Mexico’s Day of the Dead Festival

Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead Festival is celebrated in a big way in Mexico, nowhere more so than in the southern city of Oaxaca.  Festivities build over a few days from the end of October culminating in parades and commemorations on the 1st and 2nd of November.  But what’s great about this festival isn’t the riot of colour or the many events that take place.  What makes this special is how easy it is to get involved; you don’t spectate, you participate.

Day of the Dead Festival: A Panteonero
A Panteonero

Catrina welcomes you to Oaxaca

Arriving in Oaxaca, you can’t fail to miss Catrina, the mascot of the Day of the Dead festival who can be seen all over town.  Catrina is the most elegant of skeletons dripping furs, feather boas and wearing more strings of beads draped around her neck than you’ll see in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. She holds an elegant cigarette holder as she views the proceedings from every courtyard and balcony in the city.

Day of the Dead Festival: Catrina

Creating the altars

A few days beforehand, work starts on the altars. Every family hopes that the spirits of their ancestors will visit and to make sure that this happens, an altar is decorated to tempt them back.  Garlands of marigolds, their pungent aroma as attention-grabbing as their dramatic flame orange petals, decorate every inch of the altar.  Rainbow-coloured bunting with cut-out skulls flutters in the breeze.  Favourite foods of deceased relatives are placed alongside their pictures, a pathway strewn with flower petals guiding them back for one last party.  Once the altar is ready, a bottle of Mezcal is cracked open for the first of many toasts.

Day of the Dead Festival: Preparing strings of marigolds
Preparing strings of marigolds

A party at the cemetery

Down at the cemetery, each grave is smothered in yet more orange marigolds. Vibrant red gladioli fight for position with tall canna lilies and ivory church candles.  On the night of 31st October, families congregate in the old and new cemeteries of Xoxocotlan, many staying all night.  They bring food, music, guitars; mariachi bands wander and serenade both the living and the dead.  Kids wave fluorescent wands and munch on candy skulls and sugary lollipops.  At the entrance to the cemetery, a funfair was in full swing – this is no sombre occasion, this is a party for the dead.

Day of the Dead Festival: The old cemetery
The Old Cemetery

Join the parade at San Agustin Etla

Parades known as comparsas take place through the city streets, but the best is a little way out of town at San Agustin Etla. A motley crew of ghouls, devils and monsters known as panteoneros make their way down the narrow lane leading to the village’s main square.  A play is performed in the square as the fancily dressed take a break for some much needed refreshment.  The party carries on long into the night, fuelled by more Mezcal and lots of high spirits.

Day of the Dead Festival: San Agustin Etla parade
San Agustin Etla Parade

How to get involved in the Day of the Dead Festival in Mexico

Tour companies selling week-long trips to Oaxaca are plentiful but these trips can be expensive and impersonal. Instead, pick a smaller boutique hotel or bed and breakfast which offers a Day of the Dead Festival programme, including altar building as well as trips to the cemetery and a comparsa.  Try Las Bugambilias or La Casa de Mis Recuerdos who both offer a comprehensive range of activities at reasonable prices. And if it’s too late to make this year’s Day of the Dead Festival, there’s still the Night of the Radishes to look forward to!

About JuliaHammond


Julia Hammond is a Geography teacher turned travel writer with a passion for places. Winning Mail Travel's Deep South competition was the catalyst to write for a diverse range of publications including Bradt's Bus Pass Britain Rides Again. She’s written Kindle guides to Cape Town, Peru and London for Unanchor and advice on Savannah for Wanderlust. When not travelling, she can be found at home in Essex planning her next trip, her two golden retrievers curled up at her feet.

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