Peruvian Fusion: Día de Los Muertos

We knew that the Día de Los Muertos (Day of The Dead) was a big holiday in Mexico, but we weren’t sure to what extent it was celebrated here in Peru. When I asked people at my office, they talked about tantawawa (breads shaped in the figures of babies and horses) and lechon (roast suckling pig) but when I asked about visiting a cemetery, I was told that there was not much to see and the gatherings were private.

Like most Pre-Columbian cultures, the Incas were an agricultural society that worshipped their ancestors. In the northern hemisphere, Day of the Dead festivities focus on sharing the harvest with dead ancestors; south of the equator, early November is a time of returning spring rains, the re-flowering of the earth and the anticipation of the harvest season. As such, the start of the very important planting season is celebrated and shared with ancestors. When the Spaniards arrived, they found a way to fuse these pre-Columbian traditions with All Saints Day (Día de Todos Santos) on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. In Peru, November 1st is celebrated nationally, but in Cuzco it’s known as Día de Todos los Santos Vivos (Day of the Living Saints) and celebrated with food such as lechon, sugar cane, chicha and the tantawawa breads. November 2nd is considered the Día de los Santos Difuntos (Day of the Deceased Saints) and is honored with visits to cemeteries.

We went to Plaza Tupac Amaru on Día de Todos los Santos Vivos hoping to see displays of baby and horse breads and to try some lechon. On the way out the door of our apartment, our landlords had a whole suckling pig laid out on a table in the middle of their enclosed courtyard, ready to be roasted. At Plaza Tupac Amaru, we passed by bread vendors selling tantawawas on our way to a corner of the plaza with many makeshift food stalls. We walked to through until we found some selling lechon. We ordered two plates for the four of us and found a quiet corner to sit down and eat. The lechon was delicious: tender, moist suckling pig with a robust smoky flavor, laid on a bed of tallarines (noodles), with rocoto rellena (stuffed pepper) and a potato. We order two more plates and my son devoured another very large portion of lechon in about 20 seconds.

Despite being downplayed by my co-workers, on Día de Los Muertos we walked across town to the Almudena Cemetery in the late afternoon. We bought some flowers and offerings in the plaza next to the cemetery and walked through the massive stone gate. Inside there was more than a thousand people gathering about their ancestors’ wall niches. In South America, when a person dies they are buried in a casket for 10 years, before being dug up and cremated, and the ashes are placed into a wall of the cemetery. For those who are wealthy, the ashes go into little stand-alone marble houses that are large enough to accommodate the entire family. The wall niches at Almudena were interesting little dioramas of the deceased one’s life. Inside framed glass enclosures were symbols of the lives that the people led: dinner tables with large feasts, large beer and pisco bottles, automobiles, flowers, dolls, photos, religious statuettes…each 2-foot by 1.5-foot space selectively representing a life. The mood was festive with dancing, drinking and singing, but I got the sense that worshippers were pacing themselves. I’d heard that many would stay at the cemetery all night to greet the dawn with their dead ancestors. There were several bands playing upbeat music and I saw quite a few people who looked like they were halfway between crying and laughing. We found a quiet corner of the cemetery to hold a small service for a relative of ours who had died recently. We laid our flowers on an anonymous marble crypt and each of us talked about what our deceased aunt meant to us. It seemed a very appropriate place to remember her.


  1. I love this festival but I seem to miss it every year, this year I'm in Ecuador and sadly they do not celebrate it.

  2. Ayngelina,
    Sorry to hear that...it is an interesting and unique festival.