Home Living in Mexico How to Experience Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

How to Experience Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

by Brent May

Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos in Spanish is one of the defining Mexican celebrations. It is well-known for illustrating the meaning of Mexicans’ relationship to death. The belief behind Day of the Dead is that spirits return to the world of the living for one day of the year to be with their families. The celebration is not just “un día” but is celebrated in Mexico between October 31st and November 2nd.

It is a celebration of life of those who have passed. Mexicans make altars called ofrendas, visit cemeteries and decorate their family’s graves. The altars are elaborately decorated with offerings to welcome the spirits, usually with their favorite food and drink and other special remembrances. In the cemeteries, graves are colorfully decorated with an abundance of flowers and other offerings. During the festivities, it is common to see vendors in the cemeteries, selling balloons for children, tacos and cotton candy.

Read our article about the Meaning of the Day of the Dead here.

Mexicans spend time in the cemetery, having a meal with their loved ones, past and present. They may play the favorite music of the passed relatives and may have some mezcal.

The unique traditional celebrations of Día de Muertos are part of the UNESCO human cultural heritage

October 31st, November 1st or 2nd?

The Day of the Dead honors the dead every year on November 2nd. This tradition took root in pre-Hispanic times, although today it also incorporates elements of Catholicism. This day is linked to Dia de Todos Santos (Day of All Saints) celebrated on November 1st.  It is said that children’s’ souls arrive that day and the adults’ arrive the following morning.

The origin of the tradition comes from the pre-Hispanic beliefs that an immortal soul lives inside each human being, and that it continues to exist after death. According to this tradition, the soul needs tools and food to continue its journey in the dead’s world. Therefore, Mayas and Aztecs celebrated the souls who left the bodies. They kept skulls as a symbol of death and rebirth. It was a day dedicated to the god Mictecacihuatl, also known as the the god of death. It was celebrated in August. But the whole celebration lasted a month and was a way to remember the dead and to celebrate children. When the European settlers came to America, they converted natives to Catholicism.  They changed the dates to November so it would coincide with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.

Marigolds or “cempasúchil” in Zapotec are used in the altar decorations, to make the pathways to the altars and much more.

If you’re in Oaxaca…

If you’re in Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead, you’ve planned ahead. Accommodations become scarce. You can choose to follow a tour in the City or visit the festivities yourself. Tours are easy to find but also require reserving early. You will find tours of the cemetery at night, workshops on how to make altars, and many more variants.

If you choose to DIY your Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, you will take a day to just walk around. There is so much to see and experience that it really requires time. You will find many altars to visit. You’ll know they are for you to visit if the door is open and orange flower petals show you the way. Always ask to take pictures. Don’t touch or disturb anything on the altars or sand paintings.

Be sure to dress nicely. Although it will feel like a giant party, like parades passing by, it is a tradition to be respected. By all means, join the parades! Be sure to take your ear plugs. Parties last all night for 3 nights.


If you’re in Huatulco or Puerto Escondido

If you’re in Huatulco or Puerto Escondido, you will also find many altars that will be open for you to visit. Just follow the orange flower petals. Activities will be on a smaller scale, check the local agenda.

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