Día de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a celebration that goes deep into the richness and history of Mexican Indigenous people as an event of celebrating those who have passed and the beauty of both life and death. So, contrary to some assumptions of what may come to mind when someone mentions this celebration, Día de Los Muertos is an actual celebration, with music, food, and liveliness – pardon the oxymoron ☺️ It should also be mentioned that Día de Los Muertos is not Mexican Halloween or anything of that nature. As you read throughout the brief history, you’ll start to notice a few differences between the two holidays, beginning with the intention behind Día de Los Muertos, and when it is celebrated.
Día de Los Muertos is an indigenous celebration that dates back to pre-Colombian times, around 3,000 years ago. Typically and traditionally celebrated in August, after the Spanish conquest, the indigenous groups in Mexico had to change the month in which they celebrated their dead to the beginning of November so that it would coincide with the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day. Día De Los Muertos is a celebration that changes the perception of death from being something typically dark, grim, and scary, to something natural and a part of the natural life cycle.
The Aztecs used to view life and the universe in a cyclical pattern, which of course, included death as an important milestone in completing the overall cycle that we are all part of. The celebration that usually takes place on the eve of October 31st, as it is believed that is when the gates of Heaven open up, goes on to be celebrated for 2 days. November 1st, which is called Día de Los Inocentes or Day of the Innocents, which is the day in which children spirits re-enter the world, and re-visit with family, while November 2nd is the day when adult spirits can rejoin with their families.
Today, all throughout México, as well as other countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean also celebrate their dead in unique ways. In various parts, they may refer to it as Día de Los Difuntos (difuntos is another word for deceased) or in the case of Haiti, where during the first 2 days of November, they celebrate their loved ones with The Vodou Festival of Fete Gede.
Back in México, families clean and decorate their family member’s graves with a flower called, cempasúchitl (marigolds) as it is believed that the brightness of the cempasúchitl is visible enough for the spirits to find their way back to their families, while the flowers themselves also represent the fragility of life. Families bring their deceased family member’s favorite food, candles, their favorite drink, and anything else they really enjoyed in life, and sometimes even anything they usually wore or held precious to them such as a hat or various other accessories. This is all placed on altars that are created by each family for their family members. Altars are usually built right on the grave, or sometimes in the family’s home with a table. While you can observe and experience this celebration, which was named a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in 2008, in pretty much any region of the country, there are some standout places that really offer a unique, culturally rich, experience. Let’s check them out!
Michoacán is easily one of the most recognizable states within México to celebrate Día De Los Muertos, for it’s deeply rooted connection to the indigenous Purepecha people, who have celebrated Día De Los Muertos for thousands of years, to modern-day. It is said that the movie Coco was inspired by the celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos that specifically take part in the village of Santa Fe de Los Lagos in Michoacán, where the beloved character of Mama Coco actually lives (the inspiration for the character)a descendent of the Purepecha people of the state of Michoacán. So if the movie gave you interest in learning more about the celebration, Michoacán is a recommended stop. Specific places within Michoacán to go observe the celebrations include the Pueblo Mágico of Pátzcuaro as well as the island of Janitzio, where on the eve of October 31st, you will be the witness of cemeteries lit up in orange-gold.
Another culturally beautiful rich Mexican destination to celebrate Día De Los Muertos is the state of Chiapas, as the indigenous group of the region called the Zoque, have preserved and maintained this time-honored celebration from pre-hispanic times, all the way to today. The ornate altars welcome you, as well as you step into another world where the living and dead intermix. The altars are decorated with various levels, each signifying an important step in the process of death. The tallest level represents the actual entrance into the underworld, which is often decorated with fruit. The second level is meant to symbolize the sacrifice and pain of the son of God with a cross that is placed here, along with photos of other deceased family members. The third level holds the food items that the deceased person enjoyed while they were alive. Candles, papel picado, and flowers decorate the altar on all levels.
Each state and region decorate their altar a bit differently, each level representing something different such as air, water, and soil as a representation of our connection to the earth, and our return to it. Other altars represent the father, the son, and the holy spirit, while others represent the actual journey of death, with the different levels of “ascension” in order to get to celestial peace and eternal rest.
Oaxaca is already such a beautiful state with an extremely rich cultural tie that is both visible and tangible. During the celebration of Día de Los Muertos, you’ll be mesmerized by the cempasúchitl flowers on strings that hang from the houses and guide people and spirits to the cemetery. Food being such an important piece to the celebration of el Día De Los Muertos, Oaxaca and Oaxacans deliver by offering their dead a national treasure they are known for, mole on the altars, as well as chocolates. The beauty of the manmade sand tapestries full of colors, decor, and enchantment are also not to be missed!
The emotions overcome visitors with the sound of soft guitar and murmurs of the families. Come to view the extremely beautiful ofrendas or offerings such as food, drinks, and flowers, and stay for the moving connection between families and their deceased, and observe a different outlook on death and passing on. Specifically, you can visit the village of Xoxocotlán and the cemeteries called Panteón Viejo and Panteón Nuevo.
Guadalajara is another beautiful and amazing place to experience Dia De Los Muertos, especially if you’re into fun that involves amusement parks and adrenaline. In Guadalajara you can find Calaverandia – a theme park inspired by Coco the movie with calaveras (neon skulls), music, ofrendas, campasúchitl flowers, rides, and more! Due to COVID, it will not be open this year, but it’s still good to know for future reference! Additionally, in the city of Tlaquepaque you can find and join their own parade of calacas and catrinas, carriage rides with characters in full catrin outfits, face painting for all, as well as a catrina brides (brides with their faces painted as a catrina) contest to see who has the most creative outfit! It’s full of fun, especially if you have children.
México City, while being a cosmopolitan city with all the modern amenities that any other world-class city can offer, diversity, culture, museums, food options to throw up in the air, history, and a whole lot of things to do, México City is actually also a great place to experience such a deeply rooted and traditional celebration like Día De Los Muertos. Here, you don’t want to miss el desfile de Día de Los Muertos (Dia de Los Muertos Parade), an almost 4-mile long parade that begins at El Zócalo and ends at Chapultepec. This parade is one that in 2019 attracted around 2 million people, so yes, it’s a pretty big deal and one that many people wait for in anticipation each year. A showcase of la calaca, la catrina, and now characters from the movie Coco, you won’t find a shortage of amazement, beauty, and colors at this festival that embraces life after death. It is important to note that because of the nature of this year’s events, the parade will actually be held online – so in a way, we are lucky to be able to experience the splendor of Día de Los Muertos from all over the world for the first time, which is an opportunity not to miss in these travel-less times.
If México City or any other city/state on this list interests you to visit in the near future to experience Día de los Muertos, or just in general, I have to recommend Get Your Guide as one of the best resources to help you plan out every part of the trip! From where to go, what to see, and what not to miss! Check them out below if you’d like to see just what else you can do in México City, and how they can help you plan out an activity and experience super easily!
You can check the parade out on November 1st through the app called “Xochitl” through the company Vuela Corp. The information is still developing, but I will update on Instagram and through email when and how you can experience this magnificent parade from the comfort of your home (for the first time ever). Make sure to follow me on Instagram and/or subscribe to my email list to get notified down below!
Experiencing el Día de los Muertos in Yucatan is to experience it the Mayan way, which includes a lot of food and a different name to the celebration of life and death. In Yucatan, Day of the Dead is referred to as Hanal Pixán, meaning food for the souls, and is a celebration that is specifically observed in the state of Yucatan. A “walk of the souls” or Paseo de las Animas is what kicks off the celebrations on October 31st, which leads all it’s participants to the local cemetery (in the towns where Hanal Pixán is observed). Food being literally in the name of this celebration, one of the most popular foods that is traditionally eaten on this day is this local delicacy called Mucbipollo or chicken that is cooked underground, and is wrapped in banana leaves (resembling a tamale). The celebration more or less resembles the way Dia de los Muertos is celebrated all over the country, however depending on some cities in Yucatan, there will be additional parts to the celebration. In the town of Pamuch for example, families will gently clean the bones of their loved ones (those who have passed away at least 3 years ago). The connection of the celebration of Hanal Pixán to it’s original people, the Mayans, is a tradition that has been deeply cherished, celebrated, and embraced by generations in time.
A bonus destination I wanted to add if you’re looking for a place to celebrate Día de Los Muertos but you don’t want to go to a cemetery -the famous Xcaret Park in Cancun for the Festival of Life and Death is the place for you! If you visit between October 31st and November 2nd, you will experience quite an amazing show put on by professional dancers, acrobats, and so much more. It’s a show not to be missed if you’re in Cancun! Additionally, you’ll get to experience the beauty of the altars dressed in orange cempasúchitl and the beautiful colors of papel picado and candles, as you walk through the beauty yourself. Again because of COVID, the park will be postponing this celebration, but again, I wanted to bring it up for future reference!
So now you have the places and ideas, but how can you put it all together for the perfect experience of el Día De Los Muertos?
Don’t know where to start? You have the places and an idea of the things you could do while visiting these amazing corners of México. But, where do you start? Or better yet, what could help you plan out your trip easier?
Let me introduce you to Get Your Guide – your one-stop platform to browse and book tickets to activities, events, and unmissable experiences to participate in, no matter where in the world you’re visiting. Get Your Guide has amazing tours and experiences that will give you a personalized experience to enjoy and observe Día de los Muertos, especially if it’s your first time going to México for this event, and you don’t know where to start!
For example, if you’re looking for a tour that can put together some of the activities and rituals of Día de los Muertos, consider a tour such as the Huatulco: Day of the Dead Experience and Tour that will take you on a guided experience from the food traditionally enjoyed during this time, to the moments of connection between the living and the dead in the cemeteries – all with a bilingual tour guide, and with hotel drop off/pick up, and much more. Especially if it’s your first time visiting to experience Día de los Muertos, or any activity that may be new to you, a guided tour could be helpful.
Lastly, I wanted to share this video that I think encapsulates a bit of the essence of why and what it means to celebrate El Día de los Muertos, from the people of Oaxaca. This video is such a good visual to compliment the post that I hope can help you understand a bit more.
Is there a place that catches your eye? Let me know in the comments below where you’d go to observe Día De Los Muertos! And if you’ve been to México during these days before, what was your experience like?
To many more cultural moments like these ✨