There’s more to Día de los Muertos than face paint and sugar skulls. In Mexico, the annual holiday of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated to honor the lives of ancestors and to acknowledge the ever-revolving cycle of life and death. It’s definitely not the “Mexican version of Halloween.” In 2008, the holiday was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as “a defining aspect of Mexican culture.”
When is Día de los Muertos?
Día de los Muertos is celebrated every year on November 1st and 2nd, just after Halloween in the United States. In 2021, the celebration falls on a Monday and Tuesday.
What is Día de los Muertos?
Día de los Muertos, one of the world’s most distinctive holidays, is the result of hundreds of years of intermeshing between colonial and native cultures. The festival’s roots stretch back nearly 3,000 years to the ancient traditions of Mexico and Central America’s Indigenous tribes (often grouped under the umbrella term, Nahua), primarily the Aztecs, who saw death as an ever-present part of life. The Nahua people believed that after death, a person had to make a journey of several years through nine arduous levels in the land of the dead to reach Mictlán, the soul’s final resting place. During August, family members of the deceased would leave offerings of tools, food, and water on graves and elaborate altars to aid their dearly departed along their unearthly travels.
However, when Spanish conquistadors came to the Americas in the 16th century, they brought Catholicism with them (as well as their iron will). In Europe, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were celebrated on the first two days of November. While All Saints’ Day commemorated all of the canonized saints, All Souls’ Day paid tribute to the souls of commoners. During All Souls’ Day, practitioners would decorate graves with flowers, wine, bread, and candles—it was believed that on these days, the dead would return to their family members and the offerings were meant to help them feel welcome. So, when Catholicism was brought to Mexico, All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day collided with the original Aztec holiday and Día de los Muertos was born.
How is Dia de los Muertos celebrated?
Customs vary across the country, but core traditions remain the same wherever you go: people erect and decorate ofrendas (altars) with pictures and mementos of loved ones. A rainbow variety of papel picados (elaborately cut paper banners) are strung from ceilings. Festival participants will often paint their faces to resemble skulls or create costumes that resemble skeletons or dead versions of significant Mexican historical or cultural figures. The best known is La Calavera Catrina, an artwork created by José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s, which has since become a folk icon.
Although Día de los Muertos seems somewhat grim with its focus on death, it’s actually a joyous holiday. During those two days in November, it’s believed that the borders between the spirit world and the living are at their weakest, and the dead are able to return to drink, dance, feast, and, well, live it up with their relatives. Ofrendas may be built in private homes or public squares and decorated with marigolds, candles, sugar skulls, atole (a hot, corn-based beverage), red rooster combs, favorite foods of the deceased, and, of course, pan de muerto (an irresistible sweetbread that’s decorated with crossbones). However, since all the food and drink can’t literally be enjoyed by the departed, the living partake in the ceremonial foods while dressed in their elaborate costumes.
Where is Dia de los Muertos Celebrated in Mexico?
Día de los Muertos is observed throughout Mexico and along the southern U.S. borderlands. To experience it yourself, here are four destinations where Día de los Muertos festivities are particularly lively:
One of Mexico’s most famous Día de los Muertos celebrations takes place on the small island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, located in the Mexican state of Michoacán (directly west of Mexico City and below the state of Jalisco). Every year on November 1, thousands of visitors gather in the local panteón (cemetery) to watch as the indigenous Purepecha people perform lively Día de los Muertos rituals late into the night. There are processions with music and folk dance performances, but the most impressive sight might be when local fishermen in rowboats illuminate the lake with torches.
How to get there
The nearest airport is in the state capital, Morelia, which is about 90 minutes away from Pátzcuaro by taxi. You can also take a direct bus from Mexico City’s western bus terminal to Pátzcuaro. Once in Pátzcuaro, local boats depart frequently from the muelle (dock) for Janitzio.
The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is known for its mezcal distilleries, traditional artisans, and generally well-preserved culture. During Día de los Muertos, colorful celebrations occur in Oaxaca City as well as in smaller villages across the region. From October 31 through November 2, the largest graveyard in Oaxaca City, Panteón de San Miguel, is decorated with pan de muerto, marigold flowers, candles, and other offerings.
Just a 20-minute taxi ride from the city in the Oaxacan village of Xoxocotlán, both the Panteón Viejo and Panteón Nuevo cemeteries attract crowds to candlelit gravesites backed by live mariachi bands.
How to get there
You can fly into the Oaxaca City Airport (OAX) from Mexico City (the flight is about one hour). OAX also receives daily international flights from Houston and Los Angeles. Once in Oaxaca, taxis and buses between the city and smaller villages are plentiful.
In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Day of the Dead celebrations are known as Hanal Pixan, or “feast for the souls.” During the holiday, many families in the Mayan region prepare elaborate traditional dishes for the return of their ancestors (in addition to participating in evening processions and setting up ofrendas in their homes). Intricate altars go on display in the zócalo (main square) of the Yucatán capital, Mérida, and the decorated gravesites in local cemeteries are also well worth seeing.
How to get there
The Mérida International Airport (MID) receives daily international flights from Houston, Miami, and Toronto. You can also connect to Mérida from Mexico City on flights from Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX), which take approximately two hours.
In Mexico City, Día de los Muertos can be a week-long affair. In past years, the highlight of the capital’s festivities was arguably its parade, the Desfile de Día de Muertos, which was first held in 2016 and inspired by the opening scene of the James Bond film Spectre, which features a crowded procession in the city’s streets. This year, however, due to the coronavirus, the parade will be noticeably less over the top (if there is one at all).
Usually, though, thousands of people gather in Mexico City’s Plaza del Zócalo to watch performers parade around dressed as colorful alebrijes (mythical creatures) or the elegant La Calavera Catrina. On the outskirts of the capital in the southern Xochimilco neighborhood, decorated canals and chinampas (floating gardens) set the scene for special night Día de los Muertos rides by trajinera (gondola boat) on November 1.
How to get there
Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX) connects 52 domestic and 50 international destinations spanning Latin America, North America, Europe, and Asia. Flights to the international airport are available via United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Aéromexico, Volaris, Interjet, and more.