Crop Over Day of the Dead (2)
Where to go
All of Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead, but ardent festival hounds will want to make a special journey to one of the towns and villages famed for the authenticity of their events. Most of these are in the southern half of the country, where the indigenous culture is strongest; however, if you’re planning on being in one of the more popular towns, you might want to get there a day or two beforehand to soak up the atmosphere before the hordes arrive, and to secure a hotel room. Many of the smaller places are tiny villages that will be hard to find on small-scale maps, but asking in the nearest large town should set you on the right track. Around Mexico City, otherwise known as Distrito Federal, or DF for short, the suburbs of San Lucas Xochimanca (DF) and Nativitas (DF) are particularly popular, as is the small town of Mixquic (DF), 20km southeast of Mexico City, which is known as “The City of the Dead” for its funereal procession that calls at shrines to the dead around town. East towards the Caribbean coast, there are colourful festivities at Naolinco (Veracruz), 90km northwest of Veracruz city, and, further south, San Gabriel Chilac (Puebla), near Tehuacan. Perhaps the most fruitful hunting ground of all is the city of Oaxaca, in the south, where the concentration of events enables you to experience the widest range of Day of the Dead proceedings in a single visit. Here, the local council organizes activities (including a “Best Altar” competition) at the San Miguel cemetery, and there are even commercial tours around the top sites: check times and dates with the tourist office. Tours include trips to Xoxocotlan, on October 31, and, later that same evening, Santa Maria Atzomp. The next day, there are activities around the city, especially at San Miguel cemetery, and on the afternoon of November 2, people flock to San Antonino and, subsequently, San Felipe del Agua. Another place in the area worth checking out is the tiny village of Nopala (Oaxaca), up in the mountains, where the celebrations are as authentic as anything you’ll find in Mexico. If you’re in the north, head to the central interior, where some of the country’s most alluring Day of the Dead festivities take place in lakeside Patzcuaro (Michoacan), 250km west of Mexico City. Here, the main activity centres on Lago de Patzcuaro, and particularly its small island, Isla Janitzio, where, on the late evening of November 1, an incredible flotilla of flower-festooned canoes, paddled by local Purepecha, converge on the island, each with a candle burning on its prow. One of the highlights of the country’s Day of the Dead celebrations, this marks the beginning of an all-night vigil with hypnotic chanting and traditional dances. Lastly, along the Pacific Coast make a bee-line for the small village of Atoyac de Alvarez (Guerrero), 60km west of Acapulco, scene of particularly colourful celebrations.
The papier-mache skeletons that dominate street stalls during the Day of the Dead have evolved into an art form of their own, thanks in no small part to nineteenth-century engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose most famous cartoons all depict the main characters as skeletons. Muralist Diego Rivera picked up the reins a few decades later, using Posada’s La Calavera Catrina as the central character in his monumental mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park in Mexico City – images you’ll see recycled over and over again throughout the country during the Day of the Dead.