Day of the Dead in Patzcuaro

When we decided to travel around Mexico I was especially excited at the prospect of experiencing Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in early November.

Our good friends Andrew & Christopher had asked us to join them in Patzcuaro, regarded as being one of the few remaining traditional Mexican villages to celebrate the Dia de Muertos festival without touristic hype (for the time being anyway).

At the time we already had our accommodation booked in Mexico City so it looked like we wouldn’t be able to join them, but when we found out that the council decided to shut off the water supply throughout Mexico City during our second week (to fix damage from last year’s earthquake) we canceled our flat for that period.

So, thanks to serendipity, we were able to happily say yes to Andrew & Christopher and join them in Patzcuaro, sharing their “cosy” apartment for the duration.

Dia de Muertos is the celebration in which Mexicans demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members who have embarked on their spiritual journey through the afterlife.

During this time it is traditional for families create an altar, or ofrenda, in their homes and at cemeteries. The ofrendas are not meant to be for worshiping, rather they’re to welcome spirits back to the land of the living.

All kinds of items are left for the spirits, including water to quench thirst after the long journey, as well as favourite food & drink, family photos and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, there will usually be small toys and sweets on the altar

Marigolds are used to decorate the altar. Scattered from altar to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest.

It is not at all a maudlin or depressing time, rather it seems to have an air of heartwarming respect and joy. The Mexican people are somehow able to move along with their grief and distress, finding a way to be at peace and in harmony with their loved ones who have passed.

Andrew & Christopher came across a tour that would take us on an overnight adventure with a unique local flavour, an experience we could never have achieved on our own.

Our guide Jaime was an incredible source of local and historical information and we were so grateful to have had him as our leader for the night.

The tour started with our group arriving at a typical indigenous Mexican home for a Mexican style meal, complete with Mexican music. Actually it turned out to be the home of Jaime’s mother and step-father and his sisters. We were treated like family, being loaded up with more delicious food than we could possibly get through.

From there we were very honoured to be invited into the neighbouring home of a family that had set up their ofrenda to a recently passed relative.

That was an incredibly sobering moment for us as we were very warmly welcomed into the room and we then sat quietly and respectfully, just observing the scene in quiet reflection.

I felt so much respect as I wondered how on earth they could have such stoic composure because there I was with visions of my own parents and yet I couldn’t help but feel somewhat bereft.

Jaime told us that during this time, or any celebration really, people are never formally “invited” to the home. Villagers know that they will be welcomed any time, no need for formalities or propriety. Just turn up and they’ll be greeted and accepted (and fed!). Mutual respect.

Finally, just before midnight, arriving at the community centre below the church and cemetery we came across a bunch of local kids playing a game of hockey with a fire ball. This game, called Uarhukua, apparently is an ancient ritual game dating back 3500 years, and is making a resurgence among young people in Mexico.

This was an unexpected delight that had us enthralled as the kids expertly tossed and whacked that kerosene soaked fire ball around the courtyard. We had to stay alert as sometimes the ball would head into the crowd and it all happened so quickly there didn’t seem much room to get out of the way.

Some of the kids looked not more than 10 years old, and although there were several adults around, they were left to it without too much interference.

After the thrill of the fire ball hockey game, we climbed the path to the cemetery grounds in front of the old church.  Approaching the gates we were confronted with something I’ve never before experienced.

There was stillness in the air, the glow of thousands of candles and the warm orange of the ubiquitous marigolds. But then looking more closely we could see people sitting in tight groups, wrapped up in blankets and ponchos against the cold night air. Quiet conversations, an occasional joke causing a ripple of laughter. Old people and young people together. It really was something special and we felt incredibly privileged to be there.

We stayed for several hours, finally making our way in the bus, back to Patzcuaro around 3am.

There is definitely a festive atmosphere around Dia de Muertos, a time of family togetherness and spirituality. It was a truly magical time for us to be in Patzcuaro, and most especially to be with our good mates as we will always carry those shared memories of a very deep and moving experience.

Some fun facts about Dia de Muertos

Dia de Muertos is not a Mexican version of Halloween, despite occurring around the same time of the year. It is a time to honour the dead.

In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The well known skeleton face you see around this time is called a Catrina, created in 1912 by Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Pasada, as a social criticism of indigenous Mexican women rejecting their roots and trying to pass themselves off as European. In 1947 artist Diego Rivera gave the Catrina her current name as she became famous as a central figure in Rivera’s mural “Suena de una tarde dominical en la Alemada Central” – “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon along Central Alemada.
Lots more about the origins of Catrina here.

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolise sorrow. 

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors, they come in all sizes and levels of complexity. I don’t think they’re really suitable to be eaten, we’ve been told the sugar is held in place with an epoxy…

Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, and, mimicking the calavera Catrina, they don suits and fancy dresses. Strong colours are everywhere, and here are some: 

Yellow & Orange represent the sun, light and life. You’ll see marigolds everywhere during Dia de Muertos.

Pink represents the happiness and celebration associated with Dia de Muertos.

Red represents blood
Purple represents pain, suffering, grief and mourning. Using purple acknowledges the loss of a loved one.

White represents purity, hope and renewal of the spirit after death
Black represents death, but more the land of the dead.

If you’ve watched the movie Coco you will know that the story is set in the state of Jalisco, and in the region of Patzcuaro, something of which the locals are very proud.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Wow. What an amazing experience. And interesting to see how much the dead like alcohol and bananas. I wonder what would be put on my altar? Books and cake perhaps.

    1. And plenty of ciggies too Mary Lou. I too wondered about what would be on my ofrenda. Would be interesting to see what others think we like. Maybe we could ask around.

  2. Great insightful article Sue! Fascinating how the practice parallels cultural practices we observed in South East Asia aka ancestry worship, such as in Bali and Vietnam amongst other places.

    1. Completely agree with you re the SE Asia beliefs. We learned and loved so much about their care of passed loved ones. So different to our ways and something I’d like us to emulate.

  3. What an incredible festival. How lucky you decided to join your friends. And what wonderful experiences you enjoyed! No wonder you felt very honoured to witness everyyou did. I’m also very curious about the very cosy apartment link you included? Is VRBO like Airbnb? And is the price in US dollars?

    1. Yes, VRBO is much the same as Airbnb and in fact they’ve been around a lot longer. In the early days you’d book and pay directly through the property owner/agent and we did that through Europe back in 2009. Yes I believe it is priced in US dollars (or maybe Euros??) but I think you can check an AUD box as well.

      I’d actually love to spend a Christmas or Easter in Patzcuaro, certainly one of my favourite places. It really is a Magical Town.

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