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Celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca remains one of my favourite travel experiences to date (alongside Holi in India and Songkran in Thailand). As one of the world’s most fascinating cultural festivals, it had been on my radar for years.
When my trip to Mexico timed up, I jumped at the chance to attend especially since I knew I could also visit Hierve el Agua – a set of petrified waterfalls – in Oaxaca.
In this guide, I’ll share everything I know about Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca Mexico including where to celebrate, what to eat, and the best Day of the Dead Oaxaca tours. Enjoy!
There’s nothing quite like this unique celebration of life and death in Mexico. To my knowledge, nothing similar exists elsewhere. Mexicans see death quite differently to Westerners. Instead of being a sad and som
For two days of the year, Mexico holds a ceremony that might surprise you and will most certainly stay with you.
If Oaxaca Day of the Dead isn’t on your Mexico bucket list, add it right now!
An undeniable benefit of celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is simply experiencing this quaint, beautiful city at the heart of Oaxaca state. Although it’s become a popular travel destination in recent years, it’s still not high on many international tourists radars’ – or at least not compared to some destinations in Mexico (*cough, Tulum*).
I spent a week wandering the colourful streets of Oaxaca, eating delicious mole enchiladas, shopping the markets and spotting vibrant Oaxaca street art. Although you’re going to love the Oaxaca Dia De Los Muertos celebrations, make sure to stay long enough to see the city, too. It’s truly one of my favourite places in Mexico. As a Mexico City addict, that’s saying something!
Oaxaca City is in Oaxaca state in Southern Mexico.
Getting to Oaxaca by flight: Flights from Mexico City to Oaxaca start at $80 into Oaxaca International Airport (OAX). International flights from the States start at $150, direct from Chicago, LAX, Dallas-Forth Worth, and Houston. I use Skyscanner to find the best deals.
Oaxaca airport is a 30-minute drive to the city. Prebook an airport transfer.
Car hires: Use Rentalcars.com to compare car rentals in Mexico (and all around the world). It’s worth noting that you don’t really need one if you’re staying put in Oaxaca City; everywhere is walkable. If you’re exploring elsewhere in Oaxaca state, it might be useful.
Oaxaca by bus: From Mexico City, you can catch a direct 8-hour bus to Oaxaca. This is what I did and although it was a long journey, the scenery was beautiful. I use Busbud or ADO to book bus tickets in Mexico.
Top tip – if you take the bus, know there’s only one toilet stop during the day. Watch your liquid consumption!
Day of the Dead intro
Dia de Muertos is a Mexican festivity held each year on the 1st and 2nd of November.
From the night of the 31st of October, the spirit world opens and the souls of those who have passed return to their families for 24 hours. Locals celebrate by spending the evening in graveyards, and leaving out food, flowers and other offerings for the spirits.
This isn’t a sad festival but a celebration, honouring deceased family members. If you’re not Mexican, it may be hard to get your mind away from the sadness of death. But, once you celebrate Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca, I think you’ll see things in a slightly different way!
Day of the Dead history
Day of the Dead has been celebrated in Mexico for 3,000 years. The Aztecs other Nahua indigenous groups believed the dead travelled to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Here they had to complete nine levels to reach Mictlán (their final resting place), a journey that could take years.
Ancient rituals saw family members leave out food and water for their ancestors to help them with their journey. These practices influenced Day of the Dead and have survived into the modern day. During Dia de Muertos, people leave offerings on altars (named ofrendas) for their deceased family members.
Dia de los Muertos was blended with Catholic-Pagan influences during Spanish rule. These included laying pan de ánimas (spirit bread) on ofrendas and graves. In addition, the festival originally held in August was moved to All Hallow’s Eve.
What happens during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca Mexico?
After the spirit world opens at midnight on 1 November, it’s thought the spirits of deceased children start to return. For this reason, 1 November is known as Dia de
From midnight on 2 November, the spirits of deceased adults start to return. The main Day of the Dead celebrations are held in the hours before this on 1 November carrying into the wee hours of 2 November.
Festivities are for three nights in a row: 31 October, 1 November (main event) and 2 November.
Why celebrate Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca?
Oaxaca is undoubtedly one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico. Unlike other cities in Mexico, it’s not just about parties or parades. While celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, you’ll see locals acting as they have for generations.
As well as the graveyard celebrations for Day of the Dead Oaxaca, there’s usually a whole programme of events that change each year. Undoubtedly, it’s become commercialised but not in a bad way. You don’t get the feeling it’s a tourist event, simply that tourists are welcomed into the local celebrations if they wish to be.
Top tip – book in advance!
This is my number one tip for your visit. I was very lucky to find a room in Oaxaca during the celebrations. Around two months before my trip to Mexico, I learnt about Dia de los Muertos Oaxaca and casually went to browse Airbnb to get a rough idea of prices. I quickly released how late I’d left it because there was only one room left on Airbnb in the whole city! It was a single room and I quickly blagged it.
Don’t do what I did. Make sure you book well in advance. June or earlier is a great time to book for the upcoming year’s festivities.
Where to stay in Oaxaca
You can stay in Centro although prepare for things to be busy and loud. A few blocks away, both Jalatlaco and Xochimilco are suitable neighbourhoods with lots of accommodation options.
I stayed in Reforma neighbourhood which is a 30-minute walk (or 5-minute taxi ride) north of Oaxaca City. Initially, I picked it because it was the last room available in Oaxaca but actually, this area is very pleasant and quiet at night. A good place to escape the noise of the celebrations!
Airbnbs in Oaxaca: There are lots of options on Airbnb from entire apartments to private rooms.
Hostels in Oaxaca: I can vouch for Oaxaca Central Hostal with comfy dorm rooms, a leafy outdoor garden area and amazing home-cooked breakfasts that change each morning.
Hotels in Oaxaca:
- Hotel Casona Oaxaca – for an affordable option with period features and a sunny courtyard, rooms start from $30.
- Hotel NaNa Vida – this stylish hotel in a colonial blue building in the heart of Oaxaca boasts garden views, Mexican artwork and a sunny terrace. Rooms for $60.
- Check all hotels and hostels in Oaxaca on Booking.com / Hostelworld
Oaxaca Day of the Dead tours – do you need one?
You don’t NEED a tour to experience the festivities but it’s a good idea. The benefit is getting past the tourist celebrations and visiting
For their Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2023 tour, they will visit a family home, eat tamales and enjoy hot chocolate, mezcal and bread before visiting a cemetery.
How to celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Now for the fun bit!
This next section runs through all the different elements of the Oaxaca Dia de los Muertos festivities:
Wondering how to actually celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca? Start with a graveyard. Here you can witness locals celebrating with the spirits of their loved ones.
What not to expect: a sad, sombre vibe.
What to expect: a party! From roaming musicians to live bands, it’s a riot.
At first, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of intruding private moments. But I soon realised this was far from
Graveyards to visit during Day of the Dead Oaxaca
- Xoxocotlan (best on 31 October) – this small town a short drive from Oaxaca is a loud and vibey place to visit. It’s one of the most touristy places so you’ll feel like one of a crowd. Take a bus from Benito Juarez Avenue (7 pesos) or take a taxi which should take 15 minutes and cost 150-200 pesos.
- Atzompa (best on 31 October) – this local graveyard is quieter than Xococotlan making it a good place to see authentic celebrations. It’s where most of the photos in this blog were taken. A taxi here will take 15 minutes and cost 150-220 pesos. I visited Aztompa straight after Xococotlan and it was great to compare the two.
- San Felipe – this local graveyard was one of the best surprises of my Oaxaca trip. There were few tourists here but a lot of locals drinking merrily and dancing to a live band. San Felipe is a 10-minute drive from Oaxaca; I caught a taxi split with 2 other travellers for 150 pesos. I visited on 2 November but I believe it’s busy every night.
- San Agustin Etla (best on 1 November) – I didn’t hear of this cemetery until after my visit but apparently it’s the loudest, craziest and most local place to celebrate. Months are spent preparing costumes and parades. It’s 30-minutes from Oaxaca by taxi so it’s best to get a group together and split the ride. If you can find a Oaxaca Day of the Dead tour going here, I imagine that would be ideal. Get ready for a wild night!
It’s best to arrive at the cemeteries around 10pm when things begin to get busy. The celebrations continue well past midnight.
Don’t forget to refer to the official Oaxaca City Day of the Dead programme which changes each year. It will direct you to different shows, events and gatherings happening in Oaxaca during the festival. During my visit, it was printed everywhere on posters and boards around the city. Look out for these during Day of the Dead Oaxaca 2023!
Watch the comparsas (parades)
If you were worried about missing the Oaxaca Dia de Muertos parades, don’t worry – you literally can’t miss them! Loud and lively comparas traipse through the streets, starting at the zócalo (city centre).
Performers of all ages wearing elaborate costumes march to the sound of a live brass band. Catch them departing the zócalo or travelling down Grand Parade Calle Macedonio Alcalá, the main pedestrian street. These happen during the day from 31 October – 2 November.
Admire the ofrendas
Don’t forget to check out some
Candles and scented flowers are laid out to help guide the spirits home. During Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, you’ll see offends everywhere you turn: from local homes to public galleries and shopping centres.
Related question – what are the orange flowers?
These are flor de cempasuchil, otherwise known as orange marigolds or ‘flor de muerto’ (flower of the dead). When you smell them, you’ll notice their distinctive scent believed to help guide spirits.
Although there are ofrendas all over Oaxaca, you will find a particularly impressive one at…
Visit the Public Library (Biblioteca Margarita Maza de Juárez)
While celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, be sure to check out Biblioteca Margarita Maza de Juárez (The Public Library).
Entrance is free and it takes 15 minutes or so to wander around. As well as the giant ofrenda, there are lots of smaller ones.
Tapetes de arena (sand murals)
I spotted this large tapestry on the floor of a shopping centre while spending Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca. I learnt that tapetes de arena translates to sand rug/mat, and that these decorations are unique to the Oaxaca Day of the Dead celebrations; you’re unlikely to see them in other Mexican cities. They’re made with sand, flowers and dried beans.
They’re another element of the festival influenced by Europeans, supposedly connected to the Bible phrase, ‘you are but dust and to dust you shall return’. Sand, dust… Potato, potatoe!
In testament to how humorously Mexican culture sees death, this tapetes de arena shows the deceased’s cause of death. Don’t smoke, kids!
Where to see tapetes de arena? Head to Museo de Los Pintores Oaxaqueños which has an impressive selection of sand murals. Entrance is 23 pesos.
Spot La Catrina
When you celebrate Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca, you’ll see this iconic female skeleton everywhere. This is La Catrina, the Aztec goddess of death. In Mexican culture, La Catrina guides and protects deceased souls through the stages of their journey to Mictlán.
You’ll often see La Catrina costumes and makeup, usually worn by tourists rather than locals. The modern-day look of La Catrina was influenced by early 20th-century controversial cartoonist, José Guadalupe Posada, who sketched La Catrina wearing fancy hats, referencing Mexicans who tried to appear more European.
The point he was making? That however we look or present, we’ll all be skeletons eventually.
Look out for La Catrina depictions around the festival. You’ve already seen her in this sand mural above ^
Oaxaca City Day of the Dead street art
As a fan of street art, I was thrilled to see quirky street art all around Oaxaca.
The best place to see Oaxaca Dia de Muertos street art is Xococotlan. Although I visited in the dark for the cemetery festivities, the streets were brightly lit so it was easy to glimpse this incredible art. Each year, the locals paint Dia de los Muertos art around the town, where it stays until the following year.
This mural above shows a skeleton inside a cob of corn. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for new life; perhaps it’s an ode to the delicious Mexican dish,
Itinerary for Day of the Dead Oaxaca
Here’s a quick itinerary detailing how you could spend your time in Oaxaca during Dia de Muertos.
October 31: Wander Oaxaca City during the day and watch the parades. Visit a few markets like Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. In the evening, take a trip to one of the cemeteries. Visit Xoxocotlan if you fancy the busy tourist celebration or San Felipe / Atzompa for a more local experience. Alternatively, visit Xoxocotlan first and one of the others after.
November 1: Explore the ofrendas at the Public Library and see sand murals at Museo de Los Pintores Oaxaqueños. If you’re feeling brave in the evening, take a trip to San Agustin Etla for costumes, shows and performances. For a more relaxed and local night, visit one of the other cemeteries or simply enjoy the Oaxaca restaurants and bars.
November 2: Hang out in the city again to watch a few final parades. If you’ve not had your fill of cemeteries, head to one you’ve not yet been. I went to San Felipe which I’d missed the previous nights.
November 3-5: Explore Oaxaca! There are so many things to including touring the street art, mezcal tasting, hiking between Pueblos Mancomunados villages in the countryside and visiting Monte Alban ruins.
What to eat & drink during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Three words: Bread, chocolate, mezcal!
These things are all locally produced in Oaxaca. I’d recommend eating them any time of year but particularly during Dia de los Muertos.
One of the best things about celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is the bread and chocolate festival that takes place. I stopped every day for a chilli or cardamom hot chocolate on my way into the city.
Calaveras de azúcar: Don’t miss the colourful sugar skulls found around Oaxaca. Sure, they’re meant for children but that didn’t stop me eating ten!
Mezcal: The other thing to try is mezcal. This fermented agave drink is produced here in Oaxaca. Whether you try it neat or in a cocktail, don’t leave without sampling some. Word has it that if you drink the good stuff, you won’t get a hangover.
What else to eat in Oaxaca
- Mole! Both Oaxaca and Puebla claim to have invented this rich sauce and I can confirm it’s delicious in both places. Mole poblano is made with chocolate and chilli, best served over chicken enchiladas. Try it at Mercado 20 de Noviembre market.
- Tamales Oaxaqueños – eaten in Mexico since 8000 BC, these are a staple. Steamed corn dough (masa) with meat and salsa is served inside a corn husk
- Atole – this warming corn-based drink will warm you up when visiting the graveyards.
- Esquite o elote – corn (elote) is at the heart of most Mexican dishes. In Oaxaca, you’ll find it served in a cup with chilli, cheese and mayo. This is called esquite o elote and it’s delicious!
Related read: 36 best Mexican food and drinks to try!
Tips for celebrating Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca
- Book your accommodation as far ahead as possible, at least a few months before.
- Leave enough time to explore Oaxaca. Since there are a few day trips outside of the city, you may wish to explore them before or after the festival. During the festival, you’ll probably get up late if you’ve been at a cemetery the night before and spend the day around the city.
- Check the Oaxaca Day of the Dead programme (there will be boards all over town) so you know where the best celebrations will be.
How to be a respectful traveller at Oaxaca Dia de Muertos
Finally, a few tips about how to best respect the locals while attending Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca.
- Ask before taking a photo of a grave. The locals are happy to share their culture but it’s always best to ask.
- Turn your flash off! No one wants to be blinded for your ‘grams.
- Although the kids are adorable in their Dia de Muertos costumes, don’t be that person who posts photos of other people’s children online.
- If you choose to get your face painted with a La Catrina mask, wash this off before attending a local graveyard as it may seem disrespectful. It will be fine around the city centre or San Augustin Etla (and probably Xoxocotlan) but elsewhere not so much.
Oaxaca Day of the Dead FAQS
If you’re dipping into this blog post and learning about Dia de Muertos for the first time, you might have some questions. Before visiting, I was wondering:
Is Day of the Dead like Halloween?
Not at all. I think this confusion comes from these events occurring at a similar time of year and people dressing up as La Catrina as a Halloween costume.
To cut a long story short, Halloween has Scottish roots and came over to the States with early settlers. Here, it became commercialised and turned into the trick-or-treating holiday we have today. Dia de Muertos is an ancient Mexican festival with some Catholic/pagan elements incorporated during Spanish rule.
Is it just celebrated in Mexico?
No. Dia de Muertos is now celebrated in other Latin American countries including Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. However if you’re looking for a place to celebrate, the festivities are notably bigger in Mexico.
Is it Dia de Muertos or Dia de Los Muertos?
I had this question before my visit as I kept seeing the terms used interchangeably. You can use either BUT the locals generally call it Dia de Muertos whereas Americans commonly call it Dia de los Muertos. If you want to fit in, call it what they do!
Do you need to speak Spanish at the festival?
Well, it always helps but no, you don’t strictly need to speak Spanish to visit Oaxaca and participate in the Day of the Dead celebrations. There are some places in Mexico where it’s hard to get around without Spanish but Oaxaca isn’t one of them. Locals who lead Oaxaca Day of the Dead tours and work in hotels and restaurants will likely speak some English.
However, if you plan to visit the graveyards and want to chat with the locals, it’s beneficial. I ended up drinking with an older couple at San Felipe, cursing myself that my Spanish wasn’t better. I could have learnt so much more about their lives and customs!
Books and films about Day of the Dead
To get you in the mood for Dia de los Muertos Oaxaca (or reminisce the experience at a later date), here are a few Day of the Dead movies and books:
Coco: This adorable film by Pixar Animation Studios follows the journey of young Miguel who wants to become a musician despite his family’s ban on music. He finds himself in the Land of the Dead trying to prove his talent while learning about his family and culture. For a heartwarming cartoon, Coco does a great job of honouring the festival and portraying it accurately.
Spectre (James Bond): There’s a four-minute sequence that weaves through the crowds of Mexico City’s Day of the Dead celebrations. It’s worth a watch!
The Skeleton at the Feast (Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer) – this is a great book to help you understand the festival. It goes through the history, customs and regional differences in an accessible way, including interviews with local people. I learnt that the government actually tried to prohibit Day of the Dead in the early 20th century to make the country more European. I’m so happy they didn’t succeed!
Packing list for Oaxaca
- Jeans, t-shirts, dresses – you don’t need to be too conservative
- Layers as it can get cold in the evenings
- Comfy shoes – there are lots of cobbles!
- The latest copy of Lonely Planet Mexico
- A Lonely Planet Mexican Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary
- A stainless steel reusable water bottle with straw lid to reduce the use of plastic bottles
- Alternatively, a filtering water bottle that allows you to safely drink tap water
- Metal straw kit with straw cleaner and cloth bag
- A handy bum bag with secure zip
- Travel luggage: Osprey Farpoint backpack (men’s) (women’s)
- Solo photography pick: Manfrotto tripod and Joby Gorillapod
- A GoPro if you’re making videos – I use the HERO8 Black
Thanks for reading my Oaxaca Mexico Day of the Dead guide
This event was one of my favourite cultural experiences during my many years of travel and I bet you’ll like it just as much as I did.
Note: While I was hosted by Coyote Aventuras for their Oaxaca Day of the Dead tour, all opinions are my own.
Read my other Mexico blogs:
- The ultimate 5 day Mexico City itinerary
- Solo female travel in Mexico
- Complete Mexico bucket list
- 23 Mexico City travel tips
- Things to do in Coyoacan, Mexico City
- Visiting Xochimilco Floating Gardens
- Visiting Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca
- Celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
- Best food in Tepoztlan Mexico
- Things to do in Puebla
These are my trusted resources:
Getting around by air – the quickest (and often cheapest) way to travel between Mexican cities is by flight. I use Skyscanner to find the best-value flights, using the ‘search by month’ tool to find the cheapest dates. You can also use the ‘to anywhere’ feature if you’re flexible on where you’re going.
Getting around by bus (environmental option) – buses in Mexico are comfy with free snacks and an in-journey entertainment system. I use Busbud to find the best prices.
Driving in Mexico – use Rentalcars.com to compare car rentals in Mexico (and all around the world).
For hotels and apartments, I use Booking.com. They have a wide range of accommodation for all budgets, plus the loyalty programme gives you discounts and upgrades.
For hostels, I use Hostelworld.com. Hostels in Mexico are great for meeting other travellers.
To save money on accommodation, I use Trusted Housesitters, a website that connects homeowners going away and travellers who can sit their homes & pets.
I use GetYourGuide for tours & activities when I don’t want to travel solo. I also check Viator as they often have fun & unique options.
EatWith – your one-stop for Mexico food tours, cooking classes and hosted meals with local chefs and foodies.
Need travel insurance? I use World Nomads. They cover 150 countries and have 24-hour emergency assistance.
Need to top up your Spanish? Pack a Lonely Planet Mexican Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary.
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See you next time for more adventures,
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