Planning to celebrate Day of the Dead on Oaxaca? Take this 7-day National Geographic tour to immerse yourself in the festivities.
Visiting Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead celebrations is a beguiling experience. Although Mexico City claims the biggest Dia de los Muertos celebration, with the infamous Desfile de Día de Muertos, Oaxaca comes a close second.
The festival is actually a fusion of pre-Hispanic culture and the Christian calendar; aspects of the Aztec death festivals are combined with the Catholic All Saints’ Day. It has become one of the most celebrated festivals in Mexico and was even added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
If you visit Oaxaca in late October or the start of November, you’ll see hints of Dia de los Muertos festivities throughout the city. But how is Day of the Dead celebrated here? And can anyone join in? Here’s an overview of the major traditions and what to expect from the festival.
Oaxaca City (pronounced “wah-HAH-kah”) is a friendly, walkable city that’s a pleasure to visit at any time of year. Oaxaca has a large Zocalo that’s a central hub for the community and tourists. The city boasts some of the best cuisine in Mexico, as well as art, history and culture that rivals any major city in the world.
But it’s during the festivals that Oaxaca really comes to life, with events like Dia de los Muertos, Carnaval and the Guelaguetza festival. The Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca are truly special - a mixture of love, religion and celebration, brought together through music, food and events.
The first thing to do if you aren’t part of an organised tour of the Dia de los Muertos is to pick up a schedule of events from the tourist booth that is located in front of the main cathedral, near the Zocalo. If in doubt, the Zocalo a good place to start as you’ll often see comparsas (parades) here in the evenings with giant puppets, called mojigangas, and firework displays.
Families spend the days before the celebrations visiting their local cemetery, known as panteón or cementerio, and decorating the graves of loved ones. They clean the grave and lay the colourful and iconic cempasúchil flowers (marigolds). Then at night, the family will gather around the graves with candles and invite the deceased to visit.
This happens all over the city, but these gatherings should be respected by tourists as a family event. One cemetery that does allow visitors is Panteón Mictlancíhuatl in Xoxocotlán. Located about 10 km from the city centre, you can take a tour to visit one or two cemeteries there. Tours start at around 9-10pm, continuing on well into the night. It’s important to still be respectful and always ask before taking pictures of people and especially around graves.
‘Ofrendas’, or altars, are created to welcome the spirits as they pass from the underworld. These are a key part of the celebrations and are decorated with flowers, candles, and photographs as well as favourite items of the deceased family member.
You will see everything from cigarettes, to mezcal, toys and books adorning these altars. Families will prepare lavish meals for the cemeteries with fresh food brought from the local markets. As well as the bread of the dead, there are also tortillas, Mexican chocolate caliente and other traditional treats for the deceased that the living get to eat.
During the holidays there are many comparsas (or parades) around Oaxaca. They are colourful congregations with marching bands that symbolise the return of the dead. Some great places to see the comparsas in Oaxaca are the pedestrian street, Calle Macedonio Alcalá, the neighbourhood of Jalatlaco, and through the Zócalo.
All over Oaxaca you will spot beautiful Day of the Dead sand tapestries created by local artists. They are known as ‘Tapetes de Arena’ and are often placed in front of altars. They are usually made from coloured sand but some are constructed with rice, seeds, dried beans, and flowers.
There are also many opportunities for face painting, a modern slant on tradition that has become a global phenomenon. Based on the calavera de azucar, or sugar skulls, faces are painted like the skulls of the deceased to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on.
Please note that it’s not culturally appropriate to visit cemeteries with face paint on.
The Muerteada (Day of the Dead dance) in Etla, Oaxaca, generally takes place on the 1st of November and is one of the best parties in the region. It’s about a 40-minute drive from the centre of Oaxaca, so it’s best to get a taxi or share one with other travellers.
Locals dressed as the dead, the devil or the elderly use mirrors and bells to scare away witches and guide spirits in the night. There’s a lively brass band welcoming the spirits in an all night parade that goes on until sunrise.
The Day of the Dead celebrations in Etla are known for being pretty wild, with dancing and plenty of mezcal. So be prepared to stay up late and to get involved - festivals in Mexico aren’t for spectators!
The Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos) is a festival celebrated in Mexico close eot Halloween on 31 October 31, 1 November and 2 November. But it’s a time for love and celebration rather than the fear of the underworld, with locals inviting loved ones who have passed back into their lives for a short time.
The days leading up to the festivities are a fantastic time to be in Oaxaca. Beautiful decorations are hung from businesses and the homes of locals, bakeries are busy making ‘pan de muerto’, and the mercados are brimming with delicious food.
It’s also useful to arrive a little bit before the celebrations to get to know your way around, and find out about all of the individual local events that are happening. A great resource is Que Pasa Oaxaca.
Centro is a great place to stay during the Day of The Dead in Oaxaca; you are right in the heart of it all. You might even stumble across something you didn’t plan on by following the lively music playing down the street. But it can get crowded and prices are higher at this time of year. Hotel Dainzu, Hotel La Casona Oaxaca and Grana BnB are lovely places to stay near the Zocalo, but you'll need to book a room in advance.
For something a bit quieter stay in the Barrio de Jalatlaco. The quaint cobblestone streets and independent shops make for a very pleasant area to call home, plus you’re still not that far away from the centre. Hotel Cazomalli is a pretty, colourful hotel with comfortable rooms and friendly staff.
There’s some amazing street art in Oaxaca, especially here in the north of the city. Coyote Aventura does street art bike tours, it’s a great way to see some of the best local art if you are short on time.
Staying in a hostel is a great way to meet people and get involved amongst the celebrations. Try Yabanhi Hostel or Iguana Hostel Oaxaca for Dia de los Muertos, but again you'll need to book early as they can get booked up months in advance.
Alternatively there are plenty of Air BnB’s in Oaxaca to choose from - stay just outside of the centre for larger rooms at lower prices.
The short answer is there are lots of other things to do in Oaxaca! Here are just some of our favourite things to do in and around the city.
Visit a Lucha Libre show to get to know the locals.
Shop at the local markets like Mercado Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre.
Take a trip to the amazing petrified waterfalls at Hierve el Agua.
Visit the ruins of Monte Alban and the Zapotec carvings of Mitla.
Hike the Pueblos Mancomunados, eight eco tourism villages in the mountains near Oaxaca.
Visit the nearby villages, each famous for their own craft; see textiles in Teotitlan del Valle, the stilt dances of Villa de Zaachila or the intricate Alebrijes of San Martin Tilcajete.
So where is the best place to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico? As we said before Mexico City has the biggest celebrations with a great parade full of mega altars and giant floats that overshadow just about everywhere else. But lots of other places in Mexico celebrate Dia de los Muertos.
The Festival La Calaca (Skull Festival) is a week-long event in San Miguel de Allende with all night parties and talks on the dead.
The ceremonies sometimes also take on a more solemn tone. On the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacan, locals carry offerings to the graves of family members and hold meditative vigils until dawn.