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12 Things you NEED to Know about the Day of the Dead in Mexico

12 Things you NEED to Know about the Day of the Dead in Mexico

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Mexico is a beautiful country that is full of culture, history, beautiful beaches, and plenty of amazing things to do! We have been lucky enough to visit many times and explore a lot of what this country has to offer. 

A lot of people say that the Day of the Dead is by far the best time to visit Mexico, and we would have to agree! 

The Day of the Dead is such a prominent event in Mexican culture and one of the most important celebrations of the year. While its name suggests a somber mood, it’s actually the total opposite with parties and events that last for days!

If you’re planning to be in Mexico during this time and wonder what it’s all about, we have you covered!

This guide to the Day of the Dead in Mexico will give you all the info you need to join in on the festivities and have the best time possible. 

1. About the Day of the Dead in Mexico 

A local Mexican lady dressed in a scary wedding dress during Day of the Dead in Mexico
Some of the costumes are so cool!
Bailey lights a candel on a grave during Day fo the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico
Lighting candles at a grave!

The Day of the Dead, also known as Dia de Los Muertos, is one of the best and most important celebrations in Mexican culture. 

While it might sound somber, in reality, it’s often a huge party and celebrations happen for days on end! 

Friends and families of Mexican heritage all across the globe gather together to celebrate and remember loved ones who have passed. They believe the Day of the Dead is when the deceased spirits walk alongside the living. 

The Day of the Dead originated thousands of years ago. For the prehispanic cultures, they considered mourning death disrespectful and that death was just part of the life cycle. They believed people should be celebrated as if they were still part of the community and to keep them alive through memories.

After the Spanish colonized in the 16th Century, they brought over their religious beliefs which meant the different traditions mixed together and the dates changed to coincide with the Catholic All Saints Day. 

Since 2008, UNESCO has recognized Día de Los Muertos on its intangible cultural heritage list due to its significance to Mexican culture and traditions. 

2. When is the Day of the Dead in Mexico? 

A beauitful building in Oaxaca Mexico during Day of the Dead
Entire streets become decorated during Day of the Dead!

The official Day of the Dead in Mexico is November 2, but the festivities run over 3 days from October 31 until November 2.

As the Day of the Innocents begins just after midnight on November 1, the first day of the Day of the Dead festival is October 31. Things start to dwindle down towards the end of the day on November 2 when the spirits return to the land of the dead.

The important days during the Day of the Dead are:

All Saints Eve – October 31

While the festival officially starts on November 1, things actually begin at midnight, so you will likely see the preparation and festivities starting on the night of October 31. 

On this evening you will see celebrators hanging up decorations, making their ofrendas, decorating gravestones, and lighting candles. 

Day of the Innocents – November 1

The first official day starts on November 1 and is known as the Day of the Innocents or the Day of the Little Angels. Starting from midnight, the gates to heaven open and the spirits of passed infants and children return home to their families for the duration of the day. 

Day of the Dead – November 2

Also known as All Souls Day, this is the day the deceased adults return to the living.

The gates open for adults at midnight the night before but the festivities will continue all day. As the day draws to a close you might see a lot of depictions of dogs as they are thought to lead the spirits back toward the land of the dead, once their time with the living has ended. 

3. Are Halloween and the Day of the Dead the same? 

Daniel and Bailey with two huge puppets in the streets of Oaxaca during Día de los Muertos
Day of the Dead is way better than Halloween!
A skull statue in Puerto Vallarta during Día de los Muertos
So cool!

No, they are completely different celebrations.

Halloween is celebrated in a dark, scary, and spooky manner while the Day of the Dead is the complete opposite. The Day of the Dead is celebrated with bright colors and a welcoming of spirits to the land of the living. 

Halloween comes from the festival of Samhain which celebrates the Celtic new year and the end of the harvest. Similarly, to the Day of the Dead, they believed that the gates to the land of the dead opened to allow spirits to enter the land of the living. 

The Catholics eventually altered these traditions to coincide with their All Saints Day which was commonly known as All Hallows. The day before All Hallows Eve is now what we know as Halloween. 

A lot of the traditions still celebrated in the US originate from the Celtic festival of Samhain, including apple bobbing and trick or treating. The costumes were traditionally used to try and fool the spirits into thinking you were one of them so they wouldn’t harm you. 

Ultimately, the main difference is, on Halloween traditionally you fear the spirits and the dead while in contrast you welcome and celebrate them during the Day of the Dead!

4. Where are the best places to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico? 

Oaxaca

A lady dressed up for Day of the Dead in Mexico
In Oaxaca, you get the full experience!

Located in the south of Mexico, the city of Oaxaca is the absolute best place you can spend the Day of the Dead!

The city is bustling and fun all year round but the Day of the Dead is when Oaxaca is in full swing. Mainly because the people of Oaxaca are a fun bunch who love a celebration.

The streets are filled with decorations and altars, marigolds, parades, and amazing food. While the Day of the Dead is only three days long, in Oaxaca the festivities last for about a week. 

One of the main traditions in Oaxaca is called a Muerteada. On November 1, this is where the men parade around the neighborhood dressed up with bells and mirrors to scare away witches and to welcome the spirits to come out. 

Celebrating the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is high up a lot of people’s bucket lists so make sure you book your flights, transfers, and a place to stay in Oaxaca way in advance so you don’t miss out. I’m talking months in advance or else you won’t find somewhere to stay!

Related read: Add on another great experience by booking one of the best tours in Oaxaca here!

Mexico City 

Día de los Muertos parade in Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City didn’t always have parades, but now they are the largest! Photo credit: Depositphotos PoloGtz

The big Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City is somewhat of a new phenomenon. While locals always celebrated it, the release of the James Bond movie Spectre is what started the now famous Mexico City Day of the Dead Parade or Desfile de Día de Muertos. 

A scene in the movie shows an amazing Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City but it didn’t actually exist until the movie came out and so many people showed up the year after. However, since then, Mexico City is one of the best places to go to experience the Day of the Dead. 

The festivities in Mexico City start as early as October 23 and run for a full week! During that week expect to see parties, celebrations, decorations, markets, and multiple parades. 

The main parade in Mexico City usually runs the Saturday before the Day of The Dead and it is an absolute must-see! The street closes down and at about midday, the 3.5-mile (5.6-km) long parade starts. We recommend watching the parade in downtown Mexico City but be sure to get there early to get yourself a good spot. 

Mexico City is the perfect place to spend the Day of the Dead. Not only is it well connected and so easy to get to but the city has so much to do you could easily spend a week or two just exploring. 

Related read: If you’re staying in Mexico City for the festivities, check out the best neighborhoods to stay in and our top hostel recommendations before you go.

Puerto Vallarta 

Bailey stands below a giant puppet during Día de los Muertos in Puerto Vallarta
Day of the Dead in PV gets better every year!
A giant puppet during Día de los Muertos in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
The puppets continue to get larger!

Puerto Vallarta is a great place to spend the Day of the Dead, especially for families. While the usual festivities will take place all around the city, Isla Cuale (a small river island in the city) gets transformed into a free family-friendly festival with face painting, food markets, live music, and much much more. 

They are also now the record holder for the world’s tallest Calavera Catrina (a beautiful feminine skeleton) after their 2022 unveiling, which stands at over 74 feet tall. 

Related read: Puerto Vallarta also has amazing shows, tours, restaurants, and places to stay, so it’s a great place to base yourself!

Cancun 

A scull statue during Día de los Muertos in Cancun, Mexico

Cancun is the perfect place to go if you want to combine a visit to some of Cancun’s top beaches with Day of the Dead celebrations. You can fully take advantage of the affordable rates at Cancun resorts and local hotels that come with visiting in the off-season while still being outside of the hurricane and seaweed period. 

By far one of the best things to do in Cancun while you are there is to watch the live shows, enjoy the music and experience the incredible scenery at Xcaret Park. This event is fun for the whole family and gives you the opportunity to take part in workshops and some of the traditions that go with the Day of the Dead. 

Being such a popular destination for both ex-pats and tourists, you can find some great tours in Cancun – from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the ruins of Chichen Itza. The city has heaps to do and has some more traditional Halloween celebrations on October 31; similar to what you would see in the US. 

Related read: Cancun is also one of the best places to explore Mexico on one of these incredible day trips!

5. Do you need a tour to celebrate the Day of the Dead? 

A girl rides a horse dressed up during Day of the Dead in Puerto Vallarta
You don’t need a tour to join in on the parades and fun!

You definitely don’t NEED to book a tour to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico, but it really does help. 

Tours can be a great way to get into some of the holiday traditions and visit the cemeteries that are only accessible to tourists with a guide.

Cemetery tours will bring you to a cemetery where you can see families visiting the graves of their loved ones to invite them back home for the Day of the Dead. 

You can book tours in advance but in all of the main areas, you will have tours offered to you constantly. The tours you book in advance (see our recommendations below!) are usually the best kind of tour to book for prices, choice, and the ability to cancel or re-book if your plans change.

6. What are the best Day of the Dead tours in Mexico?

Two skeleton staues in Oaxaca, Mexico
So much effort goes into the festival!

There are some great tours on offer to join in the festivities. These are my top three – with two based out of Mexico City and the other in Oaxaca City.

Mixquic Day of the Dead celebration

Explore one of the most famous places to celebrate the Day of the Dead with this full-day tour to Mixquic. This small town on the outskirts of Mexico City is a vibrant place to visit during the festivities.

You’ll walk through the town with your guide as you learn about local traditions and immerse yourself in the celebrations. You can try some traditional foods including a chocolate skull and take lots of amazing photos of the colorful altars, flowers, and dancers around you.

All your transportation from Mexico City is provided on this tour along with lunch and a guide for $75 USD.

Day of the Dead tour in Mexico City

This evening Day of the Dead tour takes you all around Mexico City for some truly incredible experiences you won’t get on your own.

You’ll visit a cemetery after dark to get up close to the beautifully-decorated altars. Then, you’ll float down the canals, passing through spectacular floating gardens on a cruise while listening to mariachis.

This night tour starts at 6 pm and lasts for 8 hours, so your evening plans are taken care of! You can book the tour online for $67 USD per person.

Celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

This guided Day of the Dead tour will give you an inside look at the famous celebrations in Oaxaca. You’ll have a guide to take you around local cemeteries including the Panteón General or General Cemetary. All along the way, you’ll learn about the history and meaning behind the day.

Having a guide is so helpful for this as it doesn’t feel intrusive and you know exactly where to go. What’s great is that you can book this tour any time of year – not just during the Day of the Day celebrations. It’s $150 USD per person.

7. Is it safe to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico?

Crowded streets in Oaxaca during Día de los Muertos
Overall, everyone is super friendly and out for a good time!

Overall, yes. 

There are very few recorded crimes during the Day of the Dead period. Ultimately, it’s a festive time and the locals and tourists alike are in good spirits. 

However, you do still need to be cautious. Like a lot of larger cities, you need to be wary, especially when in big crowds. Pick-pocketing is not uncommon so it is important to be careful and try not to walk around alone where possible. 

It’s best to not carry any valuables with you, leave the fancy watch and nice jewelry back at the hotel! 

Related read: For a more in-depth look at staying safe in Mexico, check out our safety tips for Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta.

8. How much does it cost to get your face painted during the Day of the Dead? 

Daniel gets his face painted during Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico
It take a while!
Bailey gets her face painted during Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico
Almost done!

It’s really common to see both locals and tourists dressed up to celebrate the Day of the Dead, from beautiful gowns, face paint, hats, and flower crowns. 

Don’t feel like you can’t get involved; generally, the locals love sharing their culture and want you to be as involved as possible. 

Luckily you don’t have to worry about finding your own face paint and flower crowns as these are on offer everywhere! Typically the face painting costs anywhere from $3-$10 USD depending on the design and what area of Mexico you are in. Fresh flower crowns usually start at around $8 USD.  

9. What are the most common traditions during the Day of the Dead in Mexico? 

Visiting the cemeteries

Cemetery graves in Oaxaca during Día de los Muertos
Cemetery graves in Oaxaca during Día de los Muertos

One of the most prominent traditions during the Day of the Dead is visiting and decorating cemeteries. 

In the days leading up to it and on the actual day, families will visit the graves of their loved ones, clean the grave, decorate it with lanterns and marigolds and just generally spend a lot of time there. 

Often families will bring their loved ones’ favorite food and drinks and celebrate their life, talking about memories and just having a good time. 

While a lot of the time, people are happy to let tourists embrace this tradition and part of their culture, it is important to be really respectful. Make sure to ask before taking photos and remember that it is not a tourist attraction. 

Parades 

A huge parade during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
A huge parade during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

While parades are somewhat of a newer tradition in Mexico for the Day of the Dead, they are not to be missed! 

Roads get blocked off and the streets fill with music, costumes, and Alebrijes. Alebridjes are brightly colored folk art structures usually of an animal hybrid consisting of bat wings, dragon bodies, and wolf-like faces. But they can come in all different forms! These are thought to guide the spirits during their journey. 

You can find Day of the Dead parades all over Mexico but the Parade of Alebrijes in Mexico City is the most well-known and takes place on the Saturday before the Day of the Dead. 

Sugar offerings 

a collection of colorful sugar skulls for sale in Mexico
They are beautiful and made of sugar!

Sugar skulls can often be seen as a symbol for the Day of the Dead as they appear in pop culture and can spill into Halloween celebrations. 

Sugar skulls are molded from sugar to represent a passed loved one. The larger ones usually represent adults with the medium representing a child and the mini ones are used for more of a token decoration and can even be eaten during the celebrations. 

When a sugar skull represents a loved one, they are usually more extravagantly decorated with brightly colored frosting and ribbons. They also have the person’s name written across the forehead and placed either on a gravestone or ofrenda. 

Some of the larger cities even have sugar skull competitions with a prize for the best decorated! 

Sand tapestries

Sand tapestries during Day of the Dead in Mexico
A Sand tapestries during day of the dead in Oaxaca

Floor tapestries made of sand are a common tradition for the Day of the Dead, specifically in Oaxaca. Being a city with such a large art scene, Oaxaca is one of the best places to visit if you are wanting to see some beautiful sand tapestries. 

These tapestries are traditionally made with brick dust, soil, sawdust, sand, and colored glass. They are commonly created not just during the Day of the Dead, but during funerals as well. 

In Oaxacan communities, after death, the coffin will remain in the family’s home until it is ready to be moved to the cemetery. Once that coffin is moved, a sand tapestry will be made in the coffin’s spot and will remain in the house for nine days. This represents the nine months in which humans are in the womb. 

For the Day of the Dead, more detailed scenes are created in the sand, usually of skeletons, saints, and sugar skulls, all in bright colors and decorated with marigolds. 

Marigold flowers

A grave decorated in Marigold flowers during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico
How beautiful!

During this period you will see bright yellow and orange marigold flowers everywhere! 

Locals decorate the street, their gardens, cemeteries, and their houses with these strong-smelling flowers. These are also known as Cempazúchitl Flowers and they have been a Day of the Dead tradition since its origins. 

These flowers originate and grow in Mexico and bloom around October and November, just in time for the Day of the Dead! 

The strong odor is believed to guide the dead back to the living which is why they are used to make pathways from cemeteries to houses and altars. 

Day of the Dead altars

Sand display and altar during Día de los Muertos in Mexico
The art is incredible!

Also known as Ofrendas, these are an integral tradition of the Day of the Dead and you will see them everywhere during your visit. 

They have an assortment of different items and decorations including photos, candles, sugar skulls, marigolds, papel picados, and their loved ones’ favorite foods and drinks ready for their arrival. 

If you have seen the Disney movie ‘Coco’ you will understand the traditions associated with this. If you haven’t, families with passed loved ones essentially set up these altars to welcome their loved ones back to the land of the living complete with refreshments after their long journey. 

Huge puppets

Two giant puppets in Oaxaca during Día de los Muertos
Bailey poses with two giant puppets during Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca
They are huge!

Huge puppets, also called Mojigangas, are commonly seen in Mexico and Mexican celebrations but they actually weren’t a thing until the Spanish came over in the 1600s. 

They range anywhere from 6-18 feet (2-5.5 meters) tall and are used to represent life during the Day of the Dead. Families will have these puppets for generations and gradually add features to them over the years making them distinct to the families within the community. 

You will likely see these on display all around the cities but especially in the Day of the Dead parades! 

10. Is celebrating the Day of the Dead suitable for children? 

A kid dressed up in a costume for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico
Kids love it!
A kid dressed up for Day of the Dead in Mexico
Some still trick or treat!

Absolutely! In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a celebration for the whole family and children will get involved in a lot of the traditions and festivities. 

Day of the Dead is seen as a great way to teach children about celebrating both life and death. While some Halloween activities can be a bit scary for children, the Day of the Dead is completely different and there are no scary activities that come along with the event. 

There are a lot of activities perfect for children, including face painting, baking, parades, live music, and theatre shows. 

That being said, some of the larger areas such as Oaxaca and Mexico City can have week-long parties which come with a lot of drinking and celebrating. If you do have young children it might be a good idea to not stay out with them too late at night. 

11. Tips to having a fun Day of the Dead experience 

Two kids in Oaxaca during Día de los Muertos, Mexico
So cute!

Book in advance

Celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico is high up a lot of people’s bucket lists and for good reason! This does mean that flights, accommodation, and tours fill up quickly and the prices do rise closer to the event. I’m not joking, the best hotels in places like Oaxaca book up months in advancee!

Booking your trip and any tours in advance will save you money and ensure you don’t miss out.

We would even recommend booking your transfers or car hire in advance as well as you will find taxis expensive and hard to come by at such a busy time.

Respect the traditions, especially at the cemeteries

It is SO important to be respectful when in Mexico for the Day of the Dead. Locals love sharing their culture with tourists but it is still an important intimate tradition, not a tourist activity. 

While a fun and positive celebration, you must remember the Day of the Dead is still a celebration of the dead; people have died and it is a time for families to reflect and remember their passed loved ones. 

Bring cash

Cash is still king in Mexico. While you will find ATMs, it is rare for places to take credit cards, especially the smaller vendors during the Day of the Dead.

Make sure to bring some cash as you wouldn’t want to miss out on some of the amazing street food, souvenirs, and celebrations. 

Buy a costume IN Mexico

It’s really fun to dress up for the Day of the Dead! All of the locals take part and love for tourists to get involved. However, your typical skimpy Day of the Dead Halloween costume that you might find in the US is not what you should be wearing. 

Typically during the Day of the Dead, the local women dress pretty modestly, in beautiful long dresses complete with face paint, marigolds, and fresh flower crowns. Men tend to look quite smart, complete with black suits, simple face paint, and sometimes a hat. 

Having experienced the festival ourselves, we found it better to buy your costume once you are in Mexico. In the lead-up to the Day of the Dead, there are tons of markets filled with dresses and costumes all for a reasonable price. Not only are you supporting the community you are celebrating in but it is also the best way to blend in and make sure you are dressed traditionally! 

Don’t interfere with altars unless you have been asked

Unless you have been invited by your tour guide or a family themselves to get involved with the decorating of altars or cemeteries, you should not get involved with decorating the altars or taking photos. 

There are so many activities during the Day of the Dead for you to be involved in, but altars are more often than not a private and personal tradition. This means it’s not for tourists to be interfering with unless invited to. 

12. Is traveling to Mexico for the Day of the Dead worth it? 

Skull in Puerto Vallarta during Day of the Dead
Two people dressed up dance in Oaxaca during Día de los Muertos

Absolutely, the Day of the Dead is a beautiful event!

It’s best celebrated where it originated, in Mexico as it’s so important to Mexican culture. It has never been a somber event as it’s always a positive celebration of both life and the transformation into death. 

We also recommend you not only visit for the Day of the Dead but also extend your trip to explore some more of the regions of Mexico! 

Related read: Another experience you shouldn’t miss out is exploring all the incredible Mayan ruins in Mexico!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey at a cemetery during Día de los Muertos
Thanks for reading!

Experiencing the Day of the Dead in Mexico is such a fun and unique celebration to be part of. I hope this guide has been helpful in answering any of the questions you might have leading up to the day. If you’ve been in Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebrations, let me know in the comments below!

If you’re thinking about taking a trip here, make sure to check out our other blogs about Mexico. This is one of our favorite countries in the world and we have plenty of ideas to help you plan the most amazing Mexican getaway!

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