by Carla White
For me, one of the best times of year to travel in Mexico is during the Day of The Dead celebrations that are held throughout the country, Oct. 31-Nov. 2. It’s not just that kids and families are preoccupied with school and sports activities, making it a lighter and more adult-friendly travel period, it is also that the weather in Mexico during these months is typically mild and welcoming. But the main reason to make the journey is simply to be exposed to the mystical and magical happenings that mark Day of the Dead as a special occasion. Following are Day of The Dead trivia, tips and travel ideas.
For some, the name ‘Day of The Dead’ conjures up the macabre and spooky. In reality, it is just the opposite: a celebration of the life-death-life cycle, and a time to honor departed souls by welcoming them back to earth for a quick visit.
In hamlets all over Mexico, preparations begin days ahead: flower stalls are constructed, literally overflowing with masses of vivid yellow and orange marigolds (the flower of the dead); altars are readied with photos, little pieces of clothing, drinks and favorite foods; ‘pan de muertos’ or ‘bread of the dead’ is baked in shapes of skulls and skeletons, all in preparation for the arrival of the dead ones. Decorations, including papier mache skeletons, brightly painted sugar skulls and other items are often incorporated into the shrines, and frequently there will be little poems or stories displayed for reading. Overall, there is a great sense of anticipation – just as if an honored guest were expected to arrive soon.
Nov. 1st is the first night of the celebration, called the Vigil of the Angels. The ‘angelitos’ are children who have passed on. Their altars are, perhaps, the most poignant, decorated with toys, stuffed animals and candies. Perhaps because this is a time tinged with sorrow, festivities are quieter and subdued. The more elaborate processions and celebrations are held on Nov. 2nd, the night that the adults are invited back. Cemeteries are awash in candlelight and families surround the grave-sites, sometimes eating small meals, sharing memories and listening to soft music.
Visitors can participate in the processions to the cemeteries but it is advisable to go with a tour guide who can share Day of The Dead rules of etiquette. For instance, taking photographs can be dicey – and using a flash is an absolute no-no.
Where are a few of the most interesting places to experience Day of The Dead?
1., OaxacaOaxaca is definitely the most famous Day of The Dead destination. A spectacular colonial city in Southern Mexico, Oaxaca has several large cemeteries that are the sites of large processions. A number of churches host either pre- or post-procession fetes. Most hotels can be helpful in identifying reliable tours to Day of the Dead events, in particular the charming (if somewhat pricey) Camino Real Oaxaca.
2. Janitzio and Patzcuaro, located near Moreliain central Mexico, are almost as well-known as Oaxaca for Day of The Dead. Janitzio is a small island in LakePatzcuaro, which – on Nov. 1 — is converged upon by hundreds of little boats, each awash in candle- and torch-light. Patzcuaro, itself, is a gem of a colonial village with outstanding lodgings and restaurants.
3. Baja California is not especially renowned for its Day of The Dead celebrations (Baja Sur more so), although Tecate in northern Baja (check out the Panaderia Mejor Pan, the best bakery in Baja, for its ‘bread of the dead’) and La Paz on the southeast coast of Baja, both have events to mark the celebration. Rosarito and Ensenada both have large cemetaries as well, where processions are held during this period. Baja offers perhaps some of the most astonishing arts and crafts devoted to the Day of The Dead theme. From tiny skeletal miniatures to $1000 paintings and life-sized papier mache figures, Day of The Dead takes on many lively faces here. Some of the top stores include Bazar Casa Ramirez on Ave. Lopez Mateos in Ensenada; Fausto Polanco (high-end furnishings and art) in Rosarito Beach and Ensenada; Alex Curios on Blvd. Popotla in Rosarito and there are many others. Tijuana, which in the past couple of years has become a tourism magnet, is offering graveyard tours, as well…some by Baja.com’s popular blogger Derrik Chinn!
- Learn what travel documentation you need before leaving on your trip. Make sure you have a current passport.
- Book ahead. Among airlines flying to many Mexico Day of The Dead destinations are Aero Mexico and Mexicana.
- Make reservations far ahead. Even two months in advance is often late!
- If driving from the U.S., make sure you have valid insurance. For more info, visit www.bajabound.com and/or wwww.mexpro.com
- If you are staying in Baja California for Day of The Dead, visit Baja.com to find out more about hotels.
Buy memory cards — especially HD for video purposes — for your camera. And send us videos!
What are the best ways for you to celebrate Day of The Dead?
Altar: Create your own altar to celebrate those whom you’ve lost. An altar can be a niche in a wall or something more elaborate, created by using palm fronds or bamboos shafts shaped into an arch. Mostly, it is a place where you feel that your dead ones can convene in happy harmony. Altars must have candles…and often, these can be purchases at special stories and have images, like the Virgin of Guadalupe, on them. But any candles will help you honor and light the way for a loved one. Photos are a must: photos of the dead person, of their favorite pets, etc. And feel free to honor several people in your altar…perhaps by creating different levels in the arched area, with boxes or little tables, etc. Now comes the fun and perhaps the most poignant part: populating your altar with their favorite foods, or perhaps a ring or necklace that they loved (for me, it is the dental bridge my mom had — a famous family story recalls how our old Basset Hound snatched it out of her napkin –why was it there? — and ran around the house with it!). Sugar skulls are also popular — little sparkly skeleton heads made of sugar that are both scary and sweet all at once!
Incense and Flowers: Copal incense is ubiquitous to Day of The Dead remembrances, as are the ever-present marigolds which are the ‘official’ flower of the celebration and provide a sharp scent that is ever reminiscent of the event. You will find both in abundance during the pre-Day of The Dead period. Local farms, particularly in Michoacan, but now even here in Baja, produce the marigolds in riots of golden, orange and yellow colors knowing that they will be in high demand.
Tamales and Pan de Muertos: Tamales seem to be the traditional food to place in the altar of the loved ones — and typically the tamales are the sweeter variety, perhaps showing the sweet homage that is being paid. Pan de Muertos can be made or purchased at almost any grocery store, and comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
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