Day of the Dead in Mexico
Celebrating Día de Muertos* (the Day of the Dead holiday) in Mexico is a travel bucket list goal for so many people. There are several places to enjoy this festive holiday in Mexico, including Mexico City and the nearby city of Mixquic, the towns of Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan state, and the colorful colonial cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende.
The biggest and best celebration is the Oaxaca Day of the Dead festival. There are a few places to enjoy Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, including the state’s capital city, Oaxaca City, which has the largest celebration, and the smaller pueblos of San Agustin Etla and Xoxocotlan.
So what exactly is the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico?
This is a multi-day holiday that takes place each year on November 1 and 2. Since the celebrations will start at midnight on November 1, most people say the holiday actually starts on October 31 — which is Halloween.
One of the traditions of Day of the Dead is face painting and elaborate costumes, though this holiday is definitely not Mexican Halloween! It is actually a very spiritual holiday that commemorates our deceased loved ones. However, unlike most many things associated with death, Day of the Dead isn’t a somber event, it’s a celebration.
Experiencing the Day of the Dead festival
I attended the celebration in Oaxaca City in 2018, and it was amazing. It was definitely on my bucket list, and while some of those things we hype up in our mind only let us down, Día de Muertos far exceeded any expectations I had.
I was lucky enough to spend a month in Oaxaca City, starting about five days before the holiday officially began. As this is a city-wide celebration, the whole town starts setting up in advance of the actual holiday, and it was so cool to see all the prep work that goes into Day of the Dead as it quite literally envelops the whole city.
By October 30, the whole city smelled like marigold flowers, which is the flower associated with Day of the Dead. There are festive papel picado paper flags hung all over town, elaborate ofrendas (altars) set up in the streets, large, colorful sand sculptures on the ground, La Catrina and skeleton figures everywhere, sugar skulls for sale in the mercados, and more.
The cemeteries are also beautifully decorated by now, as the families will begin congregating in them when the holiday officially starts at midnight on November 1. While it’s easy for many to simplify this as “Mexican Halloween,” the holiday is so much more than that — and you’ll completely see that when you’re in the cemeteries.
Día de Muertos is a time during which many believe the veil to the spirit world is thinned, and our departed loved ones can return Earthside to see us. It is a time of deep remembrance, but also, a time to party with them and remember them fondly. The families will usually have photos of their deceased loved ones on display, and you’re allowed to ask about them.
Useful tips to experience the Day of the Dead festival
For travelers who want to enjoy a truely cultural experience in Mexico, Day of the Dead is one of the best ways to do that. It does, however, require a bit of advanced planning if you want to go to the Oaxaca City celebration.
As a smaller-sized city, Oaxaca City hotels, hostels and Airbnbs are usually full for Day of the Dead a few months out. Personally, I recommend booking at least six months in advance, especially if you have certain needs in an accommodation (like no stairs, must have a kitchen, etc.).
You will also have to take a connecting flight to Oaxaca International Airport (code: OAX). If you have the time, consider spending a few days in Mexico City or Guadalajara before you fly to Oaxaca, as you’ll likely connect through one of those cities.
One of the “warnings” I always give is that this is a loud and long holiday! Though it’s called “Day” of the Dead, it really felt more like a weeklong celebration. There are comparsas (parades) going through the streets with bands playing traditional Zapotec music at all hours of the day and night. It’s certainly a festive time, but do bring your earplugs so you can sleep too.
What about other Day of the Dead festivals?
I also attended the Mayan Day of the Dead celebration, called Hanal Pixan, in 2019 in the Yucatan Peninsula City of Merida. Personally, I’d recommend going to Oaxaca over Merida, but they are both fun and festive times to be in each city.
Though I have not been to the big Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, I do know it’s more of a place to party and less a cultural celebration.
In fact, there was no Mexico City Día de Muertos celebration at all until it was depicted in the James Bond film, Spectre. The parade in the movie looked so cool that the year after its release, thousands showed up for a parade that didn’t really exist! The following year, Mexico City created an elaborate parade that looked like the one in the movie — and the Mexico City Day of the Dead celebration was born.
*Please be mindful that The Day of the Dead / Dia de Muertos is a religious festival, and should be experienced in an ethical way.
About the Author
Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world! After traveling solo to 16 states in Mexico, she settled down in Merida, Mexico, in 2019.
Today, she runs the Travel Mexico Solo blog and helps travelers plan their perfect Mexico trip.
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