Lake Pátzcuaro, an alluring Mexican town with a combination of colonial and indigenous culture, is one of the country's best-kept secrets when it comes to Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). You'll find this unassuming, picturesque town just 45 minutes from Morelia (the state capital of Michoacan), with an underrated ability to lift spirits, of those both living and dead...
For the uninitiated, Day of The Dead pays homage to the souls of those who’ve left the earth, and is similar in scale as Halloween in America. Celebrated annually on November 1 and 2, it's intended as a day to say goodbye and celebrate the dearly departed, counteracting the seriousness of the topic with humor and frivolity. Here, death is celebrated with altars, food, gifts, songs, and calaberitas (short rhymes specially created for Day of the Dead), which are usually themed around a fictional character, like the iconic “La Catrina". Translated to 'dapper skeleton' or 'elegant skull', she's an ostentatious lady that comes to take your loved ones.
Pátzcuaro itself was founded in the 1320s on the southern edge of Lake Pátzcuaro, and is now characterized by cobbled streets and colonial buildings. Despite changing hands several times between the Spanish and indigenous Mexicans, the city has managed to retain roots from both cultures. Thanks to this melting pot of cultures, Pátzcuaro has been officially named a Pueblo Mágico (magical town) by Mexico's national tourism body, which becomes even more surreal around this particular time of the year.
You can reach the city by flying into Morelia airport and bussing in. Once you’re there, drive along a circular path around the lake and visit the small villages that surround it, or during daylight hours, buses also run trips between villages, which is usually the better option during Day of The Dead festivities.
In Pátzcuaro, Day of the Dead celebrations are especially unique, with rituals like Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead) — a holiday celebrated in the Lake Pátzcuaro area, which extends to the lake's own island, Isla de Janitzio. This tradition begins at sunset on November 1 and continues into the next morning to coincide with Catholic holidays, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. These holidays are a mixture of pre-hispanic and post-colonial traditions.
On Janitzio, the main island of Lake Pátzcuaro, this tradition involves cemeteries filled with all-night candlelight vigils and celebrations, where friends and family gather, pray, and remember those who have passed on with private offerings. For some, the offerings have a religious connotation, whereas others use them as an excuse to get crafty and participate in altar competitions. It's here you'll see people with offerings featuring foods like the traditional (and delicious!) pan de muerto (bread of the dead), photos, and memorabilia of those who have left this mortal world. Though it might seem odd to some, it's a show of respect, and believed to attract the soul of the dearly departed. At midnight, the entire island lights up with a parade of candlelit boats.
From the nearby town of Tzintzuntzan (about a 30-minute drive from Pátzcuaro), on November 1 you’ll see islanders and their neighbors take to their boats to enact a candlelight ritual, the flames reflected in the water, the boats laden with flowers and the boaters chanting. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience that you can’t see anywhere else. If you don't make it to Tzintzuntzanin in time though, don’t worry, the next few days are less crowded here and it's easier to see the incredible ofrendas (collections of small objects) at the local cemetery. There's also an artisan fair of local pottery and crafts to scope out.
But wherever you are on November 1, all around Lake Pátzcuaro on sunset, the winds are said to pick up as the spirits are blown back to their homes on earth, drawn by the aroma of the marigolds, the promise of celebrations, the sugar skulls, and the bread of the dead, they visit once again.
While you're in the area, make time to sample the street food in Pátzcuaro, though most travelers are wary to try it (don’t be, it's amazing). In La Plaza Chica (a plaza in the city center), there are tons of places that serve Enchiladas Placeras (a must-try Mexican dish) in huge portions. For the less adventurous, each morning in front of the Basilica is an array of vendors that sell tamales with cheese or meat fillings.
Another unmissable experience is Pátzcuaro's famed artisan market, which begins on Saturday, October 27 at the Plaza Grande. Arrive early to get the best pieces of Ocumicho (ceramic sculptures of devils, mermaids, saints, sun gods, and drunks in sexy poses). Afterwards, see, smell and buy Day of the Dead flowers at the local Marigold Market, located on the south side of the Basílica on Calle Serrato. Honestly, they're so magnificent you'll want to bundle them all up and take them to your hotel in preparation for next year.
Speaking of which, our pick of lush hotels in the area is the boutique Hacienda Ucazanaztacua; a beautiful waterfront building constructed out of sun-dried bricks that have stood the test of time. Yes, yes, the spacious rooms and pillowy beds do tick boxes, but we especially love that each room features an amazing view of Lake Pátzcuaro and the more isolated Pacanda Island. It's a seriously magical place, for all souls who visit.