Día de Muertos: dancing with the dead

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A visit to Mexico at the beginning of November will afford an unsuspecting visitor a startling sight: streets adorned with papier-mâché skeletons, children eating candy skulls, shops selling marzipan coffins, and locals dressed in skeleton costumes engaged in highly un-skeletonlike activities such as riding bicycles, playing music or getting married.

This gloriously grisly event, happening every 1-2 November, is called Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). It's an annual remembrance of departed souls, encapsulating Mexico's upbeat treatment of immortality and making it one of the world's most universally familiar festivals.

In a belief system inherited from the Aztecs, Mexicans believe their dead are lurking in Mictlan, a kind of spiritual waiting room, and they can return to their homes at this time of year. It originally fell around August, but the Christian conquistadors, hoping to assimilate the heathen holiday through their favoured tactic of cultural mestizaje (mixing), moved it to the day after All Saints' Day.

Families thus begin preparations to help the spirits find their way home and to make them welcome, starting with an arch made of bright-yellow marigolds - a symbolic doorway from the underworld. An altar is erected and piled high with offerings to the invisible visitors: flowers, ribbons, coloured candles, tamales (steam-cooked cornmeal dough), fruit and corn. Two important additions are a container of water, because the spirits arrive thirsty after their journey, and pan de muertos (bread of the dead). The loaf is made with egg yolks, fruits and tequila or mezcal, and is adorned with, or shaped as, a symbol of death.

The event climaxes with a visit to the cemetery. There might be a funfair en route, with neon-lit rides and stands selling crucifix waffles and cooked cactus snacks. Families will devote a day to cleaning the graves, decorating them with candles and flores del muerto (flowers of the dead), having picnics and dancing to mariachi bands. By now, the streets are full of papier-mâché skeletons, which are life-size but could never pass for the real thing in their dresses, jewellery, flowery boas and hats. A cigarette dangles jauntily from a white hand, a hoop earring hangs against a bare jawbone.

Related article: Día de Muertos (Day Of The Dead): how to celebrate the dead in Mexico

Celebrations take place all over the country, but their heartland is southern Mexico, where indigenous culture is strongest. Mixquic, southeast of Mexico City, is known as 'City of the Dead' for its procession that calls at shrines to the deceased. A popular location is Oaxaca, where there are graveyard tours and a 'best altar' competition.

If you do find yourself in the north, head to Guanajuato, where salesmen dole out mummy candies outside the gruesome Museo de las Momias (Museum of Mummies). On Janitzio Island, Lake Pátzcuaro, the arrival of flower-covered, candlelit canoes begins a nightlong vigil-come-party.

Although you have to work hard to reach small villages and organise accommodation there, it's worth getting out of the main towns and cities to catch more traditional festivities.

Is your morbid curiosity piqued? Read more in Lonely Planet's latest guide to Mexico or peruse A Year of Festivals for other seasonal travel ideas.