Celebrating ‘Day of the Dead’ in Oaxaca 

In October/November 2016 I was lucky enough to experience Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico. I had been keen to visit Mexico for a few years and witnessing the colours and festivities of this public holiday was a priority for me during my stay in the country. I was certainly not disappointed! 

My take on the Day of the Dead skull makeup

What is Day of the Dead?

“Dia de los Muertos” is a public holiday celebrated in Mexico (especially the central and southern regions) to honour loved ones who have died. It begins at midnight on October 31st – they believe that the gates of heaven are opened and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. November 2nd is the day for the spirits of the adults.

Day of the Dead is a combination of ancient beliefs from Mexican indigenous cultures and the Catholic holiday, All Souls & All Saints Day. Before Spanish colonisation, the festival that developed into the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. By the end of the 20th century the ancient beliefs had combined with the Catholic beliefs and the festivities took place on the 1st and 2nd of November.

Why Oaxaca?

After some research before my trip I decided that Oaxaca would be one of the best places to see the festivities. It’s celebrated in a BIG way here. On top of this, Oaxaca is one of the most interesting places in all of Mexico. There’s fantastic food, arts, culture and history here. I’d recommend visiting Oaxaca even if it isn’t for the Day of the Dead festival.

Temple de Santo Domingo

How is Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico?

Beautiful altars are made in the home and around graves. They are decorated with candles, flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil & bright red cock’s combs) fruit, peanuts, plates of food and special breads called pan de muerto. Food, fizzy drinks, water and candies are laid out for the spirits. You sometimes see alcohol, cigarettes and even drugs laid out if that’s what the person enjoyed whilst they were alive. Toys are often laid out for the children’s spirits. The famous sugar skulls are also added for decoration. Apparently, some indigenous families spend 2 months income on decorations to honour their dead. In the cemeteries, people clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones.

In other small villages, on November 2nd, there is a huge party that lasts hours into the night as send off to all of the spirits (as they will be leaving Earth until next year). The whole village comes out to celebrate and a live band plays. I was very lucky to experience this party first hand- more about that below!

I’ve just tried to summarise Day of the Dead here but there’s a lot of great info on a website called Mexicansugarskull.com

An example of an altar
Sugar skulls, fruits and flowers

The Cemetery

On November 1st we visited a cemetery in Oaxaca to see the decorated graves. I’ve never seen so many people in a graveyard at once ! There was a mixture of locals and tourists but it was mainly locals. The graves looked so beautiful all lit up with candles. There was also live music and theatre performances. Just outside the graveyard there was a fun fair which was heaving with people. Although this festival is about death, there is a colourful and happy vibe. It is a celebration to remember a loved one rather than a bleak and unhappy mourning of their loss.

Decorated grave
Each candle is placed in the location of a tomb
The fun fair
The fun fair
A young boy wearing face paint

The Village Party

Whilst in Oaxaca I was in a G Adventures tour and we were very lucky to have local guides who were able to take us to a village about an hour outside of the city. As I mentioned above, the village holds a huge party as a send off to their loved ones souls. At this party some of the locals choose to dress up- I noticed that a lot of costumes were ‘scary’ Halloween style (we also spotted a Donald Trump outfit!). This must be because the American style of Halloween has influenced the younger generation. I had bought some black and white face paint from home and I painted my own version of the “Catrina” skull on my face.

Callum, Josh & Me

The party was like nothing I have ever experienced before ! The whole village would walk around from house to house whilst a live brass band and drums played. Once we reached somebodies house we danced around in circles in their front garden for a while before moving onto the next one! We were the only tourists there but the locals seemed happy to welcome us. A couple of guys told us that they were happy to share their traditions with us which is nice. We each made a donation to the village as a thank you. It was very difficult to get good pictures in the low lighting with everyone moving around !

The live band
The celebrations ended in the small village square
Josh looking like a Panda because I couldn’t paint his beard
The band

Some of the great outfits




Photos of Oaxaca



Jess Harling

Creator of Jess Travels

4 thoughts on “Celebrating ‘Day of the Dead’ in Oaxaca ”

  1. Interesting and had heard this before.
    Did you know the Chinese have a Hungry ghost festival too? It lasts for a month, on the 7th month of the lunar calendar. People don’t dress up and party though!

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