On the night of November 1 to 2, The Day of the Dead takes place in Mexico every year, but let’s call it as it is called: Día de Muertos. As with traditions, the day is celebrated a little differently throughout Mexico. The tradition is centuries old, but the Pixar film Coco made it world-famous and also popular with the large area. And where there is demand, there is supply: since then, a real Día de Muertos parade has been organized in Mexico City. Grand and seen by tens of thousands, the procession moves through Avenida Paseo de la Reforma. Although the parade is not the real deal, it is certainly entertaining.
What is Día de Muertos?
In short: the dead return to earth on this day every year and are honored by the living. In many houses and on public roads you can see ‘ofrendas’, a traditional altar where a deceased person is commemorated. With everything, the deceased used to drink, eat or do. On the top step is a photo of the deceased, as a true tribute to his life.
Cemeteries in the various villages and towns are also beautifully decorated and cleaned. Festive rituals take place here at night. Día de Muertos is certainly similar to Halloween and is celebrated simultaneously, but it differs in content. The intention is simply different. Día de Muertos does not intend to shock but is a party.
In schools, ‘calaveras’ are written; funny poems about death, often part of the ofrenda. The street scene throughout Mexico is almost determined by this day in the second half of October; everywhere you see skulls, skeletons, and catrinas, the symbols for this day.
El Día de Muertos still originates from the ancient Maya and Aztecs and was not inspired by Spanish rule, although a Catholic sauce has now been poured over it. The day has even been included in the UNESCO list since 2003.
Chignahuapan, in the state of Puebla, is just a three-hour drive and about 200 kilometers from Mexico City. If you don’t have your own car, you always can rent one, or take a bus. You go to bus stop La Raza in Mexico City and take the Autotransportes Hidalgo from there.
The village is located quite high in the mountains and is in a way comparable to Cuetzalan. For your trip to Chignahuapan, it is advisable to bring warm clothes. The sun definitely warms you up, but in the shade and in the evening it really cools down.
This is one of the many Pueblo Magicos in the country, which it probably owes to the lagoon, the waterfalls in its vicinity, its basilica, and accompanying square. Outside it is a bit poor; that is best seen with the tourist van. This takes you to a Christmas decoration factory and a wine tasting, where you can of course buy everything. Here is also an explanation about the symbol of this city: the axolotl.
Festival de la Luz y la Vida
The village is turned upside down around Día de Muertos, when the Festival de la Luz y la Vida erupts. Central is the lake, the ‘laguna’, where a spectacular performance is given every evening. This performance tells how the Aztecs saw life after death, with the beautiful life lessons that go with it, and is concluded with an amazing fireworks display.
You are not very close to the show, by the way. Even the best spots have a distance of about thirty meters to the game. There are no video screens, so it will take some getting used to for the theater enthusiast, but it is nevertheless more than worth it, which is also thanks to the enthusiastic audience. The performance is certainly not a long one: it takes about an hour, including the fireworks that last about fifteen minutes.
On November there is a torchlight procession from Calzada de Las Almas street (the street of souls) in the center to the laguna. Participants get free admission to the performance, which makes this walk a massive one. On the Calzada de las Almas, ‘tapetes’, mythological representations in small stones on the street, are displayed throughout the weekend. The masses simply walk over these tapetes, but not before each tapete has been honored by the forerunner.
On that day, a huge ofrenda will also open in the main square. There are also exhibitions on display for five days and plenty of Catrinas. Be sure to take a look at the Centro de Chignahuapan: the entrance alone with its mural is truly phenomenal. Inside you can see various ofrendas and, for the enthusiast, several decades of portraits of the annual Miss Chignahuapan.
What makes the day here so special is the atmosphere. There is hardly any music to be heard, but of course plenty of activity and liveliness. Chignahuapan is also famous for its… Christmas decorations. The shops are already full of them during this period, along with the Catrinas, skulls, and other Día de Muertos-esque attributes.
Hotel and restaurant
The village is ahead of them en masse and the hotels are often fully booked, mainly by people from the nearby large city of Puebla. It is therefore wise to book somewhat in time; we booked hotel Cabañas Magicos Pueblos a week in advance and it was actually the only option. This hotel consists of cabins, small houses with plenty of privacy. An excellent option is to visit the waterfalls and Zacatlán from here in addition to the village. The fact that it somewhat resembles a concentration camp does not change that.
It is best to eat at just about the restaurant in the village: El Rincon Mexicano. Here you can eat extensively for about five euros per person and the quality is excellent.
If you are in Mexico and Día de Muertos is on the program, a trip to Chignahuapan is a highly recommended option, especially in combination with the waterfalls.
Steven van Beek (’81) is a Dutch guy, living in Mexico City. I constantly find hidden places in Mexico and share this with you. I love to travel and discover beautiful places. Do you join me? Follow me on social media!