When spirits walk among us: Celebrating the dead in the Peruvian highlands

The sun is setting, and the temperature in the air begins to drop, hovering just above freezing. As the sky darkens, the winds start to get to get stronger, threatening a surprise rain or hail storm over the land. The locals, familiar with these signs, stay inside and wait for the dawn to begin. But this night is different, it is October 31. Tomorrow is November 1, the day that the dead return to the land of the living.

Celebrating the dead cuts across many cultures and parts of the world. North Americans are perhaps most familiar with Halloween; a night that to this day is still largely rooted in occult beliefs of ancient, pagan Europe. Although the festivities of the dead in North America begins and ends on October 31, the true celebration of the dead in Peru, Todos los Santos (all saints or all souls), is a two-day celebration of the dead from November 1-2. Even though the spirit of Halloween on October 31 is slowly gaining steam in the Peruvian highlands surrounding Lake Titicaca thanks to globalization, the main celebrations for the dead on November 1 and 2 still remain an important holiday in the region, giving the living a chance to pray and reconnect with the souls of deceased family members and friends.

A Mix of Pre-Columbian and Catholic Beliefs

Like many other traditions in the Andes, Todos los Santos is a syncretic mix of pre-Columbian indigenous practices with Catholic and Hispanic beliefs that have melded together since the Spanish conquest of the region in the 16th Century. Pre-conquest indigenous beliefs and practices throughout the Andean region focused on ancestor worship to varying degrees, with the month of November specifically being named Aya marka killa (Quechua) or Ayamarka Phaxsi (Aymara), in recognition of the fact that this month was a special time to celebrate one’s dead ancestors. Todos los Santos as it is practiced today only came after the Spanish conquest and the introduction of Catholic rituals and beliefs.

Beginning early in the morning on November 1, families gather around graves, cemeteries, and tombstones to honour the dead. While many indigenous communities in the Peruvian altiplano surrounding Lake Titicaca have specially designated communal cemeteries, it is still common to see indigenous Aymara communities along the Southern Peruvian region bordering Bolivia maintain older, more traditional practices of burying their dead close to houses and homes, making sure that the connection between the dead and the living remain close in this world and the next.

For two days, families and friends visit the graves of loved ones, bringing flowers, cookies, and other offerings to make sure that the tomb is well decorated to properly invite the dead soul to return to the world of the living. It is two days filled with every emotion that exists in the human psychological inventory; a visit to the grave of a loved one includes a lot of praying, lots of laughter, plenty of tears, and a very healthy dose of alcohol to keep the celebrations going from dawn till dusk for the full two days.

By the end of November 2, families stagger back to their homes, partially out of inebriation, and partially from exhaustion after inviting the souls of their ancestors to join us on earth, and sending them back to their final resting place.

Cookies and Bread Babies

Halloween usually involves binge-eating the candies from trick o’ treating. But for Todos Los Santos, the treats that people crave are not candies, but cookies and bread babies. Families prepare for this two-day holiday during the entire month of October with marathon cookie-baking sessions.

Many families do not have ovens in their homes and still rely on communal ovens made out of adobe mud bricks to satisfy their baking needs. To avoid long lines, families plan in advance when they will make their cookies to not only eat while they pray at the tombs of their dead relatives, but to also share with extended families and friends who come and visit their family graves.

“Bread Babies” invite souls of the dead to visit the land of the living in PeruTweet this

The act is always reciprocated, since you also cannot visit another families’ tombs without bringing some cookies of your own to share with the living and the dead! However, the most important treat to eat for Todos Los Santos are t’anta wawas, or bread babies.

T’anta wawas fresh from the oven and bagged for families to buy and offer to the dead. (Photo Credit: Sandhya K. Narayanan)

These baked delights are pastry-like sweet breads molded and braided in the form of a small human being or baby. Their anthropomorphic transformation is complete with the attachment of a careta, a small mask made out or plaster or a mix fondant-like mixture of coloured sugar and flour. Meant to represent the dead souls, these delicious representations of deceased ancestors are offerings for the dead as well as a delicious snack for the loved comes who have come to honour the dead.

Each t’anta wawa is personalized for the dead they are meant to honour through the variety of caretas that families can choose to place as the face for their bread baby. In the weeks leading up to Todos Los Santos, the streets near major markets are lined with vendors who sell everything that one would need to properly celebrate the dead.

A street vendor’s table filled with caretas, sweets, decorations, and cookies, t’anta wawas, and other sweet delights. (Photo credt: Sandhya K. Narayanan)

From pre-prepared cookies and t’anta wawas, to supplies to make these things at home, vendors sell a variety of objects that include more traditional caretas, such as masks of men, women and children wearing traditional clothing of the Peruvian altiplano, to more contemporary items such as caretas in the shape of Spiderman or of Pokemon. Families now more than ever can customize their cookies and bread babies, adding a personal or modern touch to their offerings for the dead.

A box of plastic caretas in the shape of the cholita, the traditional mestiza woman of the Peruvian altiplano. (Photo credit: Sandhya K. Narayanan)
A box of smaller caretas, representing a range of characters from small children to Spiderman and Superman. (Photo credit: Sandhya K. Narayana

Celebrating the Dead One Treat at a Time    

It is November 2, and the dead are being sent back home. Families clean up the graves of all empty beer bottles, crumbs, wrappers, and confetti in order to send the ancestors’ spirits back to the world of the dead. The last crumbs of cookies and t’ant’a wawas are eaten by small children or left to become food for the birds as families, friends, and loved ones all bid farewell to their long-lost loved ones, only to look forward to the next year when they can once again honour their dead and re-connect with important people who are now long gone.

In this way, Todos los Santos is not just about celebrating and praying to the dead, it is also about continuity and local memory where multi-generational families all gather around the tombs and graves of their dead ancestors to eat and celebrate in their honour.

Despite the growing popularity of a North American Halloween throughout the South American Andes, communities in the Andean altiplano surrounding Lake Titicaca continue to teach the importance of these traditions to their children, in the hopes that they too continue these traditions and maintain the cultural and indigenous heritage of the Peruvian altiplano.

With each annual celebration of the dead, locals look forward to the future knowing that they have the support and blessings of important people from their past.

National Geographic Young Explorer, Sandhya Narayanan, is a linguist and anthropologist researching multilingualism and social change around the world. She is committed to understanding how linguistic diversity is maintained in communities around the world and to spreading awareness about language use in the world we live in today.

Keywords: National Geographic Explorer, linguistic diversity, Halloween, Todos los Santos, Peru, Altiplano, traditional celebrations, Day of the Dead

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
National Geographic Young Explorer, Sandhya Narayanan, is a linguist and anthropologist researching multilingualism and social change around the world. She is committed to understanding how linguistic diversity is maintained in communities around the world and to spreading awareness about language use in the world we live in today.