DAY OF THE DEAD OAXACA 2020
You can experience Day of the Dead in many places across Mexico, so it can be difficult to decide where to explore and celebrate Día de Muertos, one of Mexico’s most magical holidays and popular traditions. Important things to consider are where will it be fun, safe, and where are outsiders welcome to partake in local celebrations? Day of the Dead in Oaxaca ticks all of those boxes!
Oaxaca City and the surrounding area is world-renowned for its elaborate and colorful celebrations. It’s easy to access by a short flight or bus ride from Mexico City. UNESCO recently recognized it by adding it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Thanks to the Disney/Pixar movie Coco, Dia de Muertos is now as popular as it’s ever been. In this post, we’ll cover exactly what you need to know to have a fun and memorable experience for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca in 2020!
WHAT IS DIA DE MUERTOS?
Day of the Dead is a beautiful and happy celebration in which Mexicans lovingly remember those they’ve lost. It’s both solemn and festive, a time of folk art, live music, drinking, dancing, and altar making. For three days every year, Mexicans believe that the spirits of the departed return to visit their families and friends. People welcome them home by decorating their graves and making offerings for them to celebrate their lives in remembrance.
BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
Dia de Muertos has its roots in indigenous beliefs tracing back 3,000 years. Historically, it was disrespectful to the Nahua peoples to mourn the dead. The native people saw death as just another natural step on the continuation of the life cycle. There was no heaven or hell.
Among the many gods that the later Aztecs recognized, Mictecacihuatl was the goddess of death who ruled the underworld Mictlán. After spending some time in Mictlán people would return to Earth. So to welcome them home, people would have parties, processions, and create offerings in the form of shrines with food and gifts for the dead.
According to National Geographic:
“La Catrina,” an elegant female skeleton wearing a plumed hat, is a more recent symbol for the holiday, but one of its most prominent. While the figure dates back to Aztec times, La Catrina was introduced to popular culture as a comment on Mexico’s upper class in the early 1900s by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Here, the message is obvious: Rich or poor, at the end of our lives, we are all bones.
After the Spaniards arrived the holiday became more intertwined with Catholic traditions, which eventually moved the original month-long summer holiday to the fall to coincide with Allhallowtide, a Christian time of feasts and remembrance of the dead in Europe. All Hallows Eve (October 31st), All Saints Day (November 1st), and All Souls Day (November 2nd).
WHEN IS DAY OF THE DEAD?
HOW DO LOCALS SPEND DAY OF THE DEAD IN OAXACA?
Locals spend their days cleaning and decorating graves, laying flowers, cooking food, eating, and paying respects to altars. They spend nights at the cemetery, enjoying picnics, singing songs, and sharing stories. People recall cherished memories and tell jokes about those that have passed on. Mariachi bands play songs graveside deep into the night.
The souls of children and babies return on November 1st (Día de los Angelitos or All Saints Day) and the adults return on the last day (November 2nd or All Souls Day). For Mexicans, this is mostly a happy time because the dead have returned to celebrate with them.
OFRENDAS AND DECORATIONS
Ofrendas are created to honor the dead and are usually arranged according to the liking of the deceased individual. These tributes contain their favorite foods and beverages, flowers, candles, and sugar skulls, along with photos and other sentimental items. The burning of copal tree resin as incense purifies the altars (it smells soo good).
Souls consume the essence of the food offerings as nourishment after a long journey back to the land of the living. Even though they are eaten by the local people, they’re considered to be devoid of any nutritional value.
Another symbol you’ll notice on altars and graves are Mexican marigolds, known as cempazuchitl or flor de muertos (“flower of the dead”). This orange flower is native to Mexico and was sacred to the Aztecs. Seen as a symbol of death, the flower helps guide souls back using its bright color and scent.
WHAT IS THERE TO DO DURING DAY OF THE DEAD?
Panteón Viejo Xoxocotlán is a must-see on Halloween night. Yes, it does feel kinda weird and voyeuristic to be going to a graveyard to watch families decorate gravesites, but people are generally friendly and welcoming. Locals may even offer you a shot of mezcal or a cup of café de olla. Better yet bring something along to offer them. Soak in the atmosphere and admire the stunning decorations.
Municipal Panteón Atzompa is another cemetery outside of Oaxaca City that’s a little less crowded on the 31st if you want to revel in more of the traditional graveyard festivities after going to Xoxocotlán.
Panteón General is well worth visiting during the day. Wander and admire the beautifully decorated graves inside the largest cemetery in Oaxaca. There are also some festivities happening outside the gates along with some street food stalls.
Panteón Barrio Xochimilco is a small cemetery in the charming Xochimilco neighborhood that’s worth a quick stop if you’re in the area.
Panteón San Felipe del Agua is about 15 minutes from Oaxaca City and is a good cemetery to visit on November 2nd.
JOIN THE CRAZY COMPARSAS AND MUERTEADAS (STREET PARADES)
Traffic comes to a halt while a mob of mad monsters bounce to the beat of tubas and trumpets. Fireworks burst in the distance as skeletons dance down cobblestone streets. The smell of mezcal wafts through the night air. People hoot and holler and cheer one another on to drink more. Needless to say, Mexicans know how to party.
If you’re in Oaxaca City for Dia de Muertos it’s impossible not to run into a parade at some point. Parades are happening all over the place, bring along some mezcal to share if you want to make friends. The largest parade is the Gran Comparsa which takes place several days before Dia de Muertos usually around the 26th or 27th.
One of the more unique parades is in San Agustin Etla on November 1st. Keep in mind that traffic can be an issue getting into the village. Realize that people can be more territorial at this celebration. For example, they don’t seem to like gringos barging into the middle of the dancing. So be respectful and just go with the flow.
HAVE YOUR FACE PAINTED
This is a fun way to disguise yourself and join in on the fun! Street stalls are ready to paint the faces of anyone, young and old, locals and tourists alike. Observe several of the artists before you choose because obviously, they don’t all have the same level of talent.
In 2019 it cost us 200 pesos for the full face or 150 for half face. Ladies can also buy traditional floral headbands made of marigolds and cockscomb flowers for 200 pesos nearby. You can find stalls off of Ruta Independencia y Calle Macedonio Alcalá or in the Zócalo (main square).
WANDER OAXACA CENTRO
Calle Macedonio Alcalá is always bustling with activity during the festival. It’s a pedestrian-friendly street with no cars, and it fills up during the festival with loads of people everywhere.
If you gather around Plaza Santo Domingo there are plenty of things going on, including market stalls, and parades passing by during the evening. It’s also nice to just sit under an umbrella in the Zócalo at one of the many cafes and people watch. Bars are open all day!
SEEK OUT SANDPAINTINGS
Be sure to catch a glimpse of the Oaxacan-style sandpaintings known as tapetes de arena. These sandpaintings are an art form utilizing stencils, colorful powders and bas-relief techniques to create beautiful large three-dimensional images. Later the sand is swept away representing the impermanence of all things.
You can find one inside of Museo de Los Pintores Oaxaqueños.
EXPLORE AN AUTHENTIC VILLAGE MARKET
Consider heading out of Oaxaca City to Mercado de Tlacolula on Sunday to witness a huge indigenous market that is one of the best in southern Mexico. People from all of the surrounding villages descend on this place every Sunday to buy and sell their wares, artisanal crafts, and produce.
It’s an interesting contrast to the city markets and a good one to see during Dia de Muertos. You can catch a bus from the second class bus station or in front of the Eduardo Vasconcelos baseball stadium, just look for the sign that says Mitla or Tlacolula in the window and ask the driver to tell you when to get off. The fares are very cheap!
DAY OF THE DEAD FOODS YOU MUST TRY
Several traditional foods are available during this time…
- Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is a slightly sweet bread that’s eaten by locals and left as an offering on altars. Be sure to sample this seasonal specialty.
- Atole is a sweet warm corn-based drink that’s especially popular during this time.
- Pulque is an ancient fermented beverage made from the sap of the agave plant.
- Mole negro hails from Oaxaca. Oaxaca is the “land of seven moles,” and mole negro is the richest and deepest of them all. Try it with chicken or inside of tamales!
- Tamales Oaxaqueños are wrapped in banana leaves, which keeps them moist and delicious. They’re usually stuffed with shredded chicken or turkey. We recommend the mole variety! You can find them inside of Mercado 20 de Noviembre or La Cosecha Mercado.
- Calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls) are put on altars and serve both as decorations and a snack for children. Historically real skulls were offered to the gods, but luckily now they’re just made of sugar.
- Calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin) is a pumpkin cooked with brown sugar and cinnamon. The perfect autumn treat!
SHOULD I TAKE A TOUR?
You can if you want, but you don’t need to if you speak even basic Spanish. Tours can be informative if you’re wanting a deeper understanding of the holiday or feel the need to have an English speaking chaperone. However, it’s easy to do things independently and you’ll save yourself some money if you do. Pay attention to the flyers and hand-painted murals around the city that tell dates and times of events or ask your accommodation for more information.
IS IT SAFE?
Yes! As far as crime goes, Oaxaca is one of the safest states in Mexico. It’s still important to watch your belongings and be mindful of pick pockets in crowds, but if you use common sense, you should be fine.
Oaxaca City, in particular, has a relaxed and friendly small-town feel. Be smart and have fun!
WHERE TO STAY?
* The links below are affiliate links which give us a small commission if you make a booking, at no extra cost to you.
If you’re young and looking for a budget place to meet other travelers, try Hostel La Leyenda. The owner Javier is an incredibly humble and helpful guy. We highly recommend this place! He does cheap tours, and the place is new and sparkling clean.
GRANA B&B (get $15 off your stay) is a great choice if you’re looking for something that’s stylish, but still affordable. The wooden pieces, terracotta tile floors, and green plants really capture the Oaxaca aesthetic nicely. It’s located right in the center and breakfast is included!
If you’re looking for a more local experience Airbnb (get $40 off your stay) is a good option.
Wherever you decide to book, be sure to do so well in advance as the best places to stay will be snatched up early. The best neighborhoods to consider staying in are Oaxaca Centro, Reforma, Barrio Xochimilco, or Jalatlaco.
WHAT’S A GOOD ITINERARY FOR DAY OF THE DEAD IN OAXACA?
ALL HALLOWS EVE/OCTOBER 31st
Daytime: Wander around Oaxaca City and see what you find. At local markets, you’ll find clothing, jewelry, and colorful wooden folk art sculptures known as alebrijes. These little collectibles make great gifts for anyone back home. Don’t forget to try foods like pan de muerto, hot chocolate, atole, or mole negro.
Be on the lookout for ofrendas all over the city center. You’ll likely see them in homes, restaurants, markets, and even hotels, to lure in tourists to take pictures.
Nighttime: Go to the Xoxocotlán cemetery after 9pm. It’s one of the best events during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. It’s about a 15-20 minute taxi ride from Oaxaca Centro costing 150-200 pesos. Ask any taxi driver to take you to Panteón Viejo Xoxo (pronounced “hoho”). Try not to step on graves and be respectful of people visiting their loved ones. If you have extra time go to the cemetery in the village of Santa María Atzompa afterward (see map below).
ALL SAINTS DAY/NOVEMBER 1st
Daytime: Get your face painted. Plan on this taking 1-2 hours depending on how many customers are ahead of you. Explore Barrio de Xochimilco and admire the decorations or go out to see the Tlacolula market. In 2020, November 1st will be a Sunday and that’s the day to go. Buses go from the second class bus station or the baseball stadium (see map).
Nighttime: After arriving back in Oaxaca, catch a taxi to San Agustin Etla before 10pm for their annual muerteada. Be prepared and pace yourself, the party goes all night! The brass bands travel from place to place across the hills that surround the area leaving no neighborhood out of the fun! Arrange to stay the night in the village ahead of time or just catch a taxi back to Oaxaca Centro after you’ve had enough.
Party tip: It’s best to tag along and enjoy things from the perimeter. Watch your belongings or better yet bring very little with you at all. This is one of the wildest things you’ll see if you decide to attend.
ALL SOULS DAY/NOVEMBER 2nd
Daytime: Chances are you might be hungover after last night, so sleep in a bit. After breakfast or lunch visit Panteón General during the day and then explore the colorful Jalatlaco neighborhood. Leave some time to go see the sandpaintings and some art inside of Museo de Los Pintores Oaxaqueños during the afternoon.
Nightime: If you didn’t end up going to San Agustin Etla the night before (or even if you did and you’re thirsty for more) consider heading to Santa María Atzompa which will likely have another comparsa after 9pm. A taxi should cost 150-220 pesos one way from the city. If you’ve had enough of the parades check out Panteón San Felipe del Agua instead for a final cemetery visit.
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is certainly one of the most impressive festivals we’ve ever seen anywhere! If you have any interest in seeing it we urge you to make the journey to Oaxaca to partake in the festivities for a truly unforgettable experience. I’ve been two years in a row and I’d do it all over again a third time!
It’s a vital lesson in the fact that both darkness and light are one and the same. Our lives contain both. You cannot embrace one without the other. Dia de Muertos is a celebration of the complexity of life and helps ensure that the ones people love are not forgotten.
Have you celebrated Day of the Dead in Oaxaca or anywhere else? Leave a comment below…