Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is traditionally a Mexican holiday to remember and honor the dead. I traveled to San Miguel de Allende to join in the celebrations and to work on my street photography skills.
San Miguel de Allende is considered by some to be one of the prettiest cities in Mexico. Located in the central highlands, the streets are hilly and cobblestoned, with colonial architecture and charming plazas and parks. An art center known for high-end galleries and boutiques, the city attracts a large number of tourists, and retirees from the United States. English is spoken by many, which helps with communication when you are taking pictures.
Day of the Dead is celebrated different days in different places. In San Miguel it is actually over two days: November 1 to remember children and November 2 to remember adults. The festivities, however, start early during the days leading up to November 1. There are parades, construction of altars built in memory of the departed (ofrendas), and people out on the streets with painted faces and dressed in costumes. Public markets open up for the sole purpose of selling products used for the holiday. Music is in the squares, art fairs in the parks, art installations in varied locations, and dancing in the evening in the main plaza, called El Jardin. Juarez Park had activities for children and a very impressive altar during my visit. There is also a participatory arts festival called La Calaca with a multitude of events.
If you do decide to visit San Miguel during the festivities, plan ahead and check the calendar of local activities on the Internet. Consult with the front desk of your hotel for updated information. The city is a beautiful place to photograph on a normal day. Photographic opportunities are seemingly endless during the holiday.
As the days get closer to November 1, you will notice more and more altars honoring the dead everywhere. The altars come in all shapes and sizes and can be simple or very elaborate. They are colorful, and adorned with photographs, food, candy, mementos, flowers (marigolds are a traditional flower for the holiday), pictures, skeletons, and skulls. The whole city seems to walk around admiring the different altars and taking photographs, particularly around El Jardin.
You will hear the name Catrina constantly during your stay, and you will see her likeness. Catrina is a symbol of the holiday—a well-dressed skeleton. Skeleton dolls and paintings are everywhere. Faces painted like skeletons walk past you on the street. There is a Catrina parade at night when hundreds of people parade the main streets dressed in their Catrina best. The big parade was held October 30 when I was visiting. It was a highlight. The whole city seemed to be there. My suggestion is to talk to the locals and ask them the best spot to sit to get a good view of the main parade, and how early to be there to get a good seat. That’s what I did, and my seat was perfect.
Central to all San Miguel fiestas are the giant dancing puppet figures known as the Mojigangas. It didn’t matter what street I was walking on–I eventually bumped into one or two of these delightful figures.
Plan to go to the large cemetery November 1 and/or November 2. It is located on Viejo Camino al Panteón, which is parallel to Ancha San Antonio, a main artery into the city center. The cemetery will be a beehive of activity. Graves are cleaned and decorated and altars built. Strolling musicians play music. Entire families share the experience together, telling stories of the departed to their children and grandchildren. Many shared their stories with me and my friends.
There are lots of flower markets and outdoor flower vendors on the way to the big cemetery, along Viejo Camino al Panteón. Walk down the street early, when people are buying big bunches of flowers to place on graves and in altars. You will feel the electricity in the air.
Once you have decided to do the trip, book your rooms as soon as possible. I suggest a hotel or B&B walking distance of El Jardin. Chances are you will be out very late at night taking pictures, and it is easier to be able to walk back to your room. Also if you have to get something from your room, like an extra battery, memory card or monopod, you will be happy your room is not too far way. Uber is available as are taxis and buses.
Most people fly into Guanajuato International Airport, about 1 1/2 hours from San Miguel. I flew to the airport directly from Dallas. There are shuttles that go back and forth to San Miguel. I recommend reserving a shuttle ahead. A shared shuttle is available and less expensive, but realize you will be spending time waiting for the other riders. I used Bajiogo and found them very reliable.
I left San Miguel with a warm heart and a greater understanding and appreciation of a very special holiday, a holiday that brought the entire community together. Now, wherever I might be the end of October, I check the local calendar to see if there are any Day of the Dead festivities to enjoy and to photograph.