Mexico Travel

Experiencing Dia de Los Muertos in Oaxaca (Without a Tour)

January 29, 2015

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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 for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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?

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour


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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.)

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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).

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca Without a Tour

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.

Travel Tuesday

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  • Reply Julie (The Red Headed Traveler) February 1, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    I got to experience Dia de los Muertos firsthand when I was living in Cuernavaca and working as a volunteer at an orphanage there. To see all of the colors, the imagery, etc was just such a surreal experience. And I love anything where death is celebrated not relegated to the back where it is never discussed. I also loved how in the weeks leading up to it, stores started selling things like pan de muerto and other calaveras to display on the ofrendas.

    Oaxcaca though looks like quite the place to be for this holiday though!
    Julie (The Red Headed Traveler) recently posted…South Korea-a study abroad retrospectiveMy Profile

    • Reply Rachel February 2, 2015 at 3:13 pm

      I loved all the celebration and colors! Pan de muerto looks so cool, but we never tried any! Everywhere we looked people were having it for breakfast with a big cup or bowl of hot chocolate, but we spent most of our time in Mexico incredibly full and continuously eating and never ended up running into anybody selling it while we were actually hungry.

  • Reply Lexi February 2, 2015 at 6:05 am

    This looks really cool. We were able to spend dia de los muertos in Michoacan in 2013 and it was such a colourful and interesting experience. It seems a lot more meaningful than the halloween we have in the west.

    • Reply Rachel February 2, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      I agree, so much more meaningful! I wish we celebrated something like this. I feel like it would be a really good bonding experience for families and probably pretty cathartic as well!

  • Reply Phyll February 4, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    wow, the sand art is beautiful! all the colors really, so vibrant! I totally agree that wandering is the best way to discover a city 🙂 especially during festivals & celebrations!
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  • Reply Marcella @ WhatAWonderfulWorld February 5, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    Wow, such a colourful post and great photos! What an amazing experience to have in Mexico 🙂

    • Reply Rachel February 8, 2015 at 6:11 pm

      Thanks Marcella! The timing of our trip was definitely lucky!

  • Reply Marla February 7, 2015 at 5:14 am

    Omg I was in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead too!! I took a lot of pictures of these same things. That graveyard you have here is the one with those walls with the candles right? So stunning! And I also LOVED the sand structures. My boyfriend and I stayed with my best friend who lives in Oaxaca, so we also did this without a tour…and like you say, it’s by far better that way! The food is amazingggg and cheap and you see more when you’re just wandering.
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    • Reply Rachel February 11, 2015 at 2:31 pm

      So true. That’s awesome that you have a friend who lives there to stay with; I bet that was even more helpful! Yeah, the cemetery was Panteon General and it was surrounded from all the loud festivities by a high wall all the way around. We saw so many cool things just by running into them.

  • Reply Yvonne @ Lost with Yvonne February 9, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    I think just wandering around a city is the best way to travel! I love just walking around a new place and soaking up the scenery and culture all around me. The dia de los muertos is quite different than from over here in the sates. I’m closer to Mexico being in San Diego so sometimes they do bring over this culture over the border and you get some great Dia De Los Muertos events. Awesome post!
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    • Reply Rachel February 11, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks Yvonne! I imagine California does see a bit more of the Muertos traditions. I WISH we celebrated it here. Maybe I’ll implement it myself this year…

  • Reply Art June 7, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    Looks like a great experience. I hope to get down there this year. Do you have any recommendations about what part of the city to stay in? Some place where you can access the key areas but maybe not be in the middle of the clusterf@ck?
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    • Reply Rachel June 8, 2015 at 1:06 pm

      Hey Art! Thanks for reading! We stayed in an AirBnb on the corner of Pino Suarez and Abasolo and it was incredibly walkable and convenient to the important spots, though not very fancy (the listings for the property are here: I’d recommend staying somewhere near Santo Domingo or the Zocolo so that you can easily get to all of the main attractions/markets. Yes, it’ll be loud, but I’m not sure there’s anywhere in Oaxaca that you could avoid the sounds of fireworks around the time of Muertos.

      We made some friends in our cooking class who were staying in a hostel in the countryside a bit outside the city, and they decided to move to a place inside the city after one night. Just more convenient.

  • Reply MJ September 25, 2015 at 1:43 am

    Hi there, great write-up. I am heading to Mexico City in late October and will be there for Oct 31 and Nov 1 (leaving Nov 2 in the morning). Are the happenings on Oct 31 (Sat) and Nov 1 (Sun) much the same as Nov 2? That is, are there still street processions and nocturnal celebrations on the two days prior to the final Day of the Dead? I wouldn’t want to miss out on any worthwhile once-in-a-lifetime type of spectacle that Nov 2 is particularly renowned for. Thanks.

    • Reply Rachel September 28, 2015 at 12:05 pm

      We also had to fly out on Nov. 2nd, but the celebrations in Oaxaca started well before then. Things were crazy even on the night of the 30th when we arrived. I believe I responded to your email! Let me know if you have any other questions

  • Reply yoli September 30, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    What a wonderful blog. I felt like I was there walking around with you. You are right, the cemeteries at night are like magic. We also visited XoXo, the largest cemetery in town. It was mind blowing to say the least. We had the chance to talk to a few families and hear their stories about their lost loved ones. One lady, who was honoring her husband, insisted we do a shot of mescal with her and her family. Good times.

    I am looking forward to my trip back this November. We actually get there on the 30th, and I am bringing 3 other friends who have never been. Thanks to your post, I am pulling out my hair with excitement.



    • Reply Rachel October 1, 2015 at 12:13 pm

      Glad I could help! I loved Oaxaca and Dia de los Muertos and wished we gotten to talk to more locals! (At the Mexican wedding we attended near Guanajuato, the father of the bride insisted we take a shot with him as well – ahh so friendly!) I must go back! It was SO vibrant (and at times chaotic, but in a good way) and the way they treat death is just so refreshing. Have a GREAT trip! Thanks for reading!

  • Reply Every Coop Needs a Theme – Soup My Coop March 5, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    […] passed. Aside from the sacred symbolic meanings of this holiday, I can’t get enough of the bright florals, sugar skulls and ornate decorations that come along with […]

  • Reply Randi Iggulden May 9, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Do you think it is appropriate for tourist to wear costumes and/or face paint at the parades in Mexico City?

    • Reply Rachel May 30, 2016 at 12:25 am

      Sorry for the late response, Randi! I’m kind of torn on this one because I know that some see it as appropriating Mexican culture for the sake of celebrating and partying. But in the streets of Oaxaca at least, it seemed that the tourists and locals were celebrating together and that they wanted you to be a part of the local customs. The ladies in salons were offering their face-painting services to anybody and everybody.

  • Reply Marina June 14, 2016 at 4:49 am

    Hi Rachel, your blog is amazing! I’m trying to organize my trip to Oaxaca for the dìa de los muertos from Italy, and I was wondering if you were all by yourself in Mexico or with friends. I would travel alone so I’d like to know I you felt safe travelling alone (in case). Thank you very much!!!!!! Are you planning to visit Europe/Italy? Ciaooo

    • Reply Rachel June 14, 2016 at 5:06 am

      Hey Marina! You’ll love Oaxaca! I was traveling with my boyfriend, but we never felt unsafe at all. It gets a little rowdy with the fireworks and parades in the street, but I felt like having more people around all throughout the night made me feel more safe. Also, I don’t know what kind of accommodation you’re planning on, but we met lots of other travelers in our cooking class who hung out with us at night as well! I’d just stay in the main tourist areas and plazas during the evenings. I’m heading to Europe in July actually; Italy is on my radar – we should keep in touch!

  • Reply Kai June 17, 2016 at 1:43 am

    Hi Rachel!

    First off, amazing colours, amazing photos! My friend and I are going to be in Oaxaca around this time but I’m torn on whether I should extend the day we leave from mid morning of the 31st and instead leave on 1st instead? We get there the 27th and I know you didn’t get there till the 30th but do you reckon we will miss out leaving a day earlier than you did? We will be heading to Mexico City and I want enough time there because that is also meant to be amazing and extended Oaxaca cuts my time to Mexico city to three days now!


    • Reply Rachel June 22, 2016 at 8:23 am

      Thanks so much Kai! Personally I was kind of upset that we had to leave on November 2nd so that we didn’t get to see ALL of the celebrations, however the Muertos festivities definitely start a couple days before the 31st so you’ll get to see a lot. The town starts gearing up several days beforehand.

      The first night we were in Oaxaca (the 30th) we saw the impromptu parades in the streets and fireworks (I believe it was a Thursday). But we didn’t see the giant crowds of people, tons of face painting, costumes, and people dancing on stilts, etc. until the night of the 31st and after. I believe we visited the cemetery on the 1st – I’m not sure if there will be anybody sitting up all night (with candles, altars, etc.) in the cemeteries until the 31st, 1st, and 2nd during the actual holiday dates. BUT I am super jealous of your time in the DF – I so want to go there – and there will probably be different types of Day of the Dead celebrations going on there! It’s also a lot bigger than Oaxaca so there won’t have a shortage of things to do, while I think 3 days in Oaxaca is solid.

  • Reply Linda September 2, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    Wow, this post is exactly what I was looking for. What a great description – thank you so much! I was hoping to go to Oaxaca October 30 – Nov 3 or 4 but I wasn’t sure when the festivities started. It sounds fantastic. Just a quick question: Do you think a middle-aged woman traveling alone would feel comfortable there? Thanks!

    • Reply Rachel September 4, 2016 at 6:39 am

      Thanks Linda! Those dates would be perfect for seeing all of the festivities! I’m sad we didn’t get to stay through Nov. 2nd because there is just so much activity going on in the city – especially at night. I do think you’d be comfortable there solo (I felt really safe the entire time because there are just so many people in the streets at all times during the holiday), though it couldn’t hurt to try to make some friends to roam around with. If you’re not staying in a hostel or a communal-ish Airbnb like ours, then maybe take a cooking class? We made a couple friends in ours and went out with them afterwards.

    • Reply Emma October 20, 2016 at 1:52 pm

      I went there last year, on my first solo travel experience as a 42 year old woman and had a great time, felt totally comfortable, even at night. My experience was very similar to this blog. I did mostly stick to the Zocalo for evening eating and drinking and walked up the busier more touristy streets after dark. There was live music going on everywhere around that time (but there was also a book festival). Do take a tour with Fundacion En Via to see how the people of the indigenous villages celebrate. Have a wonderful time.

    • Reply Tara Nash October 26, 2016 at 1:34 am

      Firstly Rachel, thank you so much for writing this blog! It is absolutely amazing and I know it is going to be a constant resource for me as I journey off into the unknown alone.

      Linda – I am booking flights to Oaxaca and also a woman travelling alone. Would be great to connect if you are still planning to be in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.

      • Reply Rachel November 6, 2016 at 1:17 am

        Thanks Tara! Hope you have a great time!

  • Reply Rachel Williams September 13, 2016 at 11:27 pm

    HI Rachel,
    Great post!
    I am looking at booking an airbnb (or other accomodation) for Oct 28 – Nov 1.this year. Can you offer any advise on what part of t Oaxaca city is best to stay in so (saftey / walking distance to festivities restaurants etc?

    Many thanks,

    • Reply Rachel September 22, 2016 at 10:45 am

      So I think I linked to my airbnb (around the intersection of Pino Suarez and Murguia) in the post, but anywhere between the Zocolo and the Templo de Santo Domingo would be right in the mix of festivities and in areas where I felt safe walking around. The pedestrian streets of Allende and Alcala are also great – tons of restaurants, bars, and cafes around. Have a great trip!

  • Reply Emma October 20, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    I went in 2015 and you have summed up my experience so well in your blog. Thanks.

    • Reply Rachel October 24, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      Thanks for reading Emma! Very cool that you went too! It was such a unique cultural experience – I think it’s definitely something I’d love to attend again in the future.

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