Oaxaca is one of the most incredible places in which to celebrate Day of the Dead: from shrines to parties in the cemeteries, fireworks and fancy dress, locals take this very seriously.
Day of the Dead. In Spanish, ‘Dia de Muertos’ or ‘Dia de los Muertos’; either will do. Without a doubt one of Mexico’s most famous festivals and an incredible time to be in the country. Day of the Dead actually, officially takes place over 31st October to 2nd November; with one day for remembering children who have died, and one for remembering everyone else. But as with any country’s major festival, the lead up is as important as the day itself.
What was originally an Aztec holiday was co-opted by the Spanish when they failed to wipe it out entirely. Much as the pagan winter festivals were co-opted by Christianity to become Christmas, so Day of the Dead was moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day as they tried to convert everyone to Catholicism.
While this might sound like it should be an incredibly sombre festival, in reality it’s a massive party for most people that encompasses everything a party should: food, drink, dressing up music, funfairs and family time.
In the month or so leading up to Day of the Dead, Oaxaca is full of processions, fireworks for no reason and incredible halloween style decorations. And as October draws to a close, altars start to pop up all over the city. Even if you aren’t in town for the festival itself, don’t worry, you won’t feel that you’ve missed out…too much.
Oaxaca’s zocolo, or main square, recently more famous for its protests and tent city, determinedly continues to enjoy this time, with musicians and performers taking up their places to wow locals and visitors alike. Ensure you stroll through the square at different times of day, get your face painted, pick up a beautifully decorated pottery skull, and just enjoy the performances in the warm Oaxacan evenings. On 1st and 2nd November the square will be full of school processions dancing their way around town. Each will be led by its own hired band and the kids will be dressed to the nines and having a wonderful time throwing sweets to the watching crowds (and then, being kids, they’ll try and grab as many as possible back for themselves!). We were lucky enough to be a part of one of these processions as our kids were in school in Oaxaca last year. It felt like a real honour to be in the procession rather than just looking on from the sidelines.
Shopping: Don’t forget to wonder through the markets, try the amaranth grain skulls. It’s a native grain and tasty and actually very healthy, making this a great option amongst all the incredibly sweet treats pulled out for Day of the Dead. The pure sugar candy skulls taste pretty much as you’d expect (yeah, in the name of research my kids and I tasted them. You’re welcome).
In addition to the normal markets and small stalls, for which Oaxaca is rightly famous, plenty of little craft markets pop up around this time of year selling crafts from all around the country.
Altars: You will see altars everywhere. Pretty much every shop, coffee shop, restaurant and hotel will have an altar of some sort and people will be more than happy for you to stick your head in for a quick look and photo. The only places we found where people weren’t quite so excited were the extremely touristy shops where we saw a few asking for money in return for photos.
The altars will generally have photos of deceased family members and will be made up of food and drink pertinent to those who have died. The flower particularly visible at this time of year is pretty much a marigold (but, I think, technically isn’t if you care about these things), its petals are strewn all over. People grow fields and fields of these specifically for this festival.
And because it’s Mexico, people sometimes use the altar to make a political point. The most moving one we saw was made by a group of university students to commemorate women killed by men in the previous year. I was told that schools and universities will often have groups of students competing to make the most elaborate altars possible. This was, for me, the first indication that the Day of the Dead wasn’t solely a serious affair.
Of course, while this is a very public festival, there is also a much more private side to it all: some families do take this seriously, they prepare altars at home and do go to the cemetery for all night vigils. And you, as a tourist, can see some of this. It is perfectly possible to visit the cemeteries. We took a trip out to Xoxo cemetery on 31st October. It wasn’t quite what I expected. In this small, tightly packed cemetery we found speakers big enough to provide music at carnival time, blaring out loud music while people set up food and drink for their ancestors. We, along with other tourists, walked carefully between the graves, watching and listening whilst trying not to burn ourselves on the many candles set up for light.
The main cemetery (panteon) in Oaxaca also prepares itself well for Day of the Dead and is well worth an evening visit to see a completely different side to the festival: party time! The cemetery itself is vast and well worth a walk around just to see the different styles of graves and mausolea. To us, the atmosphere was very different to the cemetery at Xoxo. There we got the impression that people were taking everything seriously, even if they were having a good time. In the Oaxaca cemetery most people were there for the good time, not to commune with their ancestors. They wanted to walk around, eat, drink and have fun at the fair. And why not?
If you are in Oaxaca over this period, do not, whatever you do, go to bed early at any point! There is always something going on in town. Just head out and wander around until something happens. If zocolo isn’t doing it for you, head up the pedestrian streets until you hit the area around Templo de Santa Domingo where I can almost guarantee you’ll find markets, food stalls, musicians and street performers doing their thing. All around this area there will be kids dressed in horrifically graphic costumes, often pretending to murder their friends over and over in the hope that people will throw a few pesos their way! Adults also dress up, embracing the pantomime side of this festival and having a whale of a time. So put on your werewolf mask purchased from one of the many stalls, grab a beer and join the party!
And if you need more information on this wonderful city, why not check out this useful article?