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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 guide to understanding all about Day of the Dead. I would also provide tips for planning a successful visit to Oaxaca during the days this festivity takes place – all based on my personal experience.

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.

Oaxaca day of the dead
My wearing the catrina - photo by @Juan_pablo_barba

Where to celebrate 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 state and especiall in Oaxaca de Juárez and surrounding towns, Michoacán and specially in the small Island of Janitzio at Lake Patzcuaro and Guanajuato state, specially in Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Allende

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), 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, house in town, placed the altars (ofrendas) to commemorate the departed

In Oaxaca, this celebration takes place unofficially for almost two weeks, being the end of October/beginning of November the peak of the festivity. I haven’t scratched the surface telling you how amazing Dia de Muertos is in the state of Oaxaca. Stick around if you want to know more!

Oaxaca day of the dead
Catrina in Oaxaca Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez
Oaxaca day of the dead
Another Catrina in Oaxaca Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez

How to celebrate Day of the Dead 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 more complete overview on 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 in 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.

Oaxaca day of the dead
Skeleton graffiti, Oaxaca de Juárez
Oaxaca day of the dead
Skeleton in Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez

Day of the Dead Celebrations – What to do in Oaxaca during Day of the Dead

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.

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.

Oaxaca day of the dead
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).

Photo @ukenkeukenn
Photo @ukenkeukenn

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.
Photo @garykarolli
Photo @garykarolli

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
Oaxaca day of the dead
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?

Day of the Dead Do’s and Don’ts

As I mentioned before, when coming to Oaxaca to celebrate Day of the Dead, you will be in close contact with ancient traditions. Check a look at this list of do’s and don’ts to act as responsibly as possible.

Do

  • 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
Oaxaca day of the dead
Woman selling marigolds at Mercado de la Merced, Oaxaca de Juárez
Oaxaca day of the dead
Graffiti at Jalatlaco borough, Oaxaca de Juárez

Don’t

  • Don’t wear your face painted with the catrina to cemeteries (this is seen as unrespectful)
  • Don’t drink at cemeteries even if you see other people doing that
  • Don’t take photos at graves before asking locals for permission
  • Don’t touch altars 
  • Avoid photos with flash in cemeteries
  • Don’t dress like you would on Halloween. It is not a tourist attraction, but a cultural tradition that you are witnessing.

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.

Top Tip – Book your trip in advance

The best advice I can give you if you’re considering celebrating Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca is to book your stay and probably a couple of tours in advance (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 a reservation at least 3 weeks before you get in town. 

Here are some recommendations to plan your visit to Oaxaca during Day of the Dead:

Where to stay

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.

Photo @garykarolli

What to eat

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 the amazing street food! You can find here a list of the best food in Oaxaca and where to find it.

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).

Getting to Oaxaca

Oaxaca is easy to access from several areas. There is an international airport located less than 1h from the city center. But not all flights connect directly with Oaxaca, so here you can check other ways to get to Oaxaca.

Things to do in Oaxaca – Travel in Oaxaca state

This is a difficult one to summarize, but I actually wrote a detailed article on the best 30 things to do and experience in Oaxaca. This guide includes links and recommendations to join the best local tours in town! Check it out and make sure you don’t miss any highlights during your stay. 

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
Mexico
Drone shot at Playa Carrizalillo, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca

FAQs

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).

Is it disrespectful to wear the 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.

Oaxaca day of the dead
Me wearing the Catrina at Jalatlaco borough, Oaxaca de Juárez
Oaxaca day of the dead
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 is already dark, especially if you have been drinking a bit.

 

I hope you find Day of the Dead blog helpful and it cleared some ideas towards 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!

Plan your trip: A quick guide to book your next adventure now

This is a detailed guide that will help you plan your trip from scratch and successfully prepare everything ahead of your departure. I follow these steps to book my trips and now you can do the exact same!

Purchase your flight

I use Skyscanner to book my flights since I can have oversight on the best deals. Alternatively, I use Kiwi.com

Book your accommodation

For many years now I’ve used Booking.com to find the best hotel deals. Hostelworld is my go-to for hostels.

Don’t forget your travel insurance

My favorite companies are SafetyWing (best relation product/value) and IATI Seguros (for Spanish speakers).

Choose your tours

I love traveling on my own, but for those activities that I need to pre-book I use Get Your Guide, Viator, and Civitatis.

Need Transportation?

Discover Cars, is the company that works best to rent a car. For transportation in Central America, I use GuateGo.

Packing Guide

Check out the list I’ve put together with my favorite travel gear and travel resources to help you pack for your trip.

 

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