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Where to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Puebla

A Day of the Dead altar in Huaquechula, Puebla.Few traditions in Mexico rival Day of the Dead in their mixing of ancient and modern beliefs. The national holiday, which is celebrated in Puebla in late October and early November, honors lost loved ones by paying tribute to — and praying for — their spirits. Day of the Dead’s origins can be traced to pre-Hispanic times, when the Aztecs held a month-long ritual for the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. These days, many families set up altars in their homes or businesses to remember people who’ve passed away, often during the preceding year. The notion is that, by doing so, they welcome, nourish, guide, and otherwise assist the souls in their journey after death.

“This holiday is a perfect example of the complex heritage of the Mexican people,” observes Judy King of MexicoConnect. “The beliefs today are based on the complicated blended cultures of his ancestors, the Aztec and Maya and Spanish invaders, layered with Catholicism.” (In Puebla, there’s been at least one ofrenda dedicated to Pope John Paul II in recent years.)

Day of the Dead altars range from modest displays of the deceased’s favorite foods and objects to costly and elaborate monuments of affection. In some places, such as the town of Huaquechula, families welcome visitors into their homes to appreciate their altars and to share a cup of hot chocolate or atole and a slice sweet bread or a homemade tamal. Note: It is customary to leave a few coins in the offering or add a votive candle to the altar if you do.

If you’re in Puebla for Day of the Dead in 2012, here’s where to see altars and participate in other holiday-related activities.

Puebla

Looking for places to see traditional altars in the city of Puebla? Head to the historic center. The IMACP plans to show off the semifinalists in its 42nd annual altar-building contest at the Galería del Palacio Municpal (Portal Hidalgo #12, Col. Centro) from Nov. 1 to 4, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Just across the zócalo, on the other side of the Cathedral, the Casa de Cultura (5 Oriente #5) hosts its own colorful competition, as well artists selling Day of the Dead jewelry, figurines, and snacks. Both events typically draw a spectacular array of altars, or ofrendas, in styles varying from indigenous to innovative.

Meanwhile, the Museo Amparo hosts a Fandango de Muertos on Nov. 1 and 2 at the museum (2 Sur #708). The family-oriented events feature a marionette show about Day of the Dead at 6 p.m., followed by the traditional musical stylings of Poblano folk group Reyes Son at 7:30 p.m. The Amparo is also participating in the city-sponsored Museum Nights on the same days. Admission to the Amparo, as well as eight other galleries, is free after 5 p.m. or so (hours vary at different locations). For complete details and participating sites, click here [PDF].

Other scheduled events in Puebla’s 2012 La Muerte Es Un Sueño festival include: “Living statues” in the Pasaje de Ayuntamiento (the enclosed walkway next to the Palacio Municipal), Nov. 1 through 4, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.; various performances of pre-Hispanic music and dance by Grupo Azteca Tonatiuh, Nov. 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the zócalo; a grand parade of traditional calaveras, from Paseo Bravo (corner of Reforma and 11 Norte) to the zócalo, Nov. 2 at 6 p.m.; and a concert by the Huapango trio Descendencia Huasteca, the “pre-Hispanic and electronic” band Rockercoátl, and cabaret singer Regina Orozco, Nov. 3, starting at 6 p.m.

Cholula

The Complejo Cultural de la BUAP (Vía Atlixcáyotl # 2499, San Andrés Cholula) brings Halloween and Day of the Dead together in a single celebration, Vive Muertos. Starting at noon on Oct. 31, the university campus will offer various musical, theatrical, and dance performances, including a re-enactment of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (6:30 p.m.). Visitors can also view altars, taste typical foods, make their own sugar skulls, and watch open-air movie screenings.

Cholula en Bici is also merging All Hallows’ Eve with All Saints’ Day on Oct. 31 with a bicycle tour of cemeteries around town that leaves the main square of San Pedro Cholula (Avenida Morelos at Miguel Alemán) at 8 p.m. Participants in the two-wheeled rodada panteonera are invited to decorate their bikes and bring food or drink to share.

Atlixco

The city of Atlixco has assembled a massive floral carpet for Day of the Dead, which is on public display in its zócalo through at least Nov. 10. It features a Catarina modeled after the post cards of cartoonist José Guadalupe Posadas — comprising some 150,000 marigolds, chrysanthemums, and amaranth and coleus plants. Meanwhile, a giant altar erected by city employees is on display inside El Palacio Municipal. Atlixco also plans to host a desfile de calaveras, or skull parade, downtown on Nov. 2.

Huaquechula

The trek to and around Huaquechula during its Feria de Todos los Santos is well worth it. Its unique altars, which can cost tens of thousands of pesos to assemble, are towering structures up to 10 feet tall. These ofrendas are often made of cardboard and covered with white or pastel-colored satin, and the shiny fabric gives the multilevel tributes a distinctive look. As noted above, the townspeople open their doors to the public, including curious tourists who’d like to pay their respects. Nearly 40 altars will be on display from Oct. 28 to Nov. 1 this year. If you go, wear walking shoes and start your tour at 2 p.m. at the cultural center on the town square, which provides a map to homes with altars. You can also follow the trails of marigold petals leading to the ofrendas from the street.

Chignahuapan

A bit further afield, in the town of Chignahuapan, the Festival of Light and Life takes place on Nov. 1. It features a torchlight procession and an artistic representation of the nine levels of Mictlán, the Aztec underworld. The procession, expected to draw some 2,000 people, starts around 6 p.m. and travels from the zócalo to the lake.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Post updated on October 25, 2012. The original version was published on Oct. 18, 2011.

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8 Responses to “Where to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Puebla”

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  1. Tom & Helen says:

    Hi there,

    Just found your website and it’s fantastic. We are a British couple, who just moved to Puebla, and are looking forward to the day of the dead.
    I got the impression from your article that Huaquechula is meant to be very impressive. Are there night time celebrations or just during the day? If so would you recommend booking a hostel there or is it possible to return to Puebla the same day? Thanks for the info!

    Helen & Tom

  2. I’ve been wanting to do this for an absolute time! Heard Oaxaca is the best place to see it, what would be your opinion on that?

    Wish my skull was made of sugar. I’d turn myself inside out and eat me if it was. Rather peckish now.

    I think I’m going to get a cookie.

    Great post!

  3. Rebecca says:

    Helen & Tom: Welcome to Puebla! Huaquechula’s altars are impressive. But it is also a very rural town that, as I recall, gets very dark when the sun sets, so you may want to bring a flashlight to help navigate the streets if you plan to visit people’s homes well after dark. Your tour will likely involve wandering around town to houses that are displaying altars (not all do). Vendors of food and artisanal wares usually set up shop around the main square, and there is a lovely ex-monastery nearby, too. I am unsure whether there are any hostels or hotels in Huaquechula, but the town is close enough to the Puebla capital to drive there and back in a day; it’s only about 45 minutes away by car. If you do not have a car, consider taking the Oro bus line to Atlixco and using that as your home base/overnight stay.

    Will: I’ve never been to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, so I can’t offer an opinion on that. But you could come and learn to make sugar skulls in Cholula!

    Thanks for your comments, everyone!

  4. Jesica says:

    This is great! I actually will be going next weekend so this is perfect as I want to see it allll!!!.. After years of tweeting, would love to meet you if youll be around!

  5. Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Jesica! So, you’ll be in Puebla next weekend? How exciting! Have a safe trip, and drop us a line (via Twitter or the Contact form above) when you’re in town.

  6. Tom & Helen says:

    thanks very much Rebecca! Looking forward to it.

  7. Tricia says:

    I’ve been hoping you’d give us a run-down of our options! Thanks so much.

  8. Rebecca says:

    You’re welcome, Tricia. Thanks for saying so. Enjoy Day of the Dead in Puebla!

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