SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — Skeletons walk the streets, marigolds fill the cemeteries and churches open the crypts for all to welcome back the dead — for a day.
El Dia de los Muertos is actually one of the more lively celebrations in Mexico. It’s about enticing relatives who have died back from the spirit world to the earthly realm for a visit. Each year, this tiny Spanish colonial town in the mountainous state of Guanajuato attracts visitors from around Mexico and the world for a weeklong celebration.
Festival La Calaca, literally “Festival of the Skull,” includes parades, dinners and altars set up in shops along the main square outside of San Miguel the Archangel Cathedral. The main events take place Nov. 1-2.
On Nov. 2, visitors experience an event combining Christian and pagan traditions, with both a cemetery and an Aztec ceremony honoring the dead. There are many art galleries, museums and churches to explore in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Altars, some elaborate and others very simple, are scattered around town. They usually include photos of loved ones along with things they enjoyed while alive. A cowboy may have a saddle, bottles of beer and bread. Even pets are honored.
In the square in front of the Church of Our Lady of Health, there is the Pyramid of the Dead designed by artist Tomas Burkey. Strings of perforated paper flags known as papel picado hang everywhere.
Cemeteries are filled with visitors who adorn graves with flowers, light candles and enjoy meals with the departed. The idea is to give their souls a warm welcome, a reason to make the trip from the spirit world to comfort those they left behind.
When the sun sets, there is live music, dancing and parades with giant papier mache puppets known as mojigangas. Revelers in costumes or with painted faces stream into the main plaza, where locals dressed in Aztec feathers and body paint perform a ceremony between the Allende garden and the cathedral while children and adults in skeleton costumes look on.
Visitors and residents paint their faces white and black to represent a skull. Death is symbolized by La Calavera Catrina, a skeletal woman that is not so much feared as revered.
The waiters at Hotel Matilda’s famous Black Dinner dress in black, their faces ghoulishly painted. The multicourse dinner is made by American chef Eduardo Garcia. If you plan to attend — and enjoy the liberal libations — be sure to make reservations well in advance of your trip.
If you go:
San Miguel de Allende has very narrow sidewalks and steep, cobbled streets that become slick when it rains. So wear appropriate shoes.
Fly into Del Bajio International Airport — Leon/Guanajuato. Make arrangements at your hotel for a shuttle, taxi or private car for the 80-minute trip to San Miguel de Allende. For a casa experience, stay at Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada or Casa 1810. Both are close to San Miguel Archangel Cathedral and the center of town. There is also a five-star Rosewood property that is farther from the center of town.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2613, Twitter: @pasheridan.