Top Places to Travel in 2019 Series
Visit Mexico during Dia de los Muertos and partake in one of the planet’s most awesome and colorful events. For three days, from October 31 through November 2, Mexican families come together to celebrate family members and friends who are dead during one of the favorites Mexico national holidays. They clean cemeteries, build ofrendas or altars in their businesses and homes, make special food and then gather publicly to honor the lives of loved ones.
Mazatlán, a beach town on the Pacific Ocean is one of the best places to go to take part in the awesomeness. Mazatlán is my go-to spot for observing Dia de los Muertos traditions and soaking
up the culture.
Day of the Dead Festival Series:
• Dia de los Muertos Traditions in Mazatlán, Mexico!
• Mixquic, Mexico: Celebrate Day of the Dead Like the Movie, Coco!
Day of the Dead Customs: Ofrendas
In the days leading up to Dia de los Muertos, I witnessed families and even school children building temporary altars designed to attract the souls of dead relatives, friends or heroes.
You see, it is believed that the spirits of dead relatives return to visit those they left behind during these sacred days.
To attract the beloved dead, samples of their favorite foods, candies and even drinks like tequila or mescal are placed on the altar.
During this short threshold in time, families try to connect with the dead through love and displays of affection on the ofrendas.
Family photos of the dead crosses made of salt or flowers are lovingly placed on the ofrendas de muertos.
You can experience ofrendas, one of the Day of the Dead customs, at restaurants, hotels and other places of business. You’ll see papel picado or perforated/pecked tissue paper in bright colors, orangey cempaspuchitls or Marigolds, candles and calaveritas de azucar or sugar skulls.
All are left to help attract the dead back to their loved ones during these few days when the dead can cross over into the place of the living.
Dia de los Muertos Traditions: Catrinas
One of the most beloved Dia de los Muertos traditions is La Catrina, a well-dressed female skeleton, who has become the symbolic hostess of Day of the Dead. You’ll see her on ofrendas, in Day of the Dead pictures, and walking along el callejóneada, or the alley stroll that happens every year in Mazatlán.
Catrina has morphed over the years from a sacred tradition that goes back before the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Pre-Columbian Aztecs and other indigenous people held a month-long festival to honor the dead. Presiding over the ritual celebration was Mictecacíhuatl, the “Lady of the Dead,” of Aztec mythology, who watched over the bones of the dead.
Today’s Day of the Dead festival is rooted in the ancient Aztec beliefs, unlike Halloween, which originated in Europe and is celebrated near the same time on the night of October 31.
Day of the Dead Customs: Pan de Muertos
Pan de Muertos or Bread of the Dead is sweet bread that is made only around Day of the Dead festival. It’s always a treat to go to a bakery and see how Pan de Muertos is baked – sometimes in clay ovens.
Two pieces of bread shaped like crossed bones on the top of the puffy, orange-flavored bun is what makes Pan de Muertos one of the special Day of the Dead customs.
The Day of the Dead festival falls during Mazatlán’s shrimp fishing season (September to February), and so you will see and eat a lot of fresh shrimp, some the biggest that I have ever seen.
Buy fresh shrimp from the changueras, or shrimp ladies, who are named after the chango or small trawl net used on smaller shrimp boats. They buy shrimp and other fruits of the sea directly from the fishermen at the docks and bring them to the center of town.
They’ve offered their wares for fair prices at the same location for so long that the place where they sell – located at Aquiles Serdán in Centro Mazatlán between Alejandro Quijano and Luis Zúñiga streets – is known as Changueras.
There are 580 shrimp boats in Mazatlán, and each hauls in between 35 and 40 tons of shrimp per year. That’s a lot of shrimp that Mazatlecos eat! Of course, Mazatlán is a popular tourist destination, and so many visitors (over 1.5 million) enjoy shrimp and the local cuisine.
Typical Food of Mazatlán
I love eating food typical to the region, and in Mazatlán that means that I enjoy ceviche, aguachile, enchiladas stuffed with colachito and tacos gobernador. I ordered ceviche at one of El Cid Marina’s poolside bars (pictured above.)
The chopped raw shrimp, which is cured in lime juice and mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and a bit of cilantro, was served with corn chips and salsa. Aguachiles is similar, but the shrimp are not chopped, and serrano chiles are added. (The agricultural area around Mazatlán is a big producer of this type of chile.)
My favorite place to go for breakfast in Mazatlán is Panamá Restaurant y Pasteleria. You’ll see more locals than tourists and find out why Mazatlecos like to linger over breakfast.
The aroma of bread and pastries emanating from the bakery could be a scent of heaven. Colorful display cases of tarts, cookies, pies and cakes are a feast for the eyes.
Enchiladas Don Porfirio (pictured above) is stuffed with colachito, a chop of local squashes, smothered with green sauce and cheese and topped with Arrachera or grilled sirloin tips.
To keep myself energized and fortified for Dia de los Muertos festivities, I ordered Jugo Verde or “Green Juice” every morning. The delicious juice, made of celery, prickly pear cactus pads, parsley, orange and pineapple, is plum full of vitamins.
At the beach, I ordered a rustic lunch of Tacos Gobernador, a recipe originally created by a local chef for the Governor of the State of Sinaloa. The governor loved the inventive take on the chopped shrimp and cheesy taco, and so did the locals.
The grilled taco has become a locals’ favorite ever since and is now imitated throughout the world using shrimp, octopus or marlin. Since Mazatlán is the home of Pacifico Beer, of course, I had to have an icy cold one to accompany my beach lunch.
Mazatlán has a large fine dining scene as well. In fact, The Pearl of the Pacific was recently named as a candidate for UNESCO Creative Cities’ distinction in the gastronomy category.
Only 26 other cities have been given this prestigious UNESCO designation.
The confit duck enchiladas with black mole sauce was one of the best duck dishes that I have ever tasted. The blend of flavors and presentation is an example of what 46 Restaurant calls “Urban cuisine, flavors of Mexico.”
The handsome restaurant is on the second floor and overlooks the festive Plazuela Machado where the Day of the Dead el callejóneada starts – see below.
Dia de los Muertos Traditions: Cleaning the Cemetery
A visit to a local cemetery gave me a feel for the reverence of Dia de los Muertos as I watched families clean and paint gravestones and mausoleums in readiness for one of the favorite Mexican holidays and traditions.
I’ve heard that families will hire Mariachi bands to accompany picnics or parties in the cemeteries, but when I asked my new friend Miquel, he told me that was not a custom in Mazatlán. He believed that since most of the Mazatlán cemeteries closed for the night that not too much revelry went on there.
Day of the Dead Customs: El Callejóneada
El callejóneada or the alley stroll departs Angela Peralta Theatre near the historic square on November 1. It’s not really a Day of the Dead parade; I found it more of an exciting community promenade than a carnivalesque parade.
Families lined the streets as those including me walked along the narrow, cobbled avenues. The festive stroll and street party with firecrackers, lights and burros carrying beer kegs has a very different feel than a bawdy Halloween parade.
One of my friends from Mexico City told me that festivities are different in other cities. He explained that each Mexican community has its own distinctive traditions that continue to change to reflect the culture.
Take it from me, Dia de los Muertos is one of those Mexico national holidays that you don’t want to miss! And Mazatlán is one of the best places in Mexico to snap your own Day of the Dead pictures.
Live an Awesome Life,
Disclosure: As is typical in the travel industry, Stacey was hosted by Tourism Mazatlan and although that does not affect her opinions she believes in full disclosure.
PS. Fly to Mazatlan’s international airport (airport code MZT) from any international airport. Direct flights to Mazatlan from Los Angeles, Houston and Mexico City. Depending on the season, you’ll want to pack casual clothes for the beach, a light jacket for cool evenings and something a bit dressy if you plan to party at the nightclubs.