For Americans, October 31 is a day to get out the costumes and head off to collect candy. But the history of celebrating ghouls and the dead actually goes back centuries in Europe and Latin America and has more to do with honoring ancestors than getting scared by haunted houses and witches.
Mexico has been celebrating the Day of the Dead for 3,000 years and the spectacle of the festivities has come back to life with renewed interest after the recent James Bond movie Spectre, when a single tracking shot followed 007 through a parade and rooftop. Tourism officials in Mexico have announced they are now holding Day of the Dead parades to capitalize on the enormous publicity generated by the movie.
Parades aside, the bulk of the activity takes place over two nights, November 1 is the day when families welcome back children who have died. Adults are remembered on November 2.
Here’s an itinerary for you to follow when you book a trip to participate in this unique cultural activity.
Late check-in: Hilton Mexico City Reforma Hotel
Mexico City is the most populous metropolis in the western world and that’s one reason why it’s sometimes called The Monster. It’s a monster to get around anywhere so pick areas or zones that you can spend time to explore. The Hilton Mexico City Reforma Hotel on Reforma Avenue is a convenient location, just footsteps from the historical downtown, restaurants and shopping.
Midnight: Zona Rosa
This is the city’s nightlife hub and home to Mexico City’s gay community. The area has also become a great place to walk around at night in a safe and colorful environment, making it convenient for late owls like me who are on the hunt for the best street tacos.
9 am: Breakfast at El Cardenal
After tequilas and late-night tacos, there’s nothing better than taking the hotel elevator and heading down to El Cardenal restaurant for traditional Mexican dishes. Highly recommended is the Chocolate Dona Oliva, an authentic bittersweet chocolate whipped with the molinillo stick at the table. Revueltos con Chilorio will get you ready for your day, a dish of scrambled eggs mixed with a preparation of minced pork meat in a non-spicy sauce of tomato and dried chilies.
2 pm: Day of the Dead Parade
At this time of the year in Zócalo, the city’s central square, you’ll find huge arches adorned with marigolds providing a gateway to welcome La Catrina, Mexico’s Dame of Death. Here is where you’ll find thousands of people in costumes and face paint as well as beautiful decorated edible skull masks. Walk around the surrounding streets of Paseo La Reforma, where James Bond encountered the parade of the walking dead.
9 pm: Dinner at Guzina Oaxaca
In fancy American and Canadian steakhouses, the wait staff comes by to make the Caesar salad right by your table. In Mexico, the server shows you the ingredients for your tomatillo/tomato salsa and makes the dish in front of you using a molcajete, a Mexican version of a mortar and pestle. I ordered the spicy and flavorful Tamales de mole negro, a chicken dish with handmade tortillas for a reasonable 245 Mexican pesos (about $12.75 USD). The vibe downstairs was lively and fun, the upstairs level was more sedate, but not overly quiet.
9:30 am: Visit Coyoacan
Coyoacan gathering space is in one of the oldest parts of Mexico City. It literally translates as a “place of coyotes” and it’s a gathering hub that resembles a small Mexican village with a square, a cathedral, a kiosk, and a park. This is a good place to grab a coffee and churros at “El Jarocho” and walk around to enjoy the great colonial architecture and find traditional products at the bookstores and shops.
11 am: Museo Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo was born in, lived, and died in Casa Azul (Blue House). It’s a museum that almost every visitor to Mexico City makes a pilgrimage to in order to gain a deeper understanding of the painter. It gets busy on weekends but mid-to-late afternoon is a good time to visit.
2 pm: Late lunch at Los Danzantes
Just a 15-minute walk from the Frida Kahlo museum you will find superb dishes in a nice atmosphere with a view of a park. To open my mind, I started with a drink of mezcal and before long I had ordered the chapuline’s taco with avocado, where the protein is grasshopper (160 Mexican pesos, or $8.32). I blamed the mezcal for choosing that Mexican delicacy. I’m not sure if I can do it again but grasshopper taco is delicious.
6 pm: Tour the town of Mixquic
The tiny town of San Andres Mixquic is a quiet place for most of the year but it is completely transformed for Day of the Dead celebrations. Experience the bustling market selling decorations and hot tamales — meat and maize flour steamed in corn husks — before soaking up the amazing floral displays around the graves in the San Andrés Apóstol church cemetery. The celebration includes a visit to the cemetery where people leave bread of the dead — skull-shaped bread, candied pumpkins or any favorite food of the celebrated late friend/family member at graves. They also leave candles, incense and a picture of the dead person, to encourage the souls to visit. Toys are brought for dead children, and bottles of tequila are carried for adults. The atmosphere is not grotesque or somber. It’s like a late-night picnic with good food and great stories to share.
9 am: Arrive Alive at Teotihuacan
The place where the gods were created is situated some 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of Mexico City and is UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built around 2,000 years ago, it is characterized by two main monuments: The temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. The settlement developed into one of the largest ancient cities in the Americas, with close to 25,000 habitants.
2 pm: Dine at La Gruta
This restaurant inside a cave will take your breath away when you realize how far below ground you are. To get to the restaurant, you walk down a flight of stairs where flowers and fruit arrangements await, and two levels of seating. After walking around the pyramids all day, La Gruta is a great place to settle down for a leisurely lunch. The blue corn quesadillas were good and so was the basa fish, which was served with rice and beans. Entrees are in the range of 320 Mexican pesos (around $17). Other famous guests before you included Jorge Luis Borges and Queen Elizabeth II.
NOTE: This article was originally published in Vacay.ca.