We came to Oaxaca with a purpose: to eat all the foods possible and to witness the festivities and traditions of Día de los Muertos. My friend Bertha’s wedding date of October 25th fell so close to this holiday that I had to tack it onto our trip as a chance to see some authentic Mexican customs in action. And there’s really no better place than Oaxaca to do that.
Though we couldn’t stay through the final day of November 2nd, we were able to experience lots of celebrations, wander through the cemeteries, and get caught up in some impromptu parades and fireworks during the three days and nights beforehand. While many people and companies will try to sell you a tour or a guide for this holiday, we felt like we experienced Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca in a more genuine way on our own and (obviously) on the cheap.
Día de los Muertos takes place from October 31st through November 2nd, but preparations and celebrations begin well before in Oaxaca. As I mentioned previously, by the time we’d arrived on the 30th all of the marigold fields in the area had been cut for the massive sale of the traditional yellow flower of the dead. Originally an indigenous holiday celebrated by the Aztecs and other Meso-Americans thousands of years ago, the newly-arrived Spanish (after failing to eradicate it altogether) moved the holiday to coincide with All Saint’s Day (November 1st) and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd) and tried their best to inject some Catholic influence.
During these few days of the year, it is believed that the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and the spirits of the dead can come back to visit. Families make alters for loved ones and decorate their graves to invite and welcome them back. Our friend from the short flight to Oaxaca told us how fascinating and beautiful it was to witness the Day of the Dead celebrations because it’s a totally different way of looking at death than most Americans are used to. While the cities of Puebla, Guanajuato, and Mexico City are also incredible for partaking in these celebrations, Oaxaca is the epicenter.
November 1st is dedicated to the spirits of dead children, while November 2nd is for the spirits of all the other dead. While the holiday is traditional and involves family and prayer, it’s also a solid three-day-long (and at times, rowdy) fiesta.
Altars (ofrendas) are built to welcome the spirits back to earth, and people build them in their homes and businesses, and even in plazas, markets, and on sidewalks. We saw them everywhere in Oaxaca and most were incredibly colorful and elaborate. The altars typically include a photo of the dead person or persons, intricately cut paper decorations (papel picado), flowers, and some sustenance for the spirit’s time in the world of the living – fruit, bread and water, but also candies and the favorite snacks, liquor, beer, and cigarettes of the deceased (all opened for them of course, spirit hands on earth don’t really work). Sometimes the altars held the hats or shawls of the dead, and often people left candles or traditional copal (tree resin) incense was left burning to help elevate the prayers.
Interesting Note: I learned that when making an altar for the dead, one must build it for a particular spirit or spirits. You shouldn’t build a “general” altar for the dead during this holiday, because it will invite back any soul, good, bad, or lost.
So what should you do if you want to go it alone during Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca?
I cannot stress enough that the majority of our time in Oaxaca – outside of one fancy dinner and a cooking class – was spent wandering without a plan. We roamed the markets to get our fill of food (meats, snacks, desserts, you name it), but also to see all of the traditional items and crazy things being sold by the vendors anticipating the holiday and the crowds.
Throughout the aisles of the markets and on the street, you could see and smell the smoke from the copal incense being burned for the holiday (no worries about fire hazards here) alongside sugar skulls for children and also “magic” items used to cure an illness or even win your man back. Vendors sold freshly cut marigolds and bright pink flowers for the altars and graves, but also traditional Halloween masks since the holiday coincides and blends a little bit with Día de los Muertos.
Visit the Zócalo
The Zócalo (city center) was alive from the moment we arrived on Thursday through our final time in Oaxaca on Saturday night scrambling to eat one last delicious gringa and use up our the rest of our pesos. The vendors stayed in mostly the same spots while we were there, spreading blankets on the ground to sell their hand-painted skulls, or setting up tables to display their handmade jewelry well into the night. Scattered amongst the vendor’s tents were altars built to loved ones and even some ofrendas for Guerrero’s forty-three missing students.
One corner of the Zócalo contained several food carts (selling lots of hot dogs and hamburgers oddly enough) while the plaza itself is also permanently lined with open-air restaurants. If you wander a little further south, past the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, you might even discover the “best gringa ever” (accordingly to Charlie) at the random stall Parillada Che Che. Look for the spit roasting the greasy, bright red al pastor beside a stall of bootleg DVD’s. Seriously, I wouldn’t steer you wrong.
Traipse Up and Down Alcalá
If you can. Because eventually this pedestrian street gets to be a clusterfuck… in a good way. Calle Alcalá was full of vendors during the day and night, but as the celebrations reached their height, the street became absolutely packed with people celebrating, locals dressed in costumes, street performers on stilts, musicians of all types, and children in scary costumes pretending to murder each other with scythes and expecting you to give them pesos for their performance.
Many women and girls had their face painted to resemble Catrina, the female skeleton symbol of Día de los Muertos (typically seen wearing a hat full of flowers). In fact, there were rumored to be many beauty shops and ladies who would paint your face for 50 pesos, but (sadly) I never found them. Upon my return to the US, I discovered that apparently Mexican skull art had really become the next big thing in Halloween costume themes.
Up and down Alcalá, there were also many yellow carts selling elotes – corn on a stick spread with mayo and chili powder. Of course I had to get one. While it was interesting and I do love mayonnaise, it wasn’t the sweet corn I’d been imagining and it became difficult to weave through the ridiculous crowds without getting mayonnaise in someone else’s hair… or my own.
At the south end of the street before reaching the Zócalo, we watched as people created, for lack of a better term, sand art of brightly-painted skulls and skeletons. Ladders were set up so onlookers could take photos with a view and incense burned next to boxes meant for contributions of a few pesos to support the artwork.
Toward the north end of Alcalá near Abasolo and Allende, lots of people gathered for fireworks near the fountain and plaza. Street performers set up shop next to makeshift containers for pesos (everybody’s hustling), and I swear we saw a guy painted in gold and dressed as a conquistador statue stand on one foot for over a minute. One neon-clad mime stood perfectly still on stilts until I dropped a few pesos into his hat, at which point he came to life (scaring the hell out of me), shook up a box filled with little rolled-up papers, and offered it to me. I took a miniature scroll and it turned out to be a horoscope! So cool.
Visit the Panteon General
While many companies offer to take you to the Panteon General (also known as Panteon San Miguel) and we saw several folks dropped off by tour vans here, you definitely don’t need a guide to visit this large cemetery located in Oaxaca proper. It was actually only a half mile from our Airbnb stay
, so we walked. (Well, we attempted to walk without a map or directions, got a little off course, overshot it completely, and ended up taking a $2 cab ride to get to the cemetery.) We walked back.
The entire street outside the cemetery walls was lined with stalls and tents selling tons of food for the visitors and flowers, candles, and decorations for the graves. On another side street, there was a carnival area complete with rides, games, loud noises, and prizes for kids and families.
The food ranged from pizza (topped with chorizo and cut-up hot dogs, among other things) and empanadas to crepes and tlayudas (a Oaxacan specialty, similar to a large quesadilla) cooked to order on hot flat-topped grills by old women. There were iced coffee drinks and chocolate milk for sale, and best of all, we stumbled upon some freshly fried churros topped with chocolate syrup.
The fair-like atmosphere was in contrast to the beautiful, solemn, but still familial and friendly atmosphere of the cemetery itself, separated from the loud streets by a large concrete wall. Barely a grave escaped at least some form of adornment. There were vases, piles, and clusters of brightly colored flowers everywhere, and lit candles, photos of the deceased, favorites drinks and packs of cigarettes lining the graves. People watered flowers and chatted with family members while sitting atop the graves and alongside headstones.
Flower petals were strewn in ornate patterns and shapes, and it was clear that lots of creativity and thought had been put into these altars and decorations. You are free to wander around and look. Just ask first if you take a picture of people who are gathered at the gravesides. (Let’s be real, you should typically ask people if you want to take a picture of them anyway.)
We didn’t stay through the evening because we had an early flight out of the Mexico, but the cemetery festivities do continue until late into the night and we heard many fireworks until the early morning hours. I would love to come back and wander around when it’s dark and all of the candles are lit and families are settled in at the gravesides for the night.
If you wanted to venture out of the city, you may want to arrange transport – there is the nearby village of Xoxocotlan where there are two cememteries – but even these have become touristy, so it’s likely easy to do this yourself. It too has a carnival-like atmosphere. For more remote, indigenous villages, a tour might be a good idea.
Really, Just Wander
Several times we unexpectedly came upon processions of people in costumes, dancing to music, usually with large crowds following along. I’ve recently learned these are called comparsas and they’re common during the holidays in Mexico. We saw marching bands in uniform playing in the street, tailed by families, students, and even a pick-up truck with a keg of beer and lots of men in the back drinking and offering cups to passersby. (Yes, on our first night, and it was awesome).
These celebrations typically happened after nightfall when we were strolling to or from dinner. We usually just followed along until our paths parted ways or the procession stopped to sing, dance, shoot off fireworks, chant, or just generally rage. We also ran into an impromptu parade of children in costumes riding bikes together, with parents just casually halting traffic for them to pass down the street.
The drunken night that we ventured out with our new cooking class friends, we came upon a giant crowd in the middle of the street, a few giant paper mâché heads jutting out, people singing and playing music, and one brave soul wearing a homemade contraption that shot off fireworks in eighteen different directions as he spun around. It is a wonder no one was maimed, but man it was cool. Smoke and sparks went everywhere.
Even casually walking into a restaurant in Oaxaca can lead to discoveries of beautiful mementos and dedications to the dead. When we explored one courtyard attached to a crowded lunch spot, we found these intricate displays of flower petals on the ground next to a family altar. And this wasn’t the first time we saw stuff like this inside the walls of a restaurant.
And of course, you should always keep wandering because you never know when or where you’ll find more tasty snacks. Or drinks. Because you must try everything.
Day of the Dead festivities are a big touristy occasion in Oaxaca but they also remain important to the local Mexican community. It’s extremely interesting to see how indigenous beliefs have merged with Catholicism in such a beautiful celebration of the deceased. And it’s pretty powerful to observe the outward displays of dedication, creativity, and devotion to the memories and spirits of loved ones who have passed by the people of Oaxaca through their handmade altars and the decoration of graves.
The fact that everything is so public makes it easy to take in for the casual traveler hoping to experience local culture during this holiday. Just take it easy, roam around this walkable city, and visit the cemetery. Try new foods, join in the celebrations (however outrageous or out of place they may seem), and relish in the skull art. It’s a crazy beautiful holiday to witness and be a part of in Oaxaca. I’d go back in a heartbeat.