By Lena Katz
Snack on sugar skeleton, picnic in a cemetery, party in a mummy museum, and build an altar to the dearly departed right in your foyer. While all these ideas might shock you, they’re beloved holiday traditions south of the border. November 1 marks Dia de Los Muertos, the famous Day of the Dead holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and in U.S. cities with a large Hispanic population. Drawing from Roman Catholic Spanish traditions and pre-Colombian rituals, this annual holiday is a time to remember and honor the deceased. It is an exotic and eccentric holiday, but not a scary one, despite all the skeletons on every corner. In the places that really celebrate, street corners and shops display countless homemade altars, while the church steps and sidewalks flow with colorful flower petals and candles.
If there is an epicenter for Dia de Los Muertos celebrations, it might be the tiny island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico. Indigenous pre-Colombian people believed Lake Patzcuaro might be the doorway to heaven. People have traditionally made pilgrimage to this island each year to observe Dia de Los Muertos through prayer, offerings and traditional dance.
For a zany, unique and somewhat creepy Dia de Los Muertos, visit the city of Guanajuato in Mexico’s interior, about an hour away from the artist colony of San Miguel de Allende. This city is famous for its Mummy Museum, which stores and displays more than 100 mummies naturally created from soil conditions in the cemetery outside. It’s a bizarre and unnerving visual experience that’s actually famous enough to have inspired its own tour: The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato, a 10,000 square foot temporary exhibit that will travel to major North American cities starting in 2010.
San Miguel is also a striking sight on Dia de Los Muertos because the celebrants create a giant altar in the Jardin, the plaza in the city center. The massive stone steps carpet the front of the church in a beautiful flower petal pattern, and hundreds of votive candles lend an ethereal glow. Bigger-than-life, almost theatrical altars, sprout around town, built, in part, by the departments of Education and Culture, which dedicate each to a notable Mexican personality from the past.
The Mexican state of Oaxaca is known for its colorful and culturally rich traditions for observing Dia de Los Muertos. Most family homes have altars in the biggest or most heavily trafficked room, with offerings of everything from food to cigarettes to images of the saints placed around photos of the deceased. The Oaxacan Dia de Los Muertos gains particular color due to the actual flowers used to decorate the altars: in certain regions, the velvety red flower called “rooster’s crest,” and in the valley regions, the tiny, vivid yellow “Flower of the Dead,” which only blooms in October and November.
While many only associate the Riviera Maya with its major tourist destinations of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, the region also encompasses Tulum and Coba, two famous pre-Colombian archaeological sites. While both comprise magnificent monuments to Mexico’s past, the Mayan cultural heritage site-turned-eco park Xcaret is a better place to learn about Dia de Los Muertos. It will host a number of performances, culinary events, traditional ceremonies and tours centered around the holiday.
Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.