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Day of the Dead Celebrations

By Diane Meader Leibinger

A unique, cultural experience is to visit Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, during one of its most popular ancient traditions: the festival of Día de Muertos, which translates to, “Day of the Dead.”

Between November 1 and 2, this national holiday celebrates both life and death in a creative, joyous, and colorful way. It is one holiday to be sure to carry your camera at all times!

The Day of the Dead is a very special ritual, since it is the day in which the living remember those who have departed. On November 1, also known as “Día de los Angelitos” is when children who have passed are remembered, while on November 2, adults are remembered.

Day of the Dead is a blend between Aztec rituals and Catholicism, brought by the Spaniards, which is the reason these two dates coincide with the Roman Catholic All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd).

Many visitors to Puerto Vallarta who are not from Mexico think the Day of the Dead is a day of sadness, sorrow, dread, and other frightening feelings. It is not; Day of the Dead is a beautiful ritual performed happily and lovingly with festivals and lively celebrations to remember all the loved departed relatives and friends from earth.

Families hold vigils, visit cemeteries, and prepare delicious food. Homes are typically adorned with photographs of those who have died. Be prepared for an abundance of bright colors, flowers, creativity, and even humour lovingly created in the many displays and traditions honoring the deceased.

Legend is that the souls of the dead briefly return each year to visit their earthbound loved ones. This multi-day holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and to help support their spiritual journey.

Lively activities celebrate the lives of the deceased with food, drink, and parties that the deceased enjoyed in life. On this day, the dead are considered part of the community, and awakened to share in celebrations with their loved ones.

A few days before the festival, residents gather throughout the city to create temporary altars. Each year a theme is selected for these festivities. Altars are decorated with marigold flowers, food, and pictures of the deceased.

These shrines are displayed in parks, streets, eateries, resorts, local stores, restaurants and even hotels. Crosses, flowers, candles, incense, glasses of water, traditional sweet bread, sugar skulls, and salt are a few of the items that must be included.

These offerings represent the four natural elements: Earth (food), wind (tissue paper moving with the breeze), water (for the spirits to ease their thirst after their long journey) and fire (a candle lit for each of the deceased). The cross symbolizes the four direction points needed so the special visitors can find their way back.

For a more traditional take on the holiday, stop by Puerto Vallarta’s oldest municipal cemetery, Panteon 5 de Diciembre during the day or evening. This landmark offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to folks looking for an insider’s view of the way locals honor their deceased.

Families are often found placing flowers and offerings on their loved ones’ graves and remembering them with their favorite music. Although you are allowed to take part in these moments of reverence, it is vital to keep quiet and treat the locals in the cemetery with respect.

If you are planning on bringing a camera (and you should), just keep in mind that the time shared by families at the cemetery is more solemn in nature. I suggest respecting their intimacy by keeping a safe distance and using your photo gear discreetly.

According to Mexican wisdom, you insult death by giving into melancholy, which is why families and friends actually spend time in cemeteries during the day, and continue late into the night. Favorite food and drinks for both the deceased and the living are spread out on, or by the gravestones. Each year, picnicking at the gravesite is spent joyfully and respectfully remembering the departed.

The official flower used to honor the dead is the marigold, as the color yellow is similar to the sun and represents life and hope. These flowers are used to decorate altars and graveyards.

Special Dia de Muertos bread is a sweet roll called, “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead). It is baked into the shape of bones and skulls and is only made during this time of the year. Locals and visitors fill the streets and graveyards for the festivities, with many painting their faces white, with black circles around their eyes and stitches over their lips, to look like living skeletons.

It is a celebration of the cycle of life.

If you want to get to know a different side of Puerto Vallarta besides its beautiful landscapes, it is highly suggested to visit the beginning of November. I strongly recommend that you take the time to explore the streets and alleyways; there are plenty of temporary altars with each one offering a unique aspect.

Also, plan a visit to the Municipal cemetery for an insider view of the cultural traditions of this country.

Lessons Learned

This is a very popular festival with tourists and should be planned a year in advance to ensure hotel availability.

I think it is important enough to repeat that during these celebrations you should always carry your camera (and with plenty of backup batteries & cards).

Be sure to find a local paper on the actual dates, times, and activities. Check with your hotel or the local tourism board for information.

Arrive a few days before to wander around the Malecon, the boardwalk area along the beach. It is interesting to see all the decorating activities, and you can take photos without the huge crowds on actual festival days.

Now is the time to

Dream. Travel. Discover.

Diane Meader Leibinger is a freelance travel writer and photographer located in Asheville, NC and Basel, Switzerland. Contact her at


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