Though Halloween has its moment in Mexico, complete with ghoulish costumes and fun-size candy, the main event occupies the following two days, November 1 and 2, for Día de Los Muertos. The centuries-old festival combines indigenous rituals with the Catholic feast days of All Saints and All Souls, and makes light of the sadness that is so commonly associated with death.
Mexicans welcome back to earth the souls of their deceased loved ones by constructing elaborate altars, decorating their graves with emblematic marigolds, and holding candlelit processions. Like any real party, food is a major player, and sweets like pan de muertos and spun-sugar skulls are served to balance the bitterness of death. The obvious figurehead of the festival, La Catrina, is a female calavera dressed in fancy European garb, created to mock the Mexican aristocracy during the height of the Mexican Revolution. The satirical figure is also meant to poke fun at death itself, and can be seen in household decorations, public displays, and the thousands of revelers who paint their faces in celebration of the cycle of life, from start to end.
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Top 5 Places to Celebrate in Mexico
Though you can find some incredible renditions of the festival stateside, here are our top five destinations in Mexico if you want to witness the true magic of Día de Los Muertos.
San Miguel de Allende. Long known for its free spirit, SMA throws a party unlike any other. La Calaca Festival takes the city by storm, in a five-day celebration complete with art installations, plays, public altars and processions, live performances, and DJ-hosted dance parties that last through the night. The La Catrina parade even puts a spin on Halloween traditions, when women and men don elaborate costumes and makeup and transform into Catrinas and Catrines to pass out candy to children.
Mexico City. Fun fact: Mexico’s capital didn’t have a full-blown festival until 2016, after the James Bond film Spectre showcased a scintillating scene of the holiday’s festivities in the city’s main plaza. Though you can catch the party in Zocálo, you’ll find a far more authentic celebration southeast of the city center, in San Andrés Mixquic. The ex-convent and church bedecks its main cemetery with thousands of candles and marigolds, and midnight processions bring thousands of capitalinos to the altar-lined streets.
Michoacán. The Purépecha, an indigenous people centered in Michoacán, honors the dead with sacred midnight vigils beginning at sunset on November 1 and continuing until dawn. In Janitzio, the main island on Lake Pátzcuaro, cemeteries fill with crowds and torch-clad rowboats light up the lake, drawing thousands of spectators each year.
Oaxaca. Here, the celebrations are known for comparsas, or groups of musicians and costume-clad characters that traipse through the city dancing, drinking, and making merry. In addition to the seemingly endless altars and parades, local artists pay tribute to the dead with colorful sand tapestries. The grandest can be found in the city’s main plaza, next to La Soledad Church, where truckloads of sand are transformed into elaborate memorials.
Mérida. This Mayan town on the Yucatán Peninsula welcomes their dead with Hanal Pixán, or “food of the souls,” a multilayered celebration with traditional cooking at the heart of it. The main parade, Paseo de Las Ánimas (Passage of the Souls), shuts down streets to showcase altars and musical performances, culminating with a Mayan ceremony in the town’s main cemetery.
A big thanks to The Mexican Museum, a San Francisco-based affiliate of The Smithsonian, for providing their cultural and historical expertise. Learn more about their expansive collection of artifacts or schedule a visit.