DAY OF THE DEAD ON JANITZIO ISLAND
Janitzio, a tiny Mexican island in the middle of the lake, has recently become world’s most popular destination for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Of course we could not miss the opportunity to see it with our own eyes and live the experience of the sacred night there.
We left CDMX on a late morning of November the 2nd heading towards our long time dream of spending Dias de Los Muertos on Janitzio island
GETTING TO PATZCUARO
Either travelling by car or by bus, you first arrive to Patzcuaro, a small town on the edge of the lake, well worth exploring on its own. Then you take a boat to Janitzio island where everyone will be heading to for the Day of the Dead celebrations. We had a car rented earlier in Mexico city airport for the purpose. One can also get to the destination by direct bus, but it takes more effort overall and leaves minimum accommodation options.
When driving from Mexico city towards Michoacán, you can choose to take free or toll roads. Free motorways are pretty ruined. Driving there will take double of your time and will require triple of your attention to the road. Driving on paid motorways will considerably (to Mexican standards) lighten your wallet, but on the other hand will allow you to save time and a little bit of nerves. (Not all the nerves though, since some sections of the toll roads have holes and bumps anyway. So when in Mexico – eyes on the road and foot on a break at all times ;))
You can easily navigate your way to Patzcuaro with Google Maps, selecting to use paid or free motorway in the settings of the route. We chose to use combination of paid and free roads that comprised an optimal route (to our opinion). But despite of passing on toll roads 60-70% of the journey, out travel time far exceeded Google estimations. It took us a bit more than 6 hours from the Mexico city central square to a family parking in Patzcuaro. This includes short stops to buy takeaway food, and quick check in into one of the road motels in Morelia area. Bottom line – you can rely on Google Maps in terms of directions, but not in terms of time estimates. This was actually true for the most of our road trips across Mexico.
We finally arrived to Patzcuaro when sun was almost ready to set for the night and crowds already flooded the streets of the town. We knew beforehand that it can take us other couple of hours just to find any parking place in this madness. Having taken a bold and risky decision to drive directly to the harbour, we were extremely lucky to find a family parking place a stone throw from the pier. It appears locals open the gates to their properties and allow visitors to park inside for a reasonable fee.
BOAT TO JANITZIO
Having left our car right in the middle of the garden of some lovely Mexican family, we headed towards the embarkation area. Soon enough we reached a gigantic queue of party-mooded people. Crowd stretched for several hundred meters. Not everyone in there knew what exactly they are queuing for. It took a while to understand that one needs to buy a ticket to the boat in the ticket office first, and with the tickets you can start queuing for the boat itself. Street food stands with colourful local treats were calling us from every corner. So before to split for the two queues we topped up with delicious bites to turn the waiting time into more fun.
Meanwhile more and more people were arriving every minute. After some half an hour it all turned into complete mess. There were no queues anymore but a stormy ocean of people. Still trying to let elderly and families with littleones in front, I was literally lifted and carried by the crowd to the ticket window and finally got hold of the cherished tiny pieces of paper. Those are return tickets (called ‘regreso’ in Spanish), so make sure you do not lose the second piece to come back.
Now, where is my husband? I saw him just a moment ago and yet he is gone. That is a good challenge to find someone in this tipsy Calavera crowd!
Crowd has brought Giovanni to the pier stairs when I found him, so we were right on time to board the next boat. Boats were loading fast, few at a time, to serve all those thronging on the shore.
Finally. In complete darkness, clinging to each other in the cold, to the loud beats of local melodies coming from the boat speakers, we are approaching the infamous island of Janitzio on the Day of the Dead!
Both streets that take you from the lake into the island are actually stairs locked between colourful souvenir shops. Souvenirs are not extremely overpriced and there is a good variety of choice to anyone’s taste. We got some presents for our relatives and friends in Janitzio.
Each shop is attached to a dwelling of a local family, so passing by you can peep at how life flows on the island. Moms dandle toddlers, grandmoms cook dinner, man play board games. Most of Janitzio population aged 4 to 10 are already dressed in traditional clothing and made up as Cavaleras. They are on a mission performing local variant of trick-or-treat. And of course candies is not what they are interested in. Tonight is the year’s biggest earning night for them.
The two essential places to head to on Janitzio island are Panteon (that is one of the words for cemetery in Spanish) and the viewpoint topped with a monument to Jose Maria Morelos (hero of the Mexican independence war). On the Night of the Dead there is a real feast of street food at the viewpoint as well as a discotheque – can you believe it? As for the statue – you can even get inside for a nominal fee. Since the line to join was quite impressive, we decided to earn some time by skipping it altogether. However the interior of the statue looks cool on pictures from other travellers, so if you have enough time – definitely get in. While exploring Janitzio we also came across few very photogenic chapels
There are a few twists and turns on the way to the top. Not to get lost, it is better to keep an offline map of Janitzio island at hand. I am suggesting offline because there will be hardly any 3g/4g connection there at the time of event, taking to account thousands of visitors.
Those who are fancy folk performances should not miss the open air concert organised by the locals on the Southern tip of the island. We briefly watched it from far away and rushed to the main attraction of Janitzio – the Panteon
VISITING THE PANTEON
is the main reason people come to Janitzio island on the Day of the Dead.
By the time we finally reached the Panteon it was so packed that it took us some 15-20 minutes just to pass through the gates. Curious tourists were literally everywhere – jumping on the graves, poking camera shutters into the faces of grieving locals, flying drones in the pitch darkness above thousands of heads.
The place itself is definitely magical and special, but what happens there on the Night of the Dead is pure madness. Would we return there again – probably no. If we are lucky to be in Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebration again we would go far off the beaten tourist track. There are still so many secluded beautiful places to explore there. Do we regret choosing the Panteon of Janitzio island on the Day of the Dead – hell no! It was cool anyway. The only thing I would have done differently is planning to arrive much earlier, before the dusk. The most beautiful pictures of Panteon come out in the twilight. By the time we got to the place it was completely dark so we were left with much less opportunities for any good shots
I would be very curious to hear an honest thoughts of locals who spend this most sacred night surrounded by strangers with photo cameras. Do they allow us there just because they have no other options or are they actually approving this overwhelming supply of tourists?
Meanwhile, we had to get out of the cemetery before the ever growing crowd would collapse.
After visiting Panteon we continued strolling narrow steep streets of the island. But only until getting caught in a gigantic pedestrian jam. Two flows of people – those going up and down were not able to disperse. So the whole area got paralyzed. Hundreds of people were standing still and looking around for a way to escape. It was a clear sign for us: high time to return to the mainland. Soon enough we were back on the boat, cutting the black mirror of the lake in Patzcuaro direction.
When we set our feet back in Patzcuaro after midnight, lot’s of people were still queuing and boarding boats to Janitzio. I could not imagine how they all were going to fit in there, but at that moment we had more complex challenges to resolve. The street where we parked our car 7 hours before now turned into a cemetery of vehicles. Buses and minibuses full of tourists, fancy jeeps of local gangsters and tiny old wrecks like ours – all were standing without any sign of motion and helplessly beeping from time to time. Our situation was even more complicated since we had to make a u-turn first. It took us a bit less than an hour to get out and finally hit the road. The way in our direction thankfully cleared up quite soon. But the other side represented one big congestion stretching far beyond the town limits. More and more cars were arriving from everywhere, turning opposite lanes into endless beading of lights.
We drove for another hour to get to our highway motel. So that next day we could get to Morelia fairly easy. Morelia is a lovely colonial city to visit, and they create gorgeous altars and carpets during the Days of the Dead celebrations. But – that is another travel story to tell…