Celebrate El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca City is often considered the culinary and cultural center of Mexico. This colorful city is surrounded by archeological sites and its streets are lined with art galleries. If you are looking for a trip to Mexico outside of the typical resort experience, be sure to add Oaxaca to your list. If you plan your visit at the end of October, you’ll be able to catch the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday. You may have heard of Dia de los Muertos before, but if you haven’t, I’ll fill you in! Plus, I’ll share tips on how to plan and navigate the celebration.
What is El Dia de los Muertos?
Dia de los Muertos, also called the Day of the Dead, is a three-day celebration in Mexico during the days of October 31, November 1, and November 2. During these three days, the locals believe that the spirits of their loved ones travel from the world of the dead to visit the living.
Families set up ofrendas, or altars, in their homes decorated with marigolds, pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”), candles, sugar skulls, chocolate, and more offerings. The idea is that the spirits of their loved ones will have something to enjoy during their visit. Most importantly, the ofrenda holds pictures of the loved ones in the family to memorialize those have passed.
How do I get to Oaxaca?
There are several ways you can get to Oaxaca, depending on where you’re coming from in the world. I flew directly from Los Angeles on a budget airline (Volaris), which is only a 3.5-hour flight. If you’re visiting from farther away, however, many people tend to fly to Mexico City first, and then either fly or take a bus to Oaxaca.
I’d recommend flying since the flight is only just over an hour. The trip by bus is much longer, about 8 hours total. Once you arrive, there are ATMs at the airport you can use to pull out cash for your taxi ride to the city. Look for the stand labeled “Collectivo” and men wearing pink polo shirts. These are shared taxis that should cost less than a private one. If I remember correctly, our ride cost 300 pesos for two people, about $7 each.
Where should I stay in Oaxaca for Dia de Los Muertos?
My personal preference when traveling is to stay at an Airbnb. We stayed at this Airbnb, which is only 15 minutes walking distance from the Santo Domingo Church. I loved its stylish, modern decor, and our hosts were very friendly and accommodating. They even provided an entire 5-gallon jug of bottled water for us to use during our week long stay.
There are many stunning hotels in Oaxaca City, too, and many of them highly luxurious yet still moderately affordable. During my time meandering the city streets, I explored the lobbies of both the Quinta Real Oaxaca and Hotel La Casona De Tita, which were both filled with lush courtyards filled with flowers and greenery.
Where should I go to experience Dia de los Muertos?
Oaxaca City is one of the best places in the world to experience the Dia de Muertos celebration since the holiday is celebrated primarily in central and southern Mexico. You can really get an authentic view of the traditions and customs that have been passed down for centuries.
If you are planning a trip to Oaxaca, make sure to book far in advance. Even as early as February of the same year would be a good time to make hotel reservations. The celebration has become quite popular with tourists after the release of the Disney film, Coco. Despite the influx of tourists, there are still plenty of locals around to make the experience feel authentic.
Also, it’s a good idea to arrive a few days in advance — around Oct. 27 is a safe bet.
What’s the meaning behind the holiday?
You might think that Dia de los Muertos would be a solemn celebration. After all, the festivities are intended as a way to recognize to those who have passed. Yet instead of evoking sadness, the intense colors, face paint and costumes all serve as a way to joyfully celebrate life. Death is seen as a natural part of life. Instead of fearing and denying death, the Mexican culture embraces it.
The attitude is much more celebratory than tearful, and you’ll hear the joyful sound of beating drums, trumpets, and entire bands to let you know a parade is headed your way. You’ll see men and women in costume on stilts, women in traditional Oaxacan clothing, and plenty of children and adults alike dressed up in scary costumes.
Where should I go on October 31?
There will be face painting, a party or parade on nearly every street in Oaxaca City on October 31. Just walk outside your door, and you’ll likely bump into something fun.
On this particular day, though, it’s best to head to the cemeteries. Today is the day that families spend time together at the graves of their loved ones. Family members bring food and drinks that the dead enjoyed in life. The people believe they are spending time with the souls of their loved ones, so it’s a holiday that everyone looks forward to, especially young children.
Go to the Panteón Viejo and Panteón Nuevo (the old and new cemeteries) in the village of Xoxocotlán, a 20-minute taxi ride outside of Oaxaca City, to catch the evening activities. There, you will find hordes of crowds admiring candlelit gravesites.
What should I expect at the cemetery?
The public is welcome to walk among the graves and take photos, however, do be careful to be respectful of the families honoring their traditions. You’ll find many locals happy to share their customs with you, but it’s also a good idea to be sensitive to those who may want to keep a sense of privacy.
Bringing beer, candy, flowers or bread as an offering can be a good idea if you’d like a way to start a conversation. Keep in mind, many of the locals only speak Spanish, but many are happy if you attempt to speak it, even if your Spanish isn’t that good. Making an effort goes a long way!
How about on November 1-2? What should I do on those days?
November 1 is known as Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) and serves as the day to honor children who have died, and technically, November 2 is the actual Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, intended to honor adults.
On these days, I suggest signing up for a tour. Choose one that allows you to get an authentic experience by meeting a local family. We took an amazing tour with Envia Tours, a nonprofit organization that helps empower women to better support themselves and their families. The nonprofit uses the funds from the tours to provide interest-free loans to women in the community.
Our tour took us to the neighboring village of Teotitlán del Valle known for its handwoven artisanal goods. We got to meet with a family, hear their stories and learn firsthand about their Dia de Los Muertos traditions. If you’re looking for a truly authentic experience, be sure to book a tour with Envia or a like-minded organization with a focus on cultural immersion. You will come away from your trip with a new appreciation for Mexican culture, and a broader global perspective!
Jen Pellerito | Jen on the Run | www.jenontherun.com