Day of the Dead in Morélia—Visiting cemeteries in Cucuchucho and Lake Pátzcuaro

Day of the Dead, Morelia, cemetery, Mexico

For Day of the Dead this year we decided to go visit our friend Rose in colonial Morélia, one of Mexico’s biggest Day of the Dead destinations. Scout wanted to celebrate Halloween and trick-or-treat with her friends here in Chapala, so early the next morning we loaded up the car, dropped Archie at the dog sitter, and headed out. We were only there for the weekend, not much time, but we were dog free! Without Archie we were able to stay out late, so that first night we went to visit cemeteries.

Day of the Dead, Morelia, Mexico, cemetery

Cemeteries are happening places during Day of the Dead. During the three-day holiday, families clean and decorate graves with offerings (ofrendas), including orange Mexican marigolds (cempasúchil), candles, Day-of-the-Dead bread (pan de muerto), and other favorite food and drink of the deceased. The food is placed in round baskets on the graves and covered with embroidered towels. Families spend entire nights hanging out, talking together, and visiting with their departed loved ones.

Cemetery at Cucuchucho

We visited two cemeteries. The first, in Cucuchucho, was crazy-crowded when we were there at midnight. (It was even more packed at 3 am when we passed it on our way home). It was beautiful though. Thousands of candles and marigold flowers created a netherworldly orange glow in the inky darkness. But between the families, tourists, photographers, food vendors, and stray dogs, we could hardly move without bumping into someone or  worse, stumbling over a grave. Every gravesite seemed to be hosting at least half a dozen family members.

Day of the Dead, Morelia, cemetery

Though it’s common for tourists (Mexican tourists too, not just gringos) to visit popular cemeteries during Day of the Dead, I felt awkward, like we were intruding. Mark wasn’t uncomfortable, and our driver, Jesús, a local Mexican, assured us that tourists weren’t a problem. I guess they’re right because the State of Michoácan prints out tourist maps and listings of all the cemeteries. But still. Scout was kind of weirded out too, so she and I tried to be discreet while we looked around. Toting my DSLR certainly didn’t help us blend. Eventually we just sat down by the front gate and waited for Mark and Jesús to finish up. Scout rummaged around in the pocket of her big coat and pulled out her ever-present Kindle, which meant our Day-of-the-Dead cemetery exploration was over as far as she was concerned!

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Stopping for snacks in Ihuatzia. The lady is making blue-corn tortillas, which she served with various guisados (stews)

Day of the Dead, Mexico, Morelia
Hanging out in the square

Isla de Pacanda, Lake Pátzcuaro

The smaller cemetery was on little Isla de Pacanda in Lake Pátzcuaro (about an hour southwest of Morélia). The other island, Isla de Janitzio, is famous for it’s Day of the Dead activity and incredibly crowded with tourists. I’m glad we chose the quieter option.

To get to Pacanda we hopped a ride to the island on a wooden speed boat. There were half a dozen or so on the water, and each boat had a guy blinking a flashlight to make sure they all didn’t collide in the darkness. Once we arrived we walked about a kilometer up a hill to the cemetery. The route was lined by local women selling cups of homemade ponche (fruit punch) for $10 pesos, so Scout and I each bought a cup. I paid an extra $5 pesos to have something alcoholic sprinkled into mine, but I’m pretty sure the smiling señora just waved an empty bottle over my drink.

Pacanda Island church, Mexico, Day of the Dead, Mass PS-IMG_2150

A quick stop in the village church

This cemetery wasn’t crowded, but this time not all the graves had candles, and we didn’t have flashlights, so I had to concentrate not to tromp over graves. Families were either sitting and quietly talking amongst themselves or singing. It was much quieter than the last experience.

Day of the dead, Morelia, Mexico, cemeteries

We didn’t leave until about 3 am. On ride back our boat’s flashlight guy was sound asleep, so we all crossed our fingers that we’d make it across the lake in one piece. Flashlight guy finally jerked awake when we hit the dock (literally).

Even though I felt a little out of place at times, I am so grateful we got to see how Day of the Dead is celebrated at different cemeteries near Morélia. (Last year we skipped the cemeteries, and just spent Day of the Dead at the square in Ajijic.) The tradition of honoring the dead is definitely alive and well here in Mexico. Above all it was fascinating to see how many family members participated. As a nomad with no home base and a minuscule family, I would never score this kind of family turnout, with or without a pulse!

Day of the Dead, Morelia, Mexico, cemetery

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NOTE: Booking a private tour was awesome. We didn’t have to worry about our car, parking, or getting lost. We connected with Jesús through Rose Calderone at Casa Rosa B&B. Give her a call and she’ll take care of you!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alex November 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm

I love the part about the flashlight guy falling asleep. How Mexico! We will definitely have to get out to the cemeteries next year. This year was our first here and a quiet one. Good for you for hanging out at 3am. We were just informed last night that Christmas is an all night affair in Bacalar. We’ll have to start getting rested up!

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2 Renee November 10, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Alex, I was SO freaking tired. It was fun but brutal. And yes, that flashlight dude is classic Mexico. 🙂

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3 Patti November 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm

What a fun and memorable experience for you! I think private tours can be well-worth the cost when you want to get the most out of an experience and as you say when you’re a tourist and a little unsure. Love the photos too!
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4 Renee November 15, 2013 at 9:28 am

Yes, we don’t usually have a driver but it was so worth it in this case. No hassle at all. There were only four other people with us, enough to make the evening more fun, but not enough to be oppressive or limiting. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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