In Pátzcuaro, Mexico, the annual Day of the Dead celebration entails an all-night vigil held to honor deceased loved ones. It’s an unforgettable spiritual experience for locals and visitors alike.TO really get a sense of how Day of the Dead survives in the Pátzcuaro area of Michoacán, Mexico, it’s worth hiking uphill for an hour on the cobblestoned path to the lookout point known as El Estribo. Here, on an overcast day, you can almost feel the valley’s heart beating. A blanket of gray, moody clouds hovers over emerald-colored mountains. Hills tumble toward the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro, a large, silvery pool that cradles five islands, each bearing a poetic indigenous name: Tecuena, Yunuen, Pacanda, Janitzio, and Uranden.
As I’m standing here, calves burning, it’s not hard to imagine how the native Purépecha people must have seen the area when they settled here centuries ago. They christened the location -- now the region’s biggest city -- Pátzcuaro, a name meaning “place where one finds stones that mark the entrance to paradise.” For them, nature and life were intimately intertwined.
Their descendants have remained in this area, and the modern-day Purépecha people have kept their ancestors’ worldviews alive. They are known for producing some of the country’s best crafts, and they’ve also been the key preservers of Day of the Dead (in Spanish, Día de los Muertos), a holiday celebrated primarily throughout Latin America that honors earth and life. Though the holiday is typically observed on November 2, here in Pátzcuaro it is commemorated the day prior, on November 1. Despite the difference in celebration dates, the significance behind the holiday is the same everywhere: According to tradition, it is when the souls of the dead return home to spend an evening with the living.
To honor the returning spirits, families create elaborate grave-site altars that overflow with marigolds, candles, and fruit. They prepare meals of mole, tamales, or posole for family and visiting out-of-town relatives, and they decorate their homes with lush memorials replete with photographs and incense. Glasses of water sit nearby, too, in case the visiting souls are thirsty.