How to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Macabre and delightful, solemn and festive, experiencing Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is perhaps one of the most quintessential things you can do in Mexico. This holiday, which is celebrated over the course of a week, peeks from October 31 through November 2. Combining Catholic traditions with pre-hispanic beliefs to create something truly unique, this celebration is unlike any other in the world.
Indigenous beliefs hold that during this time of year the world of the living and that of the dead are at their closest. At this time, the departed may visit the living realm. It is both a serious time of remembrance, but also festive and joyful because Mexicans celebrate the brief homecoming of a deceased loved one.
While Day of the Dead is celebrated all over the country, Oaxaca is considered by most to be the festival’s heartland. With a rich indigenous heritage, Oaxaca truly comes alive to celebrate and honor the dead. Book your accommodations early, though. This popular destination draws many thousands from abroad and other parts of Mexico to witness the excitement that is Día de Muertos.
To appreciate Day of the Dead to its fullest, be sure to participate in the following activities:
Visit a Cemetery
Perhaps nothing is more beautiful and eerie at the same time than a visit to a cemetery on the night of October 31. While American children are dressing up as Spiderman and Princess Elsa and gathering candy from their neighbors, Oaxacan kids are spending the night with their families at the candle-lit grave of an ancestor.
Walking into the cemetery at Santa Maria Atzompa we were struck by the sheer number of candles illuminating flower-strewn graves. The air was thick with the piney smell of copal incense as people shuffled from tomb to tomb. It seemed that just about every grave was attended by family members who lovingly placed large candles and marigolds upon the tomb. Young children and the elderly were preparing to spend the night graveside, laying out blankets and cooking meals over small fires.
To American sensibilities, spending the night in a graveyard might seem creepy and downright morbid. None of that was the case here though. The mood was upbeat and festive as candy vendors walked around and the sound of the food carts and carnival games was easily heard just outside the gates.
This is an experience not to be missed by anyone visiting for Day of the Dead. Do be respectful, though. Everyone is welcome at the cemeteries. However, remember that locals are here to spend the night remembering their dearly departed, not to be a tourist attraction. Be subtle about taking pictures and ask permission. We struck up a conversation with a few people who were happy to share their thoughts on this tradition with us. Even a little knowledge of Spanish can go a long way here.
If you want to do something particularly thoughtful, purchase some flowers (there are probably some for sale just outside the cemetery) to place on one of the few unattended graves. This small act will go a long way to endearing you to other participants.
Join a Comparsa
Comparsas are special street parades, usually led by costumed musicians and dancers, to celebrate Day of the Dead. There will be a number of official comparsas listed in the calendar of events. In reality, though, they seem to be pretty constant during the week of celebrations. Most seem to start in front of the church of Santo Domingo. Just listen for the horns and firecrackers. Don’t be afraid to join the march. This really is a “more the merrier” activity.
View the Altars
As Day of the Dead approaches, you’ll see orange marigolds bought and sold on just about every street corner. Also known as flor de muertos, or flowers of the dead, these are used to adorn the countless altars that are erected all over the region.
There are usually three levels to an altar representing the underworld, earth, and heaven. A photo of the honored deceased is centrally placed along with his or her favorite things, like bottles of beer and food.
Just about every store, hotel, home, and restaurant will have an altar near the entrance. The public library along the Alcala usually hosts an altar from each region of the state of Oaxaca.
See the Tapetes
Another way to honor the dead is by making elaborate images out of colored sand. Known as tapetes, these delicate images usually depict saints or other religious figures. Artists take great pride in their tapetes. There is often a competition for the best in the city.
When we attended the official inauguration of the tapetes, we were invited to light the candles along the pathways to the images to better guide the souls of the dead on their visit to the land of the living. As striking as the work and dedication that goes into creating these images is their ephemerality. In a few days the sand is poured into jars and placed at graves as yet another offering.
Eat Bread and Chocolate
Traditionally, special bread and chocolate are consumed during the holiday. Pan de muertos is a sweet bread usually decorated with sugar and a little wooden figure. Wash some of this bread down with a traditional hot chocolate drink.
Get Your Face Painted
You’ll see hundreds of people with their faces elaborately painted to look like decorative skulls all around town. Why not get yours painted too? There will be artists painting faces along the Alcala, but most salons will be painting faces as well.
We stopped by a salon one evening and asked about face painting. 20 minutes and 150 pesos (about 8 USD) later we were ready to celebrate Day of the Dead in style.
Party All Night at the San Agustin Muerteada
Perhaps nothing is more festive than the party that takes place in the town of San Agustin de Etla, about 30 minutes from the city. This dusk to dawn party, known as the mueteada, begins the evening of November 1st. As darkness falls, groups of elaborately costumed celebrants and musical bands parade through town stopping at various homes for food and drink. At a certain point, everyone converges in the town square and a massive party ensues with dancing, skits, music, and fireworks.
Plan ahead if you intend to go to the muerteada. This is an all night party. Thousands of people attend this raucous affair. Either arrange for transportation ahead of time or plan to stay in San Agustin until the next day.
Participating in Dia de Muertos was such an amazing experience. It is a showcase of tradition and culture like nothing we’ve ever seen. For anyone who truly wants to enjoy Day of the Dead, we highly recommend that you make your way to Oaxaca next fall.