Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2023: Ultimate Guide and How to celebrate respectfully
Day of the Dead has a special place in my heart especially since I lived in Oaxaca and also experienced the celebrations of this beautiful festivity during my stay.
This blog is a complete step-by-step guide to help you plan a successful visit to Oaxaca during Day of the Dead 2023. It includes places to stay, what to eat, and a list of recommendations to respectfully celebrate Day of the Dead – all based on my personal experience.
Why celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico?
Being in Mexico during Day of the Dead is a good idea no matter what. This is probably in the top 3 of the most popular celebrations in Mexico. You might find that streets are packed during the days the festivity takes place but the atmosphere, in general, has special magic during the Day of the Dead, so I would totally recommend adding this one to your travel bucket list.
Day of the Dead is associated with Halloween and All Soul’s Day, but the Mexican celebration (where it has its origin) has nothing to do with how the previous are celebrated. For Mexicans, this is a several-day celebration where family and friends gather and joyfully celebrate and pay respects to those who aren’t with us anymore.
My wearing the catrina - photo by @Juan_pablo_barba
Where is the best place to see Day of the Dead in Mexico
Day of the dead, or as Mexicans call it “Día de Muertos” is a celebration that takes place in all of Mexico, but there are certain areas where these celebrations are really at their peak. The best places to celebrate Dia de Muertos are Ciudad de México, Oaxaca de Juárez (and its surrounding towns), the small Island of Janitzio at Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacán, and also Guanajuato City, and San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato state.
Oaxaca or Mexico city for day of the dead
Although Mexico City can be an amazing place to Celebrate Mexico’s most iconic festivity, Oaxaca is the place to be!
Why celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
I have experienced Day of the Dead in Playa del Carmen (Quintana Roo state) and Oaxaca de Juárez (Oaxaca state), and believe me when I say, there is no comparison at all! While minor celebrations and especially club parties took place in Playa del Carmen for a couple of nights, the city of Oaxaca absolutely changed its colors, decorated its streets with flowers, and pretty much every bar, shop, café, and house in town, placed the altars (ofrendas) to commemorate the departed.
In Oaxaca, this celebration takes place unofficially for almost two weeks, it starts at the end of October and peaks at the beginning of November before it is finally over. I haven’t scratched the surface of telling you how amazing Dia de Muertos is in the state of Oaxaca. Stick around if you want to know more!
Catrina in Oaxaca Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez
Another Catrina in Oaxaca Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez
How is Day of the day celebrated in Oaxaca
See, I understand it would be way better to hear this from the Mexican perspective. No better person than a Mexican could give you a complete overview of how to celebrate and how to best behave during the festivities of Dia de Muertos. However, as a Spanish speaker (and someone very curious about our world and our different cultures) I spent my days around Dia de Muertos, asking many questions to locals and understanding more in-depth what this festivity means for Mexicans.
As a matter of fact, the Mexican family who rented me the studio where I lived for 9 months in Oaxaca, were also my neighbors. They kind of became my Mexican family, as my landlord’s sister would say: ¡Yo cuido de ti, tu familia está lejos, pero aquí soy tu mamá Mexicana! (I take care of you, your family is far away, but here I am your Mexican mom!)!
During Día de Muertos in Oaxaca, they even invited me to their house to eat the typical food and to see their family altar. I felt blessed to have them in my life and I was very grateful for them to open their house at such a special moment for them.
I have put together a little list of the many things happening in town and a brief explanation for each of them. This way, when you are already in Oaxaca, you will be able to identify what is exactly going on and you’ll hopefully understand the importance of what you are witnessing – something that will surely help you to be more respectful during those days.
Skeleton graffiti, Oaxaca de Juárez
Skeleton in Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez
Where to see Day of the Dead in Oaxaca and what to do during the celebrations
Throughout the main week of celebrations, here are some of the things you will witness and celebrations that you can take part in – my personal favorite are the comparsas!
During Dia de Muertos celebrations, you will have a close encounter with ancient traditions. For days, you will hear firecrackers, see calendas along the streets of Oaxaca, people visiting cemeteries to leave their offerings, families, and businesses putting on altars, parades taking place in different neighborhoods for hours. Oaxaca is a never-ending fiesta that not only commemorates those who aren’t with us anymore but also creates space for the living to remember the many beautiful moments they shared with the departed.
Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tour – Join local experts
During the Day Of the Dead, people gather in cemeteries (pantheons) as part of the beautiful and sacred traditions honoring the deceased. You can now participate and fully immerse into the culture and better understand the traditions by booking this Day of the Dead Tour led by an expert in the history and mysticism surrounding the practice of the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. Read more and buy your tickets here (early bird tickets are available)!
Check the beautiful ofrendas and altars
One of the most beautiful elements of the Day of the Dead celebrations is the altar or shrine. They can be found all over the city. I used to believe that only families will have them in their house, but the truth is that every single shop, bar, coffee shop, restaurant, will have its own altar too. Some of them are truly elaborate and beautiful.
Altars are made for people to bring their ofrendas (offerings) and show respect to their departed ones. The elements in them are variated. They will normally showcase all the things (including food and drinks) that the person who is not with them anymore used to like. They will also have a photo on their altar and some candles. Cempasuchils (marigold flowers) are very common too. After the 2nd of November and sometimes the 3rd. The family will eat the food as part of the offering ritual.
Altar with ofrendas in Jalatlaco borough, Oaxaca de Juárez
Visit the local graveyards
Let me tell you that I have never seen scenes as touching and stunning as the ones in the cemeteries during Day of the Dead. Sadly during my time in Oaxaca, as part of the Covid Restrictions in 2021, most of the Cemeteries were closed to the public (and only opened for family members).
I would totally recommend visiting at least any of the following:
- San Miguel Cemetery (Oaxaca’s General Cemetery).
- Near Oaxaca Centro, you can visit the Cemetery of San Felipe
- Out of the city, you can visit the Panteón Viejo and Panteón Nuevo in Xoxocotlan and the Panteon at San Agustin Etla. The Panteón at Santa Maria Atzompa is also one of the most famous during these celebrations.
Admire the new Day of the Dead street art
This is a beautiful thing that happens in the city while Dia de Muertos. From one day to the other, you will suddenly start to notice new street art “Day of the Dead related”. The entire city will suddenly look different. Even the “Papel Picado” will have the colors of the festivity.
Graffiti at Xochimilco borough, Oaxaca de Juárez
Same graffiti 4h later at Xochimilco, Oaxaca de Juárez
Join the comparsas or parades
This is by far my favorite thing. Comparsas happen all over the city. I had the chance to join one in Jalatlaco borough and it was the most amazing event! Basically, a local band will walk in circles all around the neighborhood, playing music, singing. People will join and dance and drink while following the band. Each of these can last for at least 4 hours! Isn’t it crazy?
Oaxaca Travel Tips during Day of the Dead – Based on my experience
Planning your visit to Oaxaca and traveling to this beautiful state is normally very easy. However, due to the high number of bookings and people visiting Oaxaca de Juárez to celebrate Day of the Dead, the travel planning part can be tricky, especially if you don’t plan ahead. There are many accommodation options as well as tours, but you will find that many hotels and hostels are fully booked during these days and some tours are sold out.
The best advice I can give you if you’re considering celebrating Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca is to book your stay in advance, probably a couple of tours too (at least those you don’t want to miss!). If you’re planning to eat in some of the nicest restaurants in town (which aren’t expensive at all) it is also a good idea to make restaurant reservations at least 2 or 3 weeks before you get in town.
Top Tip – Book your trip in advance
As I mentioned before, when coming to Oaxaca to celebrate Day of the Dead, you will be in close contact with ancient traditions. Have a look at this list of do’s and don’ts to act as responsibly as possible.
- Arrive at least 1 week before the 1st of November
- Stay in Oaxaca Centro
- Ask questions to locals about the festivity (show your interest and always be respectful with your words)
- Join events and parades, but make sure to also have free time to wander the streets of Oaxaca Centro.
- Visit cemeteries as long as is allowed. Including those in the surrounding towns.
- Visit markets and buy Cempasuchiles (marigolds) for the offerings
- Eat pan de muerto
- Tip in any bar or restaurant – is mandatory to tip in Mexico (10% – 20%)
- Always bring cash with you – Mexico, in general, is not very card friendly
- Don’t drink at cemeteries even if you see other people doing that
- Avoid photos with flash in cemeteries & don’t take photos at graves before asking locals for permission
- Don’t touch altars
- It is a cultural tradition that you are witnessing, don’t dress like you would on Halloween.
Woman selling marigolds at Mercado de la Merced, Oaxaca de Juárez
Graffiti at Jalatlaco borough, Oaxaca de Juárez
Where to stay in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead
Do you still need to book your accommodation? I would recommend staying in Oaxaca Centro or at Jalatlaco neighborhood, but preferably in Centro since many of the events and celebrations are happening here. Some hotel suggestions from low to high budget are:
- Selina Oaxaca great hostel alternative that offers co-working solutions
- Casa Angel Hostel one of the best hostels in town, located in Centro
- Las Mariposas Eco-Hotel & Studios is a sustainable hotel right in Centro
- Casa Carlota unique style and a wonderful rooftop
- Casa de las Bugambilias B&B Oaxacan-style hotel in Centro
- Boulenc Bead & Bread well located modern and minimalistic hotel.
- Casa de Sierra Azul is a Hacienda-inspired hotel
- Quinta Real Oaxaca is a very unique and historic hotel that was part of a former convent.
Best food in Oaxaca – What to eat during Day of the Dead
When in Oaxaca, prepare for absolute first-class food! There are so many good meal alternatives that you would like to extend your stay right away to be able to try it all! I would say, you can’t leave the city without trying: Tlayudas, memelas, mole, tortas, tacos, café de olla, tejate, mezcal, and amazing street food! You can find here a list of the best activities and places to eat in Oaxaca and where to find them.
During Day of the Dead, you will also be able to find “pan de muerto” (special bread that is sold all around the city only during this time of the year).
Things to do in Oaxaca – The best Tours in Oaxaca
I actually wrote a detailed article on the best 30 things to do and experience in Oaxaca. From Mezcal Tours where you visit a family Palenque to Textile Tours where you can learn the traditional techniques of weaving, you will find that the amount of activities to join while in Oaxaca is broad.
Here is a list of some of the best-rated tours by other travelers:
If you wish to extend your stay, I can’t recommend enough to visit the beaches of Oaxaca or even visit the beautiful mountains of San José del Pacífico.
Sunset at San José del Pacifico, Oaxaca
Drone shot at Playa Carrizalillo, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca
Day of the Dead Frequently Asked Questions
These are some of the most common questions people ask about Dia de Muertos.
When is Day of the Dead in Mexico?
The official Day of the Dead date is 2nd November. However, celebrations can start already around 25th October and last up until 3rd November.
Is Day of the Dead like Halloween?
Absolutely not. This is one important thing to bear in mind if you’re planning to visit Mexico during Dia de Muertos. Halloween has European roots and was later commercialized into an American holiday where people can dress in different costumes and exchange candy, etc. However, Dia de Muertos is a Mexican festivity with both Pagan and Catholic elements.
Dia de Muertos is a more respectful celebration in a way and proof of it is the way people dress for the festivity. The common outfit would be wearing your regular clothes. Mexicans also wear traditional dresses (that will differ depending on the state and city you are visiting).
Did Day of the Dead originate in Oaxaca?
The origin of Day of the Dead dates back to the Aztecs in Central Mexico. Festivities would take place for an entire month and would be dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (lady of the dead). The ancient holiday celebrates life in its embrace of death.
Is it disrespectful to wear a Catrina as a foreigner?
There is a bit of a controversy here. I’ll try to explain so you can understand why.
The catrina (or painted skull in the face) was originally created as a satire to Mexican society but throughout the years it has become one of the main symbols of the celebrations of Dia de Muertos. Although there are people defending that it should only be used by Mexicans, the reality is that Mexicans also offer the option for you to paint your face during the celebrations. Here is the controversy.
I would say, this is a call you’ll have to do yourself. I decided it is fine to wear it for several reasons: 1) it is already used globally as a symbol of Day of the Dead festivity and 2) When in Oaxaca, you are encouraged by many locals to paint your face. By painting my face and paying the makeup artist, I am also supporting the local community. Many women also wear a crown of flowers in their hair as part of the catrina outfit, which is also considered normal and they’re sold all over the city.
Me wearing the Catrina at Jalatlaco borough, Oaxaca de Juárez
Me walking at Jalatlaco borough wearing the Catrina, Oaxaca de Juárez
Is Oaxaca safe?
Oaxaca is regularly a safe state and so is the capital city Oaxaca de Juárez. However, during big celebrations like Day of the Dead, the number of muggins increases since the city is packed with visitors too. This said, I would always recommend grabbing a taxi or Didi (equivalent to Uber) home if it is already dark, especially if you have been drinking a bit.
I hope you find Day of the Dead blog helpful and that it cleared up some ideas for planning your visit to Oaxaca. I encourage you to write a comment or send me a private message if you have any questions or need further information. I will be delighted to hear from you!
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