The Day of the Dead (Nov 1, and through the night into the next day) is celebrated in spectacular fashion throughout Mexico, but nowhere more so than on Lago de Pátzcuaro, particularly the island of Janitzio. On this night, the locals conduct what is an essentially private meditation, carrying offerings of fruit and flowers to the cemetery and maintaining a vigil over the graves of their ancestors until dawn, chanting by candlelight. Death is considered a continuation of life, and this is the time when the souls of muertitos (deceased loved ones) return to the land of the living. It’s a spectacular and moving sight, especially early in the evening as indigenous people from the surrounding area converge on the island in their canoes, with a single candle burning in each bow.
Impressive and solemn though the occasion is, over the years it has become somewhat marred by its sheer press of spectators, both Mexican and foreign. Thousands head over to tiny Janitzio, and from around 10pm on November 1 until around 3am the following morning you can hardly move, especially in the cemetery where the vigil takes place amid a riot of marigolds and candles. If you can manage it, stay up all night and return to the cemetery around 5am when it is quiet and the first hint of dawn lightens the eastern sky. Alternatively, head to one of the other lakeside communities marking the Day of the Dead – Tzurumutaro, Ihuatzio, Cucuchucho or Tzintzuntzán. There’s no guarantee of a quiet and respectful vigil, but crowds will be smaller and the cemeteries no less amazing.