Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico

I had long wanted to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico City and in Mexico in general. After seeing the opening scene in James Bond 007 Spectre (watch the scene here – the parade and hotel are both featured), I set two goals. One was to stay at the gorgeous hotel featured in the film–the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, known for its gorgeous ceilings made of Tiffany stained glass and its turn of the century architecture and elevators, which you ride upon check-in. The second was the Mexico City Day of the Dead parade.

Last December, I visited Mexico City for the Christmas break and stayed in the hotel. Not only is Mexico City lit up and a spectacle for the eyes around Christmastime. The hotel is stunning! A little bit of history…the edifice was constructed to house the Mercantile Center, a department store of sorts and the most important one in Latin American in its time. It was opened in 1899 by then President Porfirio Diaz. The opening caused a sensation in high-society social circles as it was the only store that offered the greatest variety of suits, textiles, hats and other goods that were imported from Europe. The department store was then turned into a hotel in 1968. You can read more about the hotel here (it is in Spanish).

For those who plan to travel to CDMX, I highly recommend the hotel and it is not too expensive by American standards. I also recommend you visit turning Christmas…but be prepared for massive crowds!

Here are some pics from that visit.

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My second goal was to celebrate the Día de Muertos parade in Mexico City and maybe, at some point, go out to one of the many cities outside of the capital to see how this special tradition is celebrated. I’d heard those were the more representative celebrations and that indigenous communities in some parts of Mexico had been celebrating Day of the Dead continuously for over 1,000 years since before the arrival of the Spanish and their celebrations were much more authentic; Mexico City is more of a cultural display for tourists and local residents but the cities in Michoacán, Guanajuato and Oaxaca is where you wanted to be.

I’m happy to say I’ve accomplished both..however, not without some lessons learned, being a newbie and all. Firstly, as it relates to the parade. You must arrive early. I ended up going with a local friend I made here and she literally did not arrive until the end of the parade (that’s one thorn in my side with Mexican people, they are horribly unpunctual. It’s a serious problem–for another day). Anyway, I arrived a little after the 4pm start of the parade (say 430p). By then, it was literally almost impossible to walk the streets. Secondly, I kept walking and walking hoping to find a bench or something to stand up on because there were so many layers of people, that you could not see the parade. I finally found a spot but I have to admit, I just “barely” got a peek. What I did see people doing is, they claimed spots on monuments along the route. That gave them an elevated position from where to watch. However, you probably have to arrive 3 hours early to claim your spot. Oh, and it rained so that was another complicating factor. But, it didn’t dampen the fun! 😀

Anyhow, it was a one-of-a-kind experience. Here are some of the highlights. I’ll then tell you about the really “star” of the show: Morelia, Michoacán. 🤩

 

In this picture below, you’ll see young people resting on trees they climbed.


This next picture gives you a good idea of the crowd size–unheard of. I spoke to one Uber driver the next day who said the city was overwhelmed with visitors and they didn’t expect a crowd that size which dwarfed the prior year’s crowd. He said the celebration has become so popular globally, they get people from all over the world who come into Mexico City specifically for the parade. I can confirm what he said because as I walked, I could hear every language and accent you can conjure up. It really has become an international event. The great thing is that all of the locals come out to with their entire families in tow and the kids really enjoy it, with most of them wearing Day of Dead make-up. 🇲🇽 🙌🏼💀

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The second and most immersive experience was in Michoacán. I planned to do this at some point but happened to meet a local girl (the same one from the parade) who had a trip planned. She was good enough to let me tag along and I simply purchased all of the tours she had planned. She used a company called Catrina Tours. In all honesty, I’m not sure I’d recommend it and I’ll tell you why. But, there are now numerous packaged tours for Day of the Dead in Michoacán at least and they combine different and similar stops, which I’ll tell you about. So, it all depends on what you want to see and how much “partying” you can put up with. I didn’t realize our tour went from 5pm to 5am. Yes…ALL NIGHT LONG! Yikes…as you know, for an American, that’s a hell of a stretch since most of us call it quits at 2am, especially if you’re from California where it’s not the round-the-clock scene like NYC, for example.

Anyway, I’ll walk you through the tour as it happened. Night 1 (Nov 1), which is technically the second night of Día (or Noche, as they call it) de Muertos. This tour cost $850 MXN pesos ($45 at a $19 MXN/$1 USD exchange–which is what I’ll use going forward), but was all in Spanish. This was the tour that turned into a complete shit-show. Firstly, the tour guide (Jorge) was a bit of a jerk. Bad attitude. Walks extremely fast, losing most of the crowd numerous times; not organized; late himself constantly (but embarrasses people if they are late in returning to the bus to get going); and, doesn’t really seem to enjoy himself–he just seems angry. The plus side is he does know a great deal of history of the area and will talk all about this on the tour, so you do learn quite a bit from him.

The issue here was their lack of coordination with those areas that manage the entrances to different places (example: Ruins at Tzintzantzun). There was a huge line to enter and you have to walk up a steep muddy hill to get to the entrance. We did that and were then told we had to queue. We walked all the way back down to get to the end of the line. He then came back asking us to come up again because they were letting us in. Imagine at least 50 people in a group trying to do this with crowds so dense, you had only 5 inches of space in each direction. We walked all the way up and the entrance was a disaster with people pushing, shoving, some blocking the entrance and others shouting as to why we were jumping the line–complete chaos!🤯 Would it make better sense to create two lines/entrances…? One for tours and one for people queuing up individually. Mind you, this was at 12 midnight. There were other similar situations on this tour and a few “promised” things we were going to see, which we never saw. My recommendation, make sure to ask how many people they tour and don’t go in a huge bus with 50 people a piece (we had two buses–and coordination/timing was a mess). Stick to a smaller group.

The positive? We got to walk through the Ruins at Tzintzuntzan at night (pic below).

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Okay, a bit of background. Tzintzuntzan (pronounced “tseen-tsoon-tsahn”) means place of the Hummingbird in Purépecha, the language of the local indigenous community of this area with the same name. The community inhabits the area that surrounds Lake Pátzcuaro (pronounced “pahts-cuah-roh”). This community was known to the Aztecs (who spoke Nahuatl) as the michoacas. This is where the state name Michoacán originates. It is said they settled in these areas around 1100 CE and despite at least three attempts by the Aztecs to conquer the Purépecha, they have the distinction (when compared to other indigenous communities of Mexico) of never having been conquered by the Aztecs. This also gives them and the area a unique culture and food–neither of which was dictated by the Aztecs. Lastly, what was very interesting is that during Day of the Dead (Oct 31 – Nov 3), these indigenous groups open up their homes to strangers to sit with them for a bit and wait on the souls (or animas) of their loved ones to return. If you bring an offering (usually fruit or bread you can buy at one of the 50 stands in the area), they invite you to sit with them and they will bring you food (either pozole and bread or atole and bread). You will hear them speak to one another in their indigenous language. I have to say, it is a completely surreal experience…it is like being transported back to the days before the conquest.

The picture with a green/orange square frame (or door) is that of the home of a Purépecha family that we visited. You can see tons of offerings at the bottom of the altar including bananas, other fruit and bread (you can click on the image to enlarge).

This night ended at 5am. We rested the following day; did our own thing. The following day, or Nov 3, we took a tour to Janitzio, an island on Lake Pátzcuaro. This tour was $550 MXN pesos ($29 USD). This is the island everyone wants to go to during Noche de Muertos. I don’t recommend it. There are stories of the ferries not being able to bring people back due to weather/fog, there are so many people that want to go there during Noche de Muertos, we also heard of people waiting hours to get a ferry there and hours to get one back. 😫 Having visited the island, the cemetery there is tiny as is the island. I cannot imagine thousands of people trying to cram onto it November 1 and 2. By contrast, the cemetery we visited in Tzintzuntzan was huge! 😳 You walked and walked and it didn’t seem to end and the candles and flowers and altars go one with no end in sight. And although it was muddy, it had plenty of walkways and space to make your way around despite the numerous visitors. The size of this cemetery served as natural crowd control and made it easier to really take in the incredible sights. Here are my pics of Noche de Muertos at the Tzintzuntzan cemetery. The pics don’t do it justice.

Note, this picture below with the insane crowds and Papel Picado (Mexican colored paper flags with different Day of the Dead images on them) was taken at 1am. Just pause for a bit and look at the number of people.

 

I can’t imagine the cemetery at Janitzio being a good experience on Nov 1/2 because of its size, limited walkways and only one way in/out. My recommendation, if you’re going to visit Janitzo is to do it on Nov 3rd and you can still see the all of the altars and flowers minus the candles. You also experience the Pátzcuaro fisherman known for their unique butterfly net technique and while it will still be crowded, the crowds are manageable. This was the best of all 3 tours (by the way, we took them all with the same company, Catrina Tours, and the same angry tour guide I mentioned; he was a little more relaxed on this tour and it was a smaller group so coordination was easier). Here are my pics.

The last tour we took was of the Morelia city center. The cost was $250 MXN pesos (or $13 USD). I didn’t know this before going there but the city “centro” is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the food of Michoacán, the Day of the Dead celebration and a few other things. There’s tons of history here, colonial and pre-hispanic. It’s definitely a mind-bending and mind-enhancing experience! This tour wasn’t great because it rained the entire time. I won’t blame the tour guide on this one given this is beyond anyone’s control. We did, however, learn a bit about the history of Morelia and the centre ville. We also got to see some gorgeous colonial architecture. Here are pics from that tour, taken November 4.

That’s it folks! It was a jam-packed four days and three nights. I am so happy I did it as it was something I’d wanted to experience for a long time and it gave me so much appreciation for the indigenous communities in Mexico–their amazing traditions, history and culture–and it allowed me to see a part of Mexico I would not have otherwise seen because prior to learning from a local friend that Michoacán had these communities around Pátzcuaro lake that were one of the best representations of the Day of the Dead tradition, I wouldn’t have thought to go there. I also didn’t realize Morelia was a UNESCO World Heritage site and had so much history and amazing architecture, both of which I’m a fan of. One word of caution, however; Michoacan is known as an area that experienced an uptick in crime due to the drug cartels. I have to say I felt completely safe walking around the city center by myself and on the tours. I did want to put that out there though. It’s probably best to go with someone and make sure to book tours for Day of the Dead. The city center is safe but I wouldn’t walk around alone unless you speak the language or are with someone who speaks Spanish–just as a precaution.

One last thing on lodging; if you plan to experience Noche de Muertos in Morelia, make sure to book early–at least three months in advance. There are very nice 3-star and 4-star hotels in the center if that’s your thing (in all honesty, I was looking for one of these for myself but everything was fully booked since I was trying to book last-minute). Because I was traveling with the local I mentioned, I learned of this little hotel that was super cheap, centrally located and while basic, very clean and a comfortable stay. I shared the room with her and her father. It’s called Hotel Mintzicuri in Morelia. You’ll need to speak Spanish to reserve over the phone. However, if you do or have a friend who does, you’ll pay under $50 USD for a triple!