Visiting the Day of the Dead in Michoacan is a moving experience that will change how you feel about death. Of all the places that Day of the Dead is celebrated, the events around Lake Patzcuaro are some of the most authentic. Touring Patzcuaro, Tzintzuntzan, Santa Fe de la Laguna, and Morelia will leave a lasting impression.
From East L.A. to Oaxaca and Mexico City, there are a lot of different ways to celebrate Day of the Dead. Guadalajara recently inaugurated a Day of the Dead themed amusement park. Mexico City has a massive parade that was inspired by a James Bond film. Day of the Dead is riding a Disney themed bandwagon after the success of the movie Coco (2017). Rightly so, it was a beautiful movie but the way Disney tried to copyright the name Day of the Dead is the ultimate form of cultural appropriation.
The Purépecha people around Lake Pátzcuaro have centuries of tradition remembering their dead in a very unique and beautiful way. There are parades in Morelia building up to the main event but the soul of the holiday is found in the cemeteries around Lake Patzcuaro on the night between the first and second of November. Altars are set up in houses and graveyards, and decorated with more flowers than most people will see in a lifetime. Candles, pictures of deceased loved ones, and their favorite food and drink have the ability to relive a time long past.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the historic center of Downtown Morelia as a cultural world heritage site in 1991 and the indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2008. The towns of Pátzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan are designated Pueblos Magicos by the federal Secretary of Tourism. This is one of the most beautiful and culturally significant events in the country.
Michoacan sees a lot of tourism during Day of the Dead so expect to see a lot of people out and about. The entire community takes part in the celebration by inviting professionals, students, and individuals to create art. I like to use Morelia as my base camp in the days leading up to the event so that I can eat, take the tours, watch the parades, and then head out to Lake Pátzcuaro on the Night of the Dead (November 1st to 2nd) with a tour.
Morelia, Michoacan for Day of the Dead
Morelia is the capital of the State of Michoacan and about 45 minutes from Lake Patzcuaro. During the Spanish era, the city known as Valladolid was an important bishopric educating both Father Miguel Hidalgo and Agustin Iturbide, the first Emperor of Mexico. The historic downtown area has over 200 buildings that are considered cultural patrimony and everything will be decorated for the event.
The municipal government of Morelia organizes a lot of events in the week leading up to Day of the Dead. You will find a speaker series with distinguished artists, folkloric dances, concerts with traditional music, art exhibitions, and a parade of students dressed as catrinas and catrines (elegant skeletons).
At least for me, one of the most enjoyable parts of seeing a new city in Mexico is visiting the municipal market. A good market has some of the best food in the region and you are likely to witness some culture as well.
Morelia’s Mercado Independencia is about a ten-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas and well worth the adventure. Watching people trade piles of cempasúchil flowers will help you contextualize the decorations you see in the street. It is hard to fathom the number of flowers that are grown for this event.
People who work in the market know how to eat well and you will find some world-class street food in unassuming corners. It is an absolute must to find the vendor with the longest line and buy a corunda and an huchepo. It is part of the experience that you will remember forever. The corn is an heirloom varietal that tastes like nothing that you have had before.
The historic core of Morelia is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site dating to the 16th century. The whole town is being decorated for Day of the Dead. There have to be millions of orange cempasúchil flowers carpeting the streets to make murals and decorate the altars. There are catrina skeletons dressed in 19th-century European haute couture.
Many of the best hotels are going to be booked well in advance. If you can’t get a room at one of those boutique, colonial-era hotels downtown, Morelia is big enough that you can find something cheap and safe just outside of the city center. If you want to stay at something nice on the lakeside, you will need to plan well in advance and have some cash. This is the ultimate high-season.
Another reason to use Morelia as a base camp is a tour operator that leaves from the Tranvía kiosk in the Plaza de Armas, next to the cathedral. They offer a number of excellent tours but the Lake Patzcuaro tour is truly special. The tours are set up by the local government, they have incredible tour guides, and they have connections that let you visit the altars in private homes.
If you can handle the all-night schedule (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) this is the best way to visit the cemeteries on Noche de Muertos. The tour covers a ton of history and visits four villages along the shore of Lake Patzcuaro. The tour is run by the local government and does a really good job of sharing the cultural significance of Day of the Dead to travelers from all over the world. They have been developing relationships with local families to be invited into their houses and taste the traditional food of Michoacan. The tour is going to show you way more than you could ever find on your own and is worth every peso. There were professional photographers from important magazines on the same tour that I took.
In addition to the Noche de Muertos tour, there are a dozen other tours of the area. The nighttime tranvía (trolley) tour telling legends and ghost stories about the buildings in downtown Morelia is particularly enjoyable.
Santa Fé de la Laguna
Santa Fe de la Laguna is a 16th century Purépecha village with cobblestone streets, whitewashed adobe brick buildings, red tile rooves, and a church that looks identical to the one in Disney’s Coco. In fact, director Lee Unkrich spent time in Santa Fe de la Laguna while researching the movie.
If you take the tour leaving from Morelia’s Plaza de Armas then Santa Fe de la Laguna will be your first stop. The tour operator maintains relationships with villagers who allow you to enter their homes to view their ofrendas, (or altars to the dead) and have dinner.
Dinner is prepared in a traditional kitchen with a wood-burning comal and oven. Much of the food that is served is grown and prepared locally. The corn that is grown in this part of Mexico is special. It’s not likely that you have seen corn like this in your local supermarket.
After visiting the ofrendas and having dinner, there is a folkloric dance and a field hockey exhibition. The style of field hockey that is played in Santa Fe de la Laguna is probably a little rougher than the sort that was played at your high school. Here, the wicker ball is set on fire and the hockey sticks don’t use any grip tape.
Tzintzuntzan, or place of the hummingbirds, is the old capital of the Purépecha empire that was overthrown by the Spanish in 1520. There is an important archaeological site and museum dedicated to the history of the original people of this area. The Tarascan state was the second-largest in Mesoamerica when the Spanish arrived and was comprised of Purépechas, Nahuas (the language spoken at the famous, La Ticla surf spot), Otomis, and Chichimecas. It is just as common to hear Purépecha spoken in the street as it is to hear Spanish.
In the days leading up to the Noche de Muertos families will decorate the gravesites of their loved ones with pictures, flowers, candles, food, and drink. In this moving video by Chef Nico Mejia, the philharmonic orquesta of a recently departed young trumpet player comes together to play music, break bread, and carry offerings to the cemetery where their friend is laid to rest. It is a gesture of respect and affection where, for a short period of time, the living and the departed get to hang out.
Please be respectful while touring the cemeteries. Keep in mind that these are people who have lost loved ones, sometimes recently. Tourism is permitted but the event is not conceived for tourists but for locals. Make sure to ask permission before taking someone’s photo.
The City of Patzcuaro is the largest community along the shores of the lake with the same name. After Tzintzuntzan was overthrown by the Spanish army, Bishop Vasco de Quiroga moved the capital of the province to Patzcuaro for a period before it was ultimately moved to Valladolid, what is today known as Morelia. Both Patzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan are both recognized as Pueblos Mágicos by the secretary of tourism because of their cultural significance. Both are truly magical.
If you are traveling on your own, it would be best to arrive early to Patzcuaro on Noche de Muertos. The streets are narrow and the parking is hard to come by. There will be an intense amount of traffic and lots of people will be drinking. If you will be operating a motor vehicle, do so with extreme caution because you will be sharing the road with all forms of transportation on poorly lit streets.
As you walk through the cemeteries during Day of the Dead and perceive the aroma of cempasúchil flowers it will change your life. It’s interesting how smells can evoke memories but from here on out you will always associate the smell of marigolds with Day of the Dead in Michoacan. The flower petals are said to light the path to the other side and therefore the more the better.
Visiting the Day of the Dead celebrations in Michoacan, Mexico is a visceral experience that will evoke strong emotions. There is a heavy dose of nostalgia as we remember the lives of those we hold close who have departed before us. While the name of the event may be Day of the Dead, there is a celebration of life at its core. We want to remember the lives of your loved ones and how they chose to live.
One of my favorite parts of taking my parents to Michoacan to visit Day of the Dead was watching my mom build an altar for my grandmother, cook her favorite dishes, and tell stories about her childhood. Day of the Dead is a special holiday that will change how you feel about death and bring you closer to your family. If you have the opportunity, you should visit Michoacan to experience it for yourself.