Chalk it up to the craze over the movie “Coco,” that James Bond film that shows a parade in Mexico City, the growth of Mexicanidad pride, or simply that more of us are falling enamorado with Mexico, but Day Of The Dead (aka Dia de los Muertos) gets more popular with each passing year.
According to legend, Día De Muertos (as it’s known in Mexico) is when the dead head on a spiritual journey and return to earth to visit their living relatives. It’s a celebration of life that is simultaneously somber yet convivial. This holiday is an ancient tradition that originated in Mesoamerica and has a history dating back thousands of years.
The Day of the Dead ceremonies are essentially living folk art tradition. They are hands down one of the most beautiful cultural traditions you’ll experience with color, sounds, and sights that are sure to make all your multisensory dreams come true. If you love Mexico as much as we do, you’ll want to add a trip to Mexico for Day Of The Dead to your travel bucket list because there’s nothing quite like hopping on a plane and seeing it with your very own eyes.
But First, What Is Day Of The Dead?
The holiday of Día De Muertos (which is often called Día de los Muertos in the United States) has origins in both Aztec and Catholic cultures and has various rituals and traditions that stem from both backgrounds. We have already done a deep dive deep into the history of Day of the Dead and traditional food for this Mexican holiday but here is a brief overview.
Day of the Dead takes place starting on October 31st and running through All Saints Day on November 1st, and All Souls Day on November 2nd (which is a public holiday in Mexico). It’s believed dead children return to earth as angels on November 1, while deceased adults return on the second of November.
During this time, there are numerous Day of the Dead festivities that range from heading their local cemetery to visit graves of their deceased family members, building private altars (or ofrendas), culling amaranth and marigold flowers in flower fields, to lively parties, and many a Day of the Dead parade with musical performances.
Where is Día De Muertos celebrated?
Though Día de Muertos is most associated with Mexican culture, it is celebrated from North America to Central America. But, because it started in Mexico, it’s our favorite place to celebrate it in real life. As the holiday has become more popular, locals and visitors alike celebrate across the country.
You’ll find festivities across Mexico from Mexico City (especially in the Xochimilco neighborhood) to San Miguel de Allende as well as in Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and the Yucatán. However, the more traditional regions of Michoacan and Oaxaca are best known for this holiday. In Michoacan, people head to the island of Janitzio on Lake Pátzcuaro while in the state of Oaxaca, many locals return to their home villages across the Valles Centrales.
What Are Day Of The Dead Traditions?
There are numerous traditions for celebrating the holiday and different regions of Mexico have unique recipes and manners of celebrating. However, there are also a few commonalities across all Day Of The Dead celebrations in Mexico.
Cemeteries and graves are decorated throughout the country with papel picado (a colorful paper garland), candles, and flowers (with orange marigolds on adult graves and white orchids on children’s graves).
Additionally, people build ofrendas or altars to commemorate the loved ones who have passed. These can be simple or elaborate with each individual personalizing the ofrenda with objects coveted by and representing the deceased — including personal belongings, photos, trinkets, and even their favorite foods. Some of our friends in Oaxaca save money all year to be able to go all-out on the ofrenda with fresh-baked breads, homemade foods, and loads of flowers.
Dressing As La Catrina
During the holiday, you’ll find people dressed in elaborate costumes and with their faces painted to represent the dead and look like skeletons. One of the classic characters of the holiday is La Calavera Catrina also referred to as La Catrina, and is the inspiration for many women’s outfits where they’re dressed as a female skeleton wearing the turn-of-the-century clothing. There are also many representations of skulls (or calaveras), from hand-painted ceramic skulls to sugar skulls.
Having A Personal Experience
For people who have lost a loved one in the last year, this can be a very somber time. The entire family may gather at the local cemetery or at a family members house to convene and have a more intimate experience.
Food Made For Day Of The Dead
But, unsurprisingly, what we particularly love about Day Of The Dead is that the holiday has its own set of foods made just for the occasion. Everything from tamales and specific kinds of moles to sweets and bread is supposed to help counteract the bitterness of death, as the bread of the dead is known as pan de Muertos. Head here to read about the traditional Mexican foods that are made for the Day of the Dead.
Where Are The Best Places To Celebrate Day Of The Dead In Mexico?
There are Day Of The Dead celebrations across Mexico, but, to us, a few areas of Mexico where you can do it right. It should be said that some people mistakenly consider this to be Mexican Halloween but it is a holiday that is more somber and less festive (read: not a time to dress scantily and drink all night).
If you decide to travel to Mexico for this time of year, we encourage you to learn the culture and customs of the area you’re visiting (ideally with a local guide) and to be respectful of the local communities. For example, please do not enter a cemetery unless you have been explicitly invited to do so. Here are a few of our favorite traveler-friendly places to partake in Día De Muertos:
If you’ve never been to Mexico before, heading to the country’s cultural epicenter, Mexico City, to explore Día De Muertos couldn’t be a better pick. It’s a time of year when Mexico City’s rainy season is coming to an end so the weather tends to be ideal fall weather and Day Of The Dead feels are in full force. Translation: the local markets are overflowing with marigolds, the sweet smells of copal incense, and loads of the sweet brioche-like bread, pan de Muerto.
In a rare moment of real-life echoing Hollywood, there is even a Dia De Muertos parade on the city’s main avenue–Avenida Reforma–directly inspired by the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre! Also, leading up to the holiday, several events and defiles or parades throughout the city.
If you want to be at the epicenter of Día De Muertos festivities, Oaxaca City is the place. A visually stunning city with rich food culture, an extensive indigenous history, and even a UNESCO World Heritage site, Oaxaca is a popular spot for travelers searching for the more historical side of Mexico. Sure, you’ll find no shortage of travelers this time of year as Oaxaca is well-known for its celebrations, but the city is a beautiful and vibrant place if you don’t mind the crowds.
From the markets to the parties in the streets and far out in the middle of nowhere among the wild agave fields, there is no shortage of celebrations to experience. If you stay in the town of Oaxaca, be sure to head to the neighborhood of Jalatlaco where there are murals depicting the holiday and often a calenda or two to mark the occasion.
If you’re looking for a smaller spot that’s even less-known to foreigners, the Guadalajara suburb of Tlaquepaque is the perfect place to learn about all the Day Of The Dead traditions. This colorful village is just 20 miles from downtown Guadalajara, but the quaintness makes it feel a world away from the big city bustle.
During Day Of The Dead, the cobblestoned streets and colonial-era buildings of Tlaquepaque are lined with altars and people milling about celebrating the occasion. Team Salt & Wind Travel spent one year celebrating the holiday in the state of Jalisco and we loved every minute.
Michoacán’s Lake Patzcuaro
If you’ve been to Mexico before and want a deep and meaningful dive into a destination centered around local, you’ll want to consider exploring Michoacan. Heading to Michoacan for Day Of The Dead means you’ll dive into the local culture, traditions, and heritage as we run from the city of Morelia to the town of Pátzcuaro. Less traveled, and 100% worth getting to know, practices on the mythical Lake Patzcuaro show its historical roots and are a place where Día De Muertos traditions are alive and well.
Where to celebrate Day Of The Dead 2024
Did you know that we run small group trips to Oaxaca City for Day of the Dead? It’s a 5-day experience where you’ll learn about Oaxaca’s culture and food all while celebrating this special holiday. We have worked in this part of Mexico for years and have planned many travel client experiences here so we have deep knowledge and an incredible network of partners.
As a woman-owned small business, we are committed to promoting sustainable food and travel, supporting fellow small businesses, and preserving cultural individuality. Join us for Day of the Dead 2024 for an incredible travel experience.
Can’t make it to Mexico? Celebrate at home and try your hand at a few of the festive recipes, florals, and decor we created for our Day Of The Dead party!