulous parade, Day of the Dead is a familial holiday. At the core of the tradition is to build an ofrenda (altar display) to honor and welcome home their family members who have passsed. Ofrendas are deeply symbolic; aromatic marigolds and candlelight are used to guide the way from the heavens; salt is placed to purify their soul and water quenches their thirst, while sweets, alcohol, and nostalgic decorations
encourage the dead to stay for awhile. Living in Mazatlán for six weeks, we were lucky to have friends invite us into their homes to partake in the more intimate celebrations, gathering around the table for tamales, laughter, and a stroll down memory lane. (We are planning a homestay in Puebla to increase our chances for a repeat invitation!).
See our full photo gallery from the Mazatlán Dia de Muertos.
We woke up at 10am the next morning washed the rest of our Catrina faces off, and made our way to the cemetery for All Souls Day: part two of Día de Muertos. The cemetery was a sea of marigolds, candles, and families. You’d think a cemetery would be a somber place, but each headstone was having a private party. To lead the spirits back to their place of rest, families gathered around decorated graves for picnics, with an extra serving for the deceased. Banda musicians went from plot to plot taking requests for the dead’s favorite song. We did see more personal moments of prayer and even a few tears, but when everyone shares a day to “mourn,” no one feels alone.
Best Places to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Central Mexico
After our experience in Mazatlán, we knew we’d be back to Mexico for Día de Muertos. With deep indigenous roots, each region has their own interpretations of the holiday. On Pátzcuaro Lake, there is a procession of candlelit boats, where fishermen twirl their butterfly nets to lure spirits to the grand fiesta. In Tuxtepec, locals create elaborate rug designs from saw dust along the streets. So for this year’s Día de Muertos, we are going to do a little exploring around central Mexico to see how the festivities manifest from place to place.
Mexico City Parade
Our 2017 Día de Muertos journey begins in Mexico City, a capital rich with history and culture. Though curiously Day of the Dead was never on CDMX’s list of festivals—until last year. When the James Bond Spectre movie released worldwide in 2015, with an opening scene of a Día de Muertos parade through the Centro Historico, it had everyone clamoring to come the Ciudad de Mexico for the festival…that didn’t exist. A country of ingenuity, Mexico saw this as an invitation to turn fantasy into reality, with a parade that more accurately showcased the meaning of Day of the Dead, while having a fiesta to one-up the film. Last year’s parade was such a success, it’s here to stay. The theme for 2017 is La Muerte Viva and Carnaval de Calaveras with over 1,200 performers, a dozen floats, and fantastical displays marching seven kilometers from the Estrela de Luz, up Avenida Reforma (where we are staying) to the grand Zocolo plaza. Using our Lonely Planet credentials, we are going backstage with the performers then marching in the parade, skeletal makeup and all.
Puebla & Cholula
Sunday morning we’ll make our way south to Puebla & Cholula. We chose these neighboring cities, with UNESCO written all over them, because they speak to the religious mashup of Día de Muertos. Puebla is classically colonial and very Catholic, while its neighbor Cholula was a pagan religious center dating back to 1 AD and still has a thriving indigenous population. Together they comprise a vibrant cultural scene with tons of events around Día de Muertos, including a 50-skull exhibition, pre-Hispanic carpet weaving contest, horror film festival, and ofrendas all over town. Though we’re packing in a lot, we may even do day-trip to Huaquechula, famous for their over-the-top altars. See our Facebook Gallery from these three cities.
San Andrés Mixquic
It’s a tough call on where to spend the actual Day of the Dead, though San Andrés Mixquic is luring us back north. This 11th-century town has held on to its pagan traditions and places Día de Muertos as its most important time of year. They start their festivities when the church bell strikes midnight on October 31, signaling the arrival of the souls of departed children. On the morning of the 1st, while other cities are waiting for the parade at night, they lay out breakfast on the ofrendas. By nightfall, the spirits swap places and the adult festivities begin. We’re looking forward to the street festival, elaborate grave-side ofrendas, Aztec art displays, ulama tournaments (the oldest known rubber ball sport), and kids singing house-to-house for homemade tamales.
We’re pulling out all the stops on social media for this one. No matter your platform, we’ll be there with skulls on.
Facebook.com/HoneyTrek: The place for our more personal and interactive posts (say hello!)
Instagram.com/HoneyTrek: Our best photos from the week celebrating Day of the Dead
Instagram Stories: Live videos posted all day long. This is where you can really be a fly on the wall and see the raw side of HoneyTrek (mom close your eyes). Open up the Instagram app on your phone, go to @HoneyTrek and click on our profile photo.
Twitter.com/HoneyTrek: Where you can find what’s trending about #DíaDeMuertos across the web and HoneyTrek highlights from Mexico.
Twitter Chat: We’re also hosting a Twitter Chat about Day of the Dead with other influencers and Mexico experts on November 1st . Join us at this link or search the tag #DiaDeMuertosLP
Snapchat.com/add/Lonely.Planet: We’re taking over Lonely Planet’s account from Oct 28-Nov 2nd, so we’d love to have our HoneyTrek family join us. Download Snapchat on your phone, if you haven’t already.
YouTube.com/TheHoneyTrek: We’re teaming up with a professional video crew to capture the Mexico City parade, complete with VIP behind-the-scenes footage. We’ll post the final video on November 1st to showcase the country’s largest Día de Muertos celebrations.
UPDATE: And here’s how our incredible parade experience turned out!