Dia de Muertos

What a full on few days in Pátzcuaro! We were lucky enough to be able to enjoy the festivities with the locals – artisan markets, street food, dance and music performances, face painting, and a general atmosphere of anticipation, love and celebration.

Dia de Muertos is a celebration of those who have passed. The locals believe that every year on November 1st and 2nd, their loved ones return to visit them, and must be welcomed home with ofrendas (altars) decorated with wild marigold flowers and the favourite food and drink of the people who have crossed over. The first of November is the day the angelitos (deceased children) come to visit, and the second is the day the adults arrive. As such, this time of the year is a celebration and not a sad time – though there is certainly reflection and memories shared, the strongest sensations felt are excitement and love.

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An ofrenda for an angelito

When we woke up on the 1st November, our first instinct was to head back to the markets we’d seen the day before and explore to our heart’s content. However, our stomachs beat our hearts and we stopped on the way for some more Mexican food at a little café near our hotel. I tentatively asked one of the waitresses if there was anything vegetarian on the menu and she offered me a few choices. I picked flautitas con frijoles, queso y patata – miniature, fried tortillas filled with refried beans, cheese and potato, topped with shredded cabbage and a tomato sauce – they were delicious! Alex chose to take a gamble and try the menu del dia – menu of the day. He ended up with sopa tarasca, guisado de pollo, and the postre del dia – the same soup I had yesterday; a chicken stew served with rice, refried beans and soft tortillas; and the dessert of the day, which was a caramel flan. The sopa tarasca was creamier and thicker than mine from the day before, and somewhat more flavoursome. The main chicken dish was filling and well-rounded, with a lovely mix of flavours and textures; and the dessert was the perfect end to our meal – sweet but not overpoweringly so, packed full of flavour, and sensationally smooth. After thanking our waitresses, we walked to the markets, guided by the sound of music and fun.

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Flautitas

As we approached the stage in the middle of Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, a band was playing various string instruments, accompanied by dancers dressed in brightly coloured clothing, wearing masks of elderly people. They comedically approached the stage, wobbling as they shuffled along with their walking sticks, before jumping into a very fast and well-choreographed tap dance. The crowd laughed and clapped, and we couldn’t help but join in.

The artisan markets were calling our names, and we followed willingly. It was a delight to every one of our senses – the smells of the hot cakes; the sounds of the crowd rapidly chattering away in Spanish interrupted by the music drifting our way from the stage; the colours and incredibly creative artefacts… we didn’t know in which direction to look at any given time, and were constantly pulling each other and pointing out exciting new visions to take in. Almost everything here was made locally and the people were proud of their products, from jewellery and clothing (yes, including many ponchos), to wooden dolls, straw baskets and Dia de Muertos figurines, to homemade clay barbecues, and endless kinds of food.

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Barbecues and pots for sale

Walking past an empty-looking kiosk, we peered curiously at the tabletop, and noticed that it was a face-painting stall. Without hesitation, we both chose designs and sat down to have our faces painted in Dia de Muertos designs. Apart from the enormous quantity of razor-sharp glitter completely encircling my eyes, we loved our new faces, and set off to enjoy the rest of our day in true Pátzcuaro style.

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Our Dia de Muertos face-paint

The evening had many more performances in store, involving several different traditional outfits worn by men and women, young and old, largely tap-dancing but also exhibiting elegantly fluid movements across the stage in bare feet. After watching these until well after the sun was truly asleep, we wandered in a direction we thought we knew to hold a convenience store for some much-needed water purchases. Unfortunately, we were wrong about our local street knowledge. Fortunately, it led us instead to another, completely different kind of market. In these markets were feather earrings and necklaces, henna tattoos, crystals, tie-dyed t-shirts, local medicinal herbs, and even a peyote gel infused with marijuana. Needless to say, we made no purchases here, but it was fascinating to see the differences in the people that frequented each marketplace. In the centre of this market was a shrine to an angelito, which hosted the traditional marigolds, candles, and Dia de Muertos decorations, as well as a photo of the little boy, fruit bowls, and several toy cars and trucks for him to play with when he arrived home. It was extremely touching to see and brought home the true meaning of Dia de Muertos to the people of this small but incomparably enchanting town.

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One of the enchanting cultural performances

We finally found an open churro vendor and ordered one filled with lechera – sweetened condensed milk. It was a firmer dough than we get in Australia but, once covered with sugar and cinnamon and filled with delicious sweetness, it still tasted amazing.

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Another performance about the meaning of Dia de Muertos

The second of November saw us amble in a different direction to where we had before, to explore more of Pátzcuaro’s magical streets. We happened across a man and his young son riding horses, wearing cowboy hats and looking like they had just ridden out of a movie set; a group of men working on some power lines in a manner that would definitely not pass occupational health and safety standards in Australia; and a few pieces of beautiful street art we had to pause to admire. Pátzcuaro might be an old town, but it is still one of surprises!

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“Welcome to my magic town” – Street art in Patzcuaro

Alex’s first real Mexican burrito was filled with chicken, rice, refried beans and cheese. It’s always very interesting to try food in its country of origin, and try to jettison preconceived ideas of what these foods should taste like based on how we are used to eating them. I have heard from many a traveller that pizza in Italy is completely different to what we are used to having in Australia, whereupon we pile endless ingredients onto thick bases; rather than cherishing a few select flavours on a crisp, thin base created with love and practice. In a similar fashion, we in Australia are used to packing our burritos full of herbs, spices, condiments, salads and meats, until we aren’t entirely sure what flavours we are attempting to taste anymore. In Mexico, burritos are designed to showcase the flavour of the meat, while being a wholesome and complete meal. Alex’s first impression was that the burrito was bland – perhaps this trip will be an important lesson in bringing our tastes back to cherishing simple flavours, rather than expecting every mouthful to be packed full of so many different flavours that we lose track of the point in the first place.

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Burrito con pollo

Our evening was finished off with beautiful fireworks exploding through the dark night sky over a town that has thoroughly won our hearts, and of which we will dream in years to come.

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Fireworks over Patzcuaro

Before catching our bus back to Mexico City, we ducked out for breakfast in a café we had been admiring since we arrived in Pátzcuaro. Watching two men play chess next to us, we were treated to freshly baked buns with butter and jam; café con leche – coffee served with sweetened condensed milk; fresh orange juice; and eggs of our choice. Alex chose poached, while I decided to live a little and pick huevos a la mexicana – Mexican style eggs. It never occurred to me (even after all of the lecturing from my Mexican friends back home that Mexican style necessarily means ‘with chili’) that this would mean ‘spicy eggs’. When they arrived, I excitedly dug in – scrambled eggs with tomato and green capsicum, served with refried beans and queso – cheese. As it turned out, I don’t believe there was any green capsicum in the eggs – rather, I’m fairly confident that it was green chili. Nonetheless, when in Rome (or Mexico) – so I powered through, and thoroughly enjoyed it (even if I did leave a few skerricks of chili to the side).

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Huevos a la Mexicana

We checked out of our hotel, hailed a taxi, and were on our way to the bus station – or at least, we thought we were. On the way, our taxi driver went a few blocks in the wrong direction, and picked up his wife and baby. Once we arrived at the bus stop, we confidently tried to board the bus with ‘Mexico Norte’ – our destination – written across the front, and were confidently told that this was not, in fact, our bus, and we should wait for the next one. So wait we did, when a Canadian couple politely asked us if we were in line for the bus. We told them what had happened, and checked their tickets – they were bound for the same bus as us, which was apparently not this one. Nevertheless, it gave us time to talk to them, and in the short few minutes we had, we garnered incredibly illuminating information about Mexico and Cuba from them. That evening, we received a long email from them with many tips for us about where we should go and what we should see while in Cuba. New travel lesson learned – never miss an opportunity to talk to someone waiting in line for a bus; it might make your whole trip infinitely better!

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An ofrenda in Plaza Vasco de Quiroga

To finish off our evening once we arrived in Mexico City once more, we ducked out to the nearby Tortas El Cuadrilátero, a Lucha libre (wrestling) themed sandwich shop with an infamous promise – if you finish their el gladiador sandwich –  40 centimetres long, 1.2 kilograms heavy – in 15 minutes, you get it for free. We were in no way inclined to even attempt it, after seeing a model of the sandwich in the front window. We were tempted to try their ‘normal’ sized sandwiches, so happily ordered a torta vegetariana and a chorizo sandwich with cheese. We grossly underestimated the sandwiches and were shocked when two enormous bread rolls headed our way. The vegetarian sandwich consisted of mushrooms, avocado, tomato, and about five kilograms of cheese. So much so (and those that know me and my undying love for cheese know that this is hard for me to say) that I was completely unable to finish even half of my sandwich without stripping it of most of its cheesy contents. After taking what looked like quite literally half the sandwich’s innards out, I enjoyed my colossal sandwich, and Alex said his was super tasty too.

Tomorrow we are headed for Havana, Cuba, so there will be radio silence from us until the 29th November, when we return to the land of free wifi. ¡Hasta luego, amigos!

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A firetwirler in Patzcuaro

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