You've likely seen the sugar skull adornments or perhaps even tried your hand at a Day of the Dead costume for Halloween, but how much do you really know about Mexico’s most famous celebration? If you’re thinking about experiencing Dia de los Muertos for yourself, or on our tour, here’s everything you need to know before you go.
What exactly is Dia de los Muertos?
At its core, Day of the Dead is a time for the living to honor those who've died. The purpose is to propel spirits into a comfortable afterlife while also inviting them to visit earth for one night. November 1st, Day of the Children, is set aside specifically for dead children. November 2nd, Day of the Dead, provides an opportunity for the adults to return.
Traditionally, Mexican culture views death as the start of whatever is yet to come. Despite the pain that comes with death, Mexicans view the start of the afterlife as a beautiful thing. Day of the Dead is a way to honor the dead, both for the souls of those living and the souls of those who've passed.
The roots of this holiday run deep, people celebrate it authentically and enthusiastically and visitors are both welcomed and encouraged to join in.
There are parades and festivals in most of Mexico’s towns and cities on the Day of the Dead, but one of the most important rituals during the festival takes place in the cemetery. People hold graveside vigils to honor deceased family members, constructing altars with candles, marigolds and skulls. Food and drinks are also popular offerings to encourage the spirits to return. Usually, each area's largest graveyard also organises orchestral music to be performed to accompany the rites.
When to go
Day of the Dead takes place at the start of November. To be precise, it happens on November 2nd, one day after Day of the Children (also known as All Saints Day). Ultimately, these two holidays are celebrated congruently. They set the pace for multiple days of festivities, during which locals express waves of both joy and solemnity.
Where to watch it
Mexico is home to multiple major Day of the Dead celebrations, but there are a few particularly worth travelling to if you really want to catch those Dia de los Muertos vibes.
Oaxaca hosts a Day of the Dead Festival each year. This southern region becomes saturated with beautiful skeletons and skulls, and traditional foods associated with the holiday (think pan de muerto, or sweet bread) are sold everywhere you turn. Marigolds are scattered to lure in spirits while buskers sing to them. As a UNESCO Human World Heritage site, Oaxaca is a must-visit regardless of whether or not Day of the Dead is happening, but if you visit during the festival, it’s an experience you won’t forget.
Further north in Mexico City, there’s a huge Day of the Dead parade every year. It's an exciting time, with locals showcasing elaborate catrinas, or female skeletons, in the streets. The parade moves through the heart of the capital, beginning at Stele of Light, romping through Paseo de la Reforma and finishing up at the main square, Zocalo. As you explore this bustling city, you'll also encounter elaborate offerings to the dead, which are meant to encourage them to visit their loved ones during the festival.
While Oaxaca and Mexico City are probably the two most popular places to catch the Day of the Dead festivities, they're not the only spots. The small island of Janitzio on Lake Pátzcuaro is a fantastic place to experience authentic and traditional Day of the Dead celebrations. In fact, many say that this island is where the Dia de los Muertos tradition began.
Don’t miss out
There are a few places not to miss if you plan on visiting Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, including:
El Panteon General
Oaxaca's largest cemetery, where an orchestra plays classical music while families wander through, tending to altars and celebrating the coming of the spirits. Take pictures if you get permission, and if a family offers you food or beverage, always take it.
In Tlacolua, a local bakery ships thousands of their intricately decorated loaves to the market in the days leading up to Día de los Muertos. Oaxaca is the only place in Mexico where the ‘bread of the dead’ is decorated with colourful skulls, Aztec symbols and even shaped to resemble the Virgin Mary.
In Mexico City, the Day of the Dead parade leads to Zocalo, where you'll discover a grandiose altar. Follow the parade to soak in the atmosphere, make some new friends and then end the day by taking in this magnificent display.