You would think a holiday called Day of the Dead, would be a sobering, if not downright depressing experience. But in San Miguel Allende, Mexico, the weeklong commemoration, called La Calaca Festival, is a jubilant salute to the departed.
It is hard to imagine a bad day in San Miguel Allende, a colorful, historic town tucked into the hills of Central Mexico. For decades, the perennially mellow climate and lost in time quality of San Miguel Allende have drawn an influx of expats, many with an artisan bent. In recent years, San Miguel Allende has increasingly attracted the attention of in-the-know travelers. In 2017, San Miguel Allende drew the nod of Travel and Leisure Magazine as the ‘World’s Best City’.
Today, native Mexicans, transplants and visitors engage congenially in the time-warped cobbled streets of San Miguel Allende. Towering cathedrals, leafy plazas and fountain-strewn courtyards invite easy social interaction. Restaurants, watering holes and stores are family-owned. An active network of non-profit groups and social clubs foster a strong sense of community.
During the first days of November in San Miguel Allende, the town’s creative juices, civic spirit and cultural richness ramp up to a frenzied pitch during the Day of the Dead festivities. To be clear, the Day of the Dead in San MIguel Allende is not looked upon as a solemn remembrance, but rather viewed as an exuberant reunion of the living with the departed. Flower petals, candles and elaborate mosaics adorn cemeteries. Graves are laden with the earthly indulgences of lost loved ones: a pack of Marlboro Cigarettes, a bottle of bourbon, a bowl of papaya, freshly baked tortillas.
Graveyards become party central. Residential front doors open to the streets, inviting passersby to step inside and see the elaborate shrines within. Street vendors peddle sugary candy skulls, a reminder that death is not a bitter end, but simply a sweet transition in the cycle of life. Live music and folk dancing performances animate the churchyards and plazas.
The ubiquitous symbol of the Day of the Dead in San Miguel Allende is La Calavera Catrina, or the Dapper Skull. La Catrina takes the form of a female, dressed in the extravagant trappings of the social elite, an affirmation that death is the great leveler.
One of the highlights of the La Calaca Festival in San Miguel Allende is the Catrinas Parade. During the event, several hundred Catrina’s – and iterations of Catrina – make a rollicking procession through the streets, singing, dancing and dispensing treats to children. Far from a death march, the parade of the Catrina’s is more akin to a carefree Mardi Gras cavalcade.
There is a message in the merry madness of Day of the Dead in San Miguel Allende. Death is inevitable. A life well-lived is a choice.
San Miguel Allende Guide: Day of the Dead and Beyond
San Miguel Allende is a treasure trove of small, stylish hotels, but a relative newcomer, Sarabanda Boutique Hotel, elevates the game. A ‘Sarabanda’ is an erotic Latin fertility dance, and the moniker perfectly captures this seductive, chic love nest. The owners, a husband and wife team of Catalonian transplants, have meticulously converted a former colonial mansion to an elegant, five-suite pleasure palace.
The husband, Paco, is a maestro in the kitchen, creating transformative tasting breakfasts paired with designer coffees. One morning’s offerings: cassis-infused cantaloupe, broad beans marinated in peppermint, asparagus in foamed egg with parmesan, and zucchini in pimento layers, followed by a creamed coffee mousse. When you factor in the morning epicurean extravaganza, a stay at the Sarabanda Boutique Hotel is an impressive value.
Eat and Drink:
San Miguel Allende is becoming a foodie magnet on a level with Mexico’s more established culinary meccas like Oaxaca and Tulum. Wise visitors follow locals to lesser-known insider favorites, such as the laid back Café Oso Azul or eclectic Café Rama for a kick-start breakfast. Gastronomes flock to the diminutive garden courtyard of Néctar for guilt-free, veggie-centric creations. A loyal following beats a path to Hecho en México, a stalwart of Mexican staples and live music.
For authentic Mexican basics that become metamorphic under the influence of potent fish bowl margaritas, venture out-of-the-way to Tacos Don Felix. Newcomer, El Tupinamba, is creating a buzz, dishing out tapas, paella and flamenco, all under the glassy-eyed purview of the bullfighter-owner’s vanquished opponents.
San Miguel Allende has a secret second social scene on the rooftops overlooking the town’s many historic churches. Ex-pats favor sunset cocktails with panoramic views on the rooftop at La Azotea. Back on ground level, La Mezcalaría pairs serious small plates with creative cocktails in a subtly stylish setting. Other authentic watering holes worth ferreting out include endearlingly-retro Santos Crudoteca, graffiti-laden La Cucaracha and colorful La Sirena Gorda.
For a schedule of events associated with the Day of the Dead in San Miguel Allende, visit the official La Calaca Festival website. Most of the events are free to the public.
Fabrica La Aurora is an art and design center set within an architecturally interesting former textile factory. A visit to Fabrica La Aurora is an excellent primer on the full spectrum of artistic fertility of San Miguel Allende.
The streets of the historic district yield a mother lode of independent shopping options, like Sindashi, a purveyor of Catrina-worthy hand painted dresses. For more focused procurement, head to Dôce 18 Concept House, a curated assemblage of exclusive boutiques and eating emporiums.
The San Miguel Allende Public Library is a hub of community cohesion. Beyond books, the library hosts a film and concert theatre and a courtyard café. The library also offers a number of local tours. Don’t miss the library’s Sunday House and Garden tour which gives you a glimpse of the stylish, soothing sanctuaries that exist behind the residential doors of San Miguel Allende.