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posted by Shelley | last updated February 19, 2021
Day of the Dead Oaxaca in 2021 on your bucket list?
Well then, you are indeed a wise traveler!
Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-kah) is truly one of the best travel destinations in Mexico; one not enough people have experienced. Its most popular cultural celebration, Dia de Muertos, is a Mexico bucket list experience for so many.
Let me just say from firsthand knowledge — it totally lived up to the hype.
You’ve landed in the right place to learn all about how to plan your trip to Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, because I went to the 2018 celebration. Now, I’m sharing all my Dia de los Muertos and Oaxaca travel tips, so you can have as amazing of a time as I did.
Prefer podcasts? This article is now available as a Day of the Dead podcast.
By the end of this article, you’re going to have a lot of knowledge about Oaxaca City, where the festival takes place. As Day of the Dead takes is just two days long, November 1-2, many stick around Oaxaca City for a few extra days, or head to the beautiful beaches of Oaxaca to lengthen the trip.
🏝 Head here for a complete Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido travel guide.
Besides that, you’ll discover everything from the history of Day of the Dead, to the symbolism of things like ofrendas (altars), sugar skulls and La Catrina herself; you’ll learn which Oaxaca cemeteries to visit, and where to stay in Oaxaca City — in short, we’re covering everything you need ton know for an epic Dia de los Muertos trip.
Ready to learn about all things Oaxaca Day of the Dead? Let’s get to it!
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Planning for Day of the Dead 2021
OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD
Where is Oaxaca?
Oaxaca state is located in south central Mexico, and Oaxaca City is in the center of the state. It is the capital city of the state, as well as the cultural, historic, artistic and agricultural hub of all Oaxaca.
You may hear Oaxaca City referred to by a few names. Officially, it’s Oaxaca de Juarez, though most people say Oaxaca.
As Oaxaca is both the name of the city and state, you may want to clarify when someone says “Oaxaca” as to where they are referring to.
OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD
How do I get to Oaxaca City?
Oaxaca International Airport (OAX), located just 20-30 minutes from Downtown Oaxaca, has direct flights from U.S. including Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, LA and Chicago.
If you’re already in Mexico, you can catch a connecting flights from the major hubs of Mexico City, Tijuana, Cancun, Guadalajara and Monterrey.
For those coming from the beaches of Oaxaca, head here for a complete travel guide that covers all the options you have for Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca City travel.
Once you arrive to OAX, you’ll take a short taxi or colectivo (shared shuttle) ride to your accommodation. The colectivo costs about $2-3 per person, and a private taxi will be about $10-15 total. You’ll easily find both options as soon as you walk outside of the airport.
🚕💨 Pro Tip: There’s no Uber in Oaxaca.
Oacaxa Car rentals
If you’re just staying in the city, don’t bother with a rental car. However, if you’re planning to explore Oaxaca before/after Day of the Dead, a car will certainly come in handy, and the airport is the best place for car rentals in Oaxaca City.
Mexico City to Oacaxa Bus
Mexico City is located about 7-8 hours by bus from Oaxaca City, with overnight trip options.
If you’re looking into the buses, check for luxury class tickets through Mexico’s largest bus company, ADO; the luxury tickets are a little more expensive, but a lot more comfy.
Mexico City to Oacaxa Flights
Domestic flight travel within Mexico is quick, convenient, and relatively inexpensive on low cost carriers like AeroMexico, Volaris and VivaAerobus.
For example, the bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca costs about $35USD, and can take eight hours. However, you can often find plane tickets for as little as $55USD, and flights are only about one hour.
OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD TIPS
There are two key things to keep in mind for Day of the Dead travel planning:
1. Book your accommodation as early as possible. Oaxaca City is a smaller town, and eventually, all Oaxaca hotels, hostels and Airbnbs do sell out. If you have particular needs when it comes to where you stay (ie. no stairs, full kitchen, walkablility, etc.), book early so you find a place that checks those boxes.
2. Book your tours as early as possible. If you’re looking to do an Airbnb Experience Day of the Dead tour in Oaxaca, you’ll want to book these well in advance also. For the most part, tours are kept small, and all end up selling out as well.
OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD
Best Neighborhoods in Oaxaca City
As they say — Location, location, location. Where you stay for Oaxaca Day of the Dead can either make, or break, your trip… so let’s get you in the “make” column.
For convenience of both having lots of amenities like restaurants, bars and pharmacies, all within walking distance, consider any of the three Oaxaca neighborhoods below.
🚕💨 Pro Tip: There’s no Uber in Oaxaca, though there are taxis. While taxis are usually easy to get, they take longer to hail during Dia de Muertos, the busiest time in to visit Oaxaca, Mexico.
Centro Historico (Downtown)
As with most cities, you can’t go wrong staying in or around Centro Historico, the Historic City Center, or Downtown. This is the area most Day of the Dead festivities take place, and a walkable part of town, so you won’t need to worry about catching a cab during this busy time in Oaxaca.
Located just outside of Downtown Oaxaca, colorful Jalatlaco (pronounced ha-lat-lack-oh) is very safe, with amazing restaurants, cool street art and colorful, colonial building. When I attended Day of the Dead, I stayed in this adorable rooftop Oaxaca Airbnb in Jalatlaco, Oaxaca, and loved it.
Beyond these two, Xochimilco (pronounced so-chee-mill-co), located north of Centro, is another one of the best neighborhoods in Oaxaca City. This is the oldest, most historic Oaxaca neighborhood, so you’ll still get the colonial city feel, but be further away from the crowds and noise.
OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD
Best Oaxaca Airbnbs
All Airbnbs in Oaxaca City you’ll find below are in either Centro Historico or Jalatlaco. Each one has been hand selected for location, value for the price and reviews for the host — so all you have to do is book and enjoy your Day of the Dead trip.
🏩 Prefer a Oaxaca hotel? Head here to discover the best hotels in Oaxaca.
🏠 More of a hostel traveler? Head here to discover the best hostels in Oaxaca.
OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD
Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tours
As a lot of Mexican companies don’t have websites, so unless someone has recommended you a tour company by name, it’s not super easy to locate Day of the Dead tours online.
Since this festival also doesn’t have an official list of events posted online for you to research in advance, local tour guides are a game changer. They will know best to show you where to find the best cemeteries, comparsas (parades) and festivities taking place.
If you’re wanting to do a group tour, and you don’t want to spend hours (or days) searching for a Day of the Dead Oaxaca tour company, your best best is an Airbnb Experience — which you can book below right now.
These tours are all lead by Oaxaca locals, so you’re in good hands. Here are a few of the best tours in Oaxaca City. These range from Dia de los Muertos tours and cultural experiences, to Hierve el Agua and Monte Alban Oaxaca day trips, and even cooking classes and mezcal tastings.
What is Day of the Dead?
The first thing you need to know about Day of the Dead — it is not Mexican Halloween. Day of the Dead is, however, one of the most important holiday celebrations in Oaxaca, and in much of Mexico.
Unlike many present-day rituals around death, Day of the Dead is not a somber funerary event. On the contrary, Dia de Muertos is a celebration, one so grand even the deceased return to attend the party held in their honor.
As this is a very cultural celebration, booking an Airbnb Experience with a Oaxaca City local is the way to go. However, even on days you don’t have a tour booked, you can just walk around downtown Oaxaca City and take in the visual magic that is Day of the Dead.
OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD
History of Dia de los Muertos
The holiday’s origins date back to the Aztec celebration of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, their Queen of the Underworld. Much like the current incarnation of Day of the Dead, the Aztec festival was a celebratory affair.
After Mexican colonization by the Spanish, who brought with them Christianity, the festival was moved from early-summer to fall. It’s new dates coincided with what Christians called Allhallowtide, another multi-day holiday commemorating the deceased.
Allhallowtide took place on October 31-November 2. The first day, October 31 was known as All Saints’ Eve; November 1, was All Saints’ Day; and November 2, was All Souls’ Day.
OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD
When is Day of the Dead?
Though it’s called “Day” of the Dead, the holiday takes place over two days each year, November 1-2, and the different days of the festival correspond to different spirits. As the spirits of our departed are said to return each day at midnight, many celebrations take place at night.
Since the first day of the celebration starts on November 1, the spirits will return at midnight, which is basically the night of October 31. Though this is technically the “eve” of Dia de Muertos, much like Christmas Eve, many consider it a festival day.
As you might imagine with such an elaborate affair, the Oaxaca City preparations begin at least a week prior. It’s really fun to see the city getting decorated with marigold flowers and watching the ofrendas (altars) being constructed, and visiting the cemeteries during the day.
• October 31
Though not an official festival day, many families observe October 31, the former All Saints’ Eve, by building elaborate ofrendas (altars) on the cemetery gravestone of their deceased loved one. As this is the eve of the souls returning, these preparations must be ready for the spirits’ arrival at midnight.
What to expect: There’s a lot of energy in town, as people are ready to officially celebrate after days and weeks of prep. Families visit the town’s cemeteries to decorate their loved ones’ graves and gravestones, and many put the finishing touched on the ofrendas (altars) outside of their homes on the street.
• November 1
What was formerly known as All Saints’ Day, is present-day Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). This day is said to honor the children who have passed. The spirits of the angelitos returned the night before, at midnight, but parties continue all day.
What to expect: More celebrations in cemeteries, as well as comparsas (parades), ofrendas (altars) in the streets and other city-wide festivities. Basically, the entire town is decorated and you’ll want to consider just walking around for hours to eat delicious Oaxacan food and see everything.
🌮🍺 Need Oaxaca restaurant tips? Head here to get a FREE Oaxaca Map with 33 places pined so you can easily find all the best restaurants and places to drink mezcal in Oaxaca.
• November 2
Formerly known as All Souls’ Day, November 2 is the actual “Day” of the Dead. On this day, families and loved one celebrate the adults in their life who no longer walk the Earth. The spirits of all adults returned the night before, at midnight, but parties will continue all day.
What to expect: More celebrations in cemeteries, as well as comparsas (parades), ofrendas (altars) in the streets and other festivities. This will often be the most lively day of the holiday.
OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD
Day of the Dead Do’s and Don’ts
🟢 Do: Participate! This holiday is about remembering the deceased, so Oaxacan families love when you ask about their departed loved ones honored on the altars. When you see a parade going by, jump in and start dancing with the locals.
🟢 Do: Have a day where your only plan is to walk the city. During Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, the whole town is transformed for this giant party, so explore as much as you can while the decorations are up.
🟢 Do: Ask for permission to take photos. To err on the side of caution, get permission from families this in the cemeteries and at their ofrendas (altars), and when photographing people.
🟢 Do: Pack noise cancelling earbuds or noise cancelling earplugs to get a good night’s sleep during this festive holiday. Day of the Dead is basically a three-day party with music and celebrations city-wide.
🛑 Don’t: Treat this as a tourist attraction! Day of the Dead is a centuries-old cultural tradition, so have fun, but know this is not the same thing as getting wasted on Burbon Street during Mardi Gras.
🛑 Don’t: On that note, don’t wear American-style costumes, and especially not the “sexy” variety — this is Dia de Muertos, not Halloween in the U.S.
🛑 Don’t: Touch or disturb anything, including altars or cemetery decorations.
🛑 Don’t: Use flash photography anywhere. In fact, to be safe you’ll want to just turn your flash from auto to off so it doesn’t accidentally go off.
Day of the Dead Symbols & Customs
1. Day of the Dead Cemeteries
Oct. 31 is the date many families will begin to decorate gravestones in the cemetery. If you can swing it, try to be in Oaxaca City to see this, especially if you’re into travel photography. The biggest of Oaxaca City’s cemetery celebrations takes place at the Panteon General, also called the San Miguel Cemetery.
If you’re venturing outside of Oaxaca City, head to the Panteon Viejo and Panteon Nuevo in Xoxocotlan and the Panteon San Agustin Etla in San Agustin Etla. Both towns are known for lively celebrations, though you’ll want to have a tour booked, or transportation in place before going.
The pueblo San Agustin Etla, located about 35 minutes from Downtown Oaxaca, has the biggest, most wild comparsa and beautiful cemetery of them all. I went with a small tour group booked through the Argado Guest House Hotel, and we were probably among only of a handful of tourists at the San Agustin Etla comparsa.
2. Day of the Dead Sugar Skulls
One of the icons of this holiday is the Day of the Dead sugar skull. Ironically enough, these confectionary treats don’t really have Mexican (or even pre-Hispanic) roots, and come from Europe.
Italian Catholic missionaries brought sugar art to Mexico in the 1600s. Unlike Europe, Mexico is abundant in sugar and sugarcane, so it became a natural place for these molded sugar figures to take root and form their own traditions.
Small and large sugar skulls
During Día de Muertos, sugar skulls will be made in two sizes. The smaller ones are often placed on a gravestone in honor and remembrance the departed children. These bite-sized ones can also be eaten, used for in-home ofrenda (altar) decoration, and can be taken home as souvenirs.
The larger ones represent a departed person, and that person’s name is written on the forehead of the skull. You’ll usually see these more elaborate, larger sugar skills placed on an ofrenda or gravestone for that person’s returning spirit. These are not mean to be eaten.
3. Marigold Flowers
The marigold flower, or cempasuchil (pronounced sem-pa-souch-ill), has been a part of this celebration dating back to its Aztec origins.
Throughout Mexico, marigolds are commonly referred to as flor de la muerto (flower of the dead) because of their close associations with the Day of the Dead holiday.
According to Aztecs beliefs, the flower’s bright color and strong scent let the spirits know exactly where they should return.
4. La Catrina: The Skeletan Woman
Besides Frida Kahlo, La Catrina might be the woman most commonly associated with Mexico. This elegant skeletal lady, who everyone paints their faces to look like, was born in 1910 when Mexican printmaker/illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada first drew her.
He named this figure, La Calavera Garbancera (The Elegant Skull), and she was drawn as satirical social commentary. His dapper woman with her fancy feathered-hat was a critique of Mexican society at the time, when many Mexicans were aspiring to dress and act more European.
Posada saw this as a snub to the more humble, and traditional style of Mexican dress. He created his Calavera Garbancera character as a skeleton who would serve as a reminder that we all eventually die one day — whether we’re wearing fancy clothing or not.
History of La Catrina
La Catrina’s transition into the official grand dame of Day of the Dead came after Mexican artist Diego Rivera (AKA Frida’s husband) painted her with a full-body and Victorian dress. Using a similar face, he took Posada’s La Calavera Garbancera and created who would become known as La Catrina.
Rivera’s 50-foot-long painting, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central), seen below, is the first-ever depiction of La Catrina. She is placed in the dead center of the painting (pun intended), with Rivera himself by her side.
5. Comparsas (Day of the Dead Parades)
You’ll hear a comparsa (parade) long before you see it coming, which is great because it gives you time to find it and join in.
Multi-instrument groups of costumed musicians join together to play festive Zapotec (native Oaxacans) music in the streets and lead processions throughout Oaxaca City.
The Grand Parade, or Magna Comparsa, is the one that opens the festival and goes all over the city. After this one, the smaller comparsas are either coming from, or headed to a cemetery, and you can join in with any you see passing by.
6. Ofrendas (Day of the Dead Altars)
Just walking the streets and alleyways of downtown Oaxaca City, you’ll see hundreds of ofrendas (altars). They are all decorated with marigold flowers, candles, copal incense and papel picado colorful paper flags.
You’ll also see photos of their loved ones and whatever food and drink they would want to consume on their arrival. They say when the dead return they will be hungry and thirsty from the journey, so we have to prepare accoringly.
7. Day of the Dead Sand Tapestries
In front of some ofrendas throughout Oaxaca City, you’ll find colorful and intricate tapetes de arena (sand tapestries). If you’re very lucky, you’ll even see as artist making one.
The tradition of sand art plays into the deeper meaning of Day of the Dead, that all things eventually blow away in the wind, or die.
For this reason, you’ll also see ground art made of other natural materials the wind can carry away, like marigold flower petals and even beans.
🌼 Pro tip: Each year, a different neighborhood hosts the annual Sand Tapestry Competition, so be sure to find out where the 2021 one will be!
8. Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead Bread)
Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is a type of bread roll/pastry that’s traditioanlly only made from about mid-September to mid-November for Day of the Dead. In Oaxaca, unlike the rest of Mexico, there is a small candy face placed in the center to represent a departed soul.
In most other parts of Mexico, the dough of the pan de muerto forms a cross shape on the top of the roll, and it’s topped with sugar. In Oaxaca City, the bread is topped with sesame seeds and isn’t as sweet. To sample some, head inside a panaderia (bakery) or be on the lookout for a street vendor.
Oaxaca, Mexico Travel FAQs
RELATED BLOG 🇲🇽 Safe Travel in Mexico: 20 Tips for Solo Female Travelers
1. Is Oaxaca safe for travel?
Short answer: Yes!
Longer answer: Aside from drinking too much mezcal, you’re in little danger in Oaxaca. In fact, Oaxaca, is one of the safest states in Mexico. Oaxaca City is the country’s 67th largest city, with a population of about 275,000, but retains a humble pubelo (small town) vibe.
As no place on Earth is 100% safe, you’ll want to follow the 10 General Travel Safety Tips below — you know, the same ones you’d follow when traveling anywhere. You should also register for the STEP Program and put your mind at ease with travel insurance.
Mexico Travel Insurance
Wondering Should I get travel insurance for Mexico?
The answer is of course yes, it will give you an added level of security and peace of mind during these strange travel times.
Just as you insure your car, home and body, you can also insure your luggage, belongings and health while traveling. If Mexico and Oaxaca travel safety are on your mind, get your free quote below from World Nomads, one of the biggest names in travel insurance.
10 General Travel Safety Tips
- Don’t walk home alone at night if you can help it; take a taxi.
- Always listen to your intuition because your intuition is always right.
- If you get a sketchy or uneasy feeling about a person or place, get away from that person or place immediately. If you feel you’re in danger, don’t worry about making a kind, nice, or politically correct exit from a creepy person or bad situation — Just get away ASAP.
- Don’t keep your phone, keys, wallet, passport, or anything valuable in your back pocket.
- Learn some basic Spanish. If you can’t learn it, save the infographic below as an image on your phone so you have something to use even if you’re off-WiFi.
- Take all of your belongings into the bathroom with you, rather than asking a cafe/bar neighbor to watch your things.
- Speaking of bar neighbors, don’t take drinks from strangers and/or leave your drink unattended near one.
- Don’t wear flashy clothes, expensive jewelry, designer sunglasses, etc.
- Keep some cash in your pocket so you don’t have to pull your whole wallet out every time you need to pay.
- This should be a no brainer since you’re traveling during a pandemic, but get Travel Insurance!
Register for the STEP Program
Make sure you enroll in the FREE STEP Program before your trip. The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, allows U.S. citizens traveling to Mexico to document your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. In Tulum, that’s the Consular Agency in Playa del Carmen.
After you’ve registered, the U.S. Embassy or Consulate can contact you in the event of an emergency, including natural disasters, civil unrest, etc. STEP can also put you in touch with your family and friends back home, in the event of an emergency while abroad.
Do I need to speak Spanish to visit Oaxaca?
Many Oaxaqueños don’t speak English, however with so many U.S. and European tourists, they get by. If you stick to the popular areas of Oaxaca, like Oaxaca City, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco, tour operators and people in the service industry will speak English. However, when venturing off the beaten path in Oaxaca, you can expect little to no English.
However, it is good manners to learn at last some basic Spanish when traveling to Oaxaca. 🎧 Listen to Episode 13 of the podcast as travel blogger Elizabeth talk about how she learned eight languages, and gives great tips for how to learn language basics in easy, fun ways.
If learning Spanish isn’t in the cards for you, #NoJudgement! Pin and/or save the infographic below on your phone so you’ll always have the words and phrases you need, even if you’re off-WiFi.
🇲🇽 Need Mexico travel safety info? This is the podcast for you!
2. Do I need a visa for Mexico?
No, U.S. passport holders don’t need a visa to travel to Mexico. This is just one reason Mexico is one of the best travel destinations for Americans.
When you arrive in Mexico and go through Customs and Immigration, you’ll receive a 180-day (6 month) FMM tourist visa. This is a small piece of paper that you need to hold on to so you can give it back to an Immigration officer when you leave the country, so don’t lose your FMM!
3. What do I pack for Oaxaca?
For the most part, Oaxaca City is hot year-round with 80-90F° days, and 60-70F°s nights. With Oaxaca’s sunny, hot days, definitely pack a LifeStraw Filterable Water Bottle to stay hydrated, eco-friendly sunscreen to avoid sunburns, and if you plan on drinking a lot of mezcal, anti-hangover meds.
As far as how to dress, Oaxacans are modest dressers, so pants/jeans with sleeved tops are the norm, even on hot days. However, sundresses, flowy, breathable, cotton, and light-colored clothing works. At night, you’ll want a jacket and boots in Oaxaca City.
💃 Related Blog: The Ultimate Packing List for Mexico + FREE Printable Checklist
packing for day of the dead in oaxaca
Since it’s Dia de Muertos, you might want to pack a special dress or outfit (or both!) to enjoy the nighttime festivities. If you don’t have one, you can always head to a local Oaxaca City mercado (market), like Mercado 20 de Noviembre and Mercado Benito Juarez, to buy a dress.
Costumes are the norm for locals, and many do go all out, with traditional Oaxacan garments and face painting. However, this is not the place for American style costumes, and skimpy outfits.
You don’t need to bring all your makeup for La Catrina face painting, as you can just pay someone about $50 pesos ($3USD) on the street to do it. You, however, will want a good makeup remover!
You’ll also find plenty of vendors selling inexpensive flower crowns to complete the look. I bought two flower crown headbands for about $100 pesos ($5USD).
🌺 Pro tip: Head to one of the Oaxaca mercados mentioned above and look for a flower vendor selling fresh flower crowns.
🧳 FREE Printable Packing List for Mexico
Wondering exactly what to pack for Oaxaca and all of Mexico? Download your FREE printable packing list for Mexico below — it covers both Mexico beach packing and packing for Mexico cities. This multi-page Mexico packing checklist covers everything you’ll want to bring, and more importantly, what not to bring to Mexico.
Final Thoughts: Oaxaca Day of the Dead
Is Day of the Dead in Oaxaca worth It?
As it will take at least two flights, or a flight and a bus to get to, you might be wondering if traveling to Oaxaca Day of the Dead worth it.
The short answer is… can we curse around here!?… because FU+K YES IT IS.
Oaxaca, in a word, is magical. Oaxaca is the Mexico people imagine Mexico to be. This state has it all: rich history, gorgeous beaches, colorful festivals, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, locally-made mezcal, beautiful nature, colonial architecture, artisan communities — and of course, the food!
Mix all that with one of the most fun, beautiful, lively, cultural festivals on the planet, and you can’t go wrong with a Oaxaca trip to Dia de Muertos.
a word of warning:
The only caveat for going to Oaxaca Day of the Dead is you have to actually plan in advance. Oaxaca is a small town, and its hotels, hostels and Oaxaca Airbnbs will sell out, and so will all the Day of the Dead tours. If you make sure to book everything in advance, you’re in for the trip of a lifetime 🌺💀🌺
Have questions about Oaxaca Day of the Dead?
If there was anything I didn’t cover, please ask away in the comments down below!
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