Noche de los Muertos

Noche de los Muertos in Tsin Tsun Tsan, México.

On this day last year I was waking up late to the sounds of Lake Pátzcuaro gently lapping against the wall of my boat house bedroom outside Tsin Tsun Tsan, México.

Our hotel on beautiful Lake Pátzcuaro. My room was in the bottom of the boat house, just over the water.

The night before had been out of a dream. November 1 - el noche del muerto - is a sacred night in the “Magic Cities” of Michoacán around massive Lake Pátzcuaro.

Bill and I were in México working on a series of videos for an educational company out of Morelia. One of the videos was to focus around Michoacán (the state) and it’s many cultural treasures. El Noche del los Muertos was on the top of our list of necessary documentations.

Our night started late - just before midnight. We grabbed a couple cameras and face paint (at least I did) and headed into the city of Tsin Tsun Tsan.

Me and my Catrina face paint, lit by the candles of Tsin Tsun Tsan.

We had spent a lot of time there in the days leading up to el noche del muerto. We had bought local pottery to bring home and watched as the cemetery in the center of the city turned into a beautiful forest of marigold altars.

The busy Tsin Tsun Tsan cemetery the day before.

When we pulled into  town just after midnight on November 2, the streets were full of visitors and locals observing the tradition.

It was a strange mix of wild party and sacred ritual. The streets were noisy, full of music, food and mezcal. But as soon as everyone entered the cemetery, the mood changed. Hordes of people reverently walked among the candlelit graves.

We weaved through the cemetery, taking pictures and video clips as we went. Stopping here and there to talk to people.

A woman in Tsin Tsun Tsan on el Noche de los Muertos.

The altars were full of flowers, candles, pictures, food and drinks. Some families even played music or hired mariachi bands to play their loved one's favorite songs. The scene was lively and fun, but somehow sacred and reverent at the same time.

The crowd, while large, seemed to respect the tradition and the people partaking in it.

From Tsin Tsun Tsan we went back to our hotel where a boat was coming to pick us up to take us to a small island on the lake.

We boarded the boat just before 2am. I walked right past my bedroom to get onboard, part of me wishing I was just going to bed.

The boat ride was a boisterous few minutes. Most of the people in our group weren’t working. They were there for fun and were drinking enough mezcal to prove it.

We offloaded on a tiny island with a steep hill. It was cold outside and getting colder. We all quietly walked up towards the cemetery. As we approached, the top of a giant cross made out of marigold’s became visible in the candlelight.

We were the only visitors on the island. The graveyard was small, lit only by the soft glow of homemade candles, and full of local residents honoring the deceased. It was a chilling and beautiful sight.

Our group, full of jokes on the ride over, was silent. This was clearly a sacred place.

A man smokes a cigarette by his family's altar on a Lake Pátzcuaro island.

I separated myself from our party. I wanted to experience this place on my own. I stood in the center of the cemetery and watched as the local Purepecha residents drank coffee, fixed candles, warmed themselves under blankets and touched the pictures of their lost loved ones.

The place felt distant and intimate. I felt like I didn’t belong there and like I was part of the place all at once. It was a strange, out-of-body-like experience.

A woman among the candles on el Noche de los Muertos.

We didn’t stay long. I think everyone felt the same.

We walked around the grounds, took a handful of pictures, and got back on the boat to return to the hotel.

Once back across the lake, everyone quietly went to their respective rooms. I was exhausted but somehow not ready for bed. I sat on the cold dock for a while afterwards, watching the candles burn in the distance, each island a flickering orange light in the water.

When I woke the next morning (afternoon), it all seemed far away; like a dream you can’t quite piece together.