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Day of the Dead Throwback

October 31, 2016 by Michael Eiseman divider image
day of the dead in guatemala

It’s Halloween 2016, and the VIP team is gearing up for a night of frightful fun. We had such a great response to our Day of the Dead post from last year, we thought it would be fun to share it again for a bit of a redux.

Here is our Day of the Dead throwback:

As we gear up for Halloween here in the U.S. by donning our most bone-chilling makeup, spookiest costumes and our oversized candy collection buckets to solicit treats in the neighborhood or dance the night away with friends, our neighbors to the south are making preparations of their own.

On the surface Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, looks a lot like Halloween. Some countries in Latin American are even beginning to integrate trick-or-treating into their more traditional festivities. But, Day of the Dead, which has roots in indigenous pre-Colombian rites and rituals before merging with the Catholicism brought by Spanish conquistadors, is actually very different from the Northern European tradition of All Hallow’s Eve.

A UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity awardee, Dia de los Muertos takes place around All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day November 1 and 2. This joyous, if macabre, holiday honors and celebrates loved ones who have passed on during the time of year many ancient civilizations believe the veil between worlds is thinnest. Although specifics vary across regions, it’s generally believed the dead are insulted by mourning and sadness and return from their eternal slumber to rejoin the living and become a spirited part of the community during this time of year.

Some cultures craft altars at home and decorate them with the favorite food and drinks of the deceased, as well as flowers, pictures, candles and wash basins. Others clean and decorate graves before enjoying a picnic with their friends and family who have crossed over. Some share funny stories in remembrance, while others fly giant kites. But all exude a happy ambiance recognizing death as a natural part of life.

Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Day of the Dead is the calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). Generally portrayed in fancy dress and funny situations, these appear almost everywhere during the holiday, including sweet treats, carvings, dolls, masks, kites and more. It is believed this artistic flair comes from the ancient indigenous tradition of keeping skulls as trophies to symbolize life, death and re-birth. In fact, some cultures still keep skulls today! Another symbol of the holiday is the bright orange marigold, which you’ll find on numerous altars, marking the graves of adults and being sold by street vendors at the gates of cemeteries.

If you’d like to get a peek at the traditional Dia de los Muertos festivities but stay out of the crowded parties in Mexico, where the holiday is most internationally recognized, there are abundant celebrations in Central and South America we highly recommend. From the rowdy atmosphere of Lima, Peru, to the more subdued finados of Rio, here are some of our favorite Day of the Dead celebrations in Latin America:

Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, Guatemala

day of the dead in guatemalaDay of the Dead is a family-oriented holiday in Guatemala with visits to the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of loved ones before enjoying a picnic of fiambre (a salad of up to 50 ingredients only made this time of year). But, that doesn’t mean visitors won’t find a happy and festive atmosphere. Although there will definitely be music and dancing, the absolute highlight of a trip to Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango is the huge Mayan kites flown with handwritten messages attached to communicate with the dead. With some kites as big as 30 feet tall, locals begin constructing these colorful kites out of all natural materials a full 40 days before the holiday.

Lima, Peru

day of the dead in peru

In Peru, the celebration of Dia de los Muertos is primarily an Andean tradition marked by staying up all night to party with deceased loved ones in the graveyard. Today, many Andean immigrants have migrated to the Lima metropolitan area, making the Lima Day of the Dead festivities the largest in Peru. Peruvians from across the country and beyond flock to Lima to celebrate in local cemeteries, but Cemetery Nueva Esperanza (one of the largest graveyards in the world) plays host to the biggest Dia de los Muertos celebration in Peru, transforming into a street festival of sorts with folk artists, musicians and street vendors arriving after dark for the party.

Quito, Ecuador

day of the dead in ecuador

In Ecuador, the holiday is known as Dia de los Difuntos, or Day of the Ancestors, and it’s celebrated by visiting the cemetery in fancy dress to share a meal on top of the graves of loved ones. A plate always is left for those who have passed on, including traditional fare such as gauguas de pan (decorated bread babies sometimes filled with jam or cheese) and colada morada (a purple oatmeal drink of blackberries, blueberries, cloves, cinnamon and sometimes other fruits and spices). The small Andean villages provide the most traditional look at Dia de los Dinfuntos, but visiting Quito’s San Diego Cemetery (sometimes called the Corner of Souls and one of the country’s oldest cemeteries) allows access to hundreds of families dancing, singing and eating while celebrating their ancestors.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

day of the dead in rio

In Rio, Day of the Dead is a national holiday called finados and the festivities actually are somewhat subdued by Brazilian standards. Here, families mark the occasion by visiting the tombs of loved ones and leaving food, drinks and thousands of flickering candles, making for quite an impressive and beautiful site at cemeteries throughout the city. As night falls, Day of the Dead parties do begin to dot the streets— though much smaller and more spread out than Carnival celebrations (as a reference point for those who have experienced the world’s largest party). You aren’t likely to find a lot of traditional garb in Rio; for that, you’ll need to venture to smaller towns and villages.

La Paz, Bolivia

day of the dead in boliviaWinning the award for most macabre of them all is the traditional Andean practice of keeping the skulls of ancestors to watch over the family and then decorate and honor with offerings before bringing them to the cemetery during Fiestas de las Natitas (Day of the Skulls). Believed to bring good luck and protection to the family, Day of the Skulls is an off-shoot of Day of the Dead and not celebrated by everyone in Bolivia, but those who do participate in this unique ritual do so about a week after Dia de los Muertos, so it is possible to catch Day of the Dead in Peru or Ecuador and then head to Bolivia for Day of the Skulls.

Tired of trick-or-treating and want to experience Day of the Dead instead? Call us today to begin planning your Dia de los Muertos themed tour of Central or South America!


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