Dave and I were a little disappointed when Day of the Dead rolled around in Mexico. We’d planned to be in Oaxaca – one of the best places to celebrate the festivity – but we faced an 18 hour bus ride or a $1,000 fight to get there, so we gave it a miss.
We settled for the town we were staying in instead – Campeche, a little colonial place on the oceanfront of the Yucatan Peninsula. Being about as far away from Cancun as you can get in the Yucatan, Campeche is very tourist free – just the way we like it.
But having a small population of tourists doesn’t mean the place is unworthy of a visit, in fact this couldn’t be further from the truth. The cobbled stone streets and brightly coloured houses that line them have been lovingly restored over the years, meaning it was one of the prettiest towns we’ve ever visited.
Day of the Dead celebrations in Campeche
Our Airbnb hosts told us the centre of town was where the celebrations were happening for Day of the Dead, so I spent a couple of hours doing my makeup in traditional Dia de los Muertos fashion, prepared to celebrate the tradition with the locals. Seeing my face, Dave decided he wanted to be in on the fancy dress too, so I painted him up nicely. (Although, it might just be me – he struggles to look evil no matter what the makeup!)
As we walked from our apartment, a wave of panic overcame us. There was no one else dressed up and all the locals were staring at us as though we were from Mars.
“Are we committing some kind of massive cultural faux-pas?” Dave whispered out the side of his mouth as we strode on determinedly to the centre of Campeche.
I tried to laugh it off. “No, of course everyone will be dressed up in town, it’s Day of the Dead!”
We walked on, trying to avoid the obvious stares. An elderly woman sitting in the back of an ancient VW Beetle went so far to wind down the car window and point at us in surprise.
Ten minutes later we reached Calle 59 and thankfully we began to see other people looking like they’d just risen from the dead.
And the Day of the Dead party was well in to the swing of things.
Dia de los Muertos – a time for celebration
You’d think that Dia de los Muertos in Mexico would be a sombre tradition, but it’s far from it. It’s a celebration – people are remembering the lives of those they’ve lost in an upbeat and happy way.
The locals decorate altars with the food and objects that their lost family members adored, and then they stand back and reflect on the joy that these people brought to their lives.
Unlike the commercialised tradition that is Halloween, Day of the Dead is a meaningful celebration and one that’s comforting to know will be around after you leave this world.
The decoration of the altars is all about letting the spirits know that they are still alive amongst those on the earth, and that their lives haven’t been forgotten.
As we walked down the main street that cuts through the centre of Campeche, we took in all the brightly coloured altars and flowers that adorned them. Candles were lit up on many, and photographs of loved ones lost adorned the tables.
Children ran about playing and some were dressed up in traditional Day of the Dead costumes and makeup.
It’s not just the altars that are decorated either – all the graves in all the cemeteries in Mexico are covered in bright flowers at this time of the year, making them feel as though you’re in a colourful world rather than a gloomy cemetery.
Compare it to England where walking through a 500 year old graveyard feels like something straight out of a horror film, a Mexican cemetery evokes feelings of happiness and is a rather pleasant place to stroll around for half an hour.
That is of course unless you’re in Pomuch, which as I mentioned a few days ago isn’t filled with flowers but skeletons… but that’s a completely different Day of the Dead celebration altogether.
Regardless of whether you’re creating an altar for your loved ones or are digging up their bones, what I love about Mexicans is that they not only have such a strong connection with their families when they’re alive, but they remember them when they’re gone too.
Something we could certainly learn from.