A few decades ago, if you would have asked locals what’s happening for Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – you would have got confused stares. This is because Day of the Dead has historically been an intimate, family affair: relatives build altars in their homes, decorate the graves of lost ones, then hold vigils to guide the spirits home. Not really the kind of dinner party you invite guests to.
The touristic history of the Day of the Dead is somewhat curious. The celebrations we see today were a political push to unite and socialize the indigenous traditions around the country. A lot of the symbolism was modernized – particularly the various depictions of skulls – by artists who wanted to drive a stronger Mexican identity. The nationalism of the holiday was finally cemented when it was declared a public holiday in the 1960s.
Seeing the touristic value of this colorful and emblematic day, the government invested into several areas around the country to turn this holiday into a public affair, such as street parades and ofrenda (altar) competitions. Today, these areas are still the most renown places to see impressive Day of the Dead altars, parades and other activities: Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Mixquic. They are also the busiest and typically accommodation books out months in advance.
But the tourism didn’t stay contained in those areas. Town councils all over Mexico developed their own agendas of small and large parades, public ofrendas and events. Some are as intimate as local villages opening their houses so the public can admire their grand altars, like in Huaquechula; others turned historic traditions into public events, such as ‘Xantolo’ dances in La Huasteca which stem from pre-Hispanic days.
In reality, the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ way to see Day of the Dead is to be invited into a local home or to a cemetery, then share the deceased’s favorite music and food and hear stories about their lives – or, build your own altar and remember your loved ones. Lucky for tourists, Mexicans are proud and happy to share this special holiday and don’t seem to mind tourists trampling through cemeteries and gawking at their spectacular ofrendas.
Celebrations begin on the night of October 31; at midnight on November 1 the souls of children return, and offerings will include things like tamales and broth without spices. On the night from November 1 to 2, the souls of adults return and altars are decorated with spicy food, favorite alcohols and tobacco.
Below we talk about how to get off the beaten touristic path to find more local Day of the Dead events.
The History of Day of the Dead
Despite numerous adaptions, the concept of holding rituals for the deceased has deep roots throughout Mesoamerica, dating back some 3,000 years. While Day of the Dead is strongest in Mexico, it is celebrated in other countries as well.
With relation to Dia de Muertos, scholars say the origin of these traditions dates back a few hundred years ago to the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. The belief lies in the circular nature of life, where death is just another phase of ‘living.’
Today’s celebration is a mix of pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions. Indigenous celebrations are thought to have previously occurred in summer for one or two months. But after the Spanish arrived, they merged the Day of the Dead with All Saints Day and All Souls Day to push the adoption of Catholicism. This influenced small changes to the pre-Hispanic traditions; the dates were changed to November, the holiday was condensed into two days, altars became popular, and families starting burying and visiting their deceased in local church cemeteries.
What has remained the same is the approach to death. Death is seen as a normal part of the human experience and relatives remain part of a family community for eternity. Families guide departed souls home so they can continue to celebrate among the living – past lives celebrate with present lives – a sign of an eternal continuum of one’s life.
Meaning Behind the Day of the Dead Symbols
- Ofrendas and Altars – to attract and guide departed souls, you will see trails of marigold petals or candles from front doors to elaborate indoor altars, punctuated with the smell of burning copal which is said to purify the soul. It is said that the dead are awakened from their eternal sleep by smelling their favorite foods and hearing their favorite songs. On altars, you will see foods, drinks and objects the deceased enjoyed during life. It is not uncommon for families to hire mariachi to play at their families graves.
- Catrinas – the most prominent costume you see in parades comes from a famous print La Calavera Catrina (“The Elegant Skull” or Catrina garbancera), by José Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century. The print featured a female wearing a decadent hat with a skeleton face. It was a satirical commentary on the excesses and arrogance of the Mexican elite, and they usually accompanied calaveras. ‘Catrina’ figures have become a prominent part of today’s Day of the dead.
- Calaveras – translated as ‘skull poems,’ calaveras are short satirical poems, like an epitaph, that make fun of living people as if they were dead. They originally mocked people in positions of power, drawing from the theme that death is the ultimate equalizer where we all end up the same. Newspapers still publish calaveras for public figures, usually with a cartoon skeleton, and sometimes friends will write their own as well. They might describe shortcomings, interesting nuances and characteristics, tell funny stories, and generally just make fun of people through irony and humor.
- Theatre – productions of ‘La Llorona’ and Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla (1817–1893) are also traditional on this day.
- Pan de Muerto – a few months in advance bakeries start selling this sweet bread. Despite the literal translation being ‘dead bread,’ it has a tasty egg-based, citrus flavor. It is eaten for breakfast, placed on altars, or families eat it with hot chocolate in the cemeteries. These days, they come in all sorts of gourmet flavors and cream fillings.
- Sugar candy skulls: A common symbol of the holiday is the skull which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (colloquial term for skeleton), and foods such as sugar or chocolate skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls can be given as gifts to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.
- Marigold flowers – orange marigolds, cempaxochitl, arrive to every town by the truckload. Sometimes called the flower of the dead – flor de muerto – they are used to decorate graves and altars; sometimes you will also see white orchids left at children’s graves.
Best Local Places to See Day of the Dead
Authentic Day of the Dead Mexican Celebrations
If you’re on the Yucatan Peninsula, you’re in for an unusual tradition. Day of the Dead is when locals in Pomuche exhume and clean the bones of their deceased. Far from being macabre, “bone washing” is considered a sign of respect. Afterwards, the boxes that hold the bones are left open to receive sun and air. Many adults participate to help wash the bones that are at least three years old, and change the cloth that wraps where the bones lay, a kind of refresh and new set of clothes for the dead, so to speak. The boxes are also painted and adorned, and covered with a tablecloth with the deceased’s name.
This town does Day of the Dead differently: in place of the colorful bright altars, families build towering satin-white altars that reach up to three levels high and somewhat resemble giant wedding cakes. The locals banded together to create an open-house tour around their small town. Visitors can truly experience some of the local customs of Day of the Dead, where guests are invited to eat and drink with the family and learn of the stories of their passed relatives.
Additionally, there is a major fair in the town zocalo, with food and artisanal stalls plus folk dance and other shows at different times during the day. It’s close enough to Atlixco that you can spend a day in each place.
This ‘magic town’ has enough reasons to visit any time of the year: the Popocatépetl
volcano creates the perfect backdrop for brightly colored houses and winding narrow streets. Besides being adorably picturesque, the road leading to the town is packed with marigold fields that are used for the Day of the Dead. If you time your visit at the right time, you can take selfies among the orange fields. Chances are if you’ve seen a picture of marigold fields on Instagram, it’s probably around here.
Atlixco is known for creating a ‘carpet’ of flowers each year depicting different symbols of Day of the Dead. Over the two days, there are plenty of other local activities, including a Catrina parade and free outdoor theater shows. It’s still small enough that if you are booking last minute, you can probably still find accommodation.
Festival of Light and Life in Chignahuapan, Puebla
Besides hosting Day of the Dead festivities, this town is a major producer of artisanal Christmas balls. If you don’t have a car, just hop on the little bus-cart tour, which is perfect to see the town’s main historic churches, hear curious local stories, see a Christmas ball-blowing show and shop for decadent Christmas decorations.
For Day of the Dead, the main event is undoubtedly the Festival La Luz y La Vida, a festival of ‘Light and Life’ on November 1 and 2. It kicks off at dusk with the ‘March of the Torches’ from the town square, where people light candles and torches and make their way to the lagoon. A show is then performed by feathered, Aztec-style dancers atop a glowing pyramid that floats in the water. It explains the nine planes a soul passes through after death to reach Mictlán and its eternal resting place (in Spanish). You can buy tickets next to the town square for around $10.
During the day, you can also visit the local cemetery, which is buzzing with families, marigolds and mariachi. Being a small town with generational roots, many of the graves are visited by families making it an exceptional place to get a taste of what Day of the Dead is really about.
It is possible to do all of this on a day trip from Mexico City, although the show finishes late. If you want to avoid driving back at night, you could easily spend a night or two and fit in some of the surrounding sights, including Zacatlan.
Xantolo in La Huasteca
La Huasteca is one of our favorite regions to visit in Mexico. The rivers and waterfalls glow such an intense blue they almost look fake. It is incredibly remote and can only be reached by driving, which makes this the perfect road trip for stumbling across quaint, local events with just a few hundred people.
In La Huasteca, Day of the Dead is referred to as ‘Xantolo.’ For the indigenous Teenek and Nahua communities, it is the most important holiday of the year. Legend says many years ago, grieving families saw a ghostly masked man happily dancing from crypt to crypt with music. He revealed himself as ‘Xantolo,’ a spirit who was driven to bring joy after growing tired of seeing gloomy and grieving families. From there, the townspeople spread the teachings, dances and music they had learned from Xantolo to other villages.
Xantolo is characterized by the union and participation of the Huasteco communities, hospitality, food, firecrackers, music, rituals, and dance ceremonies. In each town, you will stumble across costumed local groups, called comparsas, dancing and celebrating in something reminiscent of carnival. Huehues are the locals who don masks of devils and spirits to confuse and hide their identities from death. You might also see the large-sized tamales zacahuil which are unique to this area.
Families hold vigil build large arches under which they build their altars. Chocolates, tamales, pan de muerto and other offerings are swapped with neighbors; tourists will also be offered to share in this food.
Some believe the souls stay for the entire month of November and on the last day, families refresh the altars and remove their sugar cane arches to say goodbye. Huastecos offer harvests of corn and fruit believing these smells, along with music and light, will evoke memories for the departed.
Several towns form what is called the Xantolo Route (Ruta Xantolo, download the program from here, only available in Spanish). Although, you will find celebrations almost anywhere you go. Some of the main towns and events include:
- Aquismón – known for its Catrina contest
- Axtla de Terrazas – combine with a herbal healing ritual at the Castillo de la Salud de Beto Ramón in Ahuacatitla, then experience indigenous dances and music at the ‘cambio de fiscal’ ceremony at the Panteón Ejidal de Chalco in Copalo (31 November, 11pm)
- Ciudad Valles – a shaman interrupts the deceased’s sleep on 31 October at the Municipal Pantheon.
- Huehuetlán – try fried eggs cooked inside banana leaves for breakfast
- San Martín Chalchicuautla – has among the most sophisticated and numerous dance groups
- San Vicente Tancuayalab
- Tancanhuitz – in Tamaletom, voladores (flyers) perform the Danza del Gavilan, a ritual dance to the god of corn.
- Tanlajás – an important vigil takes place on November 2 at the Quelabitadz cemetery
- Tamazunchale – see local dances in the Chalpulhuacanito neighborhood – sometimes called the ‘cradle of Xantolo’ for its strong traditions – or the indigenous ritual of the Xexos in the Tezapotla community.
Ocotepec, north of Cuernavaca
Another town known for inviting visitors into houses is Ocotepec, north of Cuernavaca and a little closer to Mexico city if you’re short on time. If a house has an elaborate arch or a path of flower petals leading to it, it is usually a sign that people are also welcome to enter and admire the altar. In some places, they also recreate the body with stuffed clothes, shoes and hats. They believe souls return for eight days, and each nigh bells are rung to announce their arrival.
Being the birthplace of Jose Guadalupe Posada, it’s no surprise that Aguacalientes hosts a skull-inspired festival, the Festival de Calaveras. You also find the usual Day of the Dead parades, altars, music and cemetery celebrations, alongside a national engraving contest. The recreational park Isla San Marcos is packed full of experiences, including gastronomy tours, children’s activities and a whole area dedicated to pan de muerto where you can also watch how it’s made. You can also visit the National Museum of Death (Museo Nacional de la Muerte).
San Miguel de Allende
La Calaca is a four-day festival with all the typical Day of the Dead symbols and events. There’s an elaborate Catrina parade and plenty of places to get your own Catrina makeup. If you haven’t been to many magic towns in Mexico, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is beautifully preserved and offers plenty of sites outside of Day of the Dead. For a cemetery experience of music and offerings, head to the Panteón de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, while dedicated markets can be found near Plaza Civica.
Mexico City never had a Day of the Dead parade until after it was invented for the movie Mission Impossible. Despite the movie depicting an event that didn’t exist, there was obviously a desire for it. Since 2016, Mexico City has held an elaborate parade of floats and skeletons that gets bigger each year. It starts at ‘Estela de Luz’, goes up Reforma Avenue (the streets are wider here and easier to get a spot) and ends in the zocalo in the historic center.
Besides the parade, there are numerous altars and ofrendas to see around the city. Some of the most elaborate include:
- Coyocan main square and the Blue House of Frida Kahlo
- Museo de Dolores de Olmeda
- The zocalo (main square) in the historic center
- UNAM university
Families also visit cemeteries but less so than in small villages, as many people have migrated to the city. In some of the more traditional neighborhoods, you might find some graves decorated.
Guerrero hasn’t been a top place to see Day of the Dead in recent years as it’s considered one of the more dangerous states (although, the touristic towns are considered safe). But Cuajinicuilapa is worth mentioning because of the fascinating history of this Afro-Mexican town. There you may get to experience the ‘Dance of the Devils,’ inherited from ancestors of African slaves brought by the Spaniards. Dancers wear masks with pointy ears or horns and long hairy beards, then jump and stomp through the streets. You can learn more at their local Afro-Mestizo museum.
Mexico’s Best (and Most Popular) Day of the Dead Celebrations
San Andres Mixquic
The cozy cemetery at the center of this town is one of the most photographed for Day of the Dead. Almost all the graves get decorated and on November 2, thousands of long candles are lit (“La Alumbrada”) to create an eerie atmosphere.
This otherwise small, sleepy town becomes so jam-packed with tourists that you can hardly move at night. But every street is equally packed with altars, ofrendas, and food stalls that it creates a fun fair vibe. It’s a great place to over-stimulate the senses and experience all aspects of this holiday in one place, without having to walk long distances.
To avoid the crowds and tour the historic church, go during the day; the sacrifice is that you will miss the iconic candle-lit cemetery photos. In any case, it’s advised to arrive early as by nightfall, what is normally a one-hour trip can easily become a three-hour trip and parking fills up.
Janitzio and Pátzcuaro in Michoacán
Lake Patzcuaro is considered the most magical display of Day of the Dead traditions. They celebrate the ‘Noche de Muerto’ or Night of the Dead on November 1. At dusk, villagers fill row boats with candles and flowers and set off to the cemetery on Isle de Janitzio. You can watch candles reflect across the dark water and later light up the island in the middle of the lake.
As one of the top places to see Day of the Dead, the small island fills up quickly and accommodation books out months in advance. However, there are several small villages around the lake shore where you can also see local traditions, and still be close enough to visit Janitzio.
Being a rich indigenous center of Mexico, Oaxaca is full of color and traditions any time of the year. Day of the Dead is no exception, when cemeteries come alive and the streets fill with altars, dances and presentations. Oaxaca is particularly renown for sand tapestries (tapetes de arena), where sand artworks are created on the pavements and in public places like the Museo del Palacio. These works are traditionally part of the local burial customs.
There are two popular cemeteries in the nearby village of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan (commonly known as Xoxo), where you can experience hundreds of decorated graves, candles and locals celebrating their loved ones. There is also a thriving marketplace at Plaza de los Muertos.