Day of the Dead: how to celebrate Día de Muertos in Oaxaca, México
Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of Mexico’s most important spiritual traditions and an incredible celebration of life that dates back thousands of years to the country’s rich pre-hispanic roots.
Although festivities take place all over the country, there is absolutely no better place to experience a colourful and authentic Día de Muertos than in Oaxaca! Here’s a quick guide to get you ready to celebrate like a local, including tips on when to arrive, where to stay, how to dress up, and exactly where to go in & around Oaxaca City to experience the best of Día de Muertos.
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The incredible tradition of Día de Muertos in Mexico
Around the world, you’ll often hear Day of the Dead described as “Mexican Halloween”, but this tradition is actually one of the most profound and spiritually significant events in Mexico that has nothing to do with spooky witches or pumpkin carving and everything to do with honouring the lives of those who’ve passed on.
On November 1st and 2nd, it’s believed that the veil between our world and the spirit world dissolves, allowing the souls of the dead to return to their loved ones to dance, to party, to celebrate, to walk among us for a few hours.
Many of these celebrations take place right in the cemetery, where graves are decorated with bright marigolds, adorned with candles, and laden with offerings of the deceased’s favourite food and drink. Entire families come together to welcome their loved ones home and it’s not unusual to see bands playing as tacos are grilled up and mezcal is passed around, the kind of laughter, dancing, and merriment that would be instantly out of place in graveyards of Australia or the US.
These festivities passionately honour those who’ve passed on into the next existence, one of the most powerful symbols of how Mexicans view death, and by extension, life… love, family, and community above all else.
It’s not to say that death is never a somber affair— loss is mourned intensely in Mexico, but after 40 days, believed (by many cultures around the world) to represent the time it takes a soul to travel towards the light, Mexicans choose instead to celebrate their loved ones through explosive parades, all-night parties & elaborate costumes.
Planning guide for Día de Muertos
When to be in Oaxaca for Día de Muertos
Though local traditions do vary between states, throughout Mexico, Día de Muertos is celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November— it is believed that the soul’s of deceased children return at midnight on the 31st of October and adults at midnight on the following day, with the largest celebrations taking place on the 1st of November and into the morning hours of the 2nd.
However, Día de Muertos festivities in Oaxaca typically span a full week or more, so if you’re hoping to attend Magna Comparsa, visit the marigold fields before they’re harvested, and watch as the city explodes in colourful decorations, you should aim to be in Oaxaca from 27 October – 3 November for the full experience of Día de Muertos.
Where to stay in Oaxaca for Día de Muertos
As with any trip to Oaxaca de Juarez (the official name of Oaxaca City, which is the capital of Oaxaca state), I’d recommend staying in one of two areas to fully appreciate the city: the Centro Histórico or Jalatlaco.
The most extravagant Día de Muertos celebrations within Oaxaca take place in and around the city’s historic centre, so anywhere within walking distance will make it easy for you to join in at all hours. Also within spitting distance of the Centro Histórico is Jalatlaco, the city’s arts district. This is by far my favourite neighbourhood to wander around in Oaxaca— it’s incredibly colourful, full of amazing restaurants, and always bustling with festive activity.
- AYOOK: gorgeous boutique hotel with a fantastic included breakfast (starting at $85/night)
- Selina Oaxaca: my favourite upscale hostel chain, with an assortment of dorm rooms, privates, and apartments, plus incredible on-site ammenities including a restaurant, bar, communal kitchen, co-working space, and expansive rooftop (dorms starting at $14/night; private rooms starting at $70/night)
- XOCO: trendy boutique hotel with simple but comfortable rooms (starting at $60/night)
- Viajero Oaxaca: another phenomenal international hostel chain with a rooftop bar, daily activities, and a wide selection of rooms, from low-cost communal dorms to private rooms with ensuite bathrooms (dorms starting at $20/night; private rooms starting at $60/night)
- Hotel Tabáa Oaxaca: upscale rooms in a beautiful boutique hotel with all the amenities (starting at $195/night)
- La Cochinilla Hotel Boutique: centrally located boutique with gorgeous rooftop views and super reasonable prices (starting at $45/night for shared bathroom; $75/night with ensuite)
- Paraje La Huerta: family-owned Jalatlaco hotel with beautiful gardens and comfortable rooms, but most importantly, super friendly hosts ready to help make your trip to Oaxaca special! (starting at $105/night)
If you’re willing to take an inexpensive taxi, then you can realistically stay anywhere in Oaxaca city to enjoy Día de Muertos! Outside of these recommended areas, hotels are likely cheaper and may remain available even after more central locations are fully booked.
When to book your trip to Oaxaca for Día de Muertos
If you are hoping to celebrate Día de Muertos in Oaxaca, you need to plan (and book!) your trip as FAR in advance as possible— people come from all over Mexico to celebrate Día de Muertos in Oaxaca City and accommodation can and will become FULLY booked up!
For a good selection of options, you should plan your trip at least 6 months in advance; within 2-3 months of the event, you can expect very few hotels to be available.
I decided to go to Día de Muertos in Oaxaca rather last-minute while I was living in San Cristóbal, Chiapas and there was NO accommodation available (seriously, NONE)— I refreshed Booking.com every day hoping for a cancellation and finally snatched a dorm bed for a single night, which gave me 2 full days in the city (arriving at 8am on 1 Nov & departing at 8pm on 2 Nov). Better than nothing, but let this be a warning that Día de Muertos is NOT something you can easily attend without prior planning and, as it may be, the willingness to spend 2 nights on an overnight bus…
Dressing up for Día de Muertos
One of the best ways to get into Día de Muertos, even as a foreigner, is to dress up in elaborate costumes— none more iconic than La Calavera Catrina, the elegant skull.
The skull makeup so closely associated with Day of the Dead actually relates to a 1912 illustration by Jose Guadalupe Posada, later honoured (and largely popularised as ‘La Catrina’) in a mural by renowned Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. Depicting a well-dressed woman as a skeleton, the artwork was intended as a commentary on how death is the one common thread between the rich and poor, and regardless of material wealth, we are all skeletons in the end.
This is the most popular way to dress up and get into the festive spirit of Día de Muertos, and you can find stalls all over the city centre painting a million creative versions of La Catrina! I’ll share more information on where to get your makeup done in the section below, but I highly recommend dressing up at least once during your time in Oaxaca City.
Is it appropriate for gringos to dress up for Día de Muertos??
I’ve spent more than a year travelling through Mexico and have been overwhelmed by how readily foreigners are encouraged to take part in local traditions. Love, genuine interest, and above all RESPECT for Mexican customs are almost always enough to earn you an honorary seat at the table. Even foreigners are encouraged to dress up and paint their faces for Día de Muertos, often pulled close to celebrate with local families at the cemetery, dance in raucous parades, or share in fiery mezcal. It’s hard to remain a stranger in Mexico!
If you attend local parades, or comparsas, you’re also likely to see a variety of spooky and even rather curious costumes, everything from skeletons on stilts to ghouls and goblins to… doctors and priests? Even though it is NOT Mexican Halloween, there’s a rich history of elaborate Día de Muertos costumes in Mexico and dressing up is a fantastic way to join in!
How to celebrate Día de Muertos in Oaxaca
Wondering where to go and what to see in Oaxaca during Día de Muertos? I spent just 2 full days in the city for this incredible celebration, and although it was far from the full week I would LOVE to have enjoyed, I was still able to squeeze so much out of my time! Here’s a checklist of experiences to help you get the most out of your Día de Muertos celebrations in Oaxaca:
1 | Centro Histórico
Start off your Día de Muertos experience in Oaxaca by simply wandering through the Centro Histórico (Historic Centre) to see the entire city decorated in colourful flowers, flags, skeletons, and other Day of the Dead paraphernalia. Often, you’ll stumble right into a raucous comparsa or live music when you least expect it!
2 | Admire Día de Muertos ofrendas
Locals honour their dead in the weeks leading up to Día de Muertos through the creation of beautiful altars or ofrendas, decorated with photos of the deceased, some of their favourite food & drink, colourful cempasúchil (marigolds), and plentiful candles. These can be seen all over the city in restaurants, shops, courtyards… keep your eyes open!
Traditionally, these ofrendas will have many layers or tiers, with the uppermost representing heaven and the lowest representing earth. There’s also important symbolism to the items placed on the alter, intended to represent the 4 elements and believed to guide the souls of loved ones home:
- Earth represented by offerings of food, typically bread (including the traditional Pan de Muerto) and fruit, which is believed to nourish the souls of the dead
- Wind represented by papel picado (colourful tissue-paper cut with beautiful designs) that blows in the breeze
- Fire of burning candles is believed to help guide the souls home
- Water to satisfy the thirst of the dead after their long journey back to earth (you’ll also see other beverages on the altar, such as pulque or mezcal, which are considered sacred in Mexico and seen as a way to further honour and celebrate the deceased upon their return)
3 | Tapetes de arena (sand carpets)
Tapetes de arena (sand carpets or sand rugs) are a traditional art form associated with Día de Muertos, originating in the town of Zaachila, about an hour outside of Oaxaca de Juarez. Colourful sand is used to create large and often elaborate murals on the street, typically with themes of death and life, such as skeletons, skulls, and flowers.
If time allows, you can visit Zaachila to see the most elaborate sand carpets, but within Oaxaca City, you can also find tapetes de arena along Avenida de la Independencia.
4 | Attend a comparsa
Magna Comparsa (The Grand Parade) is the largest and most eagerly anticipated of the Día de Muertos parades in Oaxaca de Juarez, opening the festivities a few days prior to Day of the Dead (usually around 27 October).
Even if you don’t arrive in the city in time to catch Magna Comparsa, every day from 28 Oct-2 Nov will feature comparsas of varying scale in Oaxaca and the surrounding towns! The best way to find out about each year’s schedule is on the Oaxaca Events page.
5 | Plaza de la Constitución
Oaxaca is the most culturally diverse state in Mexico! With 16 different indigenous groups and hundreds of subgroups, each with their own linguistic and social customs, the people of Oaxaca celebrate Día de Muertos according to their own nuanced traditions and no two communities are entirely alike.
To learn more about these communities and see a diverse range of Día de Muertos ofrendas, head to Plaza de la Constitución, where local communities have assembled beautiful, traditional altars representative of their own unique culture and customs.
6 | Have your makeup done
As you would have read above, having your makeup done in the style of La Catrina (or simply as a spooky skull, for the guys) is one of the most fun ways to participate in Día de Muertos as a visitor! There are hundreds of vendors set up along the streets of Oaxaca, tables overflowing with colourful face paint, glitter, jewels, and brushes— head to El Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán to find some of the best, but they are all over Centro and even Jalatlaco (just listen for shouts of maquillaje).
Typically, street artists will have binders with photos of different makeup options— flip through to find a style and colour palate that appeals to you or even show a photo off your phone if you’re after something specific. Expect to pay 150-200p ($8-10) for colourful face paint and then add a fresh marigold crown for 100-200p ($5-10).
7 | El Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán
Once you’ve got your makeup done, be sure to stop in front of the iconic Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán to snap some photos! This is an instantly recognisable symbol of Oaxaca and the perfect place to get pictures while dressed up for Día de Muertos.
8 | Party in Etla
Ask a local and they’ll all tell you: the most elaborate costumes and explosive comparsas, also called muerteadas, in all of Oaxaca can be found outside the city in the communities of Etla. This isn’t a single destination, but rather a group of towns (San Augustín Etla, Reyes Etla, Soledad de Etla, etc).
These raucous muerteadas take place on the evening on November 1st, where hundreds or even thousands of locals gather in extravagant costumes and parade through the streets, cramming into homes and courtyards to play music and drink for a bit before carrying on through town to the next destination, all the way until morning. The bands are loud, the dancing is chaotic, and the mezcal is flee-flowing— many participants are carrying bottles of the local spirit and will pass it around to friends and strangers alike.
You can grab a colectivo out to the Valle de Etla for a few pesos and, once there, spend hours partying with the locals. There’s typically street food to be found at all hours, as well as a variety of cocktails being sold for ~50p ($2-3USD), but most importantly, come ready to dance! I didn’t take heaps of photos of this experience because I was so swept up in the excitement of being there (with a local group of nursing students I’d met in the city earlier that day), so check out this video for what to expect in Etla.
9 | Attend an outdoor concert
Live music is plentiful during Día de Muertos and you can hardly walk through the city without stumbling upon a free outdoor concert!
These take place routinely in Plaza de la Danza and in Plaza de la Constitución (pictured below), but if you want to plan ahead, all of the concerts are published in an official Día de Muertos programme released annually by the city.
10 | Centro Cultural San Pablo
This 17th-century convent in the centre of the city has been converted into a cultural centre with interesting art exhibitions relating to Oaxacan culture and tradition. It’s particularly worth a visit during Día de Muertos to see the decorations and understand more about the history of these celebrations!
11 | Jalatlaco
Make sure to spend a few hours strolling through Jalatlaco, Oaxaca’s colourful arts district that is simply overflowing with street art, much of which is associated with Día de Muertos iconography. The walls are covered in beautiful murals, papel picado (colourful tissue-paper cut with beautiful designs) floats overhead in a rainbow of colours, every entryway is elaborately decorated, and spectacular ofrendas are in abundance.
Even outside of November, visiting Jalatlaco will give you a taste of Día de Muertos, but it is especially magical during this time of year! You can easily walk from the Centro to Jalatlaco and then wander around, enjoying the scenery.
12 | Shop at local artisan markets
Whether you’re looking for local pieces to pull together the perfect Día de Muertos costume or hoping to bring some of Oaxaca home with you, make sure to peruse the craft market in front of Templo del Carmen Alto. This is one of my favourite spots in the city to find unique pieces, from traditional wool bags to handmade jewellery, rather than the more mass-produced offers at some of the other markets around Oaxaca.
13 | Panteón General Oaxaca
Because Día de Muertos is about honouring death as a natural part of life and welcoming the souls of our loved ones back to earth for one night, the best way to appreciate the significance of this holiday is to visit a local cemetery.
It may sound curious to associate joyful celebration with a cemetery, but Día de Muertos is not a somber or sad experience— it’s a time for families to come together and celebrate those who’ve passed into the next life, and that typically involves taco cookouts, a lot of drinking, loud music, dancing, and general merriment!
A short walk from Centro, visit Panteón General Oaxaca to see the festivities— nighttime is a very spiritual and authentic experience as the souls are welcomed back with the lighting of thousands of candles (evenings of October 31st and November 1st), while the afternoon is more like a carnival with rides, cocktails, street food, and live bands or reggaeton blasting on speakers (November 2nd is a great time to visit).
Is it respectful to wander around the cemetery and take photos?
As a foreigner, it can feel a little strange walking around and snapping photos in a cemetery— culturally, this is just not done in places like Australia, the UK, or the US— but it isn’t at all out of place during Día de Muertos in Oaxaca. It’s obviously never respectful to shove a camera lens in someone’s face, but I found families to be incredibly welcoming of my presence, some posing for photos (after I asked if it was ok) or even inviting me over to share their food, and all the locals I spoke to assured me it was totally acceptable to take photos of the graves and ofrendas. Above all, Mexicans are excited to share their traditions and customs with foreigners who are genuinely interested and respectful!
14 | Taste local mezcal
Produced from over a hundred varietals wild agave according to simple ancestral distillation methods, mezcal has thousands of years of history in pre-Hispanic Mesoamérica and continues to be regarded as a sacred beverage by many of the indigenous communities in Oaxaca. At its core, mezcal is a deep part of local culture rather than just a means to get drunk.
Mezcal is also an important part of Día de Muertos! You may see it set out on altars or graves as an offering to the dead (who are believed to enjoy mezcal as much as the living) or being passed around during nighttime muerteadas, and there’s even a very elaborate type of mezcal produced specifically for Día de Muertos: Pechuga de Pollo.
During the distillation process, a variety of fruits, nuts, and spices are incorporated into the mezcal and, most importantly, raw chicken breast is suspended inside the still, slowly cooking in the vapours, dripping small quantities of fat into the spirit, but mostly imbuing the mezcal with a spiced, savoury quality. It sounds strange, but it’s actually one of the most delicious varieties of mezcal and certainly the most special.
If you’d like to gain a deeper appreciation for this spirit and its connection to local customs, I’d highly recommend visiting a mezcal bar while in Oaxaca. Here are some of my personal favourites:
- In Situ: enormous selection of mezcal, priced for individual shots (most 120-180p) but they will give you free samples and are extremely knowledgeable
- La Mezcaloteca: you’ll need to reserve a tasting in advance, but this is a crash-course in mezcal and the best way to understand the spirit if you haven’t visited a palenque
- Espacio Mezcal: nice outdoor patio and small-batch mezcal from surrounding towns, 90-120p for a 2oz taster (be sure to try some from maestra mezcalera Bertha Vazquez, whom I met in San Baltazar Chichicapam on my vanlife trip around Mexico— she’s a real legend and one of the few women in the industry!)
- Cuishe: some excellent mezcal, priced per shot (100-150) but you can taste for free, great staff
- Los Amantes: 250p to taste 3 mezcals in beautiful small setting; good for the experience, but not my absolute favourite mezcal (order a cocktail on the rooftop for one of the best views in the city)
- Mezcal & Mole Tasting: for those really looking to get a deeper understanding of mezcal and mole, both native to Oaxaca, this Airbnb experience is super fun and features a tasting board of 7 mezcals paired with 7 moles; I loved it so much that I bought it for my mum and her husband when they visited Oaxaca and it was an all-around hit!
15 | Enjoy local Oaxacan cuisine
And finally… you certainly won’t go hungry in Oaxaca during Día de Muertos! This state is known as the culinary epicentre of Mexico, with an incredible assortment of unique dishes that you won’t find in other parts of Mexico, as well as traditional fare prepared with Oaxacan flare. Here are some of my favourite restaurants in Oaxaca:
- Las Quince Letras: THE place to go for incredible mole and other traditional Oaxacan food, regarded as one of the best restaurants in the city
- Criollo: upscale eatery preparing local dishes with real culinary flare, a great place to try something unique
- Los Danzantes: another long-time fave, this courtyard restaurant is always busy and the Oaxaca classics are always delicious
- Sabina Sabe: best mezcal cocktails and elevated local cuisine in a trendy space
- El Son Istmeño: festive courtyard restaurant in Jalatlaco; try the gorditas topped with queso Oaxaca and cochinita pibil
- Las Animas: my favourite tlayudas, kind of like a thin crusted Mexican pizza or an open-faced, crunchy quesadilla
- Marito&Moglie Cafe and Boulenc: you won’t find traditional food at either of these popular breakfast spots, but the ingredients are incredibly fresh and the settings are wonderful; no wonder these have been Oaxaca City favourites!
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