Smiling calaveras fill the streets as Mexico prepares for its most iconic holiday. Some of the faces behind them are local, some are tourists looking to take part in the colourful celebration. Stalls packed with flowers, pan de muertos and sugar skulls line the streets, inviting everyone to participate in the spirit of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. I have always had a fascination with Halloween and the macabre, but despite its timing, sweet tooth, and gothic aesthetic, this holiday is more about family than fright. Making the spirits of the dead feel welcome is the whole point.
As a creative traveller who had Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows on heavy rotation in my youth, the imagery of Día de Muertos was irresistible. I knew one day I had to experience it first hand. I’d been to Mexico before and enjoyed the whole Yucatan resort experience. But this trip was about feeding my imagination. So, on October 30, my fiancé and I flew to San Miguel de Allende to experience this amazing holiday in the most authentic way we could.
A world away from Cancun, San Miguel de Allende feels a small slice of Italy with its gothic architecture. The colourful buildings and blossoming bougainvillea provide a stunning backdrop as you watch the locals set up ofrendas decorated with family photos, candles, and marigolds. My fiancé had spent time in San Miguel in the past and wanted to show me the sights. We knew experiencing Día de Muertos there would satisfy both my wish to see the celebration, along with his his love for the city.
I soon shared it! There were a few moments I thought I was right back in Florence, where I’d spent a month when I was younger. San Miguel is the kind of city that ticks all the cliches of romantic Mexico, with narrow streets of cobblestone, rustic, gothic architecture, and steep hills… except it’s very real. There’s a reason I signed up for a painting class at Lorenzo y Taquito art gallery, painting a scene of San Miguel while sipping wine! It was a magical night, and a great way to connect with other tourists while flexing my creative muscles.
At the Tianguis de los Martes (Tuesday flea market), we found everything from candy to clothing, to food, to toys, to furniture made by local artisans. I recommend the horchata for a hot day. We didn’t skip the older, historical side of Mexico either. A short cab ride took us to see Cañada de la Virgen, a fascinating pyramid and museum in San Miguel.
Ultimately though, I was here for Día de Muertos, and it didn’t disappoint! The family celebrations where what surprised me most. I learned more about the actual meaning of this day, watching locals celebrate loved ones who’ve passed. San Miguel also resembles the town featured in Disney’s Coco, suggesting I’m not the first illustrator to have made this trip.
We did have makeup and costumes ready to go for the day of the parade, but after chatting with some local shop owners, we decided against it. This as a sacred family celebration, and many locals don’t appreciate foreigners treating it like a Halloween costume party, so we chose to respect that and leave the dressing up to them. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice. I’d just urge any outsider attending Día de Muertos to understand what it means, and approach it with respect and sensitivity.
This article was originally published in Vol. 30 of Globetrotting Magazine.
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