If you believe Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is the Mexican version of Halloween—we once did—you are in for a surprise. Outside of sharing a day and some cursory overlap in iconography, the two holidays differ greatly. So here is a very quick primer.
Between October 31 and November 2, people in Mexico use the holiday to honor loved ones who have passed. There’s an important distinction: Day of the Dead is not about celebrating the dead but instead about celebrating with the dead. That’s right, during these three days, it is believed that spirits of the dead return to earth essentially to party with those of us still here.
But to really understand Day of the Dead, you’ve got to experience it first-hand. Here are three places to visit in Mexico where you can experience one of the nation’s most culturally significant holidays, as well as the regional customs and traditions that make the time of year so special.
In the picturesque, festival-rich, colonial city of Oaxaca (one of our all-time favorite destinations), Day of the Dead is one of the biggest holidays of the year. Spirits are high (literally) as the city comes to life with celebrants building altars, decorating graves, and participating in theatrical performances that depict the return of the dead.
In Oaxaca, one regional culinary tradition associated with Day of the Dead is Mole Negro Oaxaqueño (Oaxacan black mole), a complex, pungent, and deeply flavored sauce made of an extensive list of ingredients including chocolate, cloves, cinnamon, roasted pasilla peppers, raisins, and almonds.
Visitors can roam the cobblestone streets looking for paths of marigold petals leading to intricate altars. Or they can join a parade of elaborately dressed revelers and brass bands and dance in the streets. Additionally, many area tour operators provide thoughtful and respectful tours to local cemeteries to see families enjoying picnics at the grave sites of deceased loved ones.
Photo courtesy NewOrleansOnline.com
In the southwest part of the city sits the Diego Rivera Museum, one of the most popular places to celebrate Day of the Dead in all of Mexico. Each year the museum marks the occasion by celebrating a different Mexican state as well as the life and works of Rivera, who painted Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central), which popularized the image of La Calavera Catrina, the female skeleton donning a plumed hat that has come to symbolize Day of the Dead.
Further southwest, check out lays San Andrés Mixquic, which is famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations. The small community draws thousands of revelers during the three-day period with a panoply of cultural and ritual events. Golden fields of marigolds, which are thought to attract the souls of the dead, are planted for the occasion and the village beckons visitors (both living and deceased) with intoxicating aromas of incense and sweet, freshly baked pan de muertos (bread of the dead).
While the popular vacation destination is seeing an increase in Halloween celebrations among locals and visitors alike, Day of the Dead and the Mayan holiday Hanal Pixan still play an important cultural role in the Riviera Maya region.
Viewfinder Tip: Day of the Dead events also occur before and after the official holiday. Plan to extend your visit if you are able.
Hanal Pixan is a two-day celebration specific to the Yucatan Peninsula. The holiday shares many similarities to Day of the Dead, with the most notable difference being the regionally specific food that is prepared during the holiday. One remarkable dish is El mucbipollo, a large corn tamale stuffed with chicken and pork, tomatoes, and peppers and then baked in a hole in the ground!
Xcaret, an ecological/archaeological theme park that is a day trip from Cancun, puts on the Festival de la Vida y la Muerte (Festival of Life and Death) in honor of Day of the Dead. The destination draws visitors with regional cuisine, workshops, crafts, gifts and altars, arts exhibitions, and gala concerts.
What holidays have you traveled to celebrate?