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Oaxaca Day of the dead Mexico (Día de muertos) – the complete guide for 2021

If there is one Mexican cultural event or tradition that has become exponentially famous worldwide, it is with no question, “El día de los Muertos”. 

Of course, 2020 and 2021 haven’t allowed the Day of the Dead celebration “to be” in the form of a travelers attraction, nevertheless, for many Mexican families “Día de Muertos” is alive and well, and so, being October, the return of their ancestors is just around the corner, and, preparations are right underway!

Here I am to tell you everything about one of the places in Mexico that you must add to your bucket list to come and experience the “Día de los Muertos celebration” as soon as it is possible.

I am talking about the city of Oaxaca Day of the Dead festivities where in normal circumstances everyone should witness at least one time in their life!

Woman with her face painted and a fake skull in her hands in a flower field - Oaxaca day of the dead

What is the Oaxaca Day of the Dead? 

In my experience, the Oaxaca Day of the Dead tradition is one of the best representations of the syncretism that occurred when the two cultures “collided”.

The indigenous people’s culture and the Hispanic traditions which many centuries ago clashed. 

Oaxaca City dresses up in an abundance of public displays that are full of color, sounds, and scents that stimulate the travelers’ senses at every step and at every corner they find. 


Oaxaca City at a glance

Oaxaca city is the capital of the homonymous state that is located in the southwest of Mexico.

It is indeed one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in Mexico, made even more special by the abundance of cultural manifestations from the different regions of the state that converge here.

This is one of the main reasons why it has earned the UNESCO World Heritage Site badge. 

Its history is reflected in the archeological sites and indigenous cultures from the ancestral past. As well as the arrival of the Spaniards and the deep transformation of the region and of the native Oaxacans’ life.

Oaxaca templo de Santo Domingo

It tells stories about the political life in Mexico and the tales of indigenous men that became presidents of this country. Also about a place that has contributed enormously to the preservation of the customs and traditions of the indigenous people not only of Oaxaca but of the country as a whole. 

Its culture speaks about diversity in gastronomy, music, language, costume, celebrations, and traditions. 

Unmissable things to do in Oaxaca (at a glance)

  • It is where you can try some of the most creative Mexican food among which the famous Tlayudas, one of their 7 moles, or dare to try the “chapulines” (fried grasshoppers). 
  • The best place to try one or two or three of the many craft Mezcales
  • Learn the process in which the gorgeous wool rugs, the alebrijes, and the black clay crafts are made. 
  • Lose yourself in the many public markets, take pictures of its revolutionary street art or to simply walk for hours. 
  • Witness and be part of one of the many celebrations that take place in the city during the year. 
  • Participate to the Celebrations like the carnival in February, Holy Week in March and April, La Guelaguetza in July and of course, their Day of the dead celebration. 

What is the day of the dead for Mexico 

To talk about the Day of the Dead for Mexico as a whole means that we have to travel to a time where it wasn’t Mexico yet. The prehispanic “Mexico” belongs to the time in history before 1519 – 1521.

The prehispanic history that precedes today’s “Día de Muertos” speaks about the worldview of the cultures of those times in regards to the cycles of life and death, not only for humans but for god and nature too. 

For the ancestral cultures, everything in life was in constant transformation, and so, the transformation was eternal. Everything could be created or destroyed but there was always something in motion, and they saw it as a vital force. 

According to many interpretations, the religiosity of the prehispanic Mexico was perfectly attached to the concept of life and death as a permanent cycle, and so, within their rituals, both represented happiness and so, both should be constantly honored and celebrated. 

For the pre-hispanic cultures, death was a destination, and so, names were given to the places where the dead would go, like “Mictlán” in the Nahuatl culture and “Xibalbá” in the Mayan Culture, to mention some.

Graves oaxaca

In these destinations, the dead were guests of their Gods and guardians, and morality or worldly behavior had nothing to do with them being welcomed or not. These destinations have never had anything to do with the Christian “hell” either.

For the ancient cultures, the journey to these destinations was a magical one, and so, the living would perform rituals that involved elements that assisted the dead in their path. 

There are traces that date back to 1200 b. C that is proof of the cult for the death: “Funeral offerings” that included many elements like water, food, masks, skeletons, jewelry, vases, figurines, shells, etc. 

The interpretation given to all the elements found in the offerings is that each one of them had a purpose, from a mask or a figurine representing a deity to the elements like food being simply an expression of life. 

All of the above was what the Spaniards found when they arrived and “conquered” the existing pre-hispanic cultures. They became witnesses of the religiosity and rituals of the indigenous peoples of the time. 

It is then that their Christianity worldview collides with the Meso-American one, and so, them being the “conquerors” of the territory, became the conquerors of the spiritual life of the natives as well. 

The “spiritual” domination was done through the process of evangelism, which results in the syncretic culture of the Mexico of today. 

People by a grave in Oaxaca

So, through a very long and complex process, the pre-hispanic religiosity and honoring of death “adopted” or “incorporated” the new elements of Christianity which resulted in today’s Mexico “Day of the dead”

Today, the celebration corresponds with the saint’s day and souls’ day of the gregorian calendar, and, it is done in general as follows: 

November 1st: this is the day when “Todos Santos” are expected. This is the day for kids to arrive

November 2nd: called the “fieles difuntos” day and this is when all the adults are expected. 

Dates prior to November 1st are dedicated to women that died giving birth, people that died by drowning or kids that died without baptism. 

So, as we can see, this tradition is one that is deeply connected to the indigenous roots of every Mexican in the country and of our identity. This is why it is so important that we protect it and preserve it as authentic as we possibly can. 

Sources: UAM.MX / UNESCO / Secretaria de Cultura de Mexico. 


When is the day of the dead in Mexico? 

In Mexico, The “Day of the dead” dates oscillate a bit. In some places people celebrate it from the 28th of October, some from October 31st, and some only celebrate November 1st and November 2nd. 

But, really, for many indigenous people, where this celebration is still widely observed, the start of this celebration is when the first seed of corn is sown

Girls in traditional clothes during the day of the dead

Why celebrate Día de Muertos in Oaxaca?

The state of Oaxaca is divided into 8 “cultural regions” that are very rich in traditions, gastronomy, religiosity, crafts, etcetera.

And, Oaxaca City has for a long time gathering all the cultural riches of these regions through all kinds of celebrations and manifestations. So, if one wants to have a very good understanding of what the tradition is really about for the people, then, Oaxaca City is one of the places to be. 

Oaxaca cemetery - grave surrounded by candles

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Traditions and Symbols

As we mentioned before, Día de los muertos” in Mexico is a tradition that comes from pre-hispanic times and that has evolved to what it is today due to the syncretism of 2 cultures and also modernity, but, the importance of it is directly related to the fact that it still presents many of the original elements and symbols of the past.

So, today we might have a photo, but back in the day, there was a figurine.

Today we have incense sticks but back then we had clay or stone incense burners.

And the craziest one of them all: before we had real body bones and blood, today we have sweet bread. 🙂

Also, very important is that this is an ancestral tradition from all of Mesoamerica, so, all the elements mentioned are present everywhere but manifested or used in different forms. As well, there can be specific elements to specific regions, like in Oaxaca.

We have 8 cultural regions and so, each one of these regions follows the tradition in very diverse ways. 

Oaxaca day of the dead - figurine dressed in typical dresses

Day of the Dead symbols in Oaxaca

The Day of the dead altars

In terms of the symbols or icons of this celebration, the offerings in form of altars are the centerpiece of the tradition. The elements of the altar change from family homes to villages, states, or regions, but the concept of it is timeless.

The altar is the door to the dead realm. The altar is the place where all the elements that belong to the cycle of life and death are represented.

The altars have different elements and each one of them has a role to play. It’s very important to mention that there are many “types” of altars.

These sometimes take in consideration the age, gender, and even the form in which the person being remembered died. Socially, the size of the altar is important too.

A bigger altar shows the wealth, status, or importance of the person in a community or in the family. (and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the money a family has)

Also, the altars have “tiers” and the largest one is of 9 tiers.

Tiers are said to represent heaven and earth when they are 2.

When 3, we have purgatory as well.  7 It is said that these are the 7 capital sins.

9 is said to represent the stages of the deceased’s journey to get to the dead souls’ realm.

Again, it all depends on the family, the village, or the region. 

Day of the dead girl with painted face dancing

The day of the dead offerings

The offerings in their origin were presented in the form of the “fruits” given by the seeds sown during the harvests. The offerings represent the sharing nature of the people and gratitude for what’s given, as well as some form of “fearful respect” to comply with the expectations of our dead returning.

These are part of the altar or the decoration of the tombstones. 

Corn, fruits, seeds, tortillas: these all represent what belongs to the harvest of the year.

The favorite food and drinks of the dead family member: this is the symbol that belongs to the love or respect professed to the soul of our dead.

If the soul coming back is a kid, then, we put candies as well. If our visitor used to drink or smoke, then it is expected that we place cigarettes or the spirit of choice (even if they died for the reasons of heavy drinking or lung cancer.

Another fun fact is that indigenous communities drink a lot of Coca-Cola, so, it is not uncommon that as a drink we find Coca’s on the altar. 

Mole, enchiladas, mole tamales, hen broth: these food elements are found specifically in Oaxaca because all of them belong to the region. 

Day of the dead Masked people

Oaxacan sweets and candies

With so many regions and their own culinary traditions, even the sweets and candies variety won’t disappoint.

Pan de Muerto

However, Pan de Muerto is amongst the sweets of the altar and offerings of course, but, an element that all Mexicans, not only Oaxacans expect the whole year.

The tradition is to get together with the family during October and November to eat it along with a hot cup of chocolate.

The importance of the Pan de Muerto though comes as well from prehispanic times and, there are several interpretations to what it was back then.

What we do know is that corn and amaranth seed were used and given different shapes.

There are legends that say that the hearts of sacrificed princesses were placed on the altars and so, when the Spanish saw the ritual, banned it completely and the heart-shaped bread took its place.

Another version of the Pan de Muerto origin is that it was made to represent the women that died giving birth to their first child. 

Pan de Muertos
Pan de Muerto

Sugar skulls

Also amongst the sweets, we find all types and sizes of sugar skulls. The original ones are just sugar but we now have amaranth seed and chocolate skulls. 

During pre-hispanic times, it is said that the different cultures displayed publicly the skulls of the sacrificed warriors, princesses, and people in general as an honor, as a cult.

This ritual is called “tzompantli” in central Mexico, and so, of course, this was something else that the Spanish banned and the sugar skulls came to be what started being used. 

Sugar skulls

Marigold flowers

In México this flower is called “cempasúchil”. The word is from the indigenous Nahuatl language and it is said to mean: 20 flowers.

The use of flowers in the altar and offerings according to researchers, seems to be part of the already catholic times as bringing flowers to their deceased was more a European tradition.

Still, there is a version that explains its relationship with the Day of the Dead through a young love/tragedy legend.

It is said that the young boy and warrior died in a battle, and so, the broken-hearted girl prayed to be joined with her love in eternity and the gods answered her prayer by turning her into a beautiful flower.

Lady with painted face posing in a marigold flowers field

The legend says that the flower remained closed for a long time until a hummingbird came to her attracted by her scent, and, it was when the hummingbird placed himself on the petals that the beautiful yellow flower opened up and so, it is said that the bird was her love that had taken that form to come back to see her.

It is the scent of the flower that is believed to attract our families’ souls.  

Very important, flowers are a representation of the earth as one of the elements of our planet. 


A glass of water

It is part of the representation of the 4 elements of earth as well as an offering to the traveler’s soul for his arrival to quench their thirst. 


Papel picado

Color is very important in this tradition as well the representation of the natural elements, so, the “papel picado” (cut decorated sheets of a soft type of paper hanging from the ceilings, doors, and altars) represents the air. 

Oaxaca Papel Picado
Papel Picado

Candles

Candles are very important as part of the ritual of the vigil, they represent fire as an element of nature, and of course, they light the path of the visiting souls. 

Candles around a grave for the day of the dead in Oaxaca

Photos of the deceased

Of as many as the family has. Of course, the altars and offerings are in their honor. 


Copal (Incense)

Attracting the souls of our families is important and so it is done with scents, colors, flavors, and sounds. Incense is part of that ritual as well, but, because it is used in religious practices, it is also used to clean and purify the path and keep the bad spirits or energies away. 


Arches

The altars, home entrances, and other spaces have arches made of sugar cane, leaves, and flowers. The arches represent the entrance to the underworld. 

Altar for the day of the dead in Oaxaca Mexico

Deity images

Images such as the ones of the Virgen de Guadalupe are placed to represent the faith that is professed by the family home. 

Flower, seeds, or limestone paths and crosses: the paths and the crosses represent the 4 cardinal points. 


Salt

Salt is known for its purifying properties for the visitor’s souls. 


Toys

Toys are placed on the altars in the case of dead children, while for the adult we place something that they liked while living, toys represent the same thing for kids altars.

Deity image at the window

La Catrina

This is the very famous elegant dressed skeleton. Found all over Mexico in all colors and shapes. Her original name is “calavera garbancera” and she was created originally in black and white by a cartoonist, Jose Guadalupe Posada.

He created it as a satire to make fun of the families that denied their indigenous roots and pretended to be from privileged classes.

It was the muralist Diego Rivera that gave her a full body and full color on his mural called “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central”. (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in central Alameda). 

The “comparsas” or “muerteadas”(dance parades) and its people dancing in very colorful and elaborate costumes.

This is a centuries-old tradition. There are many explanations on why they are done, but, the simplest way to explain is that there is a joy being lived by the families due to the return of their ancestors, and so, jumping, dancing, singing, playing the instruments is a way to express such joy.

The costumes play 2 or 3 roles. In one, they represent the countries’, state, or even the village’s circumstances or anecdotes.

Also, they represent the people involved in the life and death cycle: priests, skeletons, the devil, spirits. And, lastly, the disguise serves for them to hide from death.

The muerteada is like a carnival or a parade in which all the neighborhoods of the town participate.

Oaxaca lady with painted face

The neighbors follow the live band throughout the streets and then, the several groups of bands and people “collide” into what turns out to be a “dance-off” until one of the sides “gives up” and continues the parade.

There are families that offer food or money for the live band to go into their house to honor their dead. It is a very grandiose event.

Comparsas usually happen on the 1st and 2nd of November in the villages, but, through the city, many local businesses and neighborhoods create their own. It is a big commitment and honor to organize one. They are very costly too!


The decoration of the graveyards and the vigil

The vigil at the graveyards is the exact moment in which the people feel and honor the presence of their dead souls back with them.

That is the moment in which in our minds and hearts our family has come back.

That is why that is a moment in which families pray, sing, even bring mariachi, tell jokes, talk about their loved ones, share the food, drinks, mezcal, and keep the tombstone beautiful. The vigil starts the night of the 31st of October and ends the morning of the 1st of November. 


Hand-made sand tapestries

The tapestries are usually made by the “rezadores” (people dedicated to praying for the gone souls). It is a very old tradition as well and they represent the portal between life and death.

These are made after the vigil and the muerteadas. These are a way to say goodbye to the visitors from the underworld. They are made of sand as a representation of the catholic saying “dust to dust”. 


Graveyards to visit during Day of the Dead Oaxaca

In my experience, there are several graveyards to visit during the Day of the Dead festivities. 

You can visit the local cemeteries of Oaxaca City like the “Panteón General” and, you can travel to some of the smaller villages.

Here below I am going to share a few of the most popular.

Grevyards in Oaxaca for the day of the dead

Santa Maria de Atzompa

It’s famous for the taller candles used by the family members of the deceased. The vigil there starts the night of the 31st of October and ends the morning of the 1st of November.

This is a very big graveyard and its main characteristic is that there are not many tombstones but mainly dirt mounts.

The sight is mesmerizing and breathtaking. Most of the light comes from candles.

At Atzompa, there is also very loud music that comes from a live band greeting locals and travelers alike. 


El Panteón nuevo de Xoxocotlán (known as Xoxo) (you say Ho-Ho)

This is a much smaller graveyard and there are more stone tombs. At the “end” of the cemetery, there is a chapel where mass is performed as well as live music. 

dia de muertos Oaxaca Skull

El Panteón general de Oaxaca

The general cemetery of Oaxaca had been closed between 2017 and 2019 due to a big earthquake. It was damaged and it represented a risk to people. It opened back again but what was more famous about it is the beautiful candle niches wall that makes it look very solemn and beautiful. 

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca in 2021

Please note that so far we have news that it will be possible to visit the cemeteries but this is information received directly from a travel agency that is in touch with the communities.

There are many things that are still being determined for this year’s celebration so please make sure that you do proper research before going. And, please, be more respectful than ever with the communities and the people. 

Please note as well that the “Panteón General” of the city of  Oaxaca suffered damages during the 2017 earthquake, and so, the popular photos of the web might not be accurate with how the cemetery looks like today. 


Oaxaca Day of the Dead Itinerary (DIY)

I have personally experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca City 3 times and here is where I speak highly about my colleague Ivan and his travel agency Trez Travel and for a magnificent private more high-end tours the fantastic guide Gabriel Sanchez.

I have worked with them since 2016 and they have also been working with G Adventures and their alliance with National Geographic about which I will talk in another post.  

Now, in terms of an itinerary, please do yourself a favor and arrive at least a couple of days before the 28th of October, that will allow you to do other activities unrelated to the Dia de Muertos festivities, book your dinners if you haven’t done so, find your costume and basically, prepare.

If you didn’t organize any tours in advance, you can check with your hotel or the local travel agencies for private drivers or guides to take you to the muerteadas and the cemeteries that happen away from the city. 

OAxaca kid during the day of the dead

Now let’s see how to plan your itinerary day by day.

28th of October: this is the day where you take your walking shoes, your camera and start looking for all the altars being set up at local businesses, markets, restaurants, museums, and more.

Also, I highly recommend you to go to the Benito Juarez market, the 20 de Noviembre market and el Mercado de Abastos.

You will see all the local people selling and buying everything needed for their altars, offerings, and family meals. It’s a treat, and if done carefully and respectfully, a fantastic time for travel photography. 

29th of October: start looking for your face painting options. Go to the main zocalo and look at ideas and designs. Also, check out the type of painting they are using.

By this day the altars are ready and usually, the main 8 regions’ altars display is ready. Go and check those out. Galleries and museums usually have a photography or painting exhibitions that are allusive to the special festivities. 

30th of October: continue walking the city and make sure you visit the chocolate and Pan de Muerto fair usually located by the municipal palace. Lots of open-air events start happening like local plays, music, and performances. Maybe they are in Spanish and you will not understand, but observing the local traditions is always very rewarding. 

31st of October: a plethora of events start happening today. Choose wisely as this is the day that you must go to experience the vigils at Xoxo and Atzompa. The party starts picking up in the city, but remember, do it AFTER you return from the vigils. Very important if you didn’t hire a tour to take you there.

Oaxaca day of the dead face painting

1st of November: this is the day that you can get your face painted, your costume, and when you head to Etla to join a muerteada. Make sure you have your own mezcal bottle and a bamboo shot (no plastic please).

Get to the village and join the parade. Make sure you share mezcal and take pictures with all the locals in their fantastic costumes.

And of course jump and dance! If you are in a group, make sure you keep an eye on each other as it is super easy to get separated.

Don’t bring much money with you, just some small change enough to get you bathroom use, more drinks or maybe a local snack. Again, if you didn’t go on a tour, make sure that you have a taxi driver waiting for you and with whom you set the place to meet.

For safety I recommend you stay at the muerteada as late as midnight. Ah! If you are sensitive to noise, bring earplugs. You will thank me for this advice. 

2nd of November: all the events in the city continue. You can continue looking at the altars, attending the exhibitions, catching up with the downtown muerteadas, and definitely head to La Plaza de la Danza to check out the sand tapestries for which there is a contest too.

Usually, on this day, there is a big concert (at cost) in the convention center of the city. You could check it out. 

What do you think? Are you ready for taking on your Oaxaca Day of the Day experience? 

Day of the dead in Oaxaca insider tips

  • I don’t recommend renting a car because the traffic is very heavy and it is really hard to park. My recommendation if you didn’t book a tour is to hire a taxi driver for the whole night to take you to the graveyards, wait for you and bring you back to your hotel.
  • If you do not speak any Spanish I do recommend you hire a local guide as he can be your connection to every single detail that is happening during that one night.
  • I recommend you go there no later than midnight, as, yes, families do stay the night, but, there are people drinking in the area and it can get rough.
  • Do not go too early though because even if it’s less busy, many local families don’t arrive until 8 or 9 to start preparing the tombstones, so, the best for me is between 10 and midnight. 
  • If you feel like partying after the vigils (around 9 or 10 pm) back to the city, you will probably find things going on in the neighborhoods of Xochimilco or Jalatlaco. Most probably a muerteada. 

Oaxaca Day of the dead G Adventure Itinerary

I do not know if I had mentioned this already, but I used to work as a tour leader for G Adventures in Mexico, and so, I guided the National Geographic and G Adventures Oaxaca Día de Muertos tour

If you are from Canada, Europe, the USA, England, or Australia, and you prefer traveling in organized tours, I highly recommend you take a tour with G Adventures.

Please note that the alliance between National Geographic and G Adventures is not going to be back until 2022, but, G Adventures is offering 2 or 3 different itineraries and one of them is called Upgraded Day of the Dead in Oaxaca (starting on the 28th of October and lasting 7 days)

A G Adventures itinerary like this one includes pretty much all the events that I mentioned and free time to use it on your own to explore the city.

Also, G Adventures works with a local tour operator that keeps them up to date with the new protocols, changes, and updates on the festivities.

And, the most important thing is that with G Adventures you will be offered alternative immersive activities related to the Day of the dead festival there, and so, even if the comparsas are not available or the cemeteries visit is different to years before, G Adventures will make sure to help you live a wonderful and life-changing experience. 

In a nutshell, a G Adventures tour will include you transfer in, your handpicked accommodation, a couple of meals, a local tour leader, activities like a cooking class or the visit to the alebrijes and black clay workshops, the cemetery vigil, and a lot of suggestions of where to enjoy fantastic meals, all of that in the company of other travelers like you.

Oaxaca city

How to Dress for Day of the Dead

This one is tricky.

As time passes and the celebration becomes more and more popular, as with everything, it has the tendency into something that isn’t, and that happens due to external influences. 

So, as a context, we must clarify that the famous Catrina and the painted faces are indeed icons of the Day of the Dead festivities, but, they are modern icons and so, when we are talking about the solemnity of the tradition, there are no costumes nor face paintings involved. 

So, please, dress normally.

Oaxaca’s weather in October and November in my experience has been dry, warm during the day, and chilly in the evening, so, jeans, leggings, comfortable shoes, shirts, sweaters, jackets, all that is a good dress code.

The “later” that you go (meaning after midnight) to the cemeteries, the coldest it will get, so, keep that in mind. 

Do not wear costumes to the vigils, please. You will see people that have painted their faces and you will see people in costumes, but, that is because they didn’t do proper research and their tour company didn’t tell them better. 

Please leave the painted faces and the costumes for the comparsas. Dress your best costume during those events and during any event in the city as well. 

Tacos with chapulines

What to eat & drink during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Really, except for tamales and Pan de Muerto, there is nothing extra special to eat during Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca which is already the best culinary destination in Mexico. 

The food in Oaxaca is so traditional and so attached to every festivity, that mole, enchiladas, memelas, hen broth, sweet bread, are also part of what is eaten this time of year. 

And to drink, well, coffee, hot chocolate and mezcal of course. 

We have a special drink called “Atole”. It is a drink made with milk, corn and it is given different flavors, so, if you can, try it too. 

A very important tradition during the cemeteries vigil is that the local families bring the favorite food of the deceased to share among the people, and so, please, if you are there and you are offered a plate of food, a tamal, a cup of coffee or a shot of mezcal, take it! That will be a great experience for you!

Mole souce - Oaxaca

Dia de los Muertos “Do’s and Don’ts”

Tips for celebrating Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca

  • DO book your hotel in advance
  • DO arrange your taxis or tour companies in advance and after proper research 
  • DO arrive before the 28th of October
  • DO stay downtown 
  • DO visit the cemeteries, all that you possibly can 
  • DO take pictures of the grave yards but ask for permission if you sense you could potentially be disruptive. Please don’t use flash. 
  • DO ask questions to the local families (respectfully)
  • DO see as many altars in the city as possible
  • DO take part of many local events
  • DO jump, dance, hug, and take pictures during the muerteada and dress up or paint your face
  • DO drink mezcal  
  • DO accept a gift in the form of food or drinks from the families. 
  • DO read in advance about the celebration and the tradition
  • DO take care of your stuff ALL THE TIME
  • DO have a cellphone or have a form of communication locally
  • DON’T chose the cheapest face painting option, your face will thank you
  • DON´T wear costumes or paint your face for a vigil
  • DON’T drink at the cemeteries vigils even if you see others and mainly Mexican people doing it. 
  • DON’T take photos to people or tombstones if you see that they are grieving (it means it is a recent death)
  • DON’T haggle or bargain. Make sure you are getting a fair rate but please DO NOT bargain
Sunset Oaxaca

Oaxaca travel tips (in a nutshell)

Where to stay in Oaxaca

In terms of accommodation, I have already mentioned that you should stay downtown, but, very close to it, we have 2 more neighborhoods that are also central, beautiful and that have a lot of events happening in them.

I am talking about the Xochimilco and Jalatlaco neighborhoods. Both are within walking distance.

A couple of hotels that I recommend in Oaxaca are: 

  • Oaxaca real: located on Manuel Garcia Virgil, one of the main central streets of downtown. Colonial like, fair priced, good service and comfortable. I have stayed there many times and I have never had a complaint.  Check rates and availability
  • Hostal de Las Americas (for the budget traveler): This was my first accommodation in Oaxaca city. I really enjoyed it. They have a great breakfast and the staff is friendly. They offer clean shared rooms with their own bathroom and also private rooms. Perfectly located. Check rates and availability
  • Casa Santo Tomas: Small, modern, only suites boutique hotel also very centrally located. It is a bit pricier than the other ones but it has great service, a good restaurant, an art gallery and a mezcal bar. Check rates and availability

How to get to Oaxaca

BY PLANE: There are a few direct flights from the USA or that connect in Mexico city. The Mexican airlines Volaris and Aeromexico also have several routes from major cities in the country. A flight from Mexico city is only 1 hour away. 

BY CAR: It’s an easy 6 – 7 hours non-stop drive on the Puebla – Mexico toll highway.  If you choose this option, make sure you chose to stop for a bit in Puebla, you won’t regret it. 

BY BUS: There are many departures to Oaxaca City from Mexico City. The mainline is ADO and they have really comfortable buses. The journey is 7 to 8 hours long. You can purchase tickets online and there are routes from other cities too like San Cristóbal de las Casas, Puebla, etc. 

Agave field

Where to eat in Oaxaca

Food in Oaxaca has been a constant topic for us, and, well, we already know why, but, besides a MUST visit to the 20 de Noviembre market for tlayudas, sweet bread, hot chocolate or the meats alley, you can also take the time to enjoy a meal at these places: 

Mayordomo: the restaurant famous for its chocolate. The restaurant is fun and inexpensive. They have a very large menu with all the local delicacies of central Oaxaca, including the 7 moles and chapulines

Las Quince Letras: lovely authentic Oaxacan food restaurant also downtown. Their menu is very broad as well and very creative. The prices are fair, the decoration is really pretty and the atmosphere is fun. I enjoy their service thoroughly. 

Mezquite: a fun and creative fusion-style restaurant with amazing cocktails and a wonderful rooftop. More on the pricier side of things I highly recommend it! 

Zandunga: a finer dining experience with higher prices but totally worth it. The food is Oaxacan as well but from the region of the “Istmo”. The region is mountainous but is influenced by the Gulf of Mexico coast. One of my favorite restaurants by far.


Final thoughts on Día de Muertos in Oaxaca

I hope I have not only transmitted some knowledge on Mexico’s Day of the Dead tradition but, as well, really piqued your interest and made you want to add the experience to your Mexico bucket list right away!

I hope as well that the reason why you are interested in that you want to live the solemnity and witness such rich heritage of our pre-hispanic cultures. 

Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca or anywhere in Mexico is my favorite tradition. I love it even if while at home I don’t actively celebrate it. 

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is a celebration that inhabits so many ancestral and sacred elements that we must continue to preserve it and protect it so it is one that can still live on for generations and generations. 

kid with painted face on dia de muerto mexico

We must remember that this very important tradition of ours was added to the UNESCO list of intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and so, we must make sure it stays worthy of this recognition. 

Having lived the Day of the Dead festivities for 4 years in a row in Oaxaca had me struggling with mixed feelings. 

On one side, I was incredibly happy and proud about sharing everything that I knew about it with my travelers, but, I was very sad that hundreds of people visiting have not received a DON’T DO list and so, the solemnity of the celebration had started turning into a massive crazy party that didn’t help the experience. 

I believe that together we can preserve the richness of the tradition and so I ask you to please, visit, share, take photos, but, talk to people, share the DO and DON’T list and call on your travel agents or tour operators or even on the local businesses that you notice are moving away from the real meaning of the celebration. 

The Oaxaca Day of the Dead is a wonderful event and it will probably be great this year and will be back in full force the next. Help us keep it real!

Dia de muertos painted face

Other major cities where to celebrate día de los Muertos  in Mexico

As we know, the weird times make this hard to say, but, in previous years, Mexico City had become, since 2016, another one of the best places to experience Día de los Muertos due to the amazing Día de los Muertos parade that was created inspired by a James Bond movie. 

It is important to say that the parade is not at all part of the Día de los Muertos tradition of the region, but it is fun, full of color, and has elaborate customs that impress everyone.

The good news is that the parade will be back this year on October 31st and, it will be full of music, it will be longer than previous ones and it will be made in memorial of all the people going during the pandemic. 

Also in past years, for many years now, Cancun and Playa del Carmen had become popular cities to enjoy the festivities thanks to the “Festival de tradiciones de Vida y Muerte” organized by the Xcaret group.

dia de muertos altar in Oaxaca

Of course, there wasn’t one last year. And, good news, this year the festival is back!

To be honest, I don’t usually sponsor these kinds of places, but the festival is really beautiful and full of art.

Plus, if you are in the area, and you are looking for really cultural events and supporting the local communities, you can look for options in destinations like Valladolid or Felipe Carrillo Puerto that are both near Cancun and Playa del Carmen and that offer a real display of the tradition as it is lived by the Mayan culture. 

Another amazing place to experience the tradition is the state of Michoacan.

The capital city, Morelia, holds events (in normal circumstances) and different manifestations of the celebration, but, mainly, the best place to be for Día de los Muertos is the small town of Patzcuaro and the nearby villages like Janitzio and Tzintzunzan.

Lastly, another fantastic area where you can be a witness of this tradition is La Huasteca Potosina and San Luis Potosí specifically.

I have actually been there before as well, and, if you ask me, this one is the destination where the tradition is very untouched.

One of my best travel experiences was living in a smaller village near San Luis with a local family during Día de los Muertos. 

But, that story is for another day…


About the Author

bianca munoz author portrait

Bianca is a woman, Mexican, a traveler, an ally, a dreamer, a creative, 100% human and so much more. Bianca has +20 years of experience in personal travel throughout 3 continents, and many countries, cities, towns, and communities. She also comes with +20 years of experience with customer service in the hospitality and tourism industries. A passionate advocate of her country (despite it all), an amateur writer & blogger, art lover, certified yoga teacher, entrepreneur, neophyte researcher, philosophy fan, and knowledge obsessed, she has one dream and mission in life:
“To achieve, through her venture, for travel to be considered and used as a tool for a better education and human development in Mexico”
And, even if in baby steps, she is making the dream, come true through her brand:
Mexico4Real Journeys.