Day of the Dead is especially powerfully observed in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The typical celebration here starts the morning of October 31, when families hold private remembrance vigils in their homes and pay quiet visits to the cemeteries. The following day, families in Michoacán, unlike in other areas, are known to spend the entire night of November 1 in the cemetery. (Locally, the holiday is more commonly called Noche de Muertos, or Night of the Dead.)
During this days-long celebration, villages along Lake Pátzcuaro bustle with altar exhibitions, dance performances, craft fairs, and food tastings. Much of all this, not surprisingly, is designed to appeal to tourists, who supply a large portion of these towns’ revenue each year. The vigils themselves, however, aren’t staged, even though tourists sometimes think they are, according to Miguel Angel Nuñez, an anthropologist who lives in nearby Erongarícuaro and leads Day of the Dead tours.
“People really do think, even though sometimes they can’t explain it to you well, that when you die, you go to another place,” Nuñez says. “You don’t die forever. It’s more that you’re a spirit, watching over people so that they do well in life.”
The Pátzcuaro region of Michoacán, high up at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, is bathed in rural charm. It’s not uncommon to see cows wandering along the highway. Although the area’s beauty and slow pace make it seem otherworldly at times, getting to Pátzcuaro isn’t difficult. Visitors who fly into Mexico City can then take a one-hour connecting flight to Morelia. From there, the city of Pátzcuaro is a scenic 30-minute drive away.
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century, the Purépecha surrendered peacefully and the region was left intact, which is part of the reason why indigenous culture is still so rich here. Today, the city of Pátzcuaro, which is home to about 51,000 people, unfolds across the mountainside like a quaint dollhouse village. Cobblestones stripe the streets, dividing clusters of whitewashed buildings topped with red-tiled roofs. In the city’s two squares, the Plaza Chica and the Plaza Grande, vendors sell ice cream in flavors like cheese and tequila. Purépecha women in embroidered aprons sit in front of trays containing fruit and sweets for sale.
In front of the city’s main church, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, vendors hawk medicinal herbs. Corundas -- triangle-shaped balls of warm, spongy masa -- are a regional specialty and found at Pátzcuaro’s outdoor food market on the Plaza Chica. From the city of Pátzcuaro, perhaps the most well-known Day of the Dead jaunt is a trip to Janitzio, a cone-shaped island about a 30-minute boat ride away from Lake Pátzcuaro’s muelle general, or general dock. The island’s holiday ceremony is so famous, in fact, that in 1948, it was spotlighted in the movie Maclovia, which starred Mexican golden-age cinema actress María Félix. Unfortunately, in recent decades, Janitzio’s cemetery has gotten a crowded, rowdy reputation.
Alfonso Guzmán, a Janitzio native who works ferrying passengers across the lake in boats called lanchas, says he’s wistful for how things were in his grandfather’s time, when a traditional duck hunt kicked off the celebration and families bartered fish for flowers to decorate their altars.