What is El Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead)?
El Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead in English, is a Mexican holiday celebrating the dead. It is a very joyous celebration at the end of October/beginning of November (generally from October 31th to November 2nd but some communities celebrate it more widely). It is an Aztec heritage celebrated only in Mexico and is one of the reasons we visited this country.
The belief is: during this day the deceaseds, whose memory still exists, return to the world of the livings to visit their families. Families build impressive and colourful altars in their homes. They decorate them with flowers (usually carnations), place on it photos of the deads and offerings of what they loved in their lifetime. This could be their favourite meals, drinks, cigars, games for the children, etc. At night, families visit the cemeteries, decorate the graves of their deceased family members, hang out together around the tomb and evoke the missing people memories while enjoying their favourite food and drinks. For many Mexicans we talked to, this celebration is more important than Christmas.
The tradition varies according to the region but in the cemeteries the tombs are generally decorated with Indian carnations (bright orange flowers) and candles. There is also a lot of music and bands singing, such as Mariachis. Finally, it is customary to eat the pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a sweet butter bread which often contains vanilla or orange blossom ,as well as sweets such as coloured skulls made of sugar or chocolate.
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City
After a lot of thinking, we decided to spend el Día de Muertos in Oaxaca. The city is very pretty and there are many things to visit and see, check out our top 25 things to do in Oaxaca. The city offers a lot of free activities around the Day of the Dead from October 28th to November 4th. Remember to get a free program in almost any business or tourist attraction. We have been able to attend contests of dressed dogs and / or people, to taste the bread of the dead accompanied by chocolate at the feria del chocolate y pan de muerto, to observe the many altars presented in the city, to attend plays, dance shows, exhibitions and parades.
Throughout the week people march and feast with fanfares. We met giants, many people dressed in Catrinas (a popular female skeleton in the Mexican culture) or dancers in guelaguetza costume (a traditional festival in the Oaxaca region). Be prepared for the many fireworks and firecrackers.
We had the chance to meet locals, during a Spanish/English language exchange, who offered to take us to see the different cemeteries. They also advised us to check out the festivities at the Templo de San Matias Jalatlaco. It was not indicated on the program but we had the chance to see the crazy arrival of a parade with giant Catrinas, fireworks and fanfares, with a lot less tourists and more locals!
The cemeteries visit
We started by getting our faces painted on the street in the centre of Oaxaca. For 150 pesos, the experience is worth the detour and allowed us to really be part of the party. We were photographed a lot and even interviewed by Mexican TV! It’s very easy to find makeup artists in town, take a look at the previous customers before choosing yours, they do not all have the same talent.
We then visited 2 cemeteries in the evening of October 31 (cemeteries are visited from dusk until late).
The Xoxocotlan (very hard to correctly pronounced) cemetery is impressive by its size and very popular. It is easy to reach by taxi. We were 6 for 5 available seats in the taxi which made the ride really cheap. That does not seem to be a problem in Mexico where we rarely have seat belts and where we often see impressive numbers of people on one motorcycle. There are also public buses (not after 9pm) and even tourist tours to take you there. Although there are many families who gather there, the cemetery has a very touristy side with a statue of Coco (from the Disney movie) at the entrance and a street market around.
Azompa cemetery was by far our favourite. Mainly lighted by candlelight, smaller and much more intimate than the others. We had the chance to share this moment with families and listen to traditional music bands. To get there we again shared a taxi, it is farther from the city but there are also buses and tours. At the exit of the cemetery you will find refreshments. There is nothing like hot chocolate and tacos in the middle of the night.
San Felipe del Agua
On November 2nd, we also visited the San Felipe del Agua cemetery. Even smaller, similar to Xoxocotlan but with an incredible party atmosphere carried by a band playing and dancing in the middle of the cemetery.
We highly recommend checking out the lovely barrio of Xochimilco which was very well decorated and had many cool events as well as a cemetery. Finally, the Panteón General (Oaxaca cemetery) is to be seen during the day but was closed for Day of the Dead. Indeed, it is partially destroyed from an earthquake. Remember to check the dates and times of the cemetery tours as the celebrations take place on a single night in general.
Oaxaca is a destination of choice to celebrate Day of the Dead. We do not regret to have spent some time there: arriving a week before allowed us to take our marks and make friends before the celebrations. In addition to activities related to El Día de Muertos, the city is very active and attractive. We visited the ruins of Monte Alban, had Spanish lessons and made an excursion to Hierve el Agua. Our article on Oaxaca city is coming soon. In the meantime, take a look at our post on Mexico City.
Nicolas’ movie list
We recommend two animated films explaining the tradition and reflecting the atmosphere:
- Coco from Disney (which is based in particular on Oaxacan traditions such as the alebrijes)
- The Book of Life
We would be happy to have your impressions on this article which is very important to us, do not hesitate to comment.
If you celebrated el Día de Muertos in Oaxaca or elsewhere in Mexico we would love to have your feedback. And feel free to check out our other articles on Mexico.