Mexicans are among the warmest, friendliest, and most welcoming people I have met. A sense of pride in tradition and, more importantly, a recognition of their mixed blood or mestizaje has created a beautifully vibrant and united cultural front that is upheld by all ages and marveled at by visitors. Mestizaje refers to the cultural and racial mixtures that emerged from the Spanish conquest of pre-Colombian civilizations that existed in Mexico in the 16th century. Today in Mexico, thousands of indigenous communities, languages, and cultures continue to thrive, but there is a more collective sense of pride in the mixture of the “indigenous” with the “Spanish.” Perhaps the best example of this cultural fusion is the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. This article will give a brief explanation of this colorful and cherished holiday and will then specify the best places to experience Day of the Dead as a tourist.
Dia de los Muertos means "day of the dead" and is actually celebrated over 3 days and lasts from the 31st of October through the 2nd of November. It originated from the traditions of many of the central and southern Mexican indigenous traditions of celebrating their dead and honoring the goddess of the dead or underworld. Today, the 31st of October celebrates all hollows eve and has somewhat coopted the North American tradition of Halloween. The first day of November is meant to honor children who have died and the 2nd of November is the traditional Day of the dead that celebrates all those family members and friends who have passed away.
Cities, towns, neighborhoods and households erect elaborate altars adorned with golden marigolds, painted sugar skulls, colored paper cut into elaborate shapes and patterns, wax candles, a deceased loved one’s favorite foods, and, of course, their picture as the center piece. On the second of November families head to the graveyards with their loved ones' favorite foods, pictures, candles and flowers, and spend all night at their grave telling stories and serenading them with their favorite songs. Along with sugar skulls, traditional day of the dead food includes pan de muerto, a sweet white bread roll topped with sugar and bone pieces made from the same bread, usually accompanied by atole or champurrado (chocolate atole) which is a hot sweet corn or rice drink.
Day of the dead has become popular internationally by movies such as James Bond’s Spectre and the cartoon Coco. Cities and pueblos now erect altars and flower displays in town squares, have colorful, decorated parades with giant skull puppets, and women and men in traditional dress with their face painted as skeleton skulls dancing to traditional music. Suffice it to say that this festivity along with the moderate fall climates makes November my favorite time of year to visit Mexico. While festivities occur all around Mexico, the cities and pueblos that best showcase Day of the Dead festivities are all in Central Mexico.
Mexico City, apart from being one of the best cities in the world, is also one of the best places for day of the dead sight-seeing as there are giant altars and flower arrangements in the famous Zocalo, Chapultepec park, and the famous neighborhood square of Coyoacan, not to mention the best pan de muerto I have tasted. Not far away in the state of Morelos, the town of Ocotepec and Tepoztlan arel considered pueblos magicos that, along with incredible markets and cobblestone streets, also have beautiful decorations and graveyards filled with families. In Ocotepec visitors are invited to participate in festivities; in exchange for bringing wax candles, they are invited into families’ homes to enjoy traditional tamales, pan de muerto and atole. Two other central Mexican towns worth visiting during day of the dead festivities- or in general- are San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato City which are located halfway between Mexico City and the west coast.
If you happen to be traveling through the west coast during day of the dead, Oaxaca City is an absolute must see. It may surpass Mexico City for the most delicious traditional food, and the most beautiful displays, altars, parades, and public dances. You could spend the day of the dead in the city, and finish your trip relaxing on one of Oaxaca’s famous pacific beaches. Further north, the coastal state of Michoacán is equally famous for its beautifully decorated cemeteries and town altars, namely the display in the small town of Patzcuaro, whose cemeteries lie on a small island in the middle of Lake Patzcuaro called Janitzio.
The period of October and November in Mexico is considered fall, and the end of the summer rainy season. Along with pleasant weather, this time of year also coincides with Day of the Dead, one of Mexico’s most treasured and beautiful traditional festivities. If you can plan your trip to Mexico around this time, you will be enchanted by the wonderful cultural fruits of this country’s complex mestizaje.
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