As the air begins to cool and the nighttime arrives much sooner, October and November herald the onset of Fall and the arrival of Halloween in the US. Like most other Holidays we observe here, the pagan origins of Halloween have become muddied amidst an onslaught of candy, parties, costumes and the consumption of really bad American beer. In many cities, towns and villages across Mexico, however, the ritual of Dia de los Muertos (or “Day of the Dead”) maintains most aspects of its origins as a spiritual gumbo of post-invasion Spanish Catholicism and pre-Hispanic pagan ritual.
Dia de los Muertos is observed annually, from November 1-2, often with weeks of fiestas, parades, dance festivals and regional craft fairs leading up to the events. Patzcuaro, in the State of Michoacan, Mexico is particularly known for its elaborate preparation and ceremonies due to its large population of Purepechan Indians, who originated the ritual in this region. We were fortunate enough to visit during Patzcuaro’s Dia de los Muertos festivities in 2006. From the myriad of shrines restaurant and shop owners built in their establishments to a night touring lakeside and island cemeteries where families literally camp out by their deceased’s graveside, Patzcauaro gave your gringo, his wife Ursula, sister Jen and friend Leslie a true sense of transportation to a different time (Time. There’s that word again that seems to keep popping up in most of my Mexican posts.).
As mentioned in a previous post, we had a solid base in Patzcuaro at the Hostal Santa Fe, an old convent near the center of town that had been converted into an open interior two-story bed and breakfast. Arriving a few days before November 1 from Morelia, the town was beginning to fill with tourists…primarily other Mexicans, with some culturally-leaning Europeans, Australians and Americans thrown in for good measure.
Artisans from around Lake Patzcuaro had gathered in the main Plaza Vasco de Quiroga (named after the region’s leading bishop who assisted the Lake regions by teaching and perfecting them in different arts and crafts). We enjoyed the vibe of Mexico’s different tribes coming together: cultural tourists, Chilango hipsters, hippies, seemingly ancient women weaving colorful fabrics on giant looms, ravers and the local Purepechan population.
Sensing that Janitzio Island (the main attraction for cemetery touring and debauchery in Patzcuaro) would be so crowded as to be unpleasant to visit during Noche de Los Muertos, we inquired at the tourism office about a tour—not something your gringo often does! We would take a second-class bus that would circumnavigate the lake, stopping at a ranch in the countryside for a traditional Michoacan dinner, a Purhepecha dance festival at Jaracuaro Island Village and two cemeteries to observe the graveside rituals, the ancient Arocutin and the sprawling Cucuchucho. It was a great deal and it would be impossible if not dangerous for us to navigate the area’s topes, dirt roads and drunken 3AM traffic on our own for a similar experience.
The tour was amazing. I had purchased a bottle of Cuervo Tradicional earlier and dug it out of my backpack for our trips between destinations, passing the bottle between us and sharing it with some new friends we’d made from Oregon. I’ll let the photos speak for the night, but needless to say, the key word was “magical”. The lights, incense, offrendas (graveside gifts of the loved one’s favorite items and foods) and hundreds of thousands of marigolds evoked a feeling of spirituality, place and time and I did believe that night that those who have passed COULD come back, and in fact had. The bus arrived back in Patzcuaro the next morning at 3AM. Just a couple of hours before the town’s crowing roosters would roust us from our revelry and adventures the night before.
Here’s a link to a quick video I put together from some of our pictures. This video has received over 30K hits, largely due to some publicity a couple years ago when the emo band My Chemical Romance posted a link to it from their site in support of an Offrenda building contest.
Your Gringo in Mexico,
Interested in visiting Patzcuaro for Dia de los Muertos? Check out our Travel Resources page for hotels, restaurants, attractions and activities.