Dia de Muertos (or “Day of the Dead” for all you gringos out there) is a Mexican holiday which conveniently occurs every year around the time of Halloween. It’s a famously rich tradition which dates back thousands of years, with ancient Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs using this time to remember and celebrate the deaths (in a positive way, rather than a “ha ha, you’re dead” kind of way) of relatives and ancestors. Today, this “pagan” ritual has been integrated into the Catholic Church, and it therefore presents a curious fusion of ridiculously bright, over-animated pre-Columbian celebrations with the more sombre, organised trappings of Catholicism.
We had stuck it out in Mexico City and surrounds for over three weeks in order to experience this crazy long weekend in the thick of the action, and had developed a rather convoluted plan to try and experience the two different facets of this celebration:
October 30th and 31st (Friday and Saturday): Join in the party action in Mexico City for a couple of nights, checking out the parades in town and generally just make a nuisance of ourselves.
November 1st and 2nd (Sunday and Monday): Grab a rental car and cruise on over to Morelia, which we would use as a base to conduct multiple skirmishes into Patzcuaro and Janitzio, a small island on a lake famous for it’s traditional celebrations around this time, including hundreds of boats out on the lake at night with lanterns glowing and amazing concoctions of lights and decorations in the local cemeteries.
Dia de los Muertos Part 1: Mexico City
We had kind of expected that Mexico City would erupt into one giant party with the onset of Halloween/Dia de Muertos, whereby we would slap on a skeleton suit, slop on some morbid facepaint and slide into the 16 million person congo line. Alas, reality is a bitch, and there was no such city-wide party. We had, however, made plans via Airbnb to stay at the home of a local resident known for his parties and social connections, therefore we were well placed to join in on whatever festivities were going on behind closed doors.
As it happened, our host was planning on heading to a monstrous house party down the road, and we were welcome to attend. Thus after quite a few shots of tequila and mescal, we were provided with a couple of Halloween-esque masks (in a vain attempt to conform to the strict Halloween dress code) and traipsed on down to the party.
To call this a house party would be a serious understatement, as it came complete with bouncers, security guards, a concierge, a full service bar, and multiple party rooms. But it DID take place inside some poor bugger’s house, so I suppose you could get away with it. Anyways, we danced away a number of hours with our Mexican counterparts, marveling at the impressive array of costumes and the price of the drinks.
The next morning, we set off to the Zocalo in the Centro Historico on a more cultural mission. We had been told by our host that, every year, a rather extensive parade takes place in the city’s main square (aka Zocalo), and that this year they had actually filmed part of the latest James Bond movie Spectre using the parade props and location. Enticed by this little piece of movie trivia, we battled through the hangover to get into town on time, but alas we were too late, and had only an empty, slightly rubbish-strewn square to look at.
On the plus side, there were plenty of other things going on, with some impressive flower mosaics in the making at the Bella Artes Palace grounds, some hilarious and extensive Dia de Muertos ofrendas in the small square adjacent to the Iglesia de San Felipe de Jesus, and hordes of bedazzling buskers sporting costumes ranging from Gene Simmons to Alien.
Despite the parade being over, the areas surrounding the Zocalo were absolutely chocka block, and we had a hard time plunging through the crowds of excited Mexicans. Thus, after checking out the interior of the Sagrario de la Catedral Asuncion, we headed home to unwind.
Dia de los Muertos Part 2: Morelia and Patzcuaro
Part 2 of our “weekend of death” involved a grueling 5 hour drive first to Morelia to drop off our stuff at the hotel, then to Patzcuaro where we joined forces the family of our Airbnb host for a local’s take on the whole Day of the Dead thing. With most of his family piling into our tiny Nissan Versa hatchback (rather than the oversized SUV sitting in the driveway), the 7 of us drove into Patzcuaro and partook in the rambunctious festivities taking place in the historic town centre.
Patzcuaro seemed like a pretty cool little city, with old cobbled streets, narrow alleyways overlooking the lake below, and all the shopfronts had their signs painted on above the doorway, which made for an interesting sight. We wolfed down some delicious tacos from a bustling roadside food stall, strolled through the various markets, and generally just soaked in the atmosphere.
Next, our large company of Mexicans squeezed into the rental once more and we whizzed off to see the next sight: a cemetery. Usually, I wouldn’t be overly excited about paying a visit to a collection of graves, but during the Day of the Dead celebrations many of the local cemeteries are transformed into magical wonderlands of light and flowers. This one was a particularly impressive exhibit, with all the graves lovingly draped with thousands of marigold petals, candles, pictures, and all manner of other colourful and presumably meaningful objects. It was actually a pretty cool experience strolling between the graves (never thought I’d be using those words in a sentence together!), seeing families sitting around the graves with music playing, drinks flowing, and jokes being told. If I was one of the poor unfortunates hanging out in that cemetery below-ground, I’d be pretty stoked to have somebody bring the party directly to my doorstep and share a few jokes and memories.
Sadly, we didn’t get the chance to head across the water to Janitzio, as our hosts told us it was basically impossible to grab a ferry to the island at night, and besides, the island would be way too crowded and not at all enjoyable.
Following the Day of the Dead activities, we decided to stay put in Morelia and explore the city. Morelia is yet another Mexican colonial city, however it has managed to beautifully preserve most of the colonial buildings while permitting surprisingly tasteful architecture to spring up in between the various cathedrals, castles and university buildings around the zocalo. The best thing about the city was the food – the restaurants there were fantastic, with delicious gourmet traditional Michoacan (the state Morelia is located in) food being served for startlingly low prices. We spent most of our time at the originally named Restaurant LU Cocina Michoacana, and ordered practically everything on the menu – all of it good.
In search of the Monarchs
Coinciding with the Day of the Dead festivities, it is around this time that the Monarch butterflies complete their southward migration from Canada and the US to overwinter in Mexico – coined by some as “one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world”. We felt a real affinity to these colourful critters, as they had essentially just completed the same migration as us, all the way from Canada down to Central Mexico (but probably with a whole lot less stress, vast flying distances and numerous dangers notwithstanding). I had run the numbers, and decided that a visit to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was achievable in a day.
Thus we jumped into the car first thing in the morning (which for us is around 10am) and began the long drive to the Reserva de la Biosfera Santuario Mariposa (henceforth referred to as “the reserve”). This “long drive” took us over one of the more harrowing mountain ranges we’d encountered, with switchbacks every 50 metres, donkeys around every blind corner, whole sections washed out by rivers, and just general Mexican rural mayhem. We had opted to take the “scenic route” (aka the one without the wallet-crippling tolls), and while scenic, we very much regretted our choice. Thus 6 hours later it was getting close to darkness and we still had not located the reserve, with various locals giving us conflicting directions on how to get to it, and Google Maps completely shitting itself and abandoning us to reminisce on its days of navigating us around less chaotic North American roads. Eventually, with the sun starting to set, we found what we thought was the entrance, and jogged past the goggling locals in the rain-filled twilight to find ourselves finally at the visitor centre for the reserve!
The victory was short lived, as we soon discovered that we had a very long hike up the side of a mountain to get to where the Monarchs supposedly were. We raced up the mountain (a moderately difficult task, at around 3000 m elevation), peering up into the towering trees in the hopes of spotting an orange medley of wings, but seeing nothing. Eventually, upon reaching an open meadow where the darn things HAD to be hanging out, we saw….nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even a few dead butterflies on the ground (we’re talking MILLIONS of butterflies in this reserve), or even a few bits of wing. We had made an epic journey over the course of 8 hours, and found absolutely nothing.
Wet, defeated, breathless, and thoroughly disappointed in our migratory companions, we made the long drive back to Morelia.