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Taking place at the beginning of November each year, Dios de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is one of the best times to visit Mexico. Dating back generations, the holiday celebrates those who have passed away through colourful processions, ceremonies and parties. Locals dress up in elaborate costumes and painted masks, and the festivities end with trips to cemeteries to commemorate ancestors. These are some of the best places to visit to take part in celebrations.
Celebrating Dios de los Muertos? Visit one of these Mexican destinations
1. Island of Janitzio, Michoacán
Located on Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán state, this island has a traditional take on Day of the Dead celebrations. Festivities begin around 31 October when locals take canoes out onto the lake to shoot ducks, before preparing them as offerings to dead spirits. Spend the rest of the day taste-testing your way through food stalls lining the island’s streets – try poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and the pan de muerto, a sweet bread. The next day is the Kejtzitakua Zapicheri (meaning the “vigil of the little angels”) when locals visit the graves of lost loved ones. Come evening, the indigenous Purépecha people perform elaborate rituals and traditional dances around the graves.
2. Xilitla, San Luis Potosí
Travel to Xilitla, a colonial town in San Luís Potosí, where inhabitants have their own version of Day of the Dead called Xantolo. While you’ll find all the typical hallmarks of the festival – marigolds, street food and decorative skeletons – it’s the huge parties in the town square, set against towering mountains, hillside villages and bright citrus trees, that make Xilitla stand out. Far from the tourist-centric parades often seen in Mexico City, this style of celebration has a deep-rooted history.
This southern Mexican state has one of the largest indigenous population in the country, so its age-old Dios de los Muertos celebrations are well worth a visit. Spend days travelling to Mayan archaeological sites and Spanish colonial towns dotted throughout the mountainous highlands, and do make sure to visit San Cristóbal de las Casas to see the candlelit baroque churches decorated for the festival.
Day of the Dead celebrations are known as Hanal Pixan (meaning “feast for the souls”) in Mexico’s Mayan regions. Celebrations are centred around food, so spend time hopping between stalls serving traditional dishes such as mucbipollo, a meal consisting of meat and corn dough wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a fire pit. When ready, the parcel is dug up and eaten to represent the returning of dead souls to earth. Visit Mérida to wander around cemeteries, where rows of graves are decorated with gifts and offerings.
Day of the Dead festivities are taken very seriously in the state of Oaxaca. Split your time between city and coastal activities, as celebrations differ vastly between the two. Oaxaca City is a Unesco World Heritage Site, brimming with ancient history and architecture. Here, embark on night walks (called comparsas) and join vigils taking place in cemeteries throughout the city, during which tombstones are decorated with Mexican marigolds, the so-called “flower of the dead”. On the Oaxacan coast, celebrations are more lively. Music-filled, carnival-style processions make their way through neighbourhoods and villages.
Celebrations in San Miguel de Allende come in the form of a four-day festival called La Calaca (meaning “the skull”). Days here are best spent exploring themed art exhibitions or admiring the soaring spires of the gothic Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel and the churrigueresque facade of the Templo de San Francisco church. Come sundown, party at all-night events around the city’s central plaza, El Jardín.
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