Day of the Dead facts: everything you need to know about Mexico’s most famous fiesta
Don’t call it Halloween, or get it confused with All Saints Day. Mexico’s most unique festivity is called Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, and it’s one of the most anticipated events in the country’s calendar. But don’t let the name fool you, this is not a sad occasion! In fact, it’s one of the most vibrant and exciting parties in the world. We’ve got all the Day of the Dead facts you’ll need to understand this moving celebration. This is a sentimental holiday with a fascinating story – anyone who’s seen the movie ‘Coco’ will know it can melt the hardest of hearts!
Día de Muertos is a dynamic display of Mexican culture and the enormous importance of the family within it. It’s a tribute to ancestors and lost family members, soundtracked by traditional music and decorated in every colour of the rainbow. Unlike in other parts of the world where the subject of death is avoided, in Mexico it’s considered just a natural step in life – and is celebrated in style!
If you’re looking for information about this unique holiday, you’re in the right place. Read on to find out when, where and how Día de Muertos is celebrated in Mexico.
When is Día de Muertos celebrated?
The full celebration takes place between the 1st and 2nd of November every year, although the celebrations begin a few days before.
Officially, the holiday begins at midnight on November 1st with Día de Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents, where the lives of all lost children are remembered for 24 hours. Their spirits are said to be reunited with their parents.
At midnight on November 2nd, the celebrations shift to remember the spirits of all the dead. Throughout the next 24 hours, the spectacular grand finale of Día de Muertos takes place.
How is Día de Muertos celebrated?
According to tradition, during the night the souls of the dead return to visit their homes. Relatives place an altar – or ofrenda – inside, often decorated with a cross and pictures of the Virgin Mary, plus photographs of their deceased and many offerings including flowers, food, candles and toys for children. It’s also customary to visit cemeteries and create ofrendas at a loved one’s grave.
These ofrendas are made up of several levels which, aside from looking dazzlingly beautiful, are filled with objects related to the four elements:
- Incense is burned to represent the air, as well as to help souls find their way to the altar
- Candles represent fire, burning brightly in tribute to the person lost
- Flowers and food represent the earth and are meant to satisfy the deceased’s hunger
- Tequila shots represent water and are a symbol of celebration, toasting the life that was lived
Over the days leading up to Día de Muertos, streets and houses throughout the country are filled with bright orange cempasúchil flowers, AKA Mexican marigolds. Their eye-catching petals and strong scent are said to guide spirits towards their ofrendas.
During the celebrations people paint their faces to look like colourful skulls, an image that the rest of the world has come to associate with Día de Muertos. The skull is also depicted in decorations, masks and even food, such as sugar and chocolate skulls which are given as gifts to both the living and dead!
Always keep in mind that Día de Muertos shouldn’t be a sad occasion – it’s a day to remember loved ones and to celebrate the beauty of life.
Where is Día de Muertos celebrated?
Although Día de Muertos is celebrated throughout the country, there are areas in Mexico that go all out with the festivities. The best places to enjoy the Day of the Dead are:
The state of Michoacán offers maybe the best celebrations of all, especially in the town of Pátzcuaro. It’s attended by the region’s indigenous population, who gather around Pátzcuaro’s epic lake before burning candles and taking to the water in canoes. There’s a tiny island in the lake that houses an indigenous cemetery, where the moving celebrations take place until the morning. As in the rest of the country, people visit the tombs of their relatives and decorate them with flowers, drinks, candles and food, spending the night waiting for the arrival of their souls.
Mixquic, Mexico City
If you happen to be in Mexico’s capital during the Day of the Dead celebrations, we have good news! Mixquic, a small suburb to the southeast of the big city, hosts one of the most impressive parades in the whole country. The streets are flooded with skulls, flowers and people marching towards the local cemetery as the church bells chime. Would you expect anything less from one of Latin America’s most vibrant cities? This is a show that everyone should witness (at least) once in a lifetime!
Note from Hostelworld: If you’re looking for a little bit of luxury to unwind in after the festivities, look no further than Casa Pepe. This boutique hostel is a hub for foodies and culture lovers, with epic breakfasts, taco and tequila tastings and fun events like Lucha Libre wrestling nights! It’s an Instagrammer’s dream with a colourful rooftop bar, funky interiors and premium bunks. For some serious inspo, check out all of our hostels in Mexico City.
One of our favourite cities all year round but a particularly great spot to enjoy Día de Muertos to the fullest is Oaxaca. On November 1st and 2nd the streets and cemeteries of this colourful colonial city come alive with colourful cempasúchil flowers, candles and music. To feel the vibe of the festivities in the days leading up, there’s nowhere better than the city’s bustling markets. Head to the Central de Abastas to see locals rushing around to stock up on everything they need to create the best ofrenda!
Note from Hostelworld: Iguana Hostel Oaxaca offers 100% chilled vibes. Rooftop hammocks, an open-air bar, group meals and movie nights guarantee a laid-back time for anyone who stays at here and inevitably becomes part of the Iguana fam. To browse the best places to siesta after the fiesta, check out all of our hostels in Oaxaca.
In this colonial city, the tradition of the day of the dead has its origins in a Mayan festival, the Hanal Pixán. It all begins in the cemetery, where at dusk the “Passage of Souls” takes place, in which thousands of people dressed as skeletons with intricate, colourful skulls painted on their faces begin their lively march towards the city centre. Along the way there are hundreds of stands and ofrendas lining the streets.
We were lucky enough to experience this and it was one of the best experiences we had on our trip. It’s an emotional and enriching moment, a party that teaches you that nobody truly leaves this world at all if they live on in someone’s memory. We were all responsible for lighting the way home for the souls, paying tribute to death as something so intrinsic to life.
Note from Hostelworld: There are plenty of awesome hostels in Merida to choose from that’ll make your Día de Muertos experience even more unforgettable (if that’s possible!) Almost 4,000 of our guests can vouch for the dreamy Nomadas Ecohostel. Who doesn’t love a hostel that’s kind to our planet? Especially when it’s got a gorgeous pool and free salsa, cooking and yoga classes!
Headed to Mexico for this famous fiesta? We hope we’ve filled you in on all the need-to-knows! If you have any more tips for travellers getting ready for Día de Muertos, let us know in the comments below.
About the author:
Travel, food and art are the great passions of Rober and Lety, a couple who have felt tiny watching the sunrise in Burma, travelled on a bus with a goat on the roof in the Philippines and bathed under the milky way in New Zealand! Discover more adventures in their blog: Mochileando por el Mundo. Their motto: if many dream the same as you, dream stronger!
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