Day of the Dead (Mexico): How to Celebrate Día de Muertos Like a Local
The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is one of the most important celebrations of Mexican popular culture.
It is an opportunity to pay tribute to the deceased through a large and colorful party, and its importance has been recognized by UNESCO, as it has been declared intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
The festival combines pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions, and shows the identity syncretism of Mexico.
If you want to learn more about the Day of the Dead, where and how to celebrate it, here is my complete guide on the topic!
So, what is the Day of the Dead in Mexico like?
- When is the Day of the Dead?
- Where and How to Celebrate the Day of the Dead?
- Cancun and the Riviera Maya
- Mexico City
- The Day of the Dead Grand Parade (Nov 4)
- Great offering in the historic center (from October 28 to November 2)
- Alebrijes Parade (October 21)
- Catrinas Parade (October 22)
- Night parade in Chapultepec Park (October 31 to November 3)
- The Day of the Dead experience year-round
- La Llorona in Xochimilco
- San Andrés Mixquic
- What are the Day of the Dead traditions in Mexico?
- What items are used to make the altar for the dead?
- Day of the Dead in Mexico: Travel Tips
- Rent a car in Mexico
- how to find your airline tickets at the best price?
- You’re traveling in Mexico? These articles will help you!
When is the Day of the Dead?
It is celebrated each year from October 31 to November 2, though the dates may vary depending on the locality. The main days of the celebration are:
- November 1: This day is dedicated to deceased infants and children, also known as angelitos (little angels)
- November 2: This day is dedicated to deceased adults, also known as fieles difuntos (faithful departed)
Where and How to Celebrate the Day of the Dead?
The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is a popular celebration in Mexico that takes place from October 31 to November 2.
Here are some of the main activities, organized by region:
Cancun and the Riviera Maya
The state of Quintana Roo is a very touristic region, and Day of the Dead is celebrated less there than in other places in Mexico, as it is not part of the local traditions.
However, some events have emerged in recent years:
- Cozumel: Parade of the Animas on October 28 at 7:30pm with costumes and candles
- Playa del Carmen: Day of the Dead celebrations at the Plaza Civica (music, altars contest, gastronomy), Todas Somos Catrinas parade (6 pm, oct. 28) leaving from Plaza Quinta Alegria and, of course, several places on Quinta Avenida decorate their facades for the occasion
- Xcaret Park presents the Festival of Life and Death Traditions, which is the largest celebration of the Day of the Dead in the Riviera Maya with theater, music, workshops, dance, an interactive children’s area and the traditional All Saints’ Day mass
The Day of the Dead in Yucatán is known as Hanal Pixán, which means “food for the souls” in Mayan.
On October 31, the deceased children are honored (u hanal palal), on November 1, the adults (u hanal nucuch uinicoob), and on November 2, a large mass is held in the cemetery (hanal pixanoob or misa pixán).
In Mérida, there are activities from October 24 onwards: walks and bike tours, exhibitions, and more. You can check the schedule on the Festival de las Ánimas website.
Some of the highlights are:
- The Paseo de las Ánimas, a procession from the General Cemetery to San Juan Park with 500 people dressed as skeletons and wearing traditional Yucatecan clothes.
- The impressive Day of the Dead altars in the Plaza Grande, the main square of the city.
- The Catrinas parade that culminates with the Night of the Catrinas, between Paseo Montejo and Casa de Montejo.
- The Mesoamerican ball game or Pok Ta Pok on the main plaza.
Oaxaca is a place with many festivities throughout the year.
The Guelaguetza (late July) is the biggest festival in the region and one of the most important in all of Latin America. It showcases the diverse cultures and traditions of Oaxaca through music, dance, and costumes.
But the Fiesta de los Muertos in Oaxaca is also a big, colorful, week-long celebration!
For Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, you can see beautiful altars all over the city, especially on Macedonio Alcalá Street, between the Zócalo and Santo Domingo. These altars are decorated with flowers, candles, photos, and offerings to honor the deceased.
Of course, the cemeteries are also worth a visit. Many of them are filled with music, flowers, mezcal, mole, and hot chocolate. Some of the most popular ones are:
- Xochimilco (November 1) and San Felipe (November 2), which are in the city
- Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, 20 min from Oaxaca (October 31): very large, very lively, and really impressive!
- Santa María Atzompa, 30 min from the city (October 31)
The Sunday before the Day of the Dead is the Muerteada or Comparsa, which marks the beginning of the festival.
It is a huge parade with thousands of costumed participants of all ages, who dance, sing, and play music along the streets. There are also fireworks.
There are parades every day, but the ones that stand out are the one in San Agustin Etla (35 minutes from Oaxaca), which is very authentical and unique, and the one in Jalatlaco district, which takes place on November 1.
The capital is a lively city that has many events throughout the year, especially on Day of the Dead in Mexico City.
The Day of the Dead Grand Parade (Nov 4)
You may have seen it in the James Bond movie, 007 Spectre (2015).
It shows him walking in the Fiesta de los Muertos parade in the historic center of Mexico City.
But this famous parade was actually created after the movie!
The government was inspired by the film and made it a reality.
Now, it is a popular event in Mexico City with dancers, floats, music, acrobats and costumes that draw many tourists from near and far.
Even though it is not a traditional activity, it is a fun celebration of Mexican culture and I highly recommend going if you are there at that time of year. 😍
- The date and time vary every year. In 2023, it will be on saturday Nov 4. It will begin at 17h at the Puerta de los Leones and head to the Zócalo (3h).
Great offering in the historic center (from October 28 to November 2)
Another highlight of the Day of the Dead in Mexico City is the Festival of Offerings and Floral Arrangements, which showcases 27 ofrendas (offerings) made by different indigenous groups from across the country, including Guerrero, State of Mexico, Hidalgo, Puebla, Chiapas, Yucatan and Tlaxcala.
The display is also adorned with colorful sawdust rugs crafted by Huamantla artisans.
You can see this amazing exhibition at the Zócalo from October 28 to November 2. Don’t forget to take lots of photos!
Alebrijes Parade (October 21)
Alebrijes are fantastic creatures that are part of Mexican folk art.
The Museum of Popular Art of Mexico City hosts a parade every year to celebrate these amazing creations.
It will feature giant alebrijes made by artists, museums, and institutions.
You can also see these alebrijes on display on Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, between the Angel of Independence and the Diana Cazadora fountain, until November 5.
Catrinas Parade (October 22)
The Catrina is a skull figure dressed in a fancy French-style hat.
She was drawn by José Guadalupe Posada, an illustrator, in the early 20th century.
Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s husband, made her look like she does now in his famous mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central”.
She is a big part of Mexican culture today and is linked to the Day of the Dead.
The Grand Catrina Parade starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Angel of Independence. It has many floats, dancers, actors and musicians.
Night parade in Chapultepec Park (October 31 to November 3)
At night, from 7pm to 11pm, you can join the Teopankali (“house of altars” in Nahuatl) in Chapultepec Park. It is a magical and fun way to experience the Day of the Dead.
The path is 0,8 miles long, from the Puerta de los Leones (Lions’ Gate) to the Terraza del Lago. It has giant skulls, video mapping and lively music.
You can also see 12 altars with cempasuchil flowers and traditional items from Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán and Chiapas.
You can bring a photo of someone you miss who died and put it on one of the 12 altars ❤️
The Day of the Dead experience year-round
If you can’t go to Mexico on November 1 and 2, you can still enjoy the Day of the Dead celebration.
There is a special activity in Coyoacán that you can do any time of the year: the Day of the Dead experience.
It is a fun way to learn about the meaning and traditions of this holiday. You get to try hot chocolate and pan de muerto (the bread of the dead).
I did this activity several times, with my family and friends, and we all loved it. It is great for all ages. 😍
You can book your Day of the Dead experience in Mexico here:
La Llorona in Xochimilco
Xochimilco is famous for its many canals that you can explore in trajinera, colorful boats.
Every year, there is a sound and light show based on La Llorona, a well-known Mexican legend.
It tells the story of a woman who roams the streets looking for her children, crying “Oh, my children!”
The show starts at the Cuemanco pier, where you get on a trajinera and sail to Laguna Tlilac. There, you can watch the performance with dance, theater, singing, and music. It is very atmospheric at night, under the moonlight!
- The show runs from early October to late November, from Friday to Sunday.
- The tour takes 45 minutes (one way) and the show lasts 1 hour.
- Bring warm clothes, because it gets cold, and mosquito repellent.
- You can visit La Llorona Xochimilco Website for more details.
San Andrés Mixquic
San Andres Mixquic is one of the oldest and most traditional places in Mexico City. It is about 1h30 from the center of the city.
You can find many activities in the capital, but Mixquic has the most authentic Day of the Dead celebration. You can sense the magic in the air.
They make altars with offerings from October 31. The most touching moment is on November 2 at 7 pm: the “Alumbrada”. They light candles and put flowers on the graves of their loved ones.
Michoacán is the state of Mexico where the Day of the Dead tradition is the most important and deep-rooted.
The main attraction is Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro. You can only get there by boat (25 minutes from the San Pedrito, General or Las Garzas docks).
The cemetery is full of flowers, candles and food for the dead. But this celebration is very crowded, so there are many tourists.
If you want a more intimate and festive atmosphere, you can go to other islands, towns and villages around Lake Pátzcuaro. Some of them are:
What are the Day of the Dead traditions in Mexico?
Many Mexican families make an altar at home for their dead relatives every year. (I will explain the altar more in the next part.)
Some people also visit the cemetery and put offerings on the graves. They use images of saints, candles, cempasúchil (Mexican marigold), incense, copal, photos, and the dead’s favorite food.
The Day of the Dead used to be a private celebration. But it has become famous around the world lately, thanks to the James Bond and Coco movies. So there are new activities for more people to join.
What items are used to make the altar for the dead?
The altar consists of various elements that have a significant meaning.
It is intended to please the deceased by offering them what they preferred (food, drink, etc.) when they visit their relatives on the night of November 2.
Mexico is a vast country, so the traditions differ from one region to another. However, there are some basic elements that are present in an altar:
- The photographs of the deceased (the altar can be dedicated to one or several people)
- Some Catholic elements such as a cross
- The cempasúchil flowers that are bright and fragrant. They represent the sun and guide the deceased to the altar.
- Candles – purple for mourning or white – that illuminate the way for the souls to return to their relatives
- Pan de muerto, a bread that is consumed on this holiday. It is very popular and available during the month of October.
- Hot chocolate (with water) to accompany the pan de muerto.
- Small skulls made of sugar. They symbolize the presence of death in human existence.
- Papel picado, paper with holes. It is common in Mexico. It moves with the wind and indicates that the deceased are present.
- Food that the deceased enjoyed, such as fruit, mole, etc.
- Water, which represents the purity of the soul. A glass of water can be placed for the deceased to drink after their long journey. Some people also place a soap and a towel for the deceased to cleanse themselves.
- Salt to ensure that the soul of the deceased remains pure during the journey and can return the following year.
- Incense and copal, a resin that has been burned as incense since pre-Hispanic times and purifies the place
- A figure of the dog Izcuintle (or Xoloitzcuintle) as a toy, when the altar is dedicated to a child. According to pre-Hispanic traditional beliefs, it assists the souls to cross the Chiconauhuapan river to reach Mictlán, the world beyond
- A flowery arch that symbolizes the entrance to the world of the dead
- Alcohol, usually tequila, mezcal or pulque
Some altars are very simple and others very elaborate, depending on the budget of each family
Day of the Dead in Mexico: Travel Tips
If you decide to travel to Mexico for the Day of the Dead, here are some important tips to enjoy it to the fullest:
1. Book your hotel in advance
This is a busy time for tourism, so I suggest you book your hotel early. Otherwise, you will have fewer and worse options (poor quality and price).
If you know when you are traveling, you can look for hotels by clicking on the city you want to visit:
- Cancun – you can also check my A complete guide to the best hotels and resorts in Cancun!
- Playa del Carmen (Riviera Maya)
- Merida (Yucatan)
- Mexico City – discover my complete article Where to sleep in Mexico City with the best hotels for all budgets!
- Patzcuaro (Michoacán)
2. Be respectful
Cemeteries welcome everyone, but they are mainly for families to commemorate their deceased. Please be respectful and mindful when you visit them.
You can visit them if you are respectful and discreet.
Before taking (close-up) photos, please ask the people for their consent. They are not objects of entertainment or curiosity.
We are all visitors here, so let’s behave well and make ourselves look good 😉
3. By car
If you drive a car, you will find more traffic (and less parking) than normal. So be patient and plan your day well to be on time (for example: for the La Llorona show in Xochimilco).
4. Taste everything!
My best tip for the Day of the Dead is: go hungry because there are many delicious dishes to taste! 😋
Rent a car in Mexico
Renting a car is for sure the best way to explore Mexico and make the most of your stay!
To rent a car, personally, I always use Rentalcars.com, for a few reasons:
- You can easily compare the rental cars prices between all the agencies: for sure the easiest way to find the best rate!
- Cancellation is often offered free of charge: no need to worry if you change your mind
- Rentalcars offers full insurance coverage at a lower price than the rental companies, so it’s an instant saving with no effort
Simply click on the green button to find your rental car at the best price:
how to find your airline tickets at the best price?
To buy your cheap airline tickets, I invite you to use our flight comparator for Mexico, in partnership with Skyscanner: it is the guarantee to pay the best price for your international flight and your domestic flights!
🚗 Rent a car
🗽 Book entrance tickets and guided visits
🏄 Book your sports activities
🌍 Take a travel insurance
🙎 Book a tour
✈️ Book your flight
You’re traveling in Mexico? These articles will help you!
Discover all my articles about Mexico: All my articles to help you plan your trip to Mexico are listed there.
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