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Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende is beloved by the likes of Martha Stewart, Ryan Seacrest (who’ve also sipped on the town’s superluxe Casa Dragones tequila) and Elizabeth Banks and Eva Longoria year round, but ironically enough there’s no time it comes more alive than around Day of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos is the countrywide tradition that occurs Nov. 1 and 2 and honors those who have passed away with elaborate offerings, parades, dinner parties and other visually rich festivities. Its most iconic symbol is La Calavera Catrina, the skeleton bedecked in opulent European period garb that was first etched by Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s as a satirical portrait. (It’s a tradition so appealing that Spectre opened with a Catrinas parade, and Disney’s new movie, Coco, centers around Day of the Dead.)
The face of Dia de los Muertos now is seen everywhere during the period leading up to the holiday, and is the popular way for thousands to dress during the lively celebrations, which happen all around the city, from the square in front of the pink fairytale castle of a church (the Parroquia) to venues like La Casa Dragones (where there’s an invite-only paired dinner for 25 to inaugurate the annual La Calaca Festival and afterparty) and Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, which hosts a yearly dinner on its stunning rooftop complete with a local fashion show, mezcal, ofrendas and the best al pastor for miles.
One can’t really experience Day of the Dead without having a local decorate your face like a Catrina, and from firsthand experience I can say it’s now something I want to do it every single year. (Indeed, many people come annually for the fun, and spend the whole year readying their ensembles.) The makeup artists hired by Rosewood are the best, and create evocative looks that will turn the heads of many of your fellow dead.
On Nov. 1, the town becomes alive with activity to honor their dead. It may sound morbid, but many gather at the cemetery first thing — I can tell who’s headed there because it’s a family affair, and all members of the clan are loaded down with bundles of flowers (most popular are the vibrant marigolds in season), water pails, food, toys, candles and alfiñiques, which are figures molded from sugar paste (most popular are the ubiquitous skulls and lambs) with which to decorate their loved ones’ graves. Mariachis stroll around serenading the families, some carefully repaint tombs, and others meticulously place flowers and petals alongside the person’s favorite foods (booze in some cases) and toys (for children) on the sites. Certain scenes bring tears to the eyes, but here it’s not sad, it’s a time when the spirits or souls return to Earth to be with them (technically from midnight on the 1st to midnight on the 2nd).
By night it’s even more intense, as everyone dresses up in their finest face paint and curated costumes to parade through the streets, led by mariachis, and then party the night away. Being in the middle of it is intoxicating, and along with the excuse to spend time in endlessly charming San Miguel, it’s an experience to add to the bucket list.
With its cobblestone streets and warm sunset-hued array of facades, the colonial-era town of San Miguel is sweet and alluring. Even more so are the grounds of Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, which are I discovered are lushly landscaped with cacti, agave, lavender and the magical, fluffy pampas grass. Breathtaking. In the background you can spot the city’s landmark: Parroquia de San Miguel de Arcángel, which looks more like a Disney castle than a Neo-Gothic Catholic church.
I never get sick of the fact every vista in San Miguel contains the Parroquia, meaning you can never get lost. It’s also a hub for the Day of the Dead festivities.
The Parroquia has to be one of the most unique churches I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Its exterior is Neo-Gothic, pink and towering, rebuilt starting in the late 1800s, while the inside is original from the 17th century, and feels very Mexican and vibrant. You can’t go into a church and not look up, and this one has a gorgeous brick dome with plenty of gold.
There’s no escaping the alfiñiques that are sold in a market in the city center and are used as decor everywhere during the holiday. And why would you want to? They can be personalized and are adorable, not to mention they can be eaten afterward.
It wouldn’t be Dia de los Muertos without fresh flowers—the brighter the better. Vendors line up before the entrance to the cemeteries to sell thousands and thousands of local blooms that perfume the air as you walk inside.
Mariachi groups hang inside the cemeteries and provide a gentle yet upbeat soundtrack to families honoring their loved ones. They play with traditional instruments and sing classic tunes but I was surprised to see one answering his iPhone during a song. Mariachis — they’re just like us.
It’s hard not to be touched by the love and devotion that’s palpable in the cemetery, or feel something seeing all the graves of children and infants. This one was decorated with lots of sugar figurines and little toy cars, signaling a young boy was laid to rest here. Another one takes a moment to take in the tribute en route to get water at the fountain.
I learned if there’s something you have to eat on Dia de los Muertos it’s Pan de Muerto, a traditional sweet pastry that has the texture of a donut with the shape of a bun with bones criss-crossing it. The ones at Rosewood San Miguel de Allende are subtly orange flavored, and I promise start your day right.
The energy of San Miguel on this occasion is different from other days, and I’m sure the ofrendas (offerings) have something to do with it. Instead of being sad memorials to people who were and still are loved, they are joyous celebrations of the things they loved most in life, and comprise not just photos and flowers but the person’s favorite foods (and drinks), tchotchkes and likenesses of them meticulously made out of corn, rice and other dried natural materials. The skill and artistry is spectacular.
Sunset in San Miguel is the time to gather on the roof of Rosewood, at Luna, which has the hands-down best view of that setting ball of fire over the more-than-mile-high city and mountains in the distance. Annually, on Nov. 1, the rooftop transforms into an array of ofrendas and food stations serving the area’s most mouthwatering cuisine. I am not ashamed to admit I had five tacos — and churros. The mezcal ensures it all goes down easy. Skeletons have an appetite!
The Catrinas makeup appeals to anyone with a love for dressing up, which every person in Hollywood should honestly be into. Mine took an hour, and while I loved it so much, the most fun is being just one of many Catrinas on the streets, and admiring all the other spooky-glam visages. There is so much creativity on display it’s stunning.
This is no half-assed costume party — the Catrinas who come out on Dia de los Muertos for the parties and massive (and growing every year) parade are seriously chic, with outfits that clearly took thought and plenty of planning. I’m already brainstorming my own sophomore effort for next year so I might even have a chance of winning the Luna dinner Catrina contest, which along with the Spectre–like parade is one of the real reasons to go above and beyond.
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