The brilliant orange of marigolds, in Mexico still called by their Nahuatl name, cempasuchil, seems to brighten the evenings that come ever earlier as autumn wears on. All of Mexico is preparing for a truly ancient festival, one with roots far deeper than the Spanish, or even the Aztec, Empires. This is Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, when the veil grows thin between the worlds and all manners of art, poetry, and emotion are released.
Though the most solemn and ornate of festivities take place from October 30 to November 2 when families spend the night among the graves of their ancestors and comfort of their neighbors, activities take place all October long. There are so many traditions to be honored, some spanning all of Mexico, others important only to certain regions and communities. Though whether their roots go back to Europe or long lost indigenous America, no one can quite say.
There are the marigolds, of course, woven into elaborate altars that seem to occupy every business, market, home, and street corner. Some are religious, others high art, and still more deeply personal, in honor of a loved one lost during the year. Fluttering picados, tissue banners cut into cheerfully morbid scenes, are strung above the parades—perhaps incorporating Halloween costumes as cultures continue to mix—that take place throughout the month.
Artesanías, famous skeletons arrayed in human garb, arranged in displays of day-to-day life, are perhaps Mexico’s most iconic souvenir. Children, however, might prefer crunchy sugar skulls, cheerfully painted for display before eating. Or simply indulge in rich bread of the dead, decorated with faces as though they were coffins, and served alongside spicy hot chocolate.
The most famous celebrations are in major cities and large towns, including Ocotepec, Morelos near Cuernavaca; Aguascalientes, with its famed Festival of Skulls; and my personal favorite, in Oaxaca, where the entire city and valley go all out for Día de los Muertos. If you can rent a car, or feel up for a bus ride into the country, try to visit smaller communities, where cemeteries are decorated without a thought for tourism, but for family instead.
While many cities and towns encourage travelers to come visit their cemeteries, as families eat, drink and sing their way through the traditional all-night vigil, you really should book a tour rather than just show up. (Unless invited, of course) These are offered all over the country from major tourist destinations, and usually include a shot or two of the local vintage (be sure to pour a little into the earth for those who surely miss it).
In spots most famous for their Day of the Dead celebrations, the best hotels and even restaurants may be booked well in advance; start making plans now or prepare to compromise on comfort or location. Try to stay for at least four days, from October 30 to November 3, though it’s better to arrive a few days prior to watch public altars being built. This is a very special celebration and one you won’t regret taking the time to enjoy properly.