The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos in Spanish is a celebration and remembrance unlike any other in the world. Travelers who appreciate learning about cultural traditions should experience this fascinating event at least once.
From parades and carefully decorated altars to delicious Mexican dishes and visits to cemeteries, Día de los Muertos guarantees to impress and leave lasting travel memories.
Mexico has so much to offer, from beautiful accommodations to delicious food and culture. Our in-depth guide to el Día de Los Muertos includes all the information you need to plan your next adventure around this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What Is The Day of the Dead?
The first and most important thing you need to know about the Day of the Dead is that it’s not Mexico’s Halloween!
The Day of the Dead occurs around the same time as Halloween and shares basic themes of death and the afterlife. So, it’s understandable why many of us mistake the two for the same thing.
But el Día de Los Muertos is a sacred and spiritual time when families remember, honor, and celebrate loved ones who’ve passed.
During the Day of the Dead, Mexicans believe the window between our world and the spiritual world opens. For this brief time, they welcome and await the return of the spirits of their loved ones.
Unlike many other familiar ceremonies and rituals around death, the Day of the Dead isn’t a sad or mournful event. It’s quite the opposite!
In excited anticipation to receive the spirits of their loved ones, Mexicans make intricately decorated altars, cook their loved one's favorite foods, and clean and visit cemeteries.
Preparing for el Día de Los Muertos is a family and community affair full of joy and enthusiasm. The celebrations and parties are designed as much for the returning spirits as the still-living relatives. The Day of the Dead is a cherished and remarkable cultural tradition in Mexico.
History of Día de los Muertos
The Day of the Dead has deep historical roots. It’s been celebrated, in some capacity, for around 3,000 years.
Pre-Hispanic civilizations, such as the Aztecs and Maya, believed death was only the beginning of one’s journey to the Land of the Dead, or the afterlife.
For that reason, the dead were often buried with items they may need to help them navigate their spiritual journey. The practice of providing the dead with materials to help them along their passage through the afterlife remains today in the form of offerings, or ofrendas.
After the arrival of the Spanish, pre-Hispanic traditions were combined with Christian-Catholic beliefs and customs.
The Day of the Dead was originally celebrated around August. But, the dates were changed to coincide with the Christian season of Allhallowtide, which took place from October 31 to November 2.
The blending of these two cultures over many years resulted in el Día de los Muertos as we know and observe it today!
Customs & Traditions of the Day of the Dead
As an avid traveler who appreciates other cultures and customs, you will be blown away by the beautiful and unique traditions associated with this special time.
Observing and participating in el Día de los Muertos is a truly magical experience. Here are some things to look for as you enjoy the festivities and parties.
The marigold is called cempasúchil in Mexico. And cempasúchil means 20 flowers in Aztec. Marigolds are often referred to as flor de los Muertos, the flower of the dead. So, it’s safe to say that Marigolds are the official flower of the Day of the Dead.
The bright yellow-orange color and distinct aroma of these traditional flowers are thought to help guide the departed back from the spirit world.
No Day of the Dead celebration is complete without these vibrant blossoms!
Pink cockscomb flowers are also used along with marigolds to adorn and embellish homes and altars. These elaborate floral decorations come in many forms and complement an already beautiful tradition and celebration.
Day of the Dead Altars
Altars are one of the most common and recognizable customs associated with the Day of the Dead. The terms altar and ofrenda are often used interchangeably. Many elements adorning the altars have special meaning and significance.
Families put pictures of their loved ones on the altar to honor and remember them. Candles are lit to serve as a guiding light for returning spirits, and copal incense is burned to purify the soul of the departed as they return.
Families place water on the altar to quench the thirst of returning spirits. They also fill the altar with some of their loved one’s favorite foods, drinks, and significant possessions.
Other common altar additions include sugar skulls, salt, soap, and water. Another popular item is the bread of the dead, known locally as pan de Muerto.
While there are many common elements among all altars, each family will also have their own distinct customs when decorating and preparing for the return of their loved one’s spirit.
When you observe The Day of the Dead, you are guaranteed to encounter elaborate and impressive altars!
Sand tapestries are known as tapetes de arena. These aren’t common in all parts of Mexico. However, Oaxaca is one of the few places that practice this unique tradition.
The intricate and elaborate decorations are usually found in front of the altar and are created using colorful sand and other natural materials like flowers and beans.
Some sand tapestries take days to complete with the help of more than ten people. They vary in size and design but never disappoint!
If you want to see these stunning works of art in progress, you’ll have to arrive several days before the official Day of the Dead celebrations.
Sugar Skulls and Pan de Muerto
Sugar skulls make up some of the iconic imagery associated with the Day of the Dead.
Small colorfully decorated sugar skulls are eaten as treats. Larger sugar skulls often have the name of the departed on the forehead and are placed on the altar, not to be eaten.
Travelers enjoy saving some sugar skulls for unique souvenirs!
The bread of the dead is another traditional Day of the Dead food. Usually sweet and sugar-dusted, pan de Muerto is generally served from mid-September to mid-November. This typical treat is also placed on altars.
In Oaxaca, the bread of the dead is sprinkled with sesame seeds and has a candy face to represent the souls of loved ones.
When participating in Día de los Muertos, you must sample some pan de Muerto. The best and most authentic way to eat the bread of the dead is to dip it in hot chocolate!
You can be sure that you’ll find delicious festive food at any of these fantastic Oaxacan restaurants!
Day of the Dead Parades
The Day of the Dead season and celebration wouldn’t be complete without extravagant party parades! These daily parades are referred to as comparsas. They occur day and night during the Day of the Dead celebration.
The lively parades include marching bands, costumed performers, fireworks, and joyous participants following along.
Comparsas take place in the streets and usually make their way to a cemetery. When you hear the drums beating and the firecrackers popping, make sure to join the parade and the fun!
The biggest, and arguably the best, parade is The Grand Parade or Magna Comparsa. This parade opens the Day of the Dead celebration and kicks off a wild night of partying.
In the days leading up to el Día de los Muertos, it’s common practice for families to visit cemeteries. They clean and tidy the gravesites of their loved ones in preparation for the return of their spirit.
Families thoughtfully decorate their loved one’s graves, and some even put up an extra altar at the gravesite. Musicians meander through the cemeteries, and families hire them to play the favorite songs of their departed loved ones.
Cemeteries are busy all day and night during the Day of the Dead, so you can visit them anytime and have a memorable experience!
The most prominent cemetery in Oaxaca is the main cemetery, Panteón General. However, there are fascinating celebrations at Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán and San Agustín de Etla too. These cemeteries are located a few miles outside Oaxaca, so you’ll need to take a taxi to visit them.
When is Día de los Muertos?
The Day of the Dead takes place over several days, from October 31-November 2. Because the souls of the departed are said to return at midnight, many celebrations take place at night and in the early morning hours.
Preparations for the Day of the Dead begin at least one week in advance, and some celebrations begin as early as October 28.
If you want the full Day of the Dead experience, you should plan to arrive a few days before October 31.
All Saints’ Eve
All Saints’ Eve occurs at midnight on November 1, the night of October 31. This is when the souls of angelitos, or little angels, return.
It’s believed that the spirits of children come back during this time and spend the following day with their families.
All Saints’ Day
All Saints’ Day occurs during the day on November 1, and the community celebrates with parades, food and drink, cemetery visits, and other festivities.
At midnight on this day, it’s believed the remaining adult spirits return to visit their families.
All Souls’ Day
All Souls’ Day takes place on November 2 and is celebrated similarly to All Saints’ Eve and All Saints’ Day.
Because this is the last day of Día de los Muertos, celebrations tend to be milder as families prepare to say goodbye to the spirits of their loved ones who won’t return for another year.
Where Should I Celebrate the Day of the Dead?
The Day of the Dead is celebrated in all parts of Mexico to varying degrees.
However, Oaxaca’s cultural and culinary prominence make this one of the best places for an authentic Día de los Muertos experience. Downtown Oaxaca is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The streets of this vibrant and culturally rich city truly come alive during the Day of the Dead. From extravagant altars and decorations lining the streets to organized events and programs, Oaxaca offers an unparalleled Día de los Muertos experience. Plus, locals are welcoming and eager to share this beautiful celebration with you!
Oaxaca is also a safe and easy-to-navigate city, so it’s perfect for travelers who want to enjoy this treasured celebration.
How to Get to Oaxaca
The city of Oaxaca is the capital of the state of Oaxaca and is in southwest Mexico. To avoid confusion, Oaxaca city is sometimes referred to as Oaxaca de Juarez.
There are several ways to get to Oaxaca depending on your preferred travel style and budget.
Flights to Oaxaca
Oaxaca is home to an international airport and has direct flights from some U.S. cities like Dallas and Houston. But, most people fly into Mexico City and connect to Oaxaca via a one-hour flight.
Busses to Oaxaca
Some environmentally conscious travelers prefer to transfer from Mexico City to Oaxaca via bus. The bus ride from Mexico City to Oaxaca is roughly eight hours, and there are overnight options for the trip. ADO is a reliable bus service, and they also offer luxury tickets.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead
There are plenty of options for where to stay when you’re in Oaxaca celebrating the Day of the Dead. However, this is the busiest time of year in Oaxaca, so it’s important to plan ahead and book your accommodations early.
If you want to be up close and personal with all the action and fun, you should consider staying in the historic city center or Centro Histórico. This area is the hub of Día de los Muertos celebrations and is within walking distance of almost everything you’ll want to do.
Another ideal location is the neighborhood of Jalatlaco. This area is only one block away from the historic city center. You’ll still be close to everything here, but there will be less noise and commotion.
In Jalatlaco, City Centro Hotel Oaxaca is an Instagrammer's dream!
Services like Uber and Lyft aren’t available in Oaxaca, so having a centrally located hotel or hostel will make a big difference!
What Should I Wear for the Day of the Dead?
Since el Día de los Muertos is not anything like Halloween, you definitely shouldn’t bring a dress-up costume from last year’s Halloween party!
Plan to pack comfortable clothes for walking around during the day. Temperatures are still warm even in October and November, so there’s no need to pack heavy winter clothes. A light jacket for evenings spent outside in the cemeteries should suffice.
Many women prefer to wear lightweight flowy dresses. If you want to blend in with the locals, you can check out a local market and buy a Mexican-embroidered dress to honor Mexican culture.
Overall, the Day of the Dead celebrations are casual during the day and slightly more elaborate at night.
Face painting is a popular and common practice during the Day of the Dead so incorporate this tradition into your outfit! You can get your face painted for around three dollars in the main square or Zócalo.
How to Respectfully Experience the Day of the Dead
While the Day of the Dead is a fun and exciting celebration, it’s also a meaningful custom for the Mexican people. As a seasoned traveler, you’ll understand the importance of respectfully observing and participating in this memorable celebration.
Here are some helpful tips for getting the most out of this experience while honoring the local customs and traditions associated with this cherished celebration.
- Walk around the city and look at decorations and altars in public spaces.
- Participate! When the parades come around feel free to jump in and share in the joy.
- Ask locals about their altars and their loved ones. Most people are eager to share and tell you about the friends and family they are honoring and remembering.
- Ask permission before taking photos of altars and gravesites.
- Get your face painted for walking around the city, but wipe the paint off before visiting a cemetery, as that can be considered disrespectful.
Don’t Do This!
- Don’t touch any altars, gravesite decorations, or sand tapestries.
- Don’t use flash photography, especially in the cemeteries.
- Don’t wear a Halloween costume!
- Don’t wear face paint to a cemetery.
- Don’t forget this is a powerful and important holiday for the Mexican culture. It shouldn’t be treated as a tourist attraction!
Plan a Festive Trip to Oaxaca with Pilot
Oaxaca is a beautiful and unique destination to visit year-round.
But, if you’ve been itching to revel in one of the most iconic and remarkable cultural celebrations in the world, it’s time to start planning your next trip to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca!