Dia de Meurtos: An Afterlife Tour of Mexico 22

On November 1st and 2nd every year, something otherworldly, surreal and delightfully macabre happens across Mexico. All around the country, especially the central, eastern and southern regions, Mexicans honour the souls and spirits of the dead in a festival which lasts for two days and two nights and is known as Dia de Muertos, or 'Day of the Dead'. The event is a prime example of Mexico's trademark cultural mestizaje, or 'mixing', and sees Catholic traditions fuse with an Aztec festival during which Mictecacihuatl, an underworld goddess who ruled over the afterlife, allowed the dead to return the earthly realm for one day and its modern incarnation, Dia de Muertos sees entire towns and cities decorating family grave sites with candles, layers of marigold flowers known as 'xempaxuchitl' and the person's favourite foods to welcome home the 'muertitos', their deceased loved ones. Nothing embodies Dia de Muertos as much as the image of the skull, and before and during the festival streets and plazas all around Mexico are decked out with life-size papier-mâché skeletons and iced sugar, chocolate and marzipan skulls flood markets across the country. From central Mexico to the Yucatán Peninsula, we join the living and the dead and check out some of the places to explore Dia de Muertos.

Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico

Oct 1 2016

In the state of Michoacán, the town of Pátzcuaro sits on the southern shore of its namesake lake and the whole area hosts one of the most renowned and extravagant Dia de Meurtos celebrations in all of Mexico. Pátzcuaro town itself acts as the main hub of Dia de Muertos activity for the surrounding lakeside area, with preparations for the festival getting underway as early as the beginning of October and the smaller towns on the edge of the lake, including Tzurumutaro, Ihuatzio, Cucuchucho and Tzintzuntzán as well as the five islands of Lake Pátzcuaro, most notably Isla de Janitzio, each host their own set of Dia de Muertos festivities. Image Date: 05/19/2012

Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico

Oct 2 2016

Isla de Janitzio, or Janitzio for short, literally means both 'Corn Hair' and 'Place of Rain', and when the sun goes down over Lake Pátzcuaro on the evening of November 1st, Noche de Muertos, or 'Night of the Dead', sees locals set out from the shore around the edges of the lake towards Janitzio in native Purépecha-style canoes. The canoes have a single candle lit at both ends which are reflected onto the surface of the lake and they carry an on-board cargo of marigolds and sugar skulls to place at Janitzio's church in honour of the dead. When they arrive at Janitzio's pier, the boatmen from Pátzcuaro head immediately to the island's church where they joined thousands of other in a Noche de Muertos midnight vigil, which usually lasts from 10pm to 3am. Image Date: 10/31/2010

Pátzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico

Oct 4 2016

Roughly four miles west of central Patzcuaro in the tiny town of Santa Ana Chapitiro, a small temple honours and venerates a Mexican folk deity known as Santa Muerte. Appearing all over the temple in both figurine form and artistically in wall murals, Santa Muerte is depicted as a skeleton wearing an often multicoloured robe and she carries a scythe and a globe, or a piece of chocolate or sugar paste shaped like a globe. The deity's name literally means 'Holy Death' and she acts as as a kind of successor to the Aztec goddess of the dead and the afterlife, Mictecacihuatl. Worship of Santa Muerte goes on year-round, but on Dia de Muertos she receives extra special attention and the temple's altar overflows with 'xempaxuchitl' marigolds as well as offerings and homages of ceramic and sugar skulls, fruit, cigars, incense, shots of tequila and bottles of a Mexican spirit known as mezcal. Image Credit: Ben Pipe Image Date: 11/02/2013

Pátzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico

Oct 5 2016

Dozens of towns and cities across Mexico recreate the infamous Mesoamerican ball game during Dia de Muertos, after which either the loser or winner would often be sacrificed depending on the occasion, region and custom. In the village of Jarácuaro, just to the northwest of Pátzcuaro on the southern edge of the lake, two teams challenge each other to a game of Wuarukua, otherwise known as Pelota Phurépecha or 'Fire Hockey'. Wuarukua is played with a wooden ball set ablaze with diesel fuel and when the game gets underway well after midnight and in total darkness on the first night of Dia de Muertos on Jarácuaro's plaza, the flames act as a guide for the spirits as they make their way home from the realm of the dead. The game is one of the hundreds of pre-Spanish Mexican elements which make up the Day of the Dead celebrations and it originates from a time when the region's native Purépecha people believed that Wuarukua symbolised universal balance, with the fireball representing the good and the darkness representing evil. Image Date: 11/02/2013

Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico

Oct 7 2016

One hour northwest from Pátzcuaro, along Mexico's state highway 14, Morelia is the capital of Michoacán state and also hosts its own Dia de Muertos festivities. Halfway between Morelia and Pátzcuaro in the town of Capula, the festival gets underway as early as October 22nd with a fair known as 'Las Calacas de Capula', which sees the streets of the town decked out with skeleton figures wearing tuxedos and gowns. As Die de Muertos draws closer, Morelia's central area around the Plaza de Armas and the Centro Historico becomes the main hive of activity as paper flags known as 'papel picado' hang overhead and giant and richly colourful calvera skulls line the streets. Morelia also hosts multiple parades and individual festivals on and around Dia de Muertos honouring the dead, and a huge ofrendas altar is constructed in the Jardin Morelos. In addition, the city's Calzada de Guadalupe hosts a fully digital calaca skeleton display known as Exhibición de Catrinas Vivientes. Image Date: 10/30/2016

Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico

Oct 8 2016

Throughout Mexico's Dia de Muertos festivities, life-sized papier-mâché skeletons are constructed and displayed in just about every place feasible. Morelia is no different and the skeletons can be seen standing in the city's plazas, hung from street signs as well as on the doors and windows of family homes. Decked out in full costume, often wearing tuxedos and even dressed as the members of mariachi bands, the skeletons are always depicted with festive grins and this is another of the ideas behind Dia de Muertos which comes directly from Aztec, Mayan and other pre-Columbian traditions in which the souls of the dead are thought of as joyous and happy during the afterlife. Image Date: 10/31/2010

Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico

Oct 9 2016

When Dia de Muertos comes around in Morelia, the city's cathedral and Centro Historica area sees elaborate altars known as 'ofrendas' constructed in honour of the dead and to greet the weary spirits as they arrive home. If the ofrenda honours the spirit of a child, who along with the other deceased of the younger generations returns on the first night of Dia de Muertos, toys, board games, chocolate and miniature sugar skulls are placed at the altar. If the ofrenda is dedicated to a deceased adult, it is erected and lavished with xempaxuchitl marigolds, candles, steamed cornmeal dough known as 'tamales', fruit, mole, corn, nuts and the person's favourite alcoholic tipple, usually tequila, mezcal or a type of Aztec corn beer known as Chicha. In recent editions of Dia de Muertos in Morelia, an Aztec-style step pyramid made entirely from ears of dried corn has been erected on the city's Plaza Melchor Ocampo, just to the right of the Catedral de Morelia. Image Date: 11/01/2014

San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico

Oct 10 2016

In the east of the state of Guanajuato, the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende puts a slightly different twist on Dia de Meurtos to other Mexican cities. Elsewhere in the country, the spirits of the dead are welcomed at midnight on November 1st, and while the usual offrendas altars and graves decorated with orange marigolds are naturally part of the festivities, but San Miguel de Allende also hosts a week long party known as 'Festival La Calaca'. Revelers can be seen all over the city decked out in skeleton costumes and skull make up and the event also features two individual festivals, huge skeletal papier-mâché puppets known as 'moligangas', parades, all night parties and art exhibitions. Image Date: 04/10/2014

San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico

Oct 12 2016

In addition to the festive and grinning calaca skeletons seen all over Mexico on Dia de Muertos taking root in the Aztec and Maya idea of deceased souls enjoying a happy afterlife, the figures are also inspired by the cartoon etchings of Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the early twentieth century. Posada originally drew a Dia de Muertos-style skeleton in a 1912 zinc etching named 'La Calavera Catrina', or 'Elegant Skull', and the figure was depicted as a female skeleton dressed in a hat and Spanish upper class clothes in a satirical cartoon lampooning Mexicans who had erred from their cultural heritage. Sold in markets all over Mexico around October and November today, including those around San Miguel de Allende's Central Plaza, clay figurines of La Calavera Catrina have become a Dia de Muertos icon. Image Date: 10/27/2008

San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico

Oct 14 2016

Held in and around San Miguel de Allende's Jardin Allende, the Festival La Calaca, or Skull Festival, is one of the mainstays of the city's Dia de Muertos celebrations. The La Calaca Festival has only been held in San Miguel de Allende since 2012, in an effort to resurrect the city's Dia de Muertos festivities in the face of the increasingly popular US-style Halloween celebrations which once threatened to overshadow it. San Miguel de Allende's answer to this has been to throw a gigantic party in honour of Dia de Muertos and the week-long Skull Festival sees papier-mâché skeletons and people both young and old dressed as calacas enjoying a festive night in the afterlife wandering San Miguel de Allende's colonial cobblestone streets, alleyways and graveyards under the stars as they search for revelry and the party carries on until the sun rises. Image Date: 11/17/2012

Mexico City

Oct 15 2016

Perhaps surprisingly for the capital of the nation which created the festival and made it so famous, Dia de Muertos celebrations in Mexico City have always been more low-key and serious than elsewhere in the country, and in the urban areas of the city the festival is more of a folk tradition. Ofrenda altars are set up in homes across the city, sugar and candy skulls are mass-produced and on sale in the mercado markets and the capital's cemeteries, especially Panteón Civil de Dolores and Bosque de Chapultepec, host the standard marigold-draped and food-heavy midnight vigils for the dead. The city's museums make a big show of Dia de Meurtos, however, with grandiose papier-mâché skull puppets and dioramas and a contest to determine the best ofrenda altar is held on the Zocalo, the city's main central plaza. More than anywhere else in country, it is in Mexico City's outer suburbs that the real Aztec cultural influence on Dia de Muertos is best showcased. Image Date: 02/27/2010

Mixquic, Tláhuac, Mexico City

Oct 19 2016

In Mexico City's far southeastern suburbs, the town of San Andrés Mixquic throws one of the most famous and culturally significant Dia de Muertos celebrations in the whole country. San Andrés Mixquic, or Mixquic for short, was officially designated as a 'Barrio Mágico', or 'Magic District', by the Mexican federal government in 2011 and when October and November roll around every year, the entire town gets the full Dia de Muertos treatment. At 7 pm in the evening on the first day of the festival in Mixquic, local children go from house to house in a kind of Aztec-influenced and Dia de Muertos-style twist on trick-or-treating and after reciting a prayer they receive sugar skulls, chocolate and tamale corn dough to give to the returning muertitos later on in the evening. Image Date: 11/01/2015

Mixquic, Tláhuac, Mexico City

Oct 20 2016

Parroquia San Andrés Apostol, Mixquic's Spanish colonial monastery was built over what was once an Aztec step pyramid by the name Teocalli between 1536 and 1563. The tombs and grave sites of the old monastery's adjoining cemetery feature Aztec-style granite skulls as testament to Mixquic's pre-Columbian heritage and during Dia de Muertos, hosts a midnight vigil as orange and purple xempaxuchitl marigolds are draped over the tombstones along with candles and offerings of milk, corn beer and water for the returning and thirsty souls of the dead. Starting at midday on November 1st, a procession carrying a cardboard coffin begins its way from Mixquic's central plaza to Parroquia San Andrés Apostol's cemetery and entire families set themselves up for a Dia de Muertos all-night vigil. Image Date: 11/02/2015

Mixquic, Tláhuac, Mexico City

Oct 21 2016

In Aztec times, a Tzompantli was a wooden rack on which the heads of sacrificial victims or war captives were displayed. The rack acted as a kind of grisly Aztec trophy cabinet and heads would often be left for days and weeks on end. Probably the most infamous and notorious Tzompantli in all of Mesoamerica was constructed at the old Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and named 'Hueyi Tzompantli', or 'Great Skull Rack', and historians and scholars believe that the rack was sixty metres wide by thirty metres high and could display 60,000 heads or skulls when at its full and grisly capacity. In Mixquic, one of the biggest celebrations of Dia de Muertos in Mexico City as well as one of the closest to what used to be Tenochtitlan, the Aztec legacy lives on during the festival as colourful Calvera skull masks inscribed with the names of returning muertitos are placed on a wooden rack in the same way that the heads of unfortunate prisoners and defeated warriors would be displayed on a Tzompantli five hundred years ago. Image Date: 08/09/2006

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oct 23 2016

In the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca, Dia de Muertos is revered more than any other annual festival. Nowhere else in Mexico gears up, welcomes and celebrates the Day of the Dead with more gusto than Oaxaca and the city is one of the premier locations in the country to experience Dia de Muertos at its most expressive, mystical and richly immersive. While the festival-proper is held between October 31st and November 2nd, preparations and celebrations start in the city well in advance during a kind of pre-event known Plaza de los Muertos, which takes places across the city's markets one week before Dia de Muertos. Plaza de los Muertos sees market stalls overflowing with everything that Oaxacans need to honour welcome the dead and honour the spirits including marigolds, calaca skeleton puppets and sugar skulls as well as traditional foods such as mole negro, pan de yama and Oaxaca's famous cacao and chocolate-based drinks. Image Date: 05/30/2013

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oct 24 2016

As is the case all over Mexico, during Oaxaca's Dia de Muertos celebrations, cemeteries big and small across the city such as the Panteón General in the centre of town and Xoxocotlan, just to the south, are blanketed with layers of xempaxuchitl marigold flowers. The flowers act as a kind of spiritual and otherworldly gateway allowing deceased relatives to return to their family homes from the realm of the dead. 'Ofrendas' are always decorated with a photograph of the deceased and lit by candles. The loved one's favourite food and drink are also placed alongside chocolate drinks, water and bread on the altar as soul nourishment and to quench their thirst after the inter-realm journey from the afterlife. Graveyard vigils go on through the night during Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca and other Mexican cities as families wait for the souls of the muertitos to emerge from the Aztec-inspired Mictlan, a kind of waiting room as the spirits travel between the realms of the living and the dead. Image Date: 11/02/2013

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oct 25 2016

Around Oaxaca's Alcalá Street as well as Plaza de la Danza, San Sebastian Abasolo, Allende and the central Zócalo plaza, painted sand shrines are among the more unique practices in the city which honour Dia de Meurtos. Before and during the festival, street artists use stencils and multicoloured sand and powder to create three-dimensional reliefs depicting Dia de Muertos icons such as skulls, festive skeletons dancing during the afterlife as well as gods and legendary figures from Aztec, Maya and Zapotec mythology. Image Date: 10/31/2006

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oct 26 2016

In the lead up to the festival in Oaxaca, markets and street stalls city-wide prepare for the event by putting on a kind of Dia de Meurtos 'pre-sale' known as 'Plaza de los Muertos'. The most grandiose and famous of these occurs at the gigantic and open-air Mercado de Abastos as freshly cut marigolds to welcome the dead as well as crafts, drinks and every single traditional cooking ingredient imaginable for the festival are piled up on market stalls to help Oaxacans prepare for the occasion. One of the most famous and iconic images of Dia de Muertos throughout Mexico is that of the Alfeñique, or sugar skull and vendors at Oaxaca's Mercado de Abastos make and sell tens of thousands of these sweet treats every year. Alfeñique are made from sugar paste and meringue powder poured over a skull-shaped mold and decorated with coloured beads, icing and frosting. The sugar skulls are another Dia de Muertos homage to the Aztec reverence of the skull, death and the afterlife and variations include chocolate skulls as well as sugar, chocolate and marzipan skeletons, bones, coffins, angels, crucifixes and more. Image Credit: Midwesternerinmexico Image Date: 10/28/2009

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oct 27 2016

Alongside the xempaxuchitl marigolds and sugar skulls, the markets of Oaxaca also have a seemingly never ending supply of a kind of bread which is left at both ofrenda altars and the graves of the muertitos as a treat after they arrive home from the realm of the dead. Pan de Muertos, literally 'Bread of the Dead', is a sweet loaf or soft bun made with egg yolks, orange zest, tequila or mezcal and dusted with sugar. The loaves are either shaped into a traditional, Dia de Muertos-style symbol of death and the afterlife or baked into the shape of a human face or body and there is usually a tear-shaped mark left on the surface of the bread to represent the sorrow felt for all living souls by the Aztec goddess Chimalman. Image Credit: Cordelia Persen (Flickr) Image Date: 10/31/2015

Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico

Oct 28 2016

On southern Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Dia de Meurtos celebrations drift away slightly from the Aztec-influenced festivities seen in the northern and central regions of the country and honour a set of similar-looking but culturally separate set of traditions. This part of Mexico was once the heartland of the Yucatec Maya civilisation and the region's modern day Mayan descendants call their version of Dia de Meurtos 'Hanal Pixán'. As with elsewhere in Mexico, ofrendas altars, flower-draped cemeteries, sugar skulls, skeleton garb and skull-painted faces as well as parades and dances to honour dead are still at the core of the festival. Subtle differences and additions, however, distinguish Hanal Pixán from Dia de Muertos and Mérida, the capital city of Yucatán, showcases the Mayan-influenced version of the Day of the Dead. Image Date: 05/29/2009

Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico

Oct 29 2016

Mérida's Zocalo central plaza is the main hub of the city's Hanal Pixán celebrations and people set up the standard ofrendas altars found in other parts of Mexico. The difference between the Mayan and Aztec-influenced versions of the Day of the Dead are discernible from the fact that the blankets of marigolds are nowhere near as plentiful as in northern and central Mexico and another key difference is in the food preparation. Hanal Pixán literally means 'Feast for the Souls' in Mayan and while candy and sugar and chocolate skulls can still be seen placed on ofrendas altars, one traditional Mayan staple used as an offering to the hungry muertitos as they return home is 'Pibil', a tamale, or corn dough, baked in underground ovens and wrapped in banana leaves. Dances and parades are also hallmarks of the festival in Mérida and ‘Pok Ta Pok’, a Hanal Pixán-inspired twist on the infamous Mayan ball game, is also played on the Zocalo with a flaming puck. Image Date: 10/29/2012

Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico

Oct 30 2016

During Hanal Pixán in Mérida, a traditional Yucatec Maya dance known as Jarana is one of the main hallmarks of the celebration as dancers clad in white and black honour both their Mayan heritage and returning souls of the muertitos. In 2008, Mérida's town council introduced a new feature to the Hanal Pixán festivities. Every year since, the city has hosted a four kilometre-long journey from the cathedral on the Zocalo, southwest to the Cementerio General graveyard. The journey is known as 'Paseo de las Animas', or 'Path of the Souls', and it honours and symbolises the ancient Yucatec Maya idea of deceased souls passing into the realm of the dead. During the procession through Mérida, participants are decked out either in skeleton costumes with black and white, skull-painted faces, or in traditional Maya dress. At the end of the journey, the doors to Cementerio General's main crypt are thrown open to allow the waiting children and adults, with their skeletal costumes and make up, onto the streets Mérida to symbolise the returning souls of the dead. Image Date: 10/29/2012

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