Mexico’s Day of the Dead (November 1st and 2nd) is known around the world for its colorful and lively festivities. Cemeteries spring to life with candles, orange cempasúchil flowers (marigolds), and countless family members and visitors. Similarly, home altars are decorated with vibrant cempasúchiles, candles, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), sugar skulls, and favorite, earthly foods of the departed loved one.
Día de Muertos is a time for the living to honor and celebrate the lives of the loved ones they have lost and help guide their spirits home to celebrate with them. Celebrations vary from town to town, but the festivities generally begin October 31st and continue through November 2nd and sometimes even a couple of days after.
With all of the international attention Day of the Dead has been receiving, more tourists are starting to visit Mexico during this festive time of year, and Mexico is ramping up its Day of the Dead attractions to keep up. If you plan on visiting Mexico for Día de Muertos, it’s important to keep the following tips in mind to have the best experience while still respecting the families that observe this special holiday.
Crowds are in Full Force
Holiday festivities in Mexico normally attract bustling crowds of excited locals, so you can imagine how even more packed the celebrations are for an internationally famous holiday like Day of the Dead. Expect to be navigating a sea of people at the Dia de Muertos parade in Mexico City or waiting an hour in line to board the boat to the famous cemetery on Isla Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro. Small towns, like Patzcuaro and Oaxaca, will be saturated with visitors, so be sure to make reservations far in advance if there’s a special B&B you want to stay at or restaurant you’ve been dying to try.
Respect the Cemeteries
The cemeteries are a vibrant and slightly spooky Day of the Dead spectacle that welcomes visitors year after year. However, don’t forget that before hoards of tourists descended upon these uncharacteristically lively cemeteries, they were first and foremost a place for families to gather to remember and celebrate the lives of deceased loved ones.
Today, families still gather at the cemeteries where they laid their loved ones to rest, except in some cases they share the space with hundreds of onlookers. When we went to Patzcuaro for Day of the Dead and visited the cemetery on Isla Janitizio I was shocked at the number of tourists crammed in the cemetery trying not to step on any of the altars or visiting family member. It felt intrusive seeing all of these tourists, myself and Jorge included, stomping around the graveyard while families were sitting next to graves trying to share the special holiday with their loved ones. Now, I’ve never had a local tell me their opinion on the matter, so maybe they are very accepting of onlookers, but I felt guilty for turning these families night with their loved ones into a tourist attraction.
So, if you decide to visit one of Mexico’s beautiful, candle-lit cemeteries during the Day of the Dead, make sure to show your utmost respect to the families that were there first. Watch where you walk, keep silent, and be conscious of where you point your camera.
Get in the Spirit
One of the best ways of getting in the spirit for Day of the Dead is by dressing up like the dead! You’ll find no shortage of people offering calavera (skull) facepaint on the streets. This is about the only time of year where looking like death would be considered a compliment, so take advantage of it and celebrate alongside countless other skull-painted faces.
Day of the Dead wouldn’t be complete without a fluffy and sweet pan de muerto (bread of the dead). This circular, sugar-dusted sweet bread shows up in supermarkets and bakeries every year around the Dia de Muertos holiday. It seems as if they’re hitting the shelves earlier and earlier every year. If you’re in Mexico as far as two months before Day of the Dead you’ll probably even be able to snag a pan de muerto. It’s tradition to eat your pan de muerto with a cup of hot chocolate around this time of year.
Tamales are another Day of the Dead staple. You can find them on the kitchen table or the family altar. They’re loved by the living and the dead alike! If you happen to be in Mexico City during Day of the Dead, or any other time of year, you have to try the tamales from Doña Emi. They are my absolute favorite and are found at a local spot in Roma Sur. My go-to tamales are ones filled with either huitlacoche con queso de cabra (corn mushroom with goats cheese) or rajas con queso Oaxaca (peppers with Oaxacan cheese). They have just a touch of spice, nothing crazy, and are SO delicious.
Where there are crowds, there is traffic! If you want to avoid travel times that are double the usual time, I’d suggest arriving several days before the planned festivities begin. We learned this the hard way one Friday before Day of the Dead. We were making the journey from Mexico City to Patzcuaro, and what should have normally taken us 4 hours took almost 8! Similarly, a friend drove from Mexico City to Oaxaca, normally a 6-hour drive took over 12 hours! Don’t be like us. Plan to arrive a couple of days ahead of time to avoid traffic and find some decent parking.
Where to Go in Mexico for Day of the Dead
If you’re looking for big parties and parades, then Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festivities won’t disappoint. There are fun, city-held activities in the parks like an open-air cinema or spooky walks through the park. The main attraction these days is the massive parade that makes its way down the beautiful Avenida Paseo de la Reforma until it reaches the Zócalo in the Historic Center. Dress up, fight your way through the crowds, and follow the lively parade until the end. Interestingly enough, the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City didn’t exist until after the James Bond Skyfall 2012 film. Visitors came to Mexico City for the Day of the Dead, expecting to see the same Día de Muertos Parade as in the movie. They didn’t realize that the parade was fiction and only created for the film. However, after much demand, the city puts together an annual Day of the Dead parade inspired by James Bond. If you want to visit a Mexican cemetery for Día de Muertos, head to Mixoac in the south of the city for a great Day of the Dead experience.
Oaxaca City is one of the most popular cities for Day of the Dead in Mexico. It’s a colorful mid-sized, colonial city with tons of charm. It’s beloved by locals and foreigners alike so plan on making any reservations months ahead of time. It’s a great option if you are looking for a lively and colorful Day of the Dead experience without the hustle and bustle of a big city like Mexico City. It’s also a foodie’s paradise as it’s home to some of Mexico’s most famous and delicious food and drinks such as mole, tlayudas, and mezcal.
Our experience in Patzcuaro was a special one. Although it took almost twice as long to drive there from Mexico City because of Day of the Dead traffic, you couldn’t find a more quaint experience. The small center of Patzcuaro is endearing. There was an artisans market in the central plaza, surrounded by restaurants and street vendors selling tasty snacks and cute souvenirs. The main attraction is on Isla Janitizio in Lake Patzcuaro. Hundreds, if not thousands of visitors take the ferry to Isla Janitizio to visit the cemetery. If you don’t mind crowds, this is a fun little island to explore late at night when it comes to life. People sell Mexican street corn, tacos, and hot beverages on the street. You can walk in a single-file line through the crowded candle-lit cemetery, just make sure to be respectful of the families that come to visit their deceased loved ones. When you’re ready to go back to the mainland, grab a hot chocolate to help pass the time and keep you warm as you may wait an hour or more to catch the ferry back.
Another great option for Day of the Dead, is the small Pueblo Magico (magic town) of Tepoztlán. Less than two hours away from Mexico City (without holiday traffic), Tepoztlán offers a charming Day of the Dead experience. Admire the colorful, candle-lit ofrendas (alters), eat pan de muerto, and stroll through the cobblestone streets. There is a steep hike up the mountain to an Aztec temple and an impressive viewpoint. Afterward, eat a delicious pre-hispanic meal like roasted boar with pineapple and cactus in the town market.