The Traveling Locals
The Day of The Dead in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The Day of the Dead, or in Spanish "Dia de Muertos" is a multi-day holiday celebrated in parts of Mexico, especially in the center and southern states. It starts on October 31st and ends November 2nd. It is also sometimes celebrated in other Latin American areas, and it's history is steeped in Aztec legend. It is not a Mexican version of Halloween, but more of a celebration of the lives of lost loved ones. There aren't many better places to experience and take part in this unique cultural heritage as the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. San Miguel de Allende or often refereed to as just San Miguel, is an old Spanish colonial era city filled with winding cobblestone streets and stunning baroque architecture. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico, and maybe even the world. And the best part, it is very safe for tourists.
Getting into San Miguel de Allende is a bit more difficult than other cities as it's a bit off the beaten path, making it an even more desirable destination! We flew into Leon Bajio Guanajuato airport (BJX). We hired a private car to drive us the approximate hour and half to San Miguel at a cost of $75 usd. The road trip was fine, though you do pass through some sketchy areas, we never felt in danger. It's also better to hire a driver than rent a car as parking and navigating the streets of San Miguel will be an issue. Other airports nearby are Mexico City (3 1/2 hours drive) and Queretaro airport (about an hours drive). There were much more flights from the US to Leon, so we chose that airport.
The city of San Miguel is very easy to explore by foot, and most everything is withing a fairly short walking distance. That being said, the vast majority of the streets are still paved in colonial cobblestone and go up and down many hills. There are Uber's present for very reasonable prices and there are plenty of taxi's available that usually cost about 45 pesos ($3 usd) for most destinations in town. Part of the lure and intrigue of this city is getting lost exploring the old streets and plazas and finding yourself in a courtyard bar sipping margaritas listening to live old school Mexican string music. The restaurant choices here are plentiful, and with the dollar to peso exchange rate, most everything is at a bargain! One of our favorites was stopping in for some tacos al pastor cut right from the rotating stack of slow roasted meat and placed in your taco, with some onions and fresh cilantro, all for about 15 pesos (.60cents)!
During the Day of the Dead festivities, there are several parades and a lot of people walking the main plazas in costume, both locals and tourists alike. A lot of people came up to take photo's with us, which made us feel like we were contributing and taking part in this unique cultural event. Throughout the meandering streets of San Miguel you will come across ofrendas, which are alters built to honor the memory of deceased loved ones. These are usually decorated with rows of vibrant Aztec marigolds and may include food, drinks, and even possessions of the loved one. You'll usually find the ofrendas decorated with calaveras, which are the painted skulls must people picture when thinking about Dia de Muertos. Most Americans refer to them as "sugar skulls", and painting your face in elaborate sugar skull patterns is a great way to participate in the festival. We found ofrendas throughout the city, and it creates absolutely stunning street vistas with multiple doors and windows lined with bright orange marigolds.
During La Dia de Muertos, some hotels will arrange special activities for the festival. Some of these are quite elaborate with costumed performances and outdoor drinks and street food. There are even some outdoor screenings of popular movies for children (think: Disney's Coco). The Hotel Real de Minas had a very large outdoor area with detailed decorations to match the one of a kind ofreda in the lobby. Outside at night, along with fresh tamales and drinks, there was a colorful La Catarina wedding complete with fully dressed Day of the Dead stilt performers and live music. Here you can also find a different traditional ofrenda alter made on the ground. Usually these are more of a symbolic graveyard, but actual grave sites do get decorated as well. At the Hotel Real de Minas, there was an exception display of ground alters to walk among.
We spent all three days during the Day of the Dead celebration in San Miguel and we had prepared a different costume for each day. There are lots of people out that aren't in costume, so you'll fit in either way. Most of the locals seemed to appreciate our enthusiasm for the culture and many thanked us for participating. We never ran out of new areas to explore, and most streets had a local restaurant, with some being very fancy white cloth service, to others being local taqueria's with outstanding traditional central Mexican flavors. And they all served ice cold cervezas and margaritas (most mixed by hand). During this time you can also expect a lot of live music, ranging from traditional single guitar acoustic, to full blown mariachi. As you're walking, you'll find many artisan shops and several streets dedicated to local artists. Some of the artwork was exceptional quality and you can find pieces in ceramic, painting and even metals. Again, with the exchange rate being favorable to the US dollar, the prices are outstanding.
We can't speak highly enough about our time in San Miguel de Allende. While we specifically came this time for the Day of the Dead, we will return simply to take in all this beautiful city has to offer. At the time, it was very safe, and is the perfect destination for solo travelers, couples and even families. San Miguel is truly one of the finest examples of old Spanish colonial towns and the local culture has made this place a one of a kind gem. We highly recommend San Miguel anytime, but if you can attend the Day of the Dead celebration, you won't be disappointed!
Where we Stayed: Hotel Real de Minas. $50-$120 per night, depending on dates.
AirBnb: We also had a local one bedroom villa up the hill in town that was traditional and safe.