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Your Guide to Dia de Los Muertos: How to Best Experience this Mexican Holiday

by Miriam Cihodariu

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Dia de Los Muertos has always been a completely fascinating holiday and one with which I’ve been familiar with for a long time. Given my background in anthropology and my interest in life-and-death celebrations across cultures, it was only natural. 

But I think for the rest of the world, this beautiful Mexican holiday came more into the public eye only in the past decade or so. Considering also how popular Coco (2017) turned out to be, it’s no wonder that travelers are turning their gaze towards Mexico more and more during this time of year.

Of course, traveling to Mexico is rewarding on many other levels, too. Yoga retreats, ancient pyramids of the pre-Columbian era, beach resorts with amazing surf spots and sumptuous local delicacies beloved by the entire world – all this and more can be found in this charming country.

There are plenty of great things to explore here, but, if Mexico is indeed on your travel list, my personal recommendation is to try to visit it at the end of October and beginning of November. This way, you can also get the added bonus of observing this deeply mysterious and meaningful holiday while you visit the country. Nothing can get you immersed in the Mexican culture vibe better than diving right in!

Dia de Los Muertos: A Bit of Background

traditional mayan skull costume

The beautiful Day of the Dead festival in Mexico is actually a very old holiday, probably much older than most people realize. Not only it dates back to pre-Columbian times, but it is actually several thousands of years old. Experts say that the origins of this holiday can be traced back 3,000 years. Older than Christianity, older than most of today’s cults and even peoples, this Aztec holiday endured and retained its original story and message, even as its form shifted.

Originally, at the center of the festival was the feminine figure of an Aztec goddess of the dead, named Mictecacihuatl. Later on, this shifted into the modern figure of La Calavera Catrina, a character which was initially born from a political satire drawing and came to symbolize the entire culture of Dia de Los Muertos. In Aztec times, this holiday was observed at the end of summer, in the contemporary month of August, but as the holiday changed over the years, its date got pushed towards late autumn.

While some of the decorations used today are new and the look of this festival evolves over time, the spirit of the holiday has remained more or less the same. Despite popular misconceptions that equate Dia de Los Muertos with Halloween or with a horror fest, this holiday is, and always will be, first and foremost about family.

day of the dead cake

Every culture on Earth has a central part of their religion related to honoring their ancestors. Dia de Los Muertos is basically the same thing, but taken up a notch: you don’t just honor your ancestors from a distance, but you channel them in your midst and have dinner with them.

Also, this interaction with the spirits of deceased relatives and distant ancestors is mediated by exceptionally beautiful and poetic objects and practices. You’re surely familiar with the impressive imagery of this festival: the candy skulls, the marigold petals scattered all along the cemetery alleys, the clothes and the skull-like makeup and so on. No one, with at least a bit of an artistic side, can remain indifferent to the complex beauty of these death symbols and images.

How Is the Holiday Observed Today?

skeleton figures for dia de los muertos

In short, the local people prepare for the festival by arranging a small altar area in their homes, where they place photos and small objects that belonged to deceased family members. They also add some traditional food and beverages in that altar area, as offerings for the dead. This is meant to invite the ancestors to visit their homes and join them for dinner. Some people also place pillows and blankets out near the altars, to allow the spirits to rest after their long journey from the other world into ours.

Depending on where in Mexico you are, celebrations can last for up to one week, and visits to cemeteries are a central part of them on November 2nd. The graves of family members are cleaned and decorated with objects and offerings that have been prepared throughout the year. Small altars (ofrendas) can sometimes be built directly near the graves instead of inside the homes.

skull makeup with flowers

People also wear masks depicting a skeleton (La Calavera Catrina) or face make-up that imitates a romanticized look of a deceased person. Flowers are often intertwined with bones in these make-ups.

Marigolds are the flowers traditionally used for these grave-site offerings, and the gifts brought to deceased loved ones are especially rich in the case of children. It’s very common to buy toys and candy for deceased kids on November 1st, and it makes a lot of sense considering this day is known as Dia de Los Angelitos (Day of the little angels).

Other common things traditionally used to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos are the ubiquitous sugar candy skulls in various colors and flavors, the brioche-like buns known as Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead), and the colored paper which is used to decorate everything, from the graves to the altars and the buildings.

A Laughing Matter?

humorous depiction of skeletons

In spite of what you might think as an outsider, the overall vibe of the festival is far from solemn, macabre or weepy. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the Mexican culture of death is its humorous approach. The celebrations held for the Dia de Los Muertos are actually felt and enjoyed as celebrations, and everyone is recounting funny moments with deceased loved ones, or cracking jokes about the dead and death in general.

Some people, who enjoy writing a little verse, often compose short poems that tell a funny story or describe a mock epitaph for a friend which is not actually deceased yet. These little poems are called calaveras (skulls) and are actually very common, especially in magazines that usually dedicate them to political figures.

The Most Popular Places to Visit During Dia de Los Muertos

sugar skulls for day of the dead

There isn’t just one place you should visit during this holiday that will make you feel like you’ve arrived in the capital of the underworld. Actually, the way the Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico can differ somewhat from region to region and even from one town to the next. Each place has its charm and there’s not just one destination to head to for enjoying this holiday.

Some communities like to hold the celebrations directly at the graves, even hosting a small picnic party there all through the night. Others prefer hosting the merry dinner in their homes, with outside visitors welcome to join, if they pay an entrance fee in the form of a wax candle, to show their respect for the deceased.

day of the dead at tecomitl cemetary

Still, if you’d like to experience the full beauty of a Day of the Dead witnessed in Mexico, some places are better than others. If the festivities catch you in any of the following locations, you should consider yourself lucky to be in the privileged position to have insight into this cultural phenomenon:

  • Island of Janitzio: this is the place where people believe the entire holiday originated. Here, large groups of people gather each year to pay homage to it and make the island feel like a magical underworld place full of colors and lights.
  • Yucatan Peninsula: some areas in the southeast of Mexico almost make you feel as if you were in a separated Mayan region. Here, people call the celebration Hanal Pixan, bring up a lot of Mayan traditions and make the typical pib chicken in underground ovens.
  • San Miguel de Allende: a small and charming town that is considered one of the best places to admire the Day of the Dead festivities; it includes a 4-day festival called ‘La Calaca’ as part of the celebrations.
  • Mexico City: of course, such a list could not be complete without the capital of the country, where you can expect to see very diverse traditions and activities blending for the Dia de Los Muertos.
  • The Belen Cemetary in Guadalajara: Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico, and this cemetery is one of the high-profile destinations for the holiday of death, with special plays being staged throughout the day and lots of mariachi music everywhere.
  • San Juan Chamula: this small town is situated in the Chiapas region, known for having the strongest indigenous community in the country; the Day of the Dead celebrations here are perhaps the most traditional and unique, in the spirit of the Tzotzil government that rules the land.
  • Pomuch: this little town in Campeche might have the most unusual of the Day of the Dead traditions. People exhume the skeletons of their family members to do the annual bone washing. After they clean the bones, they put them in a wooden box and leave them offerings.

My recommendation is to go on a tour of any part of Mexico for a longer time (a week or so) and make sure your Mexican vacation includes the beginning of November. This way, you will be able to see and feel the holiday right as it gets prepared and observed. Also, you can quickly make your way to one of the destinations above as a mini trip within your larger vacation.

How to Experience More of Mexico During Your Stay

mexican singers mariachi

There are plenty of things to do in Mexico in order to have a more profound experience of the land and its culture, beyond admiring the Day of the Dead celebrations or checking out the main tourist attractions. Just as any visit to the country wouldn’t be complete without sampling the delicious local food, there are also activities you should definitely put on your list.

Of course, the kinds of activities you want to try while visiting Mexico are entirely up to you and your preferences, but these are the ones I personally consider a must-do while you’re there:

  • Take a horse-riding lesson and visit a traditional Mexican ranch (it’s part of the spirit of the place and its culture, you can’t skip it);
  • Learn to cook Mexican food right from a local expert or from a really savvy grandma (you may think you know tacos, but trust me, you don’t);
  • Breathe in the breeze and take in the gorgeous sites of Mexican nature on a motorcycle tour;
  • Enjoy the warm weather by delighting in watersports (surf is particularly popular here and there are a ton of perfect spots to get your groove on);
  • Rest a bit by enjoying some meditation and yoga in a remote and tranquil location by the shore or in the mountains;

Learn about the pre-Hispanic era and see the ancient pyramids with your own eyes! Chichen Itza, Tulum, Palenque, Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, are just some of the most popular archeological sites all over Mexico. 

Hungry for even more holidays and authentic experiences in Mexico? Browse through our most popular vacations and you’ll definitely find something you like!

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