Dia De Muertos in Morelia and Pátzcuaro, Mexico

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The fall before the pandemic started, I was exploring gorgeous Morelia and Pátzcuaro, Mexico, and I am now realizing I never took the chance to share my experience with you all. Since autumn is well under way and Dia de Muertos is right around the corner, this is a great time to reminisce about and share this great trip.

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Día de Muertos

Día de Muertos (day of the dead) is an annual tradition celebrated on November 1 and 2, primarily in Mexico or in communities with Mexican roots across the globe. This festival commemorates and celebrates departed family members and friends. The most distinctive features of a traditional Día de Muertos observance are the ofrenda (altar stocked with flowers and the deceased’s favorite food and drink), calaveras (skull motifs), and marigold flowers. The day coincides with Catholic All Saint’s Day, which follows Halloween. However, many historians say that Día de Muertos predates Spanish colonization and Catholic influence. Find out more about Día de Muertos here.

After visiting Guanajuato around Día de Muertos in 2017, we were told that many Mexicans consider Morelia and Pátzcuaro to have the best observance and celebration. Recommendations like that are definitely worth investigating!

Morelia

The celebration of Día de Muertos in Morelia is remarkable. The entire city center is filled with decorations made of marigolds and more. Ofrendas will be tucked in every corner, even in schools and offices. Daytime is a great opportunity to see freshly arranged ofrendas, and nighttime is wonderful for visiting the city square to see musicians and vendors.

As for my trip, we arrived on October 31 and left on November 3. We stayed at a nice hotel but if I were to do it over again I would stay much closer to the center of town. The food and drink in Morelia is incredible! We had a number of gourmet meals (balanced out with other quick and delicious meals like chilaquiles for brunch). There is a lot of fun shopping in local markets to check out. Morelia is well-known for candy-making and there is a candy-making museum to visit. I recommend spending one day in Morelia and one day exploring the regional area. Locals will tell you to get outside the city for the very best Dia de Muertos celebrations. Two highly recommended towns are Tzintzuntzan and Pátzcuaro. See below for more details about Pátzcuaro!

Book your hotel in Morelia’s Historic Center

Pátzcuaro

Local lore has it that Día de Muertos originated in the Pátzcuaro region and is specially celebrated on the island of Janitzio. This island is special because it is only accessible by boat. These boats ferry visitors to and from the island, the trip takes less than 30 minutes each way. Check the schedules at the embarcadero for special hours during Día de Muertos. My group visited Janitzio in the afternoon and early evening, but as we returned to Pátzcuaro, the boats headed toward the island were packed full of people eager to visit the cemetery. Many of those who have loved ones buried on the island will spend the night in the graveyard along with their ancestors.

Once on the island, climb a winding path through the village which is all decked out for the holiday. Buy a hot beverage and a pan de muertos for a snack or some other cute souvenirs to take home. You will find many funny masks and toys of a red-faced yellow-haired person. This character is said to be a mockery of Spaniard colonizers sunburned faces, or simply a bruja (witch). Either way, it is a classic souvenir from this island.

An accessibility note for visiting Janitzio: Not only is it solely accessed by boats, but the topography of the island is a steep hill with many uneven stairs. Visitors should evaluate their physical capability before planning their trip. The main part of Morelia, for that matter, is not remarkably hilly and the city square is flat and spacious.

Hotels in charming and rustic Pátzcuaro

Getting There

Some great advice we got was to book our hotel early since there is a lot of domestic tourism from other parts of Mexico into Morelia for the festival. We used booking.com to reserve a fully-refundable option in February to beat the crowd, giving us plenty of time to plan the trip. We booked flights (out of Tijuana, again) about two months out.

To visit Morelia and the surrounding towns, fly straight to Morelia (airport code MLM) and then take an Uber MX to your hotel (we took Uber most of the time we were in Morelia). Or, take a 1-hour flight or 5-hour bus from Mexico City. You could rent a car, but I recommend this option for confident Spanish speakers only. (I say this because during our trip from Morelia to Pátzcuaro, we were delayed on the road by some local labor protestors and our van driver had to pay them some money to let us pass. I personally would leave those kinds of interactions to the locals. Hiring a driver is relatively inexpensive). If you’d rather not stress, you can find curated tour options on websites like Viator.

Conclusion

One of the most rewarding parts about traveling is learning about local culture by immersion. Being in Morelia and the nearby towns within Michoacán during the Día de Muertos festivities completely exceeded my expectations. This area is a lovely one to visit any time of the year, but coming during the festival is sure to make the trip extra special.

Photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.

Pátzcuaro Tour From Morelia – $63.50

Live a traditional tour in a unique way. History, traditions, handcrafts and regional food. Certified tour guide, all entrance fees, lunch box and traditional lunch meal. Choose your favorite place to visit between Janitzio and its amazing views of Lake Patzcuaro or the beauty of the artisan tradition in an artisan copper crafting workshop at Santa Clara del Cobre.

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