The Ultimate Guide to Mexico’s Day of the Dead: Mexicans Talk Día de Muertos

Photo credit: David Boté Estrada from Tales of Wander

So you want to go to Mexico for Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos)?

Maybe you’re wondering where to go? Well, that depends…do you want to party in small-town graveyards until sunrise or dance in a massive parade through the streets of Mexico City?

Perhaps you’re curious about what the holiday stands for (you should know this before you go), how you, a tourist, can participate, and or even how to make sure you’re not going to do anything that’s culturally insensitive.

This guide covers it all.

To help you prepare for the celebration, I interview 16 Mexicans from Baja California all the way down to the Yucatan to talk a little bit about the wonders behind this famous Mexican tradition and how to celebrate it as a tourist!

Day of the Dead is a multi-day event that both celebrates loved ones who have passed and explores the greater concept of human mortality, all with a kind of playful reverence. It’s not sad or scary, but it’s also not necessarily 100% free of grief and mourning. It’s not dismissive of death, but it’s also not overly serious. And it’s definitely NOT Mexican Halloween.

So, what is it?

“It is tradition to go [to the graveyard] with family and spend some time together remembering the moments we had with people who are no longer with us.”

-Leonardo García from Mexicali, Baja California

“It’s a holiday about taking the dreaded finality and seriousness out of death.”

-Anonymous

Altars of the deceased’s favorites foods and drinks are created to commemorate them in cemeteries and homes, many celebrate and mourn in Catholic churches, and some towns and cities hold big parades through the streets filled with elaborate costumes, masks, and makeup. As Gennaro Garcia from Manzanillo in southern Mexico told USA Today, he and his family would visit the tombs of their loved ones, clean them, decorate them, and bring tequila, mezcal, music, and lots of food.

“It was a party. Everybody in town would come to the cemetery to spend time with the dead. I remember meeting and seeing all of my friends at the cemetery on that day. It was like a celebration of life.”

day of the dead cemetery night candles
Photo credit: By Thelmadatter via Wikimedia Commons

The whole partying with the dead aspect often feels foreign to many tourists, especially of western/European descent. Us white people tend to observe death with extra helpings of solemnity and stoicism. And then we like to go back to pretending it didn’t happen and doesn’t exist.

“Once I went with friends from another country to a town in Chiapas and the mega party came together in the pantheon. Other tourists were surprised to see people partying on the tombs.”

-Anonymous from Chiapas

As Mexican writer Octavio Paz writes in Labyrinth of Solitude:

“The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”

Way back before the Spanish colonized the Americas, Day of the Dead was actually celebrated at the beginning of summer. Eventually, it shifted to the beginning of November to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.

Mexico today is a huge and diverse: if you lay it over a map of the United States, it stretches from Texas all the way up to the state of Washington. It’s made up of 31 states, 62 indigenous groups, and around 70 indigenous languages. So, naturally, traditions have meshed and evolved over time, and in some places, it isn’t celebrated much at all. Day of the Dead was originally an indigenous tradition from southern Mexico and northern Guatemala — up until the 20th century, northern Mexico wasn’t even aware of the celebration as they had their own traditions.

dead bread mexico day of the dead
Photo credit: By Luisroj96 via Wikimedia Commons

“I think that, for foreigners, Day of the Dead is like Cinco de Mayo. Obviously Day of the Dead is important because it is part of our culture, but little by little I see Halloween having more impact than Day of the Dead. The children do not wait for Day of the Dead with eagerness and respect, they now sell pan de muerto [dead bread, a sweet roll that is baked during the week leading up to Day of the Dead] in the supermarkets and even in Starbucks, and I think that now only a small portion of the population really carries out a [traditional] celebration of Day of the Dead.”

Ana from Baja California Sur

I think you would have to find someone from Michoacán/Puebla or surrounding places. In most places I’ve lived (albeit mostly center or north) it’s not a holiday exactly. In some places it’s even quite recent.

Anonymous

From all-night parties in cemeteries and on the graves of loved ones to small, private in-home celebrations, from massive parades in Mexico City and Night of the Dead candlelight vigils in Lake Patzcuaro to almost non-existent celebrations in the North, your experience will depend greatly on where you go.

While Día de Muertos IS a nationwide event, it varies quite a lot from place to place. A small rural town will have a very different way to celebrate compared to a relatively large city.

Adolfo V from Puebla

Well, in my experience, it is different in different places. Some are only going to visit their dead in the graveyards (in my family it was so) and they put up an altar at home. In other places they party and get drunk. In some places, apparently they dig them up [the bones of their dead loved ones] and clean them. In Tlaxcala, there is a fair of all saints and day of the dead. I think in general it is about having fun with the dead who visit us during these days. It’s not necessarily sad.

“Tlaxcalteca” from Tlaxcala

In fact, in many ways the Day of the Dead traditions are becoming more popular in parts of Mexico where they had started to die out or were never prominent. In Zacatecas, a state in north-central Mexico, for example, Day of the Dead JUST started taking root about 40 years ago. Regardless, Day of the Dead tourism, even in this region where the holiday is fairly new, is big: 60,000 people visit the capital’s three pantheons over the course of the three days.

James Bond and Day of the Dead, Fun Fact of the Day:

Last time I was in Mexico City, my partner and I hung out with a couple who told us that the massive Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City as seen in the James Bond movie Spectre was actually made up just for the movie. It’s not something the city had ever done before.

dia de muertos mexico city parade

Photo credit: Pauljill on Flickr

But after the movie, the city decided to start holding the James Bond-inspired parade annually as part of their Day of the Dead celebrations. The parade’s creative director Alejandra González Anaya told CNN, “As a result of the James Bond film we have decided to take advantage of the spotlight and put on the streets a great offering which we give to our dead. I think it’s an opportunity for all Mexicans to show the world what the tradition is made of.” More info on how to see the parade below!

So, given that the celebrations are wildly different depending on where you go, where should you go in Mexico to experience Day of the Dead?

10 Best Places to Celebrate Mexico’s Day of the Dead

As mentioned, some places in northern Mexico are starting to celebrate Day of the Dead. However, it’s still a tradition that largely comes from central and southern Mexico as well as northern Guatemala. Here are some of the most popular destinations in Mexico for Day of the Dead and how they celebrate.

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

dia de muertos costumes oaxaca
Photo credit: Cordelia Persen on Flickr

Often known as one of Mexico’s most beloved food and culture capitals (and the birthplace of mezcal…oh, mezcal *sighs longingly*, Oaxaca puts on a theatrical celebration that includes elaborate costumes and masks, vendors selling Day of the Dead themed artisan goods in nearby markets, beautifully decorated homes, and vibrant evening processions (camparsas) with locals dressed as Day of the Dead icon  Catrina, the Day of the Dead.

Day of the Dead in Merida, Mexico

If you’re looking to go to the Yucatan Peninsula, the Yucatan capital Merida is the place to go.

Rich with history and Mayan heritage (Merida has the highest percentage of indigenous people of any major Mexican city), Merida celebrates the Mayan version of Day of the Dead, also known as Hanal Pixan, meaning “procession of souls”.  You’ll find traditional Yucatan foods like tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground, and the cemeteries in Merida and smaller towns on the peninsula are filled with celebration.

Day of the Dead in Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City Day of the Dead Parade
Photo credit: Tristan Higbee on Flickr

If you want to see the big James Bond-inspired Day of the Dead parade as well as some Halloween festivities, a three-day long celebration takes place in Mexico City. While perhaps not the most traditional celebration, it is still a lot of fun.

  • The Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City takes place on the weekend before Day of the Dead. This year, it will be on October 28th, 2017.
  • The parade will start at the Angel de la Independencia and go to the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
  • You can view information on how to participate here.

“If you decide to come to Mexico City, visit the zócalo [the city’s main plaza], Xochimilco in the nights when they do theatrical shows of La Llorona [a famous legend about the ghost of a crying woman], and San Andrés Mixquic.”

-Anonymous

San Andrés Mixquic is another town in the Mexico City area where you can see more traditional Day of the Dead processions.

Day of the Dead in Xochimilco, Mexico

xochimilco boats in mexicoFor something more traditional, you can also take a day trip out to Xochimilco (30 miles from Mexico City), the famous waterways from the ancient Aztec farming systems where visitors can enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage Site on colorful boats that float by food vendors, mariachi bands, and artisan crafters. You can go on Day of the Dead excursions through the canals and then head to the marigold-covered cemeteries at midnight.

Day of the Dead in Puebla, Mexico

Just over an hour outside of Mexico City, you’ll find the picturesque cities of Puebla and Cholula, known for their astounding number of ornate cathedrals and overall beauty. While Puebla isn’t as well known for its Day of the Dead celebrations as other places on this list, there is still plenty to see and do. You can attend the altar-building contest at Casa de la Cultura, and the botanical gardens in Cholula host an all-day event with food, music, dance, and a collective altar where people can bring flowers, candy, bread, candles, and more.

Day of the Dead in Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico

“There’s a town called Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan. There’s one of the largest Dia de Muertos celebrations. It’s the closest you’ll get to what people around the world identify as the “Dia de los Muertos” paraphernalia. Just please, plan the travel and be safe. Michoacan is beautiful but somewhat dangerous.

Jose from Veracruz

Although tourists do visit Michoacan, it is considered to be one of the most dangerous states in Mexico. If you stay aware and have experience traveling in Mexico, it’s definitely do-able. Just do your research before you travel through this region.

© Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

That being said, Patzcuaro is safe and always recommended as one of the most traditional and beautiful places to experience Day of the Dead in Mexico. Thousands of people come to the Island of Janitzio each year where the Purepecha people light up the island with candlelight, song and dance, and flowers all through the light and feast on the local cuisine, which is delicious. The fishermen take to their boats with torches as well, lighting up the whole lake.

Day of the Dead in San Luis Potosí, Mexico

“Here in San Luis Potosí, in the Huasteca area, the Xantolo is performed. People do processions where they dress like demons, calacas, catrinas, etc. The parades dance to huapango [traditional Mexican music].”

Herick from Ciudad Valles, San Luis Potosi

Xantolo is Day of the Dead in náhuatl, an Aztec language.

Day of the Dead in Pomuch, Mexico

altar for day of the dead in mexico
Photo credit: By Lmdrgl via Wikimedia Commons

Pomuch is in the state of Campeche, bordering the Yucatan and Guatemala. Here, they also celebrate Hanal Pixan, the Mayan version of the Day of the Dead. Here, some families partake in the tradition of removing the bones of their loved ones after they’ve been dead for at least three years and cleaning their bones. This ritual dates back to Mayan traditions that revered the skulls of the deceased.

“I was in Pomuch 4 years ago and in the Mayan tradition is called Hanal Pixán (Food for the Souls); the bread from this town is very famous in the area and especially in this days, one of them is Pan de Pichón, inside with ham, cheese and chile jalapeño. ”

Sergio Tohtli from Bacalar, Quintana Roo

Day of the Dead in Aguascalientes, Mexico

Every year in Aguascalientes they do a big Festival de las Calaveras (Festival of the Skulls) for several days. You’ll find handicraft markets, food stalls, theater, and concerts leading up to the grand parade. Jose Guadalupe Posada art day of the dead catrinaAguascalientes is actually the birthplace of iconic Mexican artist and satirist José Guadalupe Posada, the man responsible for much of the Day of the Dead imagery. He used skulls, bones, and sugar skulls to illustrate political critiques and actually created the famous La Catrina in the early 20th century, the woman with fancy dress and sugar skull makeup that so many dress up as. Her Aristocratic attire and white makeup were meant to satirize women of the time who revoked their indigenous heritage in favor of appearing European.

Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

The colorful state of Guanajuato is known as one of Mexico’s most romantic and beautiful, and San Miguel de Allende was rated as the best city in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine this year. The celebrations here last for four days (or, for some, an entire week) and are known as the festival of “La Calaca” (Skull Festival). There are multiple parades, theatrical performances, musical shows, lectures, skull-painting workshops, and more. The city even has makeup artist that tourists can hire to have their makeup done properly for the festival.

The Dos and Don’ts of Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico

1. Whatever you do, DO NOT touch the altars.

The one rule you can apply everywhere: DO NOT DISTURB THE ALTARS UNLESS YOU’RE SPECIFICALLY TOLD YOU CAN. That includes eating the food, drinking the beverages, touching candles/toys/pictures, etc.”

Adolfo V from Puebla

“Just don’t eat the stuff that is on the altar / tombs, and be solemn near the altar / tombs. It’s common to find people partying on the tombs (eating, drinking, singing, crying) and even mariachi bands playing inside the graveyards.”

Jose from Veracruz

DON’T eat the food on the altars. DON’T drink the beverages on the altars. DON’T take pictures of private altars without permission.”

Cuauhtémoc Marchand from Gómez Palacio, Durango

The only thing you can’t do during Día de Muertos, as a Mexican or a foreign tourist, is eat the food in the altars.”

Francisco Grijalv from Culiacán

“Didn’t you find it a bit funny how we seem to be ok with whatever you want to do as long as you don’t, for fuck’s sake, eat the food on the altars? you probably already know but the thing is, we don’t put those up just to show/remember what our loved ones liked, tradition says that they actually do come to find their altar and do feed on whatever’s it. So eating and/or drinking the stuff on the altars IS a huuuuuge no no.”

David Palafox from Mexico City

2. Take photos, but be respectful about it.

DON’T take pictures of private altars without permission. DO take pictures of public altars and other decorations.”

Cuauhtémoc Marchand from Gómez Palacio, Durango

“One thing people don’t appreciate during that day is fat, rosy-cheeked white people taking pictures of them like animals in a zoo while they’re remembering their loved ones and ancestors. A degree of solemnity and respect is expected from any and all visitors.”

Jorge C. from Michoacán

3. Don’t be an asshole.

DO NOT dress in a sombrero and zarape unless you are a college dude in a beach resort on spring break, or happen to be in a place where the locals dress like that, but that’s a year-round thing, not a Día de Muertos thing.”

Francisco Grijalv from Culiacán

Don’t leave your trash on the floor.”

Cuauhtémoc Marchand from Gómez Palacio, Durango

4. Respect the families who are celebrating and remember what the day is for.

“I think the most responsible and prudent way to [visit Mexico for Day of the Dead] is to respect the families that you encounter who are celebrating. You could come across families who are still in pain from losing someone recently.”

Leonardo García from Mexicali Baja California

“Mexican’s like to share their culture and seeing foreigners partaking in it. On the other side, there is a religious component that everybody should be aware of, Mexicans and foreigners included, and the most universal and important component would be not to eat the food in the altar.”

Francisco Grijalv from Culiacán

5. Participate in the celebration with others!

“DO have fun. Do drink. Do party. Do eat traditional food. Do wear traditional clothes and makeup. Do sing traditional songs. Do dance. Do take pictures of public altars and other decorations. Do talk with people about this day, and about the family they are remembering. Do enjoy other’s culture, which is meant to be shared.

Come here and have a good time! Come, dress whatever way you want to, use whatever makeup or costume you want to, and whatever hairstyle. Take as many pictures as you want, and have a good time. Just don’t eat the food on the altars.”

Cuauhtémoc Marchand from Gómez Palacio, Durango

“Don’t worry about tourism, it is always welcome. The most famous places are accustomed to receiving lots of people.”

“Tlaxcalteca” from Tlaxcala

“If you are American, European, or whatever, you can go to the tourist areas, dress in whatever costume and generally act like a tourist. In the North of Mexico Día de Muertos celebrations are usually a more private affair, but if you are a foreign tourist you definitely should visit the graveyards in the south and central Mexico, where there is a more community, festive feeling to the celebration. As a foreigner you can do everything a Mexican do, like going to the graveyars, talk to people in the graveyards, drink alcohol in the graveyards, get invited to eat with people you barely know in a graveyard, and make your own altar.”

Francisco Grijalv from Culiacán

“Go with people [locals] who have a party, visit the altars, understand the meaning of the altars, meet the people who are being remembered at the altar, and if you can, go to a festival.”

Leonardo García from Mexicali Baja California

Oh, and if you’re going to blog about it…keep it real

“I simply ask you for a favor: write things as they are. Do not invent traditions or strange things to make your report ‘more interesting’.”

Anonymous

Visiting Mexico after the recent earthquakes, and how to help

The consensus since the tragic earthquakes in Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca seems to be that travelers should definitely not cancel their plans to travel to Mexico. It is safe to visit and not disrespectful. In fact, your tourist dollars help.

To get a little more information on how travelers can stay safe, but mostly how they can lend a helping hand while in Mexico enjoying all that the country has to offer, I spoke with David Palafox, a software developer from Mexico City.

His advice:

Short answer: Do come. Long answer: As bad as it was, it was very localized. Although a few buildings did collapse and some others are still at risk, for the most part, we’re just moving on. Malls, museums, theaters, bars, clubs… Most places are fully functional and it’s not uncommon to see people going out and just enjoying themselves. So, please, do come. We actually need tourism to boost our economy. My advice would be, wherever it is you choose to stay, move around by cab. Uber is also a good and safe option, but taxis are good because they know the city way better and should be able to keep you away from places where they’re still hurting bad.”

How can you help out?

“You can definitely still help, but I believe help is now more needed and appreciated in the form of donations whether it be money or supplies. Here’s the website for Cómo Ayudar MX (How to Help) where you can find a very comprehensive list of places where they need stuff, what it is they need, and from where you can provide whatever help you can provide.”

Cultural Appropriation and Mexico’s Day of the Dead

I was also curious about cultural appropriation and Day of the Dead, but everyone I interviewed said adamantly that it’s not an issue in Mexico.

“Don’t worry about cultural appropriation and that stuff, just don’t eat the stuff that is on the altar / tombs, and be solemn near the altar / tombs.

-Jose from Veracruz

I feel like you ask this because of the recent “cultural appropriation” that has been going on in the USA, but I will tell you something: we don’t give a fuck.”

-Cuauhtémoc Marchan from, Gómez Palacio, Durango

“In Mexico there is no concept of cultural appropriation. Mexican’s like to share their culture and seeing foreigners partaking in it.”

-Francisco Grijalv from Culiacán

Of course, cultural appropriation IS a bigger issue in the United States, and the question has come up more than once in relation to Day of the Dead, especially when it comes to Halloween costumes.

One thing to consider is that cultural appropriation is not simply appreciating or taking part in a cultural tradition that is not of your own heritage. A central part of the definition, as explained on Redbubble, is this: “Cultural appropriation is when the dominant culture, or the majority, borrows aspects from minority cultures outside of their intended context.

So, while you are traveling in Mexico, the dominant culture is Mexican and the practices you’re taking part in aren’t out of context – they’re right in the middle of context! It makes sense that I didn’t encounter any Mexicans who found cultural appropriation to be an issue.

However, when non-Mexicans in the United States use imagery and traditions from Day of the Dead in the United States, the traditions of a minority culture ARE sometimes being taken out of their cultural context and used by a dominant culture. It’s especially problematic when white people take credit for or profit off of traditions from minority cultures, like when a Day of the Dead event in the States is completely organized by white non-Mexican Americans, or when Disney literally attempted to copyright the phrase “Día de los Muertos”  (you can’t make this shit up).

While some Mexican-Americans do think it’s okay for non-Mexican-Americans to appreciate and celebrate Day of the Dead traditions and sugar skull makeup in the United States, others disagree. Either way, if you can’t make it to Mexico and are thinking about paying homage to Day of the Dead while in the United States, it’s important to do some critical thinking, listening, and researching first. While this article isn’t about Day of the Dead in the U.S., here are some different essays on Day of the Dead and cultural appropriation in the U.S.:

A Quick Lesson on Why Sugar Skull Makeup is Actually Not Offensive

Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us – Stop Colonizing Day of the Dead

The History of Dia de los Muertos and Why You Shouldn’t Appropriate It

Day of the Dead, Sugar Skulls, and the Question of Cultural Appropriation

However, if you’re traveling to Mexico, the advice seems to be a little more simple:

“No hagas pendejadas” / Don’t be an asshole.

 

Have you ever been to Mexico for Day of the Dead? What did you think? Are you from Mexico and want to weigh in with your opinions? Comment and let us know!

 

Post Author
Elizabeth Aldrich

Completely insane and totally rational. World’s most optimistic cynic. Founder, editor, and head author at Temporary Provisions. Find me on Twitter @LizzieAldrich and Instagram @TemporaryProvisions. I’m a freelance writer and full-time traveler, wannabe farmer, amateur beer-connoisseur, aspiring renaissance woman. Check my work at www.elizabethaldrich.com.

Comments

4 Comments
  1. posted by
    Arielle
    Oct 17, 2017 Reply

    Once, when my Oaxacan friends were very young, they ate something off the altar and their mother painted their faces while they were sleeping. They woke up terrified thinking the muertos (dead spirits) had gotten them! So yeah, don’t eat or drink anything off an altar, or the spirits will get you while you sleep 😉

    • posted by
      Elizabeth Aldrich
      Nov 5, 2017 Reply

      Ha!! That’s a great story.

  2. posted by
    Itsu
    Nov 1, 2017 Reply

    I am mexican girl and I like the way you write about showing respect to our beloved tradition. Just to add some info, our Día de Muertos is a millenary tradition (literally) from pre-hispanic ages (which means, before the arriving of the spanish conquerors to our land) and then, it mixed with some spanish/catholic traditions to conform the Día de muertos as we know it nowadays. So, it involves A LOT of symbols, meanings, art in so many forms, and of course the opportunity, once a year, to pay homage to our beloved people that passed away or, as we mexican say, ” que se adelantaron” (that went of before) the way to the eternal life in which they are waiting lovingly for us to arrive someday.

    We are very proud of our ancient traditions and we like to share them to the world as long as our foreigner friends show respect and understanding <3

    • posted by
      Elizabeth Aldrich
      Nov 5, 2017 Reply

      I’m so glad you liked it! Thank you for adding this information. It’s incredible how long these traditions have been alive and also interesting how they’ve transformed over time.

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