A hilltop feast on Janitzio island, Mexico

Ghostly spirits, buried treasure and bottomless waters. The Isla de Janitzio is the most significant of five islands in Lake Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán, Mexico and rises like a mountain from the calm waters of one of Mexico’s highest lakes.

The statue of Morelos looms over Janitzio

Although the island is best known for its Day of the Dead celebrations, fellow travel writer Colleen Friesen and I had arrived a day early. For several days we’d barely ventured beyond the sugar skulls, altar decorations and crafts of the Day of the Dead markets in Patzcuaro but it  was time to head out of town.

Boats in the dock at San Pedrito

Boats at Muelle San Pedrito

A short taxi ride ( 25 pesos) later, we arrived at the Muelle San Pedrito dock where mariachis, a full brass band and an assortment of souvenir vendors congregated.

Mariachis at Muelle San Pedrito

Mariachis at Muelle San Pedrito

Purchasing our tickets for (50 pesos or $4 USD round-trip) we boarded the ferry alongside local Purepecha people toting la flor de Cempoalxóchitl (marigolds), cases of Coca-cola and other supplies for  Animecha Kejtzittajua or the Feast of the Souls.

Mariachis on the ferry to Janitzio

The Purhepecha settled in this region of Michoacan in the 14th century, establishing the island of Janitzio as the centre of their kingdom. According to Purepecha legend, it was home to Mintzita, daughter of King Tzintzicha and her lover Itzihuapa, the crown prince of Janitzio. Their romance was interrupted by  the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and their souls, along with those of 21 ghostly boatmen, still live in the shadowy blue lake, guarding a treasure of fantastic riches.

Fishermen on Patzcuaro Lake

Fishermen with butterfly nets on Patzcuaro Lake

For us, there were no signs of spirits rising out of the water. But local fishermen did appear, arriving in  dugout boats and scooping up tiny white fish, about one third the size of sardines, in their  butterfly nets. They posed for photo-ops – a new tradition.

Retracing the steps of the ghostly guardians in Janitzio, Michoacan

According to legend, each November 1st on the night of the Day of the Dead, the ghostly guardians  beneath the lake awake to the tolling of the church bells of Janitzio. They emerge from the waters and, fanned by the fishermen’s butterfly nets, are coaxed up the steep stairs to the cemetery.

Colleen Friesen Janitzio

Colleen Friesen climbs the steep stairs of Janitzio

As Colleen and I retraced the ghostly route up the slopes of Janitzio, we passed vendors selling charales or charalitos,  tiny fish deep-fried, salted and served with salsa and lime.  Passers-by eat the fish whole to fuel them along the walk.

Eat these tiny fried fish whole with a squeeze of lime

As we climbed upward, the 40-meter statue of José María Morelos, a hero of Mexico’s independence loomed large at every bend. Between the shops we could catch glimpses of church spires, cemeteries and Lake Patzcuaro.

View enroute to hilltop at Janitzio

View enroute to hilltop at Janitzio

At the top of the hill, we encountered restaurants with the tables already set with plates, cutlery and glassware for the feast.  Traditional foods such as pato en chile (duck), tamales, trucha (trout), Tarascan soup and the tiny white charalitos would soon be served.
View from El Pescador restaurant

View of the legendary lake from El Pescador restaurant

Although we wouldn’t be in Janitzio for the Feast of the Souls,  looking out across the pale blue lake, it was easy to imagine the souls of the gods awakening to the sound of church bells and floating on the night mist to the cemetery.

There, they would be welcomed with candles, copal incense, elaborate altars laden with offerings of candy skulls and flowers — gifts from the living to the dead– for the Feast of the Souls.

Bringing whole new meaning to the concept of company’s coming for dinner.

View of islands of Lake Patzcuaro from El Pescador

View of islands of Lake Patzcuaro from El Pescador

You can read more about Michoacan in the article Celebrating Life and Death in Patzcuaro. 

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Michele Peterson
Michele Peterson
Dividing her time between Toronto, Mexico and Guatemala (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is an award-winning writer, blogger, editor and publisher who specializes in travel, cuisine and luxury lifestyles.
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Showing 4 comments
  • Lesley Peterson

    You know, I’ve heard of this place in association with DoD celebrations but had no idea there was such a spinechilling legend associated with this lovely landscape. Feast of the Souls does not sound like an event for the faint of heart:o Fascinating details, Michele.

  • Carol Perehudoff

    This place sounds a bit freaky. In a good way. Gorgeous photos. Sounds like a stunning place.

  • Colleen Friesen

    I always learn more about a place from you even though I was there! Good research and lovely photos! Thanks for giving more depth to my experience. That was a stellar day!

  • esperanza

    What fascinating history and scenery. Best seen in the glorious sunlight before the ghosties come out!

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