Mexico | Día de Muertos

The 2nd of November arrived, and with it, finally, the Day of the Dead.

I don’t remember when my desire to experience it first began. All I know is I’ve been referencing it here and there on World Hangover for years, and any trip to Mexico I’ve considered previously has always revolved around the witnessing the Day of the Dead.

In all honesty, however, I didn’t know that much about it before coming here. I think if you’d asked me nine weeks ago what the Dia de Muertos would look like in Mexico, I’d have talked about skulls and parades and parties and costumes. And in the capital, that’s largely what you get. These are only the peripheries of the event, however. Since arriving here I’ve learned a little more – from articles online, from travel guides, from people I’ve met… and, ahem, from watching Coco.

While browsing a Lonely Planet I found in a hostel in Holbox, I found that the typical Mexican Die de Muertos is actually quite a sombre affair. This was backed up by that lunatic Juan I met in Oaxaca; on our weird evening of drinking together he told me that the face paint and street parties on the 2nd are more for the tourists; for Mexicans the day is spent with family, sitting round and telling stories about their loved ones. They laugh, they cry, they eat and drink and remember.

For Mexicans, the 2nd of November is the one day a year that deceased relatives are able return to the land of the living to see their loved ones. Elaborate altars named ofrendas are decorated in their honour, both in public places and in the privacy of family homes. To avoid the departed being forgotten, their photographs are placed on the ofrenda along with their favourite foods and drinks from their time on Earth, which they can take back with them to the world of the dead.

With this in mind, although I enjoyed all the grand parades in Mexico City – adored them, in fact – I didn’t feel quite satisfied. I wanted to see something real. And so, when I heard about Mixquic, a town 30 kilometres southeast of Mexico City with a huge candlelit graveyard (one of the graveyards that inspired the film Coco, if Lonely Planet is to be believed), it became my mission to visit it. The idea of death has always left me nipple-twistingly bewildered, and I was excited to see a new perspective on it – as well as simply to sit in awe of the scene itself.

I was originally going to go alone: on the morning of the Day of the Dead I woke up feeling fresh, while Luuk and Bas were hungover as they’d been out partying. Liv and Mari couldn’t make it – they were taking a bus to San Cristobal in the afternoon. I didn’t mind going alone; it would mean I had more space to sit and feel the emotion in the air. I’d been picturing it for weeks: finding a small local cemetery and peering through the fence, watching quietly as the local people placed their offerings and sat together by the tombstones.

*****

Before Liv and Mari left on the 2nd, I arranged to meet them at Plaza Garibaldi, a square near the Centro Historico where black-suited, gold-trimmed mariachis gather and play for diners in cafes. To my surprise, Luuk and Bas shook off their hangovers and came to join us. We sat and listened to the mariachis warble and twang and toot at deafening volumes that rendered conversation nigh impossible. You can use a thousand colourful adjectives to describe Mexico, but subtle is not one of them.

After eating a single cheese quesadilla that somehow took 45 minutes to arrive – punctual is not a word I’d use to describe Mexico either – Liv and Mari left for their bus. With Luuk and Bas I went to a hostel across town, there to meet some Dutch people the guys knew and wanted to join for the Mixquic trip. We called taxis and drove for 90 minutes. I fell asleep on the road out of the city, and when I awoke we were in the countryside, driving alongside a little stream that smelled of eggs.

We parked up in a dusty sidestreet in the apparent ghost town of Mixquic, and as the taxi drove off we walked down quiet alleyways with stray dogs and laundry hanging, wondering what the hell we were supposed to be looking for. A chance glance down an alley gave us our answer: a bustling main street where everybody in town was congregating. There were thousands of people, and I transferred my wallet from my back to my front pocket to be safe.

We walked past higgledy piggledy stalls selling giant cakes, glittering purple donuts, sizzling tacos, Lucha Libre masks, Halloween machetes, and little biscuits that looked like gingerbread men. Off the main street was a small cantina, and our group of ten sat at small plastic tables and everyone ordered food but me. I got a cola instead; I’m rarely hungry here. Turns out this was a smart move on my part: when the bill came it was north of fifteen quid for each plate of tacos – five times the usual price. Some of the Dutchies (not lovely Luuk and Bas) kicked off at this, which I thought was a bit silly: the crumbly old town is busy for one day per year. Can hardly blame them.

While the others were arguing, I wandered off and bought a gingerbread man from a flesh-and-blood man. The kindly old vendor was selling them in packs of ten, but when I said I only wanted one he shrugged and offered it for free. I pushed ten pesos into his hand and ran away before he could object; it felt like a nice little karmic counterweight to the taco debacle.

As a group we waded through the streets and came to a plaza covered with an enormous tarpaulin. On a stage there were little girls doing a ballet routine, and their proud parents sat in the crowd watching and clapping. There were monsters roaming the crowd taking photos with the many tourists – who were mostly Mexican, I noticed gladly. I don’t like to feel I’m mayonnaising the place up too much.

When the sun began to set, we made our way to the cemetery. It was heaving every step of the way, and we entered the graveyard in a tidal wave of people: the perimeter was not, as I’d imagined, little fences I could poke my eye through, but a ten-foot stone wall.

And it was beautiful – of course it was beautiful. The path we were shuffling along in our cramped mob led to the gaping mouth of an old Hispanic church, and on all sides the building was hemmed in by a vast cemetery. Every grave was fashioned from dense white stone, adorned with dates and details, and in some cases, tile photographs. Incense wafted up in irregular plumes, and every free surface across the cemetery was covered in bright orange marigolds; their vivid colour helps guide the dead back home.

I heard a lot of accents in the crowd – English, American, Dutch, French – and as I explored I lost Luuk and Bas and got caught in a slow magma of people heading around the back of the church. I don’t like crowds at the best of times, but this crowd made me particularly uncomfortable. It was like a zoo. I watched the tourists point and click cameras at gravestones, stepping over them and standing on them for a better shot. As I edged along in the crowd, I saw a little old man sitting by a lovingly adorned gravestone by himself, gazing absently at the jostling tourists as they pointed cameras above his head. I felt like a dick.

I’d wanted to feel astonished and holy. I’d wanted to sigh with gratitude at the beauty of it all – to revel in the splendour of a lifelong goal accomplished. Instead I just felt like one of those Black Friday lunatics who headbutts their way into a supermarket to get 25% off an alarm clock.

I turned around, I wrestled through the crowd, and I left the cemetery.

*****

I walked around the outside wall of the church alone, the crowd still thick, looking for a place I might climb up the wall and merely pop my head over to watch – not interfering, not detracting from the beauty of the evening for the local people who had come to mourn. But there was no place to climb up; the wall was too high.

I didn’t know what to do: this wasn’t what I’d wanted at all. I argued with myself as I walked, feeling stupid for leaving.

Why the hell did you leave, you knob? You’ve dreamed of this for so long.

Pipe down you bell end, it’s not right to turn people’s mourning into a spectator sport.

But me making a one-man protest is hardly going to make any difference. There are already thousands of people in there. What’s one more?

And if everybody thinks that way, the world is fucked.

But Paola said Mexicans love tourists.

Alright then, imagine if it was one of your family in those graves. How would you feel seeing people stepping over them and posing with selfie sticks?

Maybe the locals are happy to share their culture.

Well did you speak to any of them?

No, but… tourism can be good, too. Think of the good it’s doing for the local economy. One night of intrusion, and many people in this town will make enough money to last for months.

So be a respectful tourist, enjoy the stalls but not the cemetery, and allow them the best of both worlds.

After fifteen minutes of this Gollum-esque back and forth, I still couldn’t decide. I saw a lot of people sitting on the perimeter wall, and it looked as though the only way to hop up there was from inside the cemetery. I queued up again, feeling uneasy and conflicted, and I went back in.

In the time I’d taken to shlep around arguing with myself, the sun had gone down and candles had been lit, and the cemetery had been transformed into something unearthly. Flickering candles made the marigolds glow like fire, and smoke from the incense bathed the mourners and gravestones in a haze. I stepped off the path to walk on a narrow track behind the gravestones, where I climbed up onto the wall beside a Mexican mother and son. I took one photo but it came out blurry, and I felt too conflicted to take another.

I sat there for perhaps five minutes, trying to feel something. It’s the Day of the Dead, I told myself, right there in front of you. But it was like the baby turtles in Puerto Escondido: with so many people jostling by, it’s hard to conjure any sense of insight or beauty. I felt numb, all the conflicting emotions in my head balancing out as static and white noise. Even there, sitting on the sidelines, I still felt I was intruding. And so, slowly and reluctantly, I left the cemetery again – for the final time.

*****

It took us four hours to get home. We couldn’t get a taxi and had to take a local bus that was so overcrowded that people were nearly tumbling out of the open doors as we drove. Bas lost his temper and ended up swearing in Dutch at the nonchalant local people who insisted on cramming themselves into the already limb-wrenchingly tight bus; Luuk and I just chuckled. It was midnight before I got into bed.

I felt confused as I lay in my bunk. It feels weird to be saying this in a travel blog, but perhaps maybe there are some things tourists simply shouldn’t see. As a tourist – a walking wallet, ignorant of local customs and heritage – we sometimes cheapen things by our very presence. It must conflict the locals too: bills must be paid, money must be made, and if it comes down to feeding your family or preserving your culture, family will always come first. I’m sure even the dead would understand.

As I drifted off to sleep I pictured the graveyard ten, twenty years ago: before the post-Covid travel boom, before Coco, before Spectre. I pictured a bell tolling across a quiet graveyard, and families drifting by candlelight from their homes to gather around the gravestones. I pictured them sitting together in tranquility with their beloved dead, incense spiralling through the dark orange sky overhead, and marigold leaves tumbling past like memories on the breeze.

Leave a Reply