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