Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead, is one of the most significant of Mexican holidays and one I’m so grateful to have been in attendance for in 2019. This year, amid COVID cautions, the celebrations will look a bit different. Most of the large, public events will be cancelled or held virtually. But this spiritual holiday—so important it was named a World Intangible Cultural Heritage tradition by UNESCO— could never truly be cancelled. Families all over Mexico, Latin America and the US will be celebrating their lost loved ones in the days to come, and while this is not the year tourists should plan to visit, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do it at some point in your life. Antes de que mueras.
I was fortunate enough to be living in Mexico City last year in early November, and got to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in the flesh. Being the end of October, this is the perfect time to discuss this beautiful tradition, the right way to celebrate, and the ways that things will be a bit different this year.
Note that it is almost Halloween here in the states. And although you may see skeletons around for both holidays, the two are not the same at all. There is an overlapping of dates, but once you learn the history and significance of the Day of the Dead you’ll know there’s nothing spine-tingling or creepy here.
Dia de los Muertos is technically November 2, the holiday runs October 31-November 2, and celebrations go on for weeks in advance. It is the time of year when Mexicans honor the dead. They pay homage to their lost loved ones with beautiful ofrendas or altars, complete with marigolds, candles, photos of the deceased, and treats—food drink for them to enjoy during their “visits”. Far from a funeral, this time of year is celebratory. We make toasts to the dead, feast in their honor, dance, invite their spirits to join in. One of my lovely Airbnb hosts left a bottle of his uncle’s favorite tequila on the ofrenda—a thing he was sure to enjoy, Sergio said, because he died of drinking too much.
What you need to know is this is a loving, joyous celebration. And while les desfiles, the deceased, are at the center, this is far from a funeral.
Where to go
Oaxaca is a great city to spend Dia de Muertos. It’s less metropolitan than Mexico City, and more traditional. Shorter buildings, brightly colored facades and cobble stone streets, a restaurant repertoire that is a world-renowned delight for the senses. Because of its strong sense of tradition, Oaxaca is where many people choose to spend Dia de los Muertos. Check out the markets, the sand tapestries, and Xoxocotlan cemetery while you’re in Oaxaca, celebrating the Day of the Dead.
Check out this list from Tripsavvy for more ideas of how to spend Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca.
Ofrenda, by Hunda via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
I can say firsthand that the capital city does not disappoint when it comes to Day of the Dead (or any) celebrations. Being the capital, one of the easiest cities to fly to in Mexico for international travelers, CDMX receives a lot of tourists for Dia de Muertos. It might be said that their celebrations lean more “touristy” than in other cities in Mexico. But, I assure you there is beautiful, quiet tradition, mixed in with the newer, louder (and very fun!) activities.
The larger-than-life ofrenda in the Zocalo square draws crowds for weeks, and vibrant, huge, colorfully painted skulls line Paseo Reforma as part of Mexicráneos, an urban art project. The ofrenda at the Frida Kahlo house, Casa Azul, is a popular one to visit. Celbrando la Eternidad (Celebrating Eternity) is an experience set up throughout the Bosque de Chaputepec, Mexico City’s largest park. Large calacas (skeletons) are positioned among the trees, colored lights shining, music plays. Guests to the event mosey through the park set up as a sort of Dia de Muertos wonderland.
Dia de los Muertes parade, by Jum Kyle via Flickr
There are hot chocolate and snack vendors, and at the end, a giant ofrenda in the middle of the small lake, a band playing, and the opportunity for visitors to include their own loved ones in this massive altar. One of the biggest Dia de Muertos events in CDMX is the parade. THIS is definitely not traditional. In fact, it started up in 2016, after a fictional parade featured in a 007 movie sparked demand for a real one. I attended this parade in 2019, along with millions of others, and it was such a joy. Groups in their macabre finest danced, their way down Reforma, while large paper mâché calacas, catrines and catrinas, alebrijes. There is music, tasty snacks up and down the street, people set up to paint your face and vendors to sell you floral headpieces to complete your look. You can take a nighttime boat cruise on the canals of Xochimilco, hearing the tale of La Llorona, the weeping woman.
The thing is, of course, everything will be different this year. Most of these things listed above are cancelled or virtual, including a virtual parade. But that does not mean the holiday itself is cancelled, or that you cannot celebrate in a socially distanced way. And if you’d prefer to see ALL the action, then save this list for next year, when (hopefully) we’ll be out of the weeds and traveling as normal.
San Andres Mixquic
This is a smaller village located in the Southwest part of Mexico City. (CDMX is so big its like 10 cities in one, which is why this village gets a separate section.) I toyed with the idea of visiting Mixquic for Dia de Muertos while I was in Mexico, but ultimately decided to stay in the City and celebrate there. The draw for Mixquic is that the village has strong indigenous roots and is steeped in a more traditional feel. More intimate, candlelit celebrations, seeing more of the “real” Dia de los Muertos—the local way, and dealing with considerably smaller crowds, are all reasons people make the trek down.
For more on celebrating Dia de Muertos in Mixquic, check out this Culture Trip Article.
These are some of the popular central Mexico destinations to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. But Day of the Dead is celebrated all around Mexico, Latin America, and some places in the US. For more inspiration on where to take in this cultural event, check out Trip Savvy’s article: 8 Best Day of the Dead Destinations in Mexico.
What to eat
Pan de Muerto.
Bread and sugar. Yup, count me in. This is a sweet bread decorated with skulls or crossbones.
These sweets are placed on ofrendas, but not usually eaten. (You can though.)
As in the drink. Beat the chill and have the spicy Mexican version which includes chile.
There is never a bad time to eat street corn. And vendors will be out and about in the streets, so this deliciousness is never too far away. I prefer to get mine in a cup (instead of on the cob) but be careful- that stuff is hot!
Sugar Skulls by TrinyM via Pixabay
Dos and Don’ts
Get into the spirit. Dress in your best Day of the Dead attire and have your face painted. If we can survive mask-ne a little face paint won’t kill us.
Wear a Halloween costume. Jk, you totally can! Halloween is growing more and more popular in Mexico and I saw lots of Mexicans on the 31st wearing costumes. One of the weird things was that their kids’ costumes were not so PG as ours. I saw very small children wearing IT costumes or bloody killer or victim (it’s hard to tell sometimes) getups. Still, I’d say stick to tradition. You can Halloween anytime, but this spiritual, celebratory holiday could be a once-in-a-lifetime.
Make your own ofrenda. Include photos of your lost loved ones, food and drink they like, special objects, candles, and of course, marigolds, which are said to guide the dead with their striking color and aroma.
Disrespect other people’s ofrendas. This is a bucketlist cultural event, so I understand wanting to document it. But the locals celebrating their loved ones, and their ofrendas, are not props for your pictures. If you are going to visit cemeteries during your Dia de Muertos experience (and I recommend you do!) then refrain from photographing people and their loved ones’ plots unless you have permission.
by RociH via Pixabay
As mentioned, many of the events in Mexico City will be virtual. For a more complete guide to COVID adjustments and events, click here. Or check out this comprehensive list from Roaming Around the world of all CDMX Day of the Dead events: cancelled, virtual, and in-person.
Oaxaca’s governor has announced all public events for Dia de los Muertos will be cancelled. For more info, click here.
Info on Mixquic cancellations here.
And here is some general information, updated daily, regarding Mexico tourism and COVID.
It is safe to say that this will be a much quieter Dia de los Muertos than years past. Most cities have cancelled their public celebrations, leaving families to feast, rejoice, and remember on a smaller scale. But, as a reminder, Dia de Muertos is not cancelled. I encourage everyone to read up a bit more, watch Coco, tune in to the virtual parade in CDMX, build your own ofrendas, keep the memories of your lost loved ones close. Just remember to keep the spirits high and the mood celebratory—you wouldn’t want them coming into a sad party.
If you are in Mexico now, I hope you find some safe and socially-distanced ways to soak in this holiday. And if not, then keep this in mind for inspiration next year. It is truly something worth traveling for.
Safe travels er’rybody
Y Feliz Dia de Muertos
Read more about my time living and studying in Mexico City:
In an unfortunate strike of the iPhone, nearly all my photos from Dia de Muertos were lost forever—absorbed, it seems, into the cloud. Therefore, I had to gather some outside sources for this post. Here’s the photo cred in order:
Feature: Zocalo Square, CDMX- Mine.