Dia de los Muertos is a 2-day holiday celebrated throughout Mexico on November 1st & 2nd. Family and friends get together to pray and remember family and friends who have died. This is done different ways, but typically altars are created with the favorite foods, beverages, vices, sugar skulls, and marigolds. The most famous place for the 2 days is in and around Patzcuaro, Mexico, including the cities of Morelia, Tzintzuntzan, Uruapan and Quiroga. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend Dia de los Muertos with a family in Patzcuaro that Sam from Guanajuato connected me with. My “guide” for the weekend was Mayra, born and raised in Patzcuaro, who loves to share her cultural knowledge and had made plans for us to see and experience as much as possible over the long weekend. I had a full itinerary, which I was excited about after the relaxed atmosphere of Guanjuato.
After missing our original meeting time at the bus station in Morelia, I eventually figure out how to use the pay phones in Mexico and meet with Mayra near the Centro of town (remind me that I need a cell phone). She’s with her friend, Chuy, who is going to spend the weekend with us as well. Our first stop is to the Museo de Dulces, a museum where they recreate the old-fashioned way of making candy that’s famous in Morelia. The tour is in Spanish, and I understand about 10% of it, but I do know that the candy tastes delicious fresh off the pot. It’s a fruity sugary candy, and reminds me of thick, sweet apple butter, but instead made with honey and a local fruit.
After the candy museum, we tour around the city, checking out other museums and the Dia de los Muertos artwork that’s on the street.
The artwork is done all with flowers, either petals or crushed flowers..
Hand painted giant skulls line some of the sidewalks in Morelia.
The next day in Patzcuaro, Mayra asks Chuy and I to help her to clean and decorate her grandparents grave in the cemetery in town. We went to the main street market to purchase yellow and white flowers, then went to the cemetery. There, we collected a few buckets of water and made our way to her grandparents grave. After removing any trash and debris, we cleaned and decorated the graves with flowers, and Mayra said a prayer to her family members.
The whole process was very special. Had I not been invited, I never would have gone to the cemetery as I would have felt like I was invading something very personal. And after visiting other larger cemeteries later in the day when they were filled with tourists, it was unique to be at a small cemetery with only other family members around.
My family for Dia de los Muertos
Mayra and Chuy gathering water down the street from the cemetery. The young boys were opportunistic and sat at the entrance to the cemetery with buckets full of water for 5 pesos each.
The cemetery was bustling at 9am, with many of the graves already cleaned and decorated.
Mayra praying at her Grandfather’s grave.
The next place on our list to visit was Janitzio, a small island in the middle of Lago (lake) de Patzcuaro. It’s main attraction is a giant hallow statue at the top of the island, which you can climb up and have a great view around the lake. There’s also a huge party on the island tonight, but we decide to skip that in favor of a more chill option.
The boat ride to Janitzio is fun, with a mariachi band playing on board and vendors selling ice cream and potato chips (the Mexican way, with spicy salsa, lime, and salt… mmm delicious).
On our way to Janitzio.
Just off the island, fisherman use butterfly nets to catch tiny 2” long white fish. The pescado blanco are deep fried and eaten whole on the island.
Our boat stops for a photo-op and one of the fisherman stops by for propinas (tips).
The butterfly fisherman and the island of Janitzio are also featured on the back of the 50 pesos bill.
A 130 foot statue of Jose Maria Morelos is on the top of the island, and has a staircase inside that winds to the top. It’s cramped and crowded, and took forever to get to the top for the view.
While climbing up the inside of the statue, I see a friend I had made back in La Paz, Baja, Mexico. Tina and her friend, Claudia, both from Germany, are doing an exchange program for students and travel around Mexico every weekend. We make plans to meet up later on.
That night, we make our way to Tzintzuntzan, another small town on Lago de Patzcuaro. Tzintzuntzan is known for its 2 huge cemeteries that are decorated to the hilt, food, music, and a general party atmosphere. We visit the graveyards and make our way up the hill to the ancient ruins. We happened to be getting to the ruins just in time for a match of Pelota purépecha, an ancient Mexican game like field-hockey but played with a giant flaming ball. The best part? The field boundary was created by the mob of people watching the event, and the ball would get flung into the center of the crowd. It was fun seeing everyone rush for cover.
We also visit Lago Zirahuen to relax, a smaller but more beautiful lake near Patzcuaro. It’s a perfect evening, with clouds rolling around but the sun still peaking through at times. We snap photos, drink Coke, and talk about traveling.
After a perfect weekend in Patzcuaro, I’m ready to hit the road and make my way to Guadalajara, the first big city I’ll see in Mexico. I’m looking forward to getting back into a big city, and already have a couple of friends staying there to show me the ropes.
And as a tip for travelers – step out of your comfort zone and meet new people. Meeting Sam and Mike in Guanjuato has allowed me to see so many things that I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise, and stay in a couple of places for free. Plus, I met some amazing people whom I will be friends with forever. One of the things I’m trying to do on this trip is to not turn down any offers for a place to stay or a friend of a friend to go visit. So far, it’s gone very well for me, and I hope I can continue traveling this way throughout Central and South America.