Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible: Día de los Muertos is not “Mexican Halloween.” In fact, this Latin American celebration is about as far away from the spooky, dark and candy-filled pagan holiday as one could get.
Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a 3,000-year-old tradition with origins that date back to the Aztecs. Each year, families across Latin America build “ofrendas,” which are vibrant altars decorated with colorful flags, orange and yellow marigolds, candles, foods, pictures of their departed relatives, and figurines of biblical figures. It's meant to be a joyful celebration of familial histories that blends both Aztec and Catholic traditions and is taken as a moment to reflect on all the loved ones who've passed away. In fact, the multi-day celebration is so important that it was named an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO, in 2008.
So, what happens on the Day of the Dead? It is believed that on November 1, the spirits of deceased children come back to Earth to visit their family members. This is known as Dia de los Inocentes. On this day, the National Geographic Society explained, graves are decorated with white orchids and baby's breath. November 2, otherwise known as Dia de los Muertos, adult relatives return to visit their loved ones. At that time, graves are decorated with more yellow and gold marigolds.
As National Geographic further noted, the tradition is celebrated across Latin America, meaning different places partake by sprinkling in their own unique customs. Here are five places around Mexico worth traveling to this year for Día de los Muertos so you too can honor your past.
There is perhaps no better place to travel to for an over-the-top Día de los Muertos celebration than Mexico City, the country’s capital. Each year, the city fills with locals and tourists alike who want to take part in the parades and celebrations. And, while you’re there, try traveling to the village of Mixquic, located about an hour outside the center of Mexico City. In this ancient town, which long predates the arrival of the Spanish, visitors will find a well-preserved local heritage and culture. Throughout the area, guests will find booths selling traditional snacks and sweets, churches that open their doors to visitors, and official events to take part in. And, because it’s still so close to the city you can book a stay at the Four Seasons Mexico City and relax next to the pool following all the revelry.
Guadalajara, like Mexico City, becomes a colorful paradise during the annual celebration. Along the streets, visitors will be greeted with flags, more marigolds than they can count and enough bright sugar skulls to scare away your sweet tooth. For those looking to be in the center of the action, do a little shopping during the celebration, head to Tlaquepaque. There, visitors will not only find a number of local artisan shops but will also be able to pay their respects at several intricately decorated ofrendas up and down the streets. To stay close to it all, book your vacation at Casona Tlaquepaque Temazcal and Spa, where you’ll be surrounded by local artisan works, stay in brightly colored rooms and can take part in traditional Mexican wellness specials.
Oaxaca, a state in Southern Mexico, is often considered one of the safest and most stable places in the country and a Human World Heritage by UNESCO. In Oaxaca, visitors can take part in one of the country’s largest celebrations and delve deeper into the meaning behind the holiday by visiting the Chapel of San Sebastián, which was built sometime in the 16th century. Travelers can also pay a visit to the schools around the state, which, according to TripSavvy, hold annual contests for the best ofrendas. While there, stay at the Casa Oaxaca, a traditional building filled with regional art and offering guests both a relaxing and enriching travel experience.
Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatan, celebrates the Day of the Dead in its own way. As CBS News explained, the day is actually called Hanal Pixan—a Mayan saying which means food of souls. In the community, locals and visitors alike can participate in the annual parade known as El Paseo de Las Almas, or The Walk of Souls. And truly, it’s an incredibly festive affair as Yucatan Expat Life explained, 40,000 people took part in the parade in 2014, meaning you can expect even more this year too. While in town, book your stay at Hacienda Xcanatun, home to 18 perfectly appointed suites. Note: These suites don’t come with televisions so only book this stay if you’re seriously prepared to digitally detox.
In the middle of the Pátzcuaro lake, in the state of Michoacán, sits the tiny island of Janitzio. The island, which is only accessible by boat, is likely the most exclusive place to celebrate Día de los Muertos each year. Over the course of several days, the island’s inhabitants—of which there are only 1,600—invite visitors from all over the globe to come and take part in its world-famous celebrations. On the island, guests can watch as locals go duck hunting on the lake to kick off the remembrances and make a dish known as pato enchilado, according to Mexican Folk Art. Then, visitors can head to the town’s open amphitheater to watch traditional dances, listen to music and revel in the rich history. While in Janitzio, reserve a stay at Hacienda Ucazanaztacua, a boutique hotel located directly on the lake. At the hotel, guests can pamper themselves before or after the festivities with an in-room massage, or simply sit out on their private balcony overlooking the lake, sipping a locally-sourced glass of wine and simply ponder who they’d come back to visit from the afterlife.