Updated: January 23rd, 2019
For as long as I can remember I’ve been drawn to the holiday of Day of the Dead in Mexico (Día de los Muertos) even if I never really understood the entire meaning behind it. It’s so colorful, so beautiful, and so… enchanting—yes, enchanting is a good word. I always wanted to know more but, like, who has time to dedicate to solving all of life’s mysteries? (How do magnets work? What does anything the meteorologist says mean? Why are yawns contagious? Will somebody please tell me where babies come from!?) We’d never get the dishes washed or the cat’s hairballs cleaned up. Well, screw the dishes—Ashley needs to know what is up with all the yellow flowers and why everyone’s hanging out in cemeteries. I’m going to Mexico!
So while I still have no freaking clue how magnets work or what a low pressure system is, I can now help you with celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico. Forget Wikipedia, sometimes you have to go straight to taco-laden the source.
EXPERIENCING DAY OF THE DEAD IN MEXICO FOR FIRST-TIMERS
Understandably, celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico—like partaking in most any celebration of a culture other than your own—can be a little intimidating. (Not least of all the time an entire liter of beer was shoved in my face as I was expected to sing along to a song the 10,000 other people all knew the words to. Oktoberfest, if I haven’t told you this today, you’re a stunner.) And you should know, there most definitely is a right way to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico, and a wrong way. And since only the nicest, most considerate travelers read my blog, it’s a given you don’t want to be an offensive a*hole in the process of figuring this out. Kudos to you.
But while your intimidation comes from an honest place, don’t let that hold you back from experiencing this amazingly beautiful and meaningful holiday. From what I’ve learned and experienced personally, the local communities are quite welcoming to curious outsiders. Even if you’ve visited Mexico before, doing so during the month of October (and first part of November) is an entirely new experience, so here are some tips for experiencing your very first Day of the Dead in Mexico.
DO LEARN WHAT DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS AND ISN’T
Well, for starters, Día de los Muertos is Day of the Dead—in case that wasn’t clear.
What Day of the Dead in Mexico is:
- Annual holiday celebrated in Mexico and some surrounding regions
- Takes place from late October 31st through November 2nd – Yes, it should be called Days of the Dead, but that’s an argument for another día.
- Centers around remembering and honoring your loved ones who have passed
- Emphasizes a positive relationship with death – I mean, we’re all going to die at some point; I feel like being on death’s good side is just a wise choice.
Day of the Dead in Mexico revolves around the creation of an ofrenda in the home—an altar set up for remembering lost loved ones. It’s covered in marigolds (the official flower sponsor of Day of the Dead celebrations) and sugar skulls, candles, tissue paper banners called papel picado, some of your loved ones’ favorite food and drink items, and, most importantly, photos of the deceased. We’re not letting just any ol’ spirits in here to eat all our food offerings!
It is believed that during this couple of days, your loved ones come back to visit, hang out, and drink the tequila you left them because being a boozehound doesn’t stop when your pulse does. It’s called being “the afterlife of the party”, duh. During this time, family members honor their lost loved ones by cleaning up their gravesites, playing music, and telling their favorite stories. (Some things you hope will just die with you but, nope, your family members forget nothing! Least of all that time between birth and age 8 when you were inexplicably terrified of Band-Aids.)What Day of the Dead in Mexico is not:
- “Mexican” Halloween
- A scary occasion
- A spectacle put on for tourists’ benefit
Where Halloween is a “holiday” marked by scary costumes, horror movies, bats, spiders, zombies, chainsaw murderers, scary twins, hockey masks, and cackling witches, Day of the Dead is the opposite. Not only is it not Halloween, it’s also not the “Mexican version” of Halloween. Instead, it’s a joyous holiday bursting with bright colors, flowers, delicious foods, funny stories and getting to spend time with your loved ones who have passed—in the most un-creepy way possible, promise. It’s not scary; it’s not spooky; it won’t give you nightmares until you turn age… nope, still terrified. Why, oh why, did I ever watch The Shining? What am I saying? I’m still scared sh*tless from episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark I watched about a gazillion years ago.
Though Day of the Dead in Mexico is one of the most stunningly gorgeous occasions you’ll ever witness, it is in no way a spectacle put on for anyone’s benefit. Día de los Muertos is, at its roots, a deeply personal holiday and, though communities and households will invite you in without question, it’s not to be treated as a tourist attraction. This is the real deal, not a Disney cruise. (Although, since the release of Coco, I could be wrong about that?) So don’t just gawk and take pictures for likes; get in there–learn what it’s all about, get involved, be a part of it.
DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT WATCHING THE MOVIE COCO
To take you back to your high school roots, maybe just skip to watching the movie? You did it for Great Expectations, and you can do it here too.
The Disney Pixar film Coco that came out late 2017 is all about Day of the Dead in Mexico and is a phenomenal movie in general. It won a Golden Globe and a couple of Oscars (ho-hum), features an all-Latinx cast, and is probably the best introduction to Day of the Dead in Mexico you’ll find anywhere. Learn all you need to know in just an hour and forty-five minutes and all in an easy-to-absorb fashion because it’s a kids movie, amigos. Nothing too complex here. There are songs, adorable sidekicks, and Frida is there–it’s a hoot.
This movie came out right after I returned from Mexico but now you have the advantage of watching it before your trip–which I highly recommend. It’s currently on Netflix but you can also pick it up here.
DO EAT PAN DE MUERTO
And by “eat pan de muerto” I mean: devour boat-loads of the stuff. And then eat some more.
Pan de Muerto (yes, death bread 🤘🏻) is a fluffy sweet bread traditionally consumed during Day of the Dead season but that doesn’t mean you won’t crave it every day of the year for the rest of your life. Its deliciousness is its curse. It’s a round-ish shaped bun with dough across the top meant to resemble bones. The light, fluffy bread is simple and sweet, sometimes with a slight orange or lemon flavor, and covered in sugar (as all the best foods are, no?). It’s eaten in the days leading up to Día de los Muertos and is also typically found on ofrendas, its “bones” representing the deceased.
You can find pan de muerto all over when spending Day of the Dead in Mexico—at local bakeries and cafés, in the markets, being shoved by the fistful into my own mouth, etc. Each is as unique as the person who baked it and I most definitely have a favorite. I tried pan de muerto from a number of places while visiting Mexico and the best I had, BY FAR, was at Malande, a small café in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. GO HERE.
DON’T THINK YOU WON’T SEE ANY KIDS ASKING FOR CANDY
Day of the Dead in Mexico is not Halloween—we know this. But that fact doesn’t keep children from asking for candy in Mexico City. Admittedly, I was a little shocked when a group of dressed up children approached the café I was in to ask for candy. (Mostly because, how dare they interrupt me while I’m eating breakfast! ⇠ Okay, maybe there are some witches to be found here and there.) It was November 1st and most of them were dressed as La Catrina/El Catrín—not Halloween costumes. Everything I thought I knew… right out the window! (read that last sentence as George Costanza for full effect)
What started out as a tradition of children going out to gather food and sugar skulls (calaveritas) for the Día de los Muertos offerings has morphed into something a lil this and lil that. They’re supposed to sing a song but I was too busy feeling guilty that I didn’t bring a bag of fun-sized Kit Kats to Mexico with me to even notice if there was a song or not. I think the children mainly visit businesses and storefronts but I was asked for candy in other random, truly horrifying places—through the open window of my Uber in the middle of an intersection at a red light, for instance.
DO DRESS THE PART WHILE CELEBRATING DAY OF THE DEAD IN MEXICO
I will almost always push “joining in”. Isn’t it better to fully be a part of something than to be a casual, outside observer? (Well, zombie massacres aside.) Day of the Dead in Mexico is no different. I wanted to learn about Día de los Muertos and really experience it so… I had to become it.
Dressing up for Day of the Dead in Mexico is a cinch and a blast. You probably have most of the stuff in your closet already (hanging up, on the floor, wherever) and what you don’t won’t set you back more than a few bucks. To get involved in a local celebration, when appropriate, is so much more fun and meaningful than being a mere spectator.Everything you need to know about how to dress for Day of the Dead for both women and men (what to wear, the significance behind your image, a simple DIY project, etc.) can all be found here ⇣⇣⇣
DON’T BE DISRESPECTFUL
It’s important to know that Day of the Dead in Mexico is a personal and intimate celebration and should be treated as so. Dressing accordingly and joining in the festivities is a great way to experience another culture’s holiday, but there are a couple of huge no-nos:
- Don’t wear a costume. As I explain in this post, the easiest way to offend and stand out as an ignorant tourist is to wear a “costume” based on the related event/culture. Put together your own look and skip the all-in-one, plastic bag deals from the party store. You’d be less offensive wearing the actual plastic bag.
- Don’t be a hoochie. I get it—you wanna look good on Insta. 🙄 But don’t you realize looking respectful and tuned-in is the new sexy?
- Don’t be scary. Day 👏🏼 Of 👏🏼 The 👏🏼 Dead 👏🏼 Is 👏🏼 Not 👏🏼 Halloween 👏🏼. Paint your face like a skull, yes. Don’t paint your face like a blood-thirsty vampire or a brain-hungry zombie or anything else that will keep me awake at night cursing my friend’s mother for ever letting us watch Friday the 13th. Día de los Muertos is a happy time when it’s believed that our loved ones come back to hang out with us—even if it’s your drunken Aunt Sally who knows nothing of personal space, it’s still seen as a joyous occasion. To associate Day of the Dead in Mexico at all with Halloween is just plain insulting.
DO BRING A DISPOSABLE CLOTH TO CLEAN YOUR FACE WITH
This is 100% no joke. Put your hand up if you’ve had your face painted in the last 20 years. Put your hands down, mimes. Put your hand down, drunk guy at a college football game. That leaves the rest of us, totally forgetting how serious face paint is.
I somehow knew this was going to be a chore so I brought my own wash cloth from home to do the job “gentle facial cleanser” just can’t. Getting your face painted is a big part of your Day of the Dead image but you’ll need to scrub it off later and this is no job for your fancy-schmancy makeup remover wipes. ESPECIALLY if there’s glitter involved. *jazz hands* And please, please, please, don’t use your hotel’s towels—that’s just rude. Bring something from home you’re fine with tossing in the trash afterwards or whose original color prefers to remain a mystery.
DON’T MISS THE MOST IMPRESSIVE OFRENDA AT CASA AZUL
If you’re in Mexico City during the time leading up to Día de los Muertos, you can’t miss the ofrenda at Casa Azul—the former home-turned-museum of Frida Kahlo. Surely you know who Frida is (right? RIGHT!?) so I won’t go into an explanation, but the ofrenda in her memory is the most impressive I’ve ever seen. But, really, of course it is–it’s FRIDA. I would expect nothing less. The only thing that could’ve made it better: more monkeys and everything lit on fire!!!! (see: Coco)
DO CHECK OUT ALL THE FESTIVITIES IN MEXICO CITY IF YOU’RE THERE
Day of the Dead in Mexico is really the small town’s poster child but there are still ways to experience it if you can’t get out of Mexico City.
For starters, there’s now a massive Day of the Dead parade, à la James Bond’s Spectre. A parade of such magnitude as seen in the movie did not previously exist but was fabricated solely for the movie. So OF COURSE tourists started flocking to CDMX to see this spectacle and were pissed when they realized it didn’t exist. (However, not pissed at their own lack of research, astoundingly.) Because of this, Mexican authorities have since started putting on a huge Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City a few days before the actual holiday. The dates and times of the parade are not set in stone, so do adequate research before heading to CDMX—the parade could take place as early as a week or so before official Día de los Muertos.
Another popular event is La Catrina Fest—a festival of Mexican art, traditions, cuisine, and cultural pride to promote cultural tourism. This festival looks AMAZING and I’m definitely timing my next trip to coincide with it. Check out their website and Facebook page here for details.
Elaborate celebrations aside, Mexico City is still a great place to check out some smaller neighborhoods’ displays and festivities. Coyoacán (where Casa Azul is located) is a popular area but my personal favorite is the neighborhood of San Angel, just south of the city. San Angel is home to some great markets, large public Day of the Dead displays, a Saturday bazaar, delicious food stalls, and a fabulous little museum that charges admission unless you are clearly a non-native Spanish speaker and it would be easier to just wave you on through.
Also while in Mexico City, eat pan de muerto at Malande. Is it ingrained in your memory yet? And if you like tours, there’s even a Day of the Dead tour in Mexico City that features a nighttime ride through the canals of Xochimilco.
BUT DO GET OUT OF CDMX FOR A MORE INTIMATE EXPERIENCE
Day of the Dead in Mexico, being the personal holiday that it is, is essentially a celebration for small towns and tight-knit communities. While there are events taking place in the huge metropolis of Mexico City, it’s out in the smaller towns where you’ll find the model Día de los Muertos experience. It’s in these small towns you’ll be able to stroll the streets, visit local cemeteries, be invited into people’s homes (weird at first but you’ll get used to it), take part in small parades and festivities, and shop local markets.
Personally, I left Mexico City and took a bus down to Oaxaca City and had an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone. Actually, that’s what I’m doing here. That’s what blogs are for. Get it together Ashley. Oaxaca is believed to be a great Day of the Dead experience for first-timers as its residents are considerably welcoming to visitors, the city is accessible, and there is plenty to see and do and keep you busy. As far as tours go, there’s:
- this guided tour around Oaxaca City
- and this tour on the night of October 31st that INCLUDES MEZCAL 🙌🏻
Other popular cities for experiencing Day of the Dead in Mexico for the first time are:
Mixquic | A small town that’s technically part of Mexico City (CDMX is the world’s 7th largest city by the way, so there’s a lot of parts to it, technically). While Mixquic is not that far out of CDMX, traffic during Día de los Muertos can be a nightmare to navigate on your own (CDMX is known to have the world’s #1 worst traffic congestion by the way). A friend of mine took this Day of the Dead day trip to Mixquic and LOVED it. There’s also this 5-day tour of Mexico City that includes Day of the Dead in Mixquic (and Casa Azul).
Aguascalientes | Aguascalientes is about 5 hours north of Mexico City and is the birthplace of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the artist credited with the creation of the first image of La Calavera Catrina. Their Festival de las Calaveras (Festival of Skulls) and related parade are the highlights of their Day of the Dead celebrations.
Michoacan | Specifically, the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro. Four and half hours west of Mexico City is this gorgeous small town on an island and the perfect setting for Día de los Muertos festivities. This island is (from what the internet tells me) easily reached by boat and even the lake itself lights up at night. It sounds magical and straight out of a Disney Pixar movie, if I’m being honest.
And for when you need to get around Mexico ⇣⇣⇣
DON’T GET DRUNK AND STUPID
Another thing Day of the Dead in Mexico is not: the autumnal version of Cinco de Drinko. While we Americans have adapted other culture’s landmark celebrations as our own misguided drinking holidays–Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day, for instance–Día de los Muertos is not one of those things.
The spirit of Aunt Sally can have all the tequila she wants (or, at least as much as you put out for her on your ofrenda) but stay mindful that no one wants to see you hammered in their cemetery.
DO PRETEND INSTAGRAM ISN’T EVEN A THING
At the core of everything you do regarding celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico, remember what the holiday is about: respectful remembrance of lost loved ones. Families visit cemeteries to pay respects and invite strangers into their homes to observe their ofrendas. Posing for Instagram photos at gravesites, despite how stunningly gorgeous they may be, is grotesquely inappropriate and disrespectful.
When experiencing Day of the Dead in Mexico for the first time, concentrate on really feeling out what the holiday is, observe how local’s celebrate, and take it all in. It’s about their family members who have passed on, not your follower count.
Taking photos is almost always totally fine but remember to be as respectful as possible. Ask before taking pictures of people and inside homes, don’t. touch. anything., and be smart about taking photos with yourself in them. Using someone’s ofrenda or grave as your backdrop is so grossly misguided I just can’t even. Personally, I follow the photography mantra of: “when in doubt, don’t”. Well, that and: “figure out what the hell to do with this photo in post-editing”.
DO SIMPLY WANDER THROUGH TOWN
If you’re wondering “what to do for Day of the Dead in Mexico” you may have trouble finding the solid answer you’re looking for. There’s rarely a set agenda as it’s more of just an overall experience. My advice: pick a town and simply wander through it.
- Hit up the local markets | Shop for food and clothing items, pick up an alebrije, buy some papel picado to take home for a unique souvenir. Papel Picado is the thin, colorful tissue paper banners you’ll see hanging everywhere. They’re displayed to represent the fragility of life so, good luck getting them home!
- Visit the cemeteries | The experience is purely ethereal.
- Stroll the streets and check out the decorations | Chances are you’ll be invited into a home. “Invited” being the key word. Don’t be just walking up into people’s houses now.
- Join in a comparsa | Comparsas are a Oaxacan tradition–an informal procession through town of vehicles, people in costumes, drummers, bands, dancing, etc. Maybe even an actual dead person? Read on.
- Check out the mojigangas in Oaxaca | Okay, I know I said Day of the Dead in Mexico wasn’t supposed to be scary, so maybe it’s just me getting freaked out by these giant puppets. Mojigangas are giant paper maché puppets, if you will, that people walk around town. (See the horrifying example below.)
- Get your face painted by local artists | More on that here.
- Listen to music performances on the street | It gets loud.
- Check out all the Catrinas | Dressing up is cool, see I told you.
- Eat all the goodies! Pan de muerto, elotes (street corn), chapulines (fried chile lime grasshoppers), try some mezcal or pulque (drinks that no explanation will do justice to)
In a small town, it won’t be difficult to find where the action is. Follow the crowds, the fireworks, the noise, the candles, even the giant mojigangas know where it’s going down.
DON’T BE SHOCKED TO SEE AN ACTUAL CORPSE? MAYBE?
While walking along with a comparsa in Oaxaca, one of the skeleton displays looked… a little too… lifelike, if that’s possible. Many of the trucks had dressed up skeleton figures in their beds—most likely the likenesses of deceased loved ones, no surprise there. But one truck. One truck had what the three of us were almost certain was an actual corpse. If that’s your process, by all means. I’m just saying, when experiencing Day of the Dead in Mexico, keep your expectations wiiiiiide open.
DON’T FORGET TO THINK ABOUT YOUR OWN LOST LOVED ONES
While you’re deep in face paint, marigolds, and the sweetest bread you’ll ever taste, don’t forget what’s at the core of Día de los Muertos: remembering and honoring your deceased family members and loved ones. Don’t forget to take some time, if only internally, to think about your own. I’m sure drunk Aunt Sally has provided plenty of anecdotes to bring on a laugh or two.
WHERE TO STAY FOR DAY OF THE DEAD IN OAXACA
I had such an amazing time experiencing Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. The trip was exhausting (6-hour overnight bus ride there, then 7-hour bus ride back the next morning) but it was more than worth it. Obviously, spend more time in whichever town you visit if you’ve got it. There’s so much more I’d like to see (and, let’s be real, eat) in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca, I feel, was the perfect place to spend my first Day of the Dead experience. It was easy to get to, easy to navigate, the food and hospitality was unforgettable, and the festivities were incredibly fun and interesting and not at all nightmare-inducing. While in Oaxaca I stayed at the Hotel Anua and I’d stay there again, no question.
- Perfect location near the zócalo
- Quiet, comfortable rooms
- Affordable, even on the most popular night of the year, even without booking way in advance
- Friendly staff
- Was legit trapped. If you’re leaving before the hotel opens, make sure to give them a heads up. Our bus was at 6:00 am and we discovered as we tried to leave that we were locked in the hotel. Right before I was to jump out a window, my husband talked me down and I was able to get in contact with a very sleepy someone.
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