Sitting all night at a graveyard to honor the dead and keep their memory alive on Dia de los Muertos.

Day of the Dead in Patzcuaro Mexico

Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán Mexico

Our first day of the dead was a special meaningful event for us. Adam’s father had died earlier that year and we decided that it would help us deal with his loss and offer some healing by taking part in these annual rituals.  We generally prefer to participate in activities instead of just observing them.

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As slow travelers, we were already living short term in Patzcuaro and were invited to participate in some of the annual rituals that Mexicans (and some foreign ex-pats) do every year. These traditions honor the ancestors and gives family members time to celebrate their lives together.

Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico

Dia de los Muertos is pretty special throughout Mexico.  It seems to be an even bigger deal here in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Tourists come from all over Mexico (and the world) to experience this annual event. Although the official date of Day of the Dead is every November 1, the festivities of Day of the Dead often starts as early as the weekend before.

Our host family doing their annual tradition preparing Marigold flowers to decorate their alter to celebrate day of the dead. Families typically spend many days together preparing their alters and graveyard sites on November 1 for Day of the Dead - Dia de los Muertos

A family day of the dead tradition preparing to decorate an alter with Marigold flowers

During this time, families from all over Mexico begin collecting things for their alters to celebrate the lives of those loved ones who have passed. Families build their altars and decorate them with items that reflect what their ancestors liked or admired while they were alive.

Miniature food items to decorate graveyards including these candy bones, cupcakes, and little alter display for those that celebrate Day of the Dead

As part of the traditions of Day of the Dead, family members buy tiny food items to decorate graveyards when they visit their loved ones.

Offerings, like flowers, photos, candles, incense, sweets, memorabilia, food, and drinks are placed on the altars for viewing. As a result, it is believed that these items help guide the departed souls back to the living for that one night.

Papel picado, sugar skulls, marigold flowers, candles, and Pan de Muertos decorate this family's traditional alter during their annual celebration of Day of the Dead

We helped set up this traditional alter with friends and family members on Dia de los Muertos

I would highly recommend watching the lovely animated film Coco before traveling for Day of the Dead as you will learn a lot more about this special holiday.

Scholars say the origin came from an indigenous Purepecha observance dating back hundreds of years. It is also related to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. I love goddesses!   

What to do during Day of the Dead during the Day

There are no shortage of things to do during the day in and around Patzcuaro. This usually quiet city is now bustling with traffic and visitors from all over the world. Take a look at the list of activities below or explore some of the small villages and towns around the lake.

Artisan shopping and sugar skulls

Hundreds of sugar skulls lined up on tables for sale. Families living in Mexico buy these sugar skulls and write the name of the person who died so they can celebrate their lives on Day of the Dead

Sugar Skulls for sale on Day of the Dead representing the departing souls of those who have died. The names of the deceased are written on the forehead of the sugar skull.

The main plaza (Plaza Grande) has huge tents and visiting artists from all over selling their arts and crafts.

In addition to many hand crafted wares, vendors set up along the portales along the side of the plaza and sell sugar skulls and various sugar candies to decorate the alters.

If you were celebrating Dia de los Muertos, wouldn’t you want to buy these delicious candy skeletons and miniature sugar skulls for your family’s Day of the Dead tradition?

Candy skeletons, chocolate mummies, and miniature sugar skulls available for sale for families celebrating Dia de los Muertos

Adam and I purchased the personalized Sugar Skulls for his father as well as for our friend Steven. Both had died earlier that year. Each Sugar skull is made by the artists selling them and only costs a few pesos. That’s less than a dollar for the small ones and a couple of bucks for the bigger ones.

A man buying day of the dead sugar skulls in Patzcuaro Michoacan Mexico from a sweet vendor who makes these special items for dia de los muertos every year.

Adam celebrating Day of the Dead and buying some day of the dead sugar skulls from a local vendor.

Our friend Steven always wore tie-dyed shirts, so this rainbow sugar skull was a perfect choice for him! We immediately thought of him when we were shopping for our items to decorate our alter to honor his memory. He would have loved it!

Day of the dead rainbow sugar skull next to Steven's photo on a beautiful dia de los Muertos alter to celebrate his life on day of the dead.

Photo of Steven, who died earlier that year, with this perfect rainbow sugar skull on the alter to celebrate his life.

Flowers for Day of the Dead

On the street Benigno Serrato near the Basilica Church (Basilica of Our Lady of Health located here) are many people selling the flowers used to decorate all the graveyards and alters all around town. These include Marigolds (targetes erecta), Cockscomb (celosia cristata) and Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila muralis).

Vendors selling truckloads of marigold and cockscomb flowers to families who decorate the alters and graveyards where their loved ones are buried on Day of the Dead

A truck bringing Marigold and Cockscomb flowers to sell to families celebrating this important holiday to remember their loved one’s who have passed

The flowers are said to represent the beauty and fragility of life and the scent is believed to help guide the souls of the dead to the alters.

What to do during Day of the Dead during the night

The town becomes alive with Katrina’s, tourists, traffic, and celebrations. Head over to the Plaza Grande and enjoy a local Michoacán dish, get your face painted by many of the Katrina artists, or sample a Tequila or Mezcal.

Tourists experiencing this important holiday of Día de los Muertos to remember and honor their ancestors and friends who have died often will get their face painted like a Katrina like the woman in this photo

In order to get into the “spirit” of things, a tourist gets her face painted like a Katrina to celebrate the tradition of Day of the Dead

Visiting the Cemeteries

The most popular thing to do in the evening of November 1st is visit the graveyards all around Lake Patzcuaro. This typically involves a lot of traffic and drinking. We planned accordingly and hired a driver in order to stay safe and get the most out of the many different sites around the lake. People start just before sunset and go throughout the early morning.

Sitting all night at a cemetery to honor the dead and keep their memory alive on Dia de los Muertos.

Old woman honoring the memory of her dead husband by sitting at his gravesite in a cemetery after creating his alter on this important Mexican holiday.

We hired a driver with a mini van (combi) to take us to some of the more popular and beautiful graveyards around the lake area of Pátzcuaro. We decided this would be the best option since there were 15 of us and it would also allow us to arrive home safe!

This is what Day of the Dead is all about. Celebrating the lives of the dead with the living while visiting graveyards around Lake Patzcuaro in Mexico

Celebrating in style (and safely) in a mini-van called a Combi so our driver can take us to visit many of the graveyards on Day of the Dead.

Family members gather around beautifully decorated graveyards decorated with elaborate altars, long tapered glowing candles, and bright yellow marigolds. I was completely mesmerized by the magical night. One of the things I loved most about this holiday is how people are allowed to take time to celebrate loved ones who have left this life. 

Day of the Dead is all about the living spending time together sitting a cemetery and welcoming the souls of their departed every year on this Mexican tradition.

Families spending all night together at a cemetery as part of the tradition of honoring their relatives and friends who have moved on to another world.

With my DSLR camera in hand, I spent the evening shooting plenty of video. This is a short compilation that I created while we went around visiting the graveyards. 

Recommendations for Day of the Dead

Here are a couple insider tips to getting the most out of your Day of the Dead experience. Also, if you are looking for a complete listing of all the activities for this Mexican non-religious holiday, visit this site with a complete list of all activities.

Hotels and Lodging

I HIGHLY recommend making your hotel reservations early in order to experience the magical festivities during Day of the Dead. If you are lucky, here are a some lodging recommendations that might be available

Casa Werma – Amazing 5+ acre garden in the heart of centro that also doubles as a Bed and Breakfast. A real gem if you are lucky enough to get a reservation. Look for it on Airbnb

Casa Santiago in Ihuatzio – Call Kevin Quigley at 52-434-344-0880. You might be able to participate in some of the rituals from this family run BnB.

La Casa Encantada – Great location but books up over a year in advance

Hotel Casa Del Naranjo – right on the Plaza Grande in the heart of Centro

La Siranda Casa Hotel – boutique hotel right in the heart of town

La Casa en el Bosque – cute little place in the forest but still close to everything

Other Hotels in Patzcuaro

Airbnb – Many different options in and around Patzcuaro. Sign up for new account and save $20 off your first stay

Transportation

Traffic is insane during the festival. If you can, take a bus into town since buses in Mexico are easy, cheap, comfortable, and plentiful. Once you arrive, walking is often quicker and getting a cab is also quick and cheap.

If your drive park your vehicle for the duration of the festival. Walk, take a collectivo (combi), or hire a driver to take you around to the various graveyards at night. Ask your hotel to arrange a tour of the graveyards on the night of November 1 – 2

Build your own Alter

For me, the best part of Day of the Dead is Celebrating the lives of those who have passed. Bring with you some printed photos of your loved ones along with some simple things that they loved. For instance, my father loved Shakespeare so a couple of books added to his alter made for a personalized touch. Then you can pick up many of the additional foods and speciality items while you are in Patzcuaro.

Take the time to decorate your alter with your travel companions. Then sit around the alter with your favorite beverage and tell stories about your departed friends and ancestors. Remember this is really a day/night of celebration so enjoy it.

I was surprised that most of the people sitting around the graveyards were happy, laughing, and celebrating life.

I hope you enjoy Day of the Dead as much as I did.  Hopefully it will become one of your favorite annual traditions no matter where you are on November 1.

 

 

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Jaime Byrd
Director / Cinematographer / Editor