The Living Colors of Mexico’s Day of the Dead

National Geographic photographer Kris Davidson's take on this quintessentially Mexican festival is sure to inspire travel envy.

Kris Davidson has been to Mexico maybe a dozen times. As she explains, “It’s a country that draws me back with her deep mysticism, ancient culture, color, and the warmth of the people.” She has been to the Day of the Dead twice. Most recently, she photographed Day of the Dead in the three states centered on the capital: Mexico City, Puebla, and Mexico State. Each offers visitors a different take on the festival.

Encompassing the two weeks leading up to November 1 and 2, the festival combines indigenous traditions with Mexican history and culture. The combination, says Kris, feels graceful and natural, not contrived. It’s not morbid or spooky, but a joyous celebration of life.

Expect to see people walking around with faces painted in the classic calavera (skull) style. Expect to hear bands playing and fireworks lighting up the sky. Expect public and private altars everywhere—inside and out. These makeshift memorials vary from simple to elaborate, small to huge. They might be adorned with sugar skulls, candles, toys, Bottles of Mezcal, and heaps of flowers, especially marigolds. The city plants thousands of marigolds, whose petals are traditionally thought to lead the dead back to their homes or gravesites. Many altars have corn kernels and other food, the idea being that the dead journey to and from the spirit world during this time and it takes some effort.

Kris’s advice? Talk to people. Try the mole (spiced with chiles and chocolate). And enjoy the lighthearted reverence of the occasion. “There’s a depth to the holiday,” says Kris, “and a kind of ancient wisdom. It’s also a lot of fun—I can’t recommend it enough.”

MEXICO CITY

Day of the Dead Parade

This massive event is one you can’t miss, even if you wanted to (which you don’t). The four-mile procession begins in a lush old section of the city, wends along Paseo de la Reforma, and ends at the Zócalo, the city’s main plaza. Two complementary elements make up the parade—La Muerte Viva (the dead live) honors Mexican history from Pre-Colombian times to the present, while the Skull Carnival is comprised of dancing skeletons (calaveras), a festive nod to Mexico’s sense of humor and joy in the face of death. Kris recommends arriving early to stake out a good place for watching.

Museums

Many of the city’s numerous fine museums have special Day of the Dead exhibitions. The Museo de Arte Popular displays a large Day of the Dead altar, as well as its usual exhibits of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. And check out the Altar de Muertos at the family-friendly Dolores Olemedo Patiño Museum.

La Llorona

This unique theatrical experience takes place on an island in a network of canals called Xochimilco, dating from the time of the Aztecs. A pageant of dancing and lights, La Llorona (“the crying woman”) pays tribute to a Mexican folktale about a ghost woman grieving for her lost babies. The audience watches from colorfully painted flat-bottomed tour boats. The play also features a reenactment of the conquistadors, arriving from across the water and landing at the island, dominated by a colored pyramid (constructed for the show). Purchase tickets in advance.

PUEBLA STATE

Altars in Puebla and Huaquechula

These nearby cities offer wonderful opportunities for strolls themed around Day of the Dead altars. Pick up a walking map in Puebla and head out on a tour that takes you past a number of public altars, put up for the Day of the Dead. “It’s a fun way to discover the town,” Kris reports, “and it’s not touristy at all. I felt like I was the only American doing this. You discover places you might not otherwise.” In the much smaller town of Huaquechula, Kris had what was probably her favorite day on the shoot. “Things are organic and unfolding. You’ll get invited into homes to try mole, and then all of a sudden little parades will bust out in the street, guys in costume dancing. You see these paths of marigolds all over the place, leading deceased loved ones home. It’s really beautiful.”

Chignahuapan

A designated Pueblo Magico (Magical Town), this attractive old town offers visitors a magical experience during Day of the Dead season. The gorgeous Festival of Lights and Life starts on November 1, with a candlelight march through the streets. The following day includes a play set on the local lake and a big fireworks show.

Cemeteries

Kris strongly recommends visiting some of the cemeteries, since they are at the heart of the tradition. You might see people cleaning graves or decorating them with flowers. You’ll definitely see plenty of impromptu altars, and you’re likely to see (and hear) strolling musicians. Kris describes the atmosphere as “gently festive” and encourages people to embrace the warmth and friendliness of the occasion. This is a time when the dead and the living are closest together, so by all means enter the cemeteries and enjoy the spirit of the community, and the community of the spirit.

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Shoppers pick up sugar skulls for their ofrendas (altars) at the Feria del alfeñique in Toluca, Mexico (outdoor market). An alfeñique is a confection molded from sugar paste. The design and construction of these figures can vary from region to region. Today, alfeñique figures, especially calaveras (known in the US as Sugar Skulls), are widely created in Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebrations in November.

MEXICO STATE

Surrounding Mexico City on the north, west, and east, Mexico State celebrates Day of the Dead far and wide. Here are a couple of places Kris recommends. In Toluca, the Feria del Alfeñique displays an amazing variety of sugar skulls. Browse through stall after colorful stall of these traditional symbols of Day of the Dead. Hundreds of vendors sell their wares. You’ll also want to make a pilgrimage to Teotihuacán, with its awe-inspiring Pre-Columbian pyramids and avenues. What better time to walk the Avenue of the Dead? While you’re here, take a look at the charming Day of the Dead altars created by local schoolchildren.

These three states offer just a sampling of all that you can experience during Day of the Dead, and throughout the year. Start planning your trip with Visit Mexico.

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