“Pátczuaro” translates to “place where one finds stones that mark the entrance to paradise.” Being the “entrance to paradise” means that it is the first place where souls from the underworld stop when coming back for the Day of the Dead. It is in this area, west of Mexico City, where you will find a spectacular celebration dedicated to this return. The most notable one takes place on the Island of Janitzio, at Lake Pátczuaro.
Janitizo is just a ride ferry ride north across the lake from the town of Pátzcuaro. The closer I get to the island, the more I can make out the homes that are built on top of each other, ascending toward the monument of Jose María Morelos. Morelos, a Mexican Revolutionary monk, stands atop the island with a fist raised triumphantly to the air.
When the ferry comes close to the island, the fishermen in their wooden canoes with winged fishing nets paddle up to the side, and the captain cuts the engine. This gives a close-up view of the fishermen and their work. One fisherman came up against the ferry to collect tips. Fishing for a livelihood has almost ceased on the lake; for a time, the lake was too polluted for commercial fishing. Today the fishermen were just out for the tourists, nineteen in total. Historically, all the fishermen would row out on-to the lake for the Day of the Dead with torches lighting up the lake at night. On this night, only eight fishermen went out after the sunset, and instead of torches, they carried colored lights.
Once docked at the island, I realize that every home is selling souvenirs for tourists. The whole long climb up to the top of the island, stall after stall, everything I can imagine is for sale. Once at the top, for a small fee you can go inside the monument of Jose María Morelos and take the spiraling staircase to the top. Along the way are murals of the revolution. As I climb, the stairs get narrower. At two points, I can look out to see the view: first at the shoulder, I can see north and south of the island. The second point being at the wrist, where, behind glass, I get a 360-degree view around the island and realize how beautiful Michoacán is, as if I hadn’t realized that already.
The small cemetery on the island of Janitzio cuts into the hillside, and marigolds adorn the graves. And as the sun sets, the tourists make their way through as the families of loved ones sit by the graves either in reverence or asking the tourists for change for the photos they had taken of them. At one point, it seems as though there is more room six feet under the tombstones than there is above them. In order to move, I have to stand on a grave. It is better to watch from above and wait for the crowd to simmer down.
It was here, above the graveyard, where I met three English travelers and an American ex-pat. Over the course of a few hours we had beers and talked of past travels, the impending American 2016 election, and Chicago politics. They go on to catch an early ferry ride back to the mainland. I stay in hopes that the crowd in the cemetery will die out. So I watch and wait, with the buzzing of a drone overhead and a Japanese film crew, with the host attempting to play Amazing Grace on a harmonica. In the wee hours of the morning on November 2nd, the tourists dissipate and peace returns to the cemetery.
The line for the ferry back was long, far too long. It made the lines at a music festival for the port-a-Johns look pathetic. After an ungodly long time and small steps forward, I make it to the ferry, and the long dark ride across the lake begins. Slowly we make our way in the dark, trying to avoid the other ferries heading to the island.