Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is a multi-day Mexican celebration of the dead—a unique combination of remembrance and carnival. During the 3-day holiday which spans from October 31st to November 2nd, family and friends gather to pray, remember, honor and celebrate deceased friends and family, and to support them in their spiritual journey.
While one may imagine a holiday dedicated to the dead to be dreary, on the contrary, this holiday is incredibly joyful and colorful. The festivities are filled with dancing, carnivals, incredible costumes, parades, traditional food, beautiful marigold flower displays, iconic altars and cemetery celebrations at the gravesites of loved ones.
One of the most prominent traditions is the building of altars called “ofrendas” which honor the deceased. The altars are decorated with marigolds, sugar skulls, cardboard skeletons, incense, and the favourite treats, food and drinks of the individual that particular altar is dedicated to. Families often then deliver these gifts along with other possessions of the deceased to their gravesite as they celebrate their lives in the cemeteries.
The icon of Day of the Dead is La Calavera Catrina, translating to Elegant Skill. She originates from a zinc etching by a famous Mexican printmaker named José Guadalupe Posada which was composed in the early 1900s. The image depicts a female skeleton donning a European hat worn by the upper class of that time. Her image is a satirical portrait of the Mexicans who Posada felt were aspiring to adopt the aristocratic European traditions.
Day of the Dead celebrations date back to pre-Hispanic times and arose from the ancient traditions of pre-Columbian cultures some 2,500 years ago. Historically the holiday was celebrated in the summer for an entire month during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar. The celebrations honored the goddess, Lady of the Dead. Over time the celebration shifted to the late October and November dates to coincide with All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
By the late 20th century, the tradition evolved to honoring deceased children on November 1st and deceased adults on the 2nd. On October 31st, children gather to make children’s altars dedicated to dead children, inviting the spirits of the dead children to come back and visit. November 1st is dedicated to the celebration and visit by adult spirits. November 2nd is All Souls’ Day where families visit and decorate the graves and tombs of relatives. On this day cemeteries across Mexico come to life with joy, spirit and music as friends and families gather to honor and remember the dead. Outside many of the cemeteries one can find rows of food stalls and carnival attractions, keeping the festivities alive late into the night.
The holiday is celebrated all over Mexico but most notably in the south and central regions. Day of the Dead is known internationally and those of Mexican ancestry celebrate the holiday all over the world, especially in the United States.
Within Mexico, Mexico City and Oaxaca host the most well-known celebrations. This guide covers details of the festivities and tradition in both cities. Other notable places to visit include Michoacán, Morelos, Veracruz, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, Chiapas, Yucatán and Quintana Roo and Guanajuato.
Thousands of people gather in Mexico City’s historic Zocalo (public square) during the Day of the Dead festivities. Festivities include a parade of people dressed as female skeletons and street parties that last all night long. The center is fabulously decorated with altars where an extravagant altar contest is held annually. Day of the Dead altars are also the focal point of many prominent museums and public spaces. The most noteworthy museums to visit are the Diego Rivera Museum and the Culture Museum in Coyoacan. Major vigils are held in some of the city’s largest cemeteries including Bosque de Chapultepec and Panteón Civil de Dolores.
San Andrés Mixquic
One of the most famous celebrations takes place in San Andrés Mixquic which is located in Mexico City’s southern Distrito Federal. Every year thousands of people visit the San Andrés Mixquic which has very strong indigenous roots and is famous for its display of skeletal dolls, vibrant masks, marigolds and of course for its lively Day of the Dead celebrations. The town becomes spirited and alive with excellent street stalls and food, altars, processions and parties. Prior to the festivities, primary school children build altars with their teachers. These altars are on public display at the Cristobal Colon Primary School near the Church of Saint Andrew.
The church bells of the Church of St. Andrew toll at midnight on the 31st which marks the arrival of the children's souls who have passed. On the 1st of November, the homes of those who have lost loved ones leave their doors open to display their candlelit altars. On November 2nd at 4:00pm, the church bell rings yet again which marks the beginning of the procession where people promenade through the streets towards the cemeteries to deliver the offerings and candles to the graves of their beloved. The events culminate in the Alumbrada Cemetery that surrounds the church. Here, graves are gloriously decorated and illuminated by hundreds of candles. When nighttime falls, the mariachi bands begin to fill the town with lively music as the Mexican families celebrate the lives of those who have passed.
How to Get There
Mexico City is serviced by the Benito Juárez International Airport which is 13km from Mexico City center. But with a population of nearly 9 million and 26 million when including the surrounding regions, travel time can take between 45-60 minutes, and an additional 30 minutes during rush hour.
- Taxis - There are many unauthorized Taxis at the airport you want to make sure to steer clear from. You can find authorized Taxis after exiting baggage claim and before entering the public concourse at a booth marked Taxi. Staff members wear yellow jackets which say Taxi Autorizado.
- Metro - This is a cheap and efficient way to get to the city, but be aware of thieves who are on the prowl for naive travellers. From Terminal 1 enter the metro at the Terminal Aérea on line 5. From Terminal 2 you can enter the Terminal Pantitlán which services lines 1, 5, 9 and A.
- Bus - You can take metro bus #4 into town from Terminal 1 and 2.
San Andrés Mixquic is about 50km southeast of the city center in Mexico City. If you wish to rent a car, driving can take anywhere between 1 and 2 and a half hours, depending on traffic. Keep in mind that traffic will likely be especially bad around this holiday. Another option is to hire a taxi. Public transportation will take around 3 hours.
Where to Stay
Whether you plan to attend events in the Mexico City Zocalo or travel down to Mixquic, it is recommended to book accommodations near the city center in the Centro Historico District, as Mixquic is rural and has very few,if any hotels. Although the Centro Historico district can be a bit noisy, it is the city’s beating heart, boasting with museums, temples, murals and important landmarks. If you plan on attending the city’s Zocalo festivities, you’re in prime location.
Day of the Dead is a magical time to spend in Oaxaca City in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Many of the dedicated altars you will see in Oaxaca are truly works of art. Organizations and schools across the city hold contests for the best altars each year which are fun displays to check out and get you in the holiday spirit. Leading up to the celebrations, the local markets are packed full of locals shopping for all the necessary decorative items for their altars. If you arrive in Oaxaca early, we recommend visiting 20 de Noviembre Market or the Central de Abastos Market just south of the city center.
A special Oaxacan tradition is the creation of sand tapestries. After the burial of a family member, a sand tapestry is made in the home depicting various religious images. After nine days of praying, the tapestry is swept up and the sand is collected and poured onto the gave. Many tapestries are made specific to the Day of the Dead, usually depicting skeletons and other death related themes. While visiting Oaxaca, you will see many of these tapestries along the streets, in public buildings and shops.
Each year a massive sand tapestry and altar is set up in Oaxaca’s Palacio de Gobierno, now called the Museo del Palacio. Other key destinations to visit to see the marvelous tapestries and altars include Escuela de Bellas Artes, the Casa de la Cultura, the pedestrian walkway along Calle Macedonio Alcalá Street and the Plaza de Constitucion, more commonly referred to as the Zocalo (city center).
Another Day of the Dead tradition in Oaxaca is the “Comparas” processions of people dressed in fantastic costumes, singing and dancing through many different neighbourhoods and surrounding villages. They are typically informally organized and pop up literally all over the city. Some of the most popular processions take place in San Agustín Etla, about 16km outside of the city.
The culmination of the festivities is the celebration of life and death held at several cemeteries around town and in neighbouring villages. One of the most famous cemeteries to visit is the Panteon General, also know as the Panteon San Miguel. Here you will discover beautifully decorated altars and candles lighting up the night sky. Outside the cemetery are carnival rides and stalls selling Mexican treats. Another popular cemetery is the Panteón Nuevo in the nearby village of Xoxocotlán.
How to Get There
The Xoxocotlán International Airport (OAX) services Oaxaca City. Most airlines fly through Mexico City and then on to Oaxaca, however, United has a direct flight from Houston, Texas. Oaxaca City is 10km south of the city. A taxi to the city center takes about 20 minutes and costs around 150 pesos (€8). Airport vans are available for roughly 48 pesos (€2.5).
Another option is to travel to Oaxaca from Mexico City via first class bus. This takes about 6.5 hours. From Mexico City catch the bus at TAPO bus terminal. The bus drops off at the ADO first-class bus station which is one mile north of the city center. A taxi ride from here to the city center runs around 30 pesos (€1.5). Driving from Mexico City to Oaxaca is typically not recommended due to the hassles, checkpoints and tolls involved.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of accommodation options in Oaxaca, but plan ahead if you plan to visit for Day of the Dead. Oaxaca is also well known for its many unique boutique hotels. The city isn’t too large, especially compared to Mexico City, so if you stay anywhere near the Zocalo or Calle Macedonio Alcalá Street, you will be within walking distance of most attractions.