San Angel is a gorgeous colonia towards the south of Mexico City, home to Diego Rivera’s studio and some of Mexico’s most elite families. The streets are cobbled, the houses are gorgeous, colonial affairs, and the unmistakable presence of prestige permeates the air.
It’s also an excellent place to see some beautiful Day of the Dead altars, which is why I stopped by on Thursday evening.
The first stop on the ofrenda trail was the San Angel Inn, an iconic Mexican landmark which has served many purposes over the years, including Carmelite monastery, pulque factory, a classroom for the Universidad Iberoamericano, and a hotel for the rich and famous, before finally settling into its current role of a restaurant for celebrities and dignitaries. A small chapel that sits off the inner patio housed a multi-level altar filled with brightly painted skull heads, marigolds, and paper cut-outs of skeletons.
Next we strolled over to Altavista 147, the posh local mall featuring the likes of Louis Vuitton and Carolina Herrera. Just inside of the entrance sat an altar dedicated to the Mexican artist Feliciano Béjar, who worked with many mediums but is best known for his creation of Magiscopios, recycled steel sculptures decorated with glass lenses. More personal than the first, this altar was decorated with small figurines of musicians and religious scenes and food like rice, corn, beans, and honey.
This is where I had my first taste of the pan de muertos, a sweet bread topped with sugar and flavored with anise. It is traditionally eaten during Dia de los Muertos celebrations and, judging by the reaction of the kids in the group, one of the best parts of the holiday.
Next we climbed onto a trolley guided by Roberto Escartín, a charming local guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of Mexican art and history. A short drive led us to the San Jacinto Plaza and the tocamadera art gallery. Small, white candles illuminated the path through a cavernous brick archway. At the end was a looming multi-tiered altar dedicated to Leonora Carrington, an English surrealist artist who spent part of her life in Mexico City. Aside from the magical setting, this altar was especially poignant due to the recentness of her death (May of this year) as well as the presence of one of her sons.
While I was awed by the extravagance of the altars and the beauty of the settings, my absolute favorite wasn’t listed on the program. On the way to tocamadera we passed a small altar set up by a taxi driver collective (the first in Mexico City). With wistful eyes, they told us about whom it commemorated: friends who had passed this year with a startling frequency.
We shared a moment to reflect on the unpredictability of death, those who had passed, and the value of our time here on Earth. It was then that I began to truly understand the significance of the holiday.