We’ve celebrated El Día de los Muertos in recent years by building ofrendas (tables filled with flowers, food, and photos of loved ones who have passed on), walking in candlelit parades and eating pan de muerto (the traditional, slightly-sweet bread baked for this holiday.) Our local celebration has grown with each passing year and is one of our favorite nights each November because it brings together individuals excited to share old traditions or learn new ones.
This year we wanted to celebrate El Día de los Muertos in Mexico. Lucky for us, one of our best friends is from Mexico City and invited us to visit with her and her family who live there. Traveling with someone from the area is always our favorite way to travel so we were excited to plan a long weekend with her. We were not disappointed!
Mexico City’s traffic and expansiveness define how you explore and experience this city. The double decker highways, rotundas with cars going in opposite directions, and lack of clearly defined lanes all call for a driver that knows the area. We traveled by car all three days of our trip without incident except an exhilarating midnight tour through Tepito, one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
We arrived in the early morning on November 1st. The warm, sunny day beckoned us to visit the Dolores Olmedo Museum with our friend and her childhood neighbor. We quickly learned to always be prepared for sporadic rain showers and cooler temperatures as the day goes on. The exhibit, El Mundo de los Muertos, celebrated the passage from life to death in the ancient cultures of Egypt, China, Scandinavia and Mexico. Created from paper and wax, all of the scenes were colorful, detailed, and a bit amusing. A visit to the museum allowed us to view the world’s most important collection of Diego Rivera paintings.
After a jaunt in the car, we arrived at Zócalo or the Plaza de la Constitución to see the center of the festivities surrounded by El Palacio Nacional and La Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México (made famous in the helicopter scene from the James Bond film Spectre.) First, we stopped at La Casa de los Azulejos for a quick break to eat molletes (a traditional dish of bread, beans, cheese, and pico de gallo) and to begin absorbing the elegant atmosphere of this historic city.
The celebrations in the city center were filled with ofrendas, street food, music and people dressed as skeletons (calaveras and Catrinas.) The theme for the city’s ofrenda paid homage to South American, Jewish, Spanish and Asian migrants by depicting their travels on the 9 Paths to Mictlán, the Aztec´s underworld. The Megaofrenda installed by UNAM remembered those who died at the 1968 Olympics fifty years ago.
During a short downpour we escaped inside of the majestic cathedral.
The next morning, November 2nd, we set out on another excursion to the city center where we walked through markets beside the Palacio de Bellas Artes before visiting the San Fernando Pantheon and the Church of San Hipólito. A quick taxi ride took us back to the Plaza de la Constitución which was comfortably filled with visitors being ritually cleaned with herbs while dancers from diverse regions of the country performed in their traditional dress with fantastic feather headpieces. We witnessed and enjoyed this blending of cultures between the catholic cathedral on one side and the ruins of El Templo Mayor on the other. This ancient temple was the center of the Aztec world and only excavated in the last forty years. While walking around the ruins we could see the individual levels built by each successive ruler. In the Museo del Templo Mayor were incredible statues and carvings from the original temple.
We indulged in a long lunch while the rain fell outside of the balcony at La Casa de Las Sirenas.
Our day continued at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas which houses exhibits from China, Persia, ancient Greece and, luckily, more ofrendas and an excellent exhibit of Catrinas.
We couldn’t resist revisiting the city’s ofrendas with a new friend and his incredible homemade skeleton mask. Afterwards, we shared lively conversation, pozole, traditional quesadillas and, of course, chocolate con churros in the vibrant Casa Churro Centro CD de Mexico. A stroll around the city led us to the lovely restaurant Azul Histórico, and shopping. While buying clay masks for our house, we inadvertently learned a new phrase from Patricia, who sells Mexican artwork at Talento Mexicano Bazar. When she said, “¿Me estás dando el avión?” which means “You are not paying attention to me,” Holly heard it as “You are taking this on the plane?” We then shared a huge laugh, the kind you can only enjoy when you let yourself step into the vulnerability of being out of your comfort zone.
We ended the evening with our friend’s extended family for their celebration at home. We loved all of the colorful decorations, their ofrenda and, most of all, their hospitality.
Our final day, November 3rd, started with brunch at Saks Restaurant in the San Angel neighborhood. The exceptional wait staff, breeze from the balcony, stained glass, tequila bar, vertical garden,and excellent conversation made this a meal to remember. When we stepped outside, the Saturday bazaar was in full swing and we shopped in stalls, distinctive stores, and indoor markets all the while people-watching and exploring the cobblestone streets.
A short drive and a miracle with parallel parking took us to a neighborhood closeby. Here, we made a quick visit to the San Angel Inn and then a tour of Diego Rivera’s studio and the house where he lived with Frida Kahlo. Built in the 1920s, the complex must have made an architectural impact on the city with its modern, concrete design. The story of the two artists and their lives here was fascinating. Afterwards, a few steps away at “Cafe Ó,” we couldn’t stop eating the goat cheese with black olive appetizer and sipping their refreshing cucumber limeade.
We passed the rest of the evening in the enormous Jardín Centenario in the historic Coyoacán neighborhood. The atmosphere here was incredible with performances on stage, walking serenades, children’s lighted balloons, creative ofrendas, and families enjoying it all together. Inside of the San Juan Bautista Church we watched a quinceañera celebration with the honoree in a layered toile pink dress. With sprinkles giving a hint of the rain to come, we ended our celebration and drove home.
Traveling always makes one live in the moment more than the daily rituals allow. There are new people, new traditions, new food, new vistas…new everything! This trip with its blend of pageantry and remembrance was one that especially made us thankful for those past and present who left their presence with us and helped to create who we are today. We await more travels that will define us with family visits and time with friends new and old as we incorporate the people we meet and their ways of living from around the world into our life. This is what makes living really living!