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The indigenous Tarasco Indian tribe who ruled Mexico’s central western highlands in the fourteenth century believed death was a continuation of life and the dead could return home every year to visit their loved ones, a celebration called Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).


Traditionally, the dead were buried with weapons, food, and keepsakes they could offer to the gods in the afterworld. This practice led to the more modern Mexican ritual of decorating gravestones of the deceased with streamers, food, flowers, and other offerings.


Mexico celebrates Día de los Muertos on November 1st and 2nd. The most traditional festivities take place in the town of Pátzcuaro, home of the Purepecha tribe, direct descendants of the Tarasco. Beer-swilling locals and foreigners on a two-day binge detract a bit from its authenticity, but somehow this mix of modern revelry and ancient customs turns out just fine.


Festivities culminate on the island of Janitzio, which lies in the middle of Lago de Pátzcuaro. Thousands of locals armed with coolers of Tecate beer crowd onto the lakeside dock, their breath a clear indication that the festivities started hours earlier. Kids holding carved-out calabazas (pumpkins) ask for offerings for the dead. It’s like trick or treating in the United States, except they ask for money, not candy, and they do it for two days. Boats lit up in red, white and green (colors of the Mexican flag) take party-goers to the island. The lake is a burst of light as the glowing boats follow a trail of flaming torches somehow stuck into the lake bottom. The light reflecting through the drizzly cool night air looks like a synchronized line of fire-flies in a jungle mist.


Janitzio is a jagged, granite island, which rises out of the water at a steep incline. A labyrinth of narrow stone streets wind up and around to the peak, and every inch is covered with restaurants, food and alcohol carts and souvenir stands masked in orange lights. Halfway up the island sits a small church and cemetery where the crowds tone it down to respect the dead. The church altar is filled with candlelight, flowers, food, and candy skulls, and the traditional orange cempazuchitl flowers blanket every headstone. Family members of the dead sit by the graves praying and keeping the candles lit late into the night.


After quietly circling through the cemetery you head to the final destination, a small park at the top of the island dominated by a 200-foot rock statue of José María Morelos, a father of Mexican independence. The park is filled with revelers and Charro bands playing La Banda music while couples wearily bounce along. Just before sunrise, the crowds lumber back down through the narrow labyrinth and pour onto the small dock to catch a boat. It’s a quiet ride back, the torchlight fading in the dawn, as the boats deliver the half-awake back to the mainland. If the dead are honored by flowers, candles, and uninhibited drinking and dancing, then Día de los Muertos on Janitzio honors the dead with more gusto than any other celebration in the country.

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