Every year Oaxaca Mexico comes alive for the colorful Dia de los Muertos festival, also called the Day of the Dead. Strongly rooted in Mexico’s indigenous traditions, this festival honors and celebrates the relatives and ancestors that have passed on. During the period from October 31st to Nov 2nd, elaborate altars are constructed for the dead, parades and live music fill the streets, traditional moles are prepared, and late night vigils are conducted in the cemetery.
Aside from the festival, Oaxaca’s center is filled with colonial-style churches, a car-free main square, trendy mezcal bars, and many traditional restaurants.
What is the Day of the Dead?
Although the Day of the Dead festival occurs at the same time as Halloween, the two holidays differ significantly. Halloween tends to focus on ghosts and trick or treating, whereas Dia de los Muertos is a celebration and remembrance of relatives who have passed on, inviting them back into the lives of the living for one short week before they have to depart again into the afterlife. Although the Spanish linked the holiday to the Catholic All Souls Day in an effort to colonize Mexico, it’s no secret that Dia de los Muertos is strongly rooted in the local indigenous traditions of pre-colonial Mexico.
Even with its strong emphasis on honoring the dead, this is not a sad event; don’t expect tearful vigils by gravesites, or people in mourning, this is a fun celebration marked with feasting, parades and live music!
Shopping and Markets in Oaxaca
A fun way to get involved first hand in the Dia de los Muertos is with a visit to a local markets: check out Benito Juarez market, 20 de Noviembre market, or further afield is the massive Abastos market. During the festival week these markets become increasingly crowded with shoppers purchasing colorful decorations, costumes and ingredients for traditional dishes.
The excitement is contagious at the 20 de Noviembre market, children pour through booths filled with devil masks and skeleton costumes, laughing and picking out their attire for the kids parade. Stalls and tables are overflowing with grave site offerings (ofrendas) and altar decorations such as fragrant copal incense, bright orange marigold flowers called cempasuchitl coined flor de muerto (flower of the dead), candles, and religious statues.
The market is also a great place to buy purchase inexpensive souvenirs and decorations to take home. Many vendors sell wooden Day of the Dead boxes; these colorful scenes depict skeletons poking fun at everyday life and human existence. Typical scenes may include a skeleton mariachi band, a skeleton riding a bicycle, or two skeletons getting married. Other fun items to purchase are the hanging ornamental metallic cut-outs of male and female skeletons and devils in festive clothing. Sugar Skulls are an iconic image as well; many stands and carts are filled with dozens of chocolate or sugar skull candies in all shapes and sizes, some with names written across their foreheads.
Benito Juárez is the main food market located just a couple blocks south of the main Zócalo. This is a great place to sample and purchase traditional food items that are central to Oaxaca. Mole is a popular holiday sauce or paste that comes in many varieties like Roja (red) or Verde (green). But the main staple for the holidays in Oaxaca is Mole Negro, a dark paste made with chilis, freshly ground chocolate, garlic, tomato, herbs, cloves, and many other seasonings usually served over chicken, turkey, pork or enchiladas. Another popular holiday item is Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead); visitors will see dozens of large displays of these big round loaves or some formed in the shape of bodies with skulls baked into them.
Adventurous eaters can try some chapulines; this crunchy salty snack is made from grasshoppers and insects seasoned with chili and salt. Visitors will see many chapulines vendors with overflowing baskets and carts filled with these crunchy snacks.
Chocolate lovers will be in heaven in Oaxaca. The chocolate sold is locally produced, freshly ground and minimally processed. For a delicious treat at the market try a creamy hot chocolate made with milk or water served with a side of mini pan de muerto. Afterwards head over to Mina Street, coined chocolate street, to visit one of the local purveyors of chocolate. Visitors can watch as the cocoa beans are ground in large grinders into a rich creamy chocolate paste to later be made into bars or mole. This is a great place to purchase fresh chocolate bars for souvenirs or to eat.
Shopping at Abastos Market in Oaxaca
The bustling Abastos market is another major market on the outskirts of Oaxaca. Navigating this humongous market can be tricky, especially on the days during the festival. But it is worth it. The market is packed with food vendors selling fruits, vegetables, chocolate, cheese, meat, and fish. In addition, there are huge sections selling furniture, religious goods, clothes, shoes, rugs, birdcages and pet products. The handicraft section is overflowing with hand-made baskets and clay and glazed pottery.
The streets leading in and out of this daily market can get extremely crowded, especially during the holidays. Because parking is an issue, it is not advised to rent a car to get there. The most convenient and affordable way to get to Abastos is by public transportation or private taxi.
Constructing a Day of the Dead Altar
Many shops, businesses and homes will have a large altar set up for Dia de los Muertos. The tradition of setting up an altar has a dual purpose: to pay respect and honor the dead and also to invite the deceased back to visit. Most altars contain pictures of loved ones, Cempasuchitl flowers (marigolds), candles, offerings of fruit, chocolate, incense, sugar skulls and candies. Usually people place favorite items their loved ones enjoyed while alive on the altars. If the deceased drank or smoked, one will place a shot of Mezcal or a cigarette on the altar.
A trail of marigold flowers, candles and sand leading from the door to the altar will help show souls the way back home. Copal incense has a heavy flagrant scent and is burned as an offering to the deceased and to help purify the souls of the dead so they can safely make it back to the afterlife.
The Xoxocotlan Cemetery in Oaxaca
The Xoxocotlan cemetery comes alive (pardon the pun) with an almost carnival-like atmosphere on October 31st with live music, clusters of food vendors serving delicious traditional foods and partying crowds that spill out of the cemetery onto the streets. The atmosphere is contagious – order a giant foot-long stuffed flour tortilla filled with ground meat, cheese, beans and hot peppers, and wash it down a cervesa fria (cold beer).
Xoxo ( pronounced ho-ho) cemetery is divided into two sections: the pantheon Viejo (old) and pantheon Nuevo (new). Each area exudes its own atmosphere and experience for the all-night gravesite vigil. The old side offers a more traditional and quiet approach. Families quietly sit around the dimly lit decorated graves and share stories of their loved ones. In the center of the pantheon Viejo is the Capilla de San Sebastián; this old church structure is a sight to see. It was built in the early 1500s by missionaries and has been damaged by multiple earthquakes.
The new area of the cemetery is louder and filled with a younger partying crowd. Many children and adults wear costumes, and the graves are elaborately decorated with statues, candles and sand art displays. At the pantheon Nuevo the music, drinking and partying go on well into the morning hours. Although there is a fun, festival nature to this holiday, it has deep spiritual meaning to its participants. The cemetery is not a tourist attraction, so it is essential to be respectful when viewing and walking through the gravesites.
Dia de los Muertos Events
Many of the main events are centered around the Zócalo or city square. This tree-lined square is filled with restaurants, cafes, churches, and shops. Many of the comparsas, or traditional parades, originate and end at the Zócalo. These are not scheduled events so check with your hotel for more information.
During the course of the week, dozens of people are busy constructing large scale sand art displays in the center of the Zócalo. These intricate colorful works of art depict skeletons or scenes typical of Dia de los Muertos. Another fun sight are the dozens of giant decorative skulls that line the main streets surrounding the Zócalo. These colorful six-foot tall paper mache skulls are elaborately constructed with colorful themes and artwork by local artists.
Tours in Oaxaca Mexico
Many tour companies and taxi services are available in town to help visitors navigate and make sense of this event. Norma Hawthorne of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator offers small group size photography expeditions to the festival in both Oaxaca and Teotitlan del Valle. The most valuable part of her tour is her personal expertise on the culture of the area.
Another option is to visit Oaxaca on your own and use private taxis or guides, easily arranged upon arrival. Oaxaca is a safe city, sheltered from the violence prevalent in the border cities of Mexico. Once in Oaxaca, most of the sights and events are within walking distance from the main square and the historic center.
Dia de los Muertos is a colorful festival full of fun activities and events not to be missed. Visitors to Oaxaca are often captivated with its old-world charm, its gourmet restaurants, trendy bars, amazing markets and colonial churches.