Day of the Dead traditions - sand tapestry

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Oaxaca, Mexico is a magical place – and it is most magical during the annual Day of the Dead celebrations! The Day of the Dead (or Día de los Muertos) is a festival celebrated in Mexico on October 31, November 1 and November 2 each year. It’s found throughout Latin America, but is most associated with the parades, altars, and cemetery celebrations in Mexico. During this time, locals believe that the veil between the world of the spirits and the living is lifted, so their deceased loved ones can travel back for a visit.

Mexico City is home to the largest celebrations, but Oaxaca has some of the most spiritual and unique Día de los Muertos traditions.  Guided Day of the Dead tours to Oaxaca sell out each year, but it is possible to visit on your own.  Read on for my best tips on how to visit Oaxaca City for Day of the Dead without a tour: what to do, where to stay, and how to have an authentic Day of the Dead experience in Oaxaca!


Where is Oaxaca?

Oaxaca, Mexico map
Oaxaca City is in Southwestern Mexico, a 1-hour flight from Mexico City.

Oaxaca City (pronounced “wah-HAH-kah” with the emphasis on the “HAH”) is the capital of the state of the same name, located in Southwestern Mexico.  The area is known for indigenous cultures including Zapotecs and Mixtecs, as well as historical sites at Monte Albán and Mitla. And, of course, its magical Day of the Dead celebrations!

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Día de Los Muertos Traditions

The first thing that anyone will tell you about the real meaning of this holiday is that Day of the Dead is not just “Mexican Halloween.” Día de los Muertos is an example of pre-Hispanic cultural traditions and Christian holidays blending together:  Aztec death festivals combined with Catholic All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. During these days, locals believe that the gap between our world and the spiritual world opens, and they invite their loved ones back for a celebration.  This is done with ofrendas, or offerings, placed on altars in homes, schools, and cemeteries.

Altars usually have several tiers and are decorated with pictures of the deceased, sugar skulls, crosses, candles, papel picado, and flowers. Fruit, nuts, special pan de muertos bread and even beer are also offered – things the departed would have enjoyed in life. Copal incense is burned to purify the air, and trails of yellow marigold and magenta cockscomb flowers help the dead find their way back from the spirit world. 

The dead are believed to consume the essence of the offerings, giving them strength after their journey. During the holiday, families take time to prepare for the holiday together.  Along with the returned spirits, they also celebrate as a family with food, music, and drinks. 

Day of the Dead photos: Hotel Casantica Oaxaca altar
The amazing altar and sand tapestry at Hotel Casantica Oaxaca

Dates of Day of the Dead Celebrations for 2019

While many cities stretch their celebrations into a week or longer, and all have different traditions, the main days of the festival are:

  • October 31 is All Saints’ Eve, and it’s traditional to visit cemeteries and family graves.  The spirits of little children, angelitos, are believed to return this first night and spend the next day with their families.
  • November 1 is All Saints’ Day, and is celebrated again at cemeteries, parades and other festivities.  Many believe that this is the night that adult spirits return.
  • November 2 is All Souls’ Day, and generally a quieter day of celebrations, but again people visit cemeteries.
Oaxaca preparations for Day of the Dead
Marigold ropes are hung over the main pedestrian and tourist streets

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Traditions 

In Oaxaca, preparations start a week before the start of Día de los Muertos (or, as you soon learn, what the locals refer to simply as  “Día de Muertos”). Markets around the city begin offering all the supplies needed to prepare for the holiday.  Families shop at markets and return home to begin preparations and build their altars.

Altars in Oaxaca

Ropes of marigold flowers appear over many streets, and you’ll see local businesses setting up altars as well. Altars are one of the most important Oaxaca Day of the Dead traditions. They feature all the items common in other areas of Mexico, but add the mole that is central to Oaxacan cuisine, lots of marigolds (cempasuchil), chocolate, and local fruits.

An altar in Oaxaca with offerings for Day of the Dead
An altar in Oaxaca – you can see all the offerings, and the photo of the spirits who will visit

Sand Tapestries

Oaxaca has a flourishing arts scene, which also plays an important part in celebrations. Artists create beautiful Day of the Dead sand tapestries known as tapetes de arena in front of many altars. Colored sand is used to make detailed scenes of skeletons, saints, and more – and you’ll even find a sand tapestry contest!  My favorites were simpler tapestries created from rice, seeds, dried beans, and flowers.

Visiting Cemeteries

Throughout the days of Día de los Muertos, another important tradition is visiting cemeteries (called a panteón or cementerio). Here you’ll find families cleaning and decorating graves, then celebrating with food and music. There will also be daytime events throughout the city such as concerts, costume contests, and music and dance performances,

Comparsas

During the Day of the Dead celebration in Oaxaca, you’ll also see comparsas. These are traditional parades that symbolize return of the dead. The comparsas include costumed performers and marching bands that wind their ways around the streets of the city center. You’ll also see them on the pedestrian street (Calle Macedonio Alcalá) and through the zócalo. Expect to see more on November 1, when the dead are believed to have returned, but you will also see them at the start of the festival. The cutest ones are the parades of kids in costumes!

Day of the Dead traditions - sand tapestry
Tapestry made from rice, dried beans, and flowers at Comala B&B

When to Book Your Trip for Día de los Muertos

Day tours, hotels and even flights book VERY EARLY to Oaxaca for the Día de los Muertos celebrations each year!  I recommend booking as early as January for the best selection of hotels and flights. Staying in the city center will make it easier to get to the events – check my post on where to stay in Oaxaca during Day of the Dead for the best hotel recommendations.

For daytime Day of the Dead tours to neighboring communities that are preparing for the holiday, check out Traditions Mexico and Envia Tours, a non-profit organization that supports women entrepreneurs.

How to Get to Oaxaca City:

  • Fly into Xoxocotlán International Airport (OAX), or take a bus from Mexico City (about six hours)
  • You can book a shared shuttle to the city upon arrival, after exiting customs. Pay at the counter and take your receipt outside to the drivers.

Oaxaca City Hotels for Day of the Dead

When visiting Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, I recommend staying at hotels in the Oaxaca city center, so you’ll be within easy walking distance of all the events and celebrations. Again, book early, because many hotels sell out months in advance.


Oaxaca Day of the Dead Itinerary

Before October 31 : Explore Oaxaca

Walk around the city! Visit the Cathedral (a block from the zócalo) and pick up a festival schedule from the Oaxaca tourism booth there.  Stop in hotels and shops to see the altars, sand tapestries, and other decorations.  Visit markets like Mercado Benito Juarez and 20 de Noviembre to try local foods and shop for souvenirs. Try to see the Magna Comparsa, the Grand Parade, at the start of the celebrations.

Day of the Dead altar by the Oaxaca Cathedral

October 31: Visit Cemeteries

Visit Cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, San Felipe or Atzompa at night. Check out the zócalo and city sights. I wouldn’t recommend getting your face painted unless you wash it off before going to the cemeteries (it could be seen as disrespectful). Near the zócalo you’ll also see comparsas in the evening with giant puppets (mojigangas) and fireworks.

The cemetery Xoxocotlan (known locally as Xoxo – pronounced “ho-ho”) is crowded and crazy, but not to be missed.  You’ll find tour operators in the zócalo offering bus tours, but based on experience, I don’t recommend this.  So many people try to get to Xoxo at the same time, it creates a huge traffic jam from the city all the way to the cemetery.  It’s even more difficult to get through in a bus.

Day of the Dead photos: Xoxocotlan cemetery entrance
Cemetery entrance at Xoxocotlan (Xoxo)
Day of the Dead photos: Panteon Xoxo
A decorated grave at Xoxocotlan

I would recommend taking a taxi or colectivo (shared van) to Xoxo, unless you can find a small group tour.  It’s only about 6 miles (10 km) from Oaxaca City to Xoxo. There are actually two cemeteries here, about 6 blocks apart, and the larger one has the bigger celebration. All continue until very late, so you can even arrive around 10-11pm and have plenty of time to take in the experience.

A girl tends to a grave Xoxocotlan Cemetery
A decorated grave at Xoxocotlan cemetery Dia de los Muertos
Xoxocotlan cemetery

November 1: See Comparsas and Visit San Agustín Etla

At night, if you’re brave, visit the town of San Agustín Etla (about a half hour from Oaxaca by taxi) for the wildest Día de los Muertos festivities. During the day and early evening, spend more time exploring the city, keep an eye out for comparsas, and visit the Panteon General de San Miguel. 

Near the Cathedral, there are usually children’s parades on November 1.

San Augustín Etla is home to a Día de los Muertos celebration like no other! Nearby communities prepare for months with marching bands and wild costumes, and on November 1, they march through the streets of the town all night. These comparsas (known as muerteadas) begin at one home, where the musicians and characters are offered food and drinks while they wait for the dead to join them.  Later they converge in streets and schoolyard for  “Bring It On”-style battles. 

Day of the Dead - costumes and muerteadas in San Agustín Etla
A-meow-zing costumes in San Augustín Etla

I found a small tour group to take me to Etla which, unfortunately, I can’t recommend as it seems to have closed. Our group (all women – three Americans, three Japanese, and one German) were the only “obvious” tourists we saw all night.  But the locals seemed thrilled to have us there!  If you can find a tour to take you, it’s something you can only experience in Oaxaca. If not, and you speak Spanish, you can make friends there easily by taking along a bottle of mezcal and some small half-gourd cups.  But be careful – it’s definitely a wild night, and it could be difficult to catch a taxi back to Oaxaca. (Particularly with a taxi driver who has not been participating too heavily in the festivities!)

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca - Tour to Etla
My tour group headed to San Augustín Etla.

November 2: Comparsas, City and Zócalo

Some shops and restaurants might be closed this day, so that people can enjoy the day with their families.  This was the most low-key day of the three, but after two late nights in a row, it was fine with me!

Check out the Palacio de Gobierno: in 2018 they had displays of altars from different villages around Oaxaca state.  Head to the zócalo for the last of the comparsas.  I met a lot of kids “trick-or-treating” and gave out pesos since I didn’t have any candy!

Events continue for a few more days, and there are plenty of day trips in the area to get the most out of your Oaxaca experience.

All Saints' Parade - Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Children dressed as calacas for Dia de los Muertos

How to Dress for Day of the Dead

As I mentioned earlier, Day of the Dead is not Halloween, so you shouldn’t show up in a Halloween-type costume. Scary, gory, or “sexy” costumes will look disrespectful and tone-deaf. Even a Day of the Dead costume from Party City is going to mark you as a tourist. Just say no to anything sold in a bag.

What to Wear for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Women often wear a flowy flowered or black dresses, or traditional Mexican embroidered dresses you can buy at the markets in Oaxaca. It’s common for people to get their faces painted for the festivities in Oaxaca City, but not for visiting cemeteries (it could be seen as disrespectful).

Performers in the comparsas usually wear Victorian dress – lacy or ruffled gowns for women, old-fashioned suits or vests with a bow tie or lace cravat for men. Women often wear a flower crown, and I loved seeing men in top hats!

I saw both men and women wearing black pants or jeans with leather jackets.

Although there’s a lot of discussion on whether it’s cultural appropriation to wear “sugar skull” style make-up for Halloween, you will see artists throughout the city offering face paint for Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca. If you’re participating in the festival and making an effort to understand its traditions, no one in Oaxaca will question you joining in. Look for artists offering maquillaje (make-up) in the zócalo, at beauty shops, or even hotels. They’ll have sample photos to choose from, or you can bring one along for inspiration. Be sure to pack face wipes to remove your makeup, and wear a loose or button-down shirt if you’ll change your clothes later (so you don’t mess up the artwork!).

One note: I wouldn’t wear facepaint to a cemetery or visit to a community outside Oaxaca. This could be seen as disrespectful. Save it for walking around the city or visiting San Augustín Etla, where wild costumes are the order of the day!

If you want a fresh flower headband, look for the flower market in the street behind the Mercado Benito Juarez on Calle Aldama. I searched all over and finally found sellers making them here for less than $5 with marigolds and cockscombs.


Other Día de los Muertos “Do’s and Don’ts”

DO:

  • Spend time wandering the city
  • Look for altars and decorations in hotels, shops and public spaces
  • Check out the local food and art scenes
  • Get your face painted (but maybe not for cemetery visits)
  • Talk to locals about their ofrendas and the loved ones they’re remembering
  • Get permission before photographing people, especially in cemeteries
  • Look for the sand tapestry competition – last year it was in the Jatalaco neighborhood
  • Gives pesos to performers. In the comparsas, one performer will often have a collection can for donations to a group or charity. Or you’ll encounter talented musicians throughout the city. Especially if you take photos or video, you should donate.

DON’T:

  • Treat the celebration like Halloween or a trip to Las Vegas.  It’s meant to celebrate and commune with family, not a holiday designed for tourists.
  • Touch anything on altars or eat any of the food
  • Step on graves or disturb them
  • Take flash photos at cemeteries
  • Take photos of people without permission, unless it’s a public performance (and even then, don’t be a jerk)
Altar in a hotel lobby for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Experience

Oaxaca’s art, museums, unique cuisine, and friendly people make it a great destination year-round. But visiting during Day of the Dead is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The celebratory atmosphere of the city during Day of the Dead, coupled with the ambiance of candle-lit cemeteries, stays with you long after you depart.  Now anytime I smell marigolds, I’m immediately transported back.  I hope you get to experience magical Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca too!


Where to Eat in Oaxaca

Extend your trip:

  • Explore more of Oaxaca with my top things to do in Oaxaca city and surrounding region
  • Spend a few days in Mexico City exploring its neighborhoods, museums, and history.
  • Catch a quick flight (or a longer bus) to Oaxaca’s beautiful beaches: Puerto Escondido, Mazunte, Zipolite and Huatulco are the best-known.

Love Day of the Dead? Check out the nativity scenes I collect in my travels, including a Day of the Dead nativity!

More Oaxaca and Day of the Dead Resources:


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Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca - Traditions & Trip Itinerary
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca in Oaxaca - Traditions & Trip Itinerary

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