Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is all about altars with candles, flowers, and photos of loved ones that have passed. Oh, and don’t forget the fireworks, mezcal, costumes, and dancing, of course!
Celebrating the dead might seem like a bizarre concept for some, but that’s exactly what Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) is all about. Day of the Dead is celebrated on October 31, November 1, and November 2 every year.
One of the best places to celebrate this annual holiday is Oaxaca City in southern Mexico. We spent over a month living there to get the full Oaxaca Day of the Dead festival experience.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to experience an incredible Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico, including cultural tips from a Mexican, the best places to witness the festivities, and a suggested Day of the Dead itinerary.
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- Where is Oaxaca?
- How to Get to Oaxaca
- Where to Stay in Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead
- Best Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tours
- When is the Day of the Dead?
- What is the Day of the Dead?
- History of Dia de Muertos
- Day of the Dead Traditions and Altars
- Day of the Dead Parades and Parties
- Visiting the Cemetery on Dia de Muertos
- Day of the Dead Celebration in Oaxaca City
- Where to Go for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
- Oaxaca Day of the Dead Itinerary 2023
- Day of the Dead 2023 Event Schedule
- Final Thoughts on Oaxaca's Day of the Dead
Best Day of the Dead Tours in Oaxaca
Here are our top picks for Day of the Dead tours in Oaxaca City and the neighboring villages:
- 🪅 Best Cultural Tour: Authentic Day of the Dead Celebrations in Etla Town (Visiting Etla on Dia de Muertos is a must!)
- 💀 Best Private Tour: Celebrating Day of the Dead in Xoxocotlan
- 🇲🇽 Best Multi-Day Tour: Nat Geo Day of the Dead 7-Day Small Group Tour
Where is Oaxaca?
Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HAH-ka) is located in southern Mexico. Oaxaca is both the name of the state and its capital city. The full name of the city is Oaxaca de Juarez, but most just call it Oaxaca or Oaxaca City.
It’s known for being one of Mexico’s most culturally vibrant cities and for having some of the best regional cuisines in the country.
Check out our Ultimate Guide to Oaxaca City for more tips on things to do and see in the state capital.
How to Get to Oaxaca
The nearest airport to Oaxaca City is Oaxaca International Airport (OAX), also known as Xoxocotlán Airport. There are direct flights from the US to Oaxaca via Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles.
It’s usually cheaper to fly into Mexico City and then take the 45-minute flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca on a budget airline, like Volaris. There are also flights from Cancun, Merida, Guadalajara, and Tijuana.
You need to book your flights to Oaxaca months ahead of time because they sell out for the Day of the Dead.
Oaxaca Airport Transfer
The airport is about 20-30 minutes from Oaxaca’s city center, depending on traffic, and there are several transportation options for getting there.
We recommend booking this private Oaxaca airport transfer to your hotel. A pre-paid transfer is less of a hassle and more comfortable after a long day of travel and connecting flights.
There are taxis for about 20 USD and shared public transport vans called colectivos for about 5 USD.
Mexico City to Oaxaca Bus
Mexico has an excellent bus transportation company called ADO. Read our guide to Mexico’s ADO buses for everything you need to know about ADO, including how to buy tickets, bus class descriptions and insider tips.
The ADO bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca usually takes about 7 hours, but there is an overnight option.
Oaxaca Car Rental
We recommend Discover Cars for booking car rentals because they have the best deals and offer full coverage for 50% less than others.
Check out our article on renting a car in Mexico for driving tips and important things to know when booking a rental.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead
One of the best areas to stay in Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead is the historic city center (Centro Histórico).
It’s the heart of the city’s Day of the Dead festivities and extremely walkable so you can avoid waiting and overpaying for taxis during the busiest time of the year in Oaxaca.
Book your accommodations as early as possible (at LEAST 6 months before) for any chance of getting a nice place near the centro histórico.
Here are some of the top picks from our list of the best hotels in Oaxaca:
Oaxaca Vacation Rentals
We recommend booking Oaxaca vacation rentals through Vrbo over Airbnb. Vrbo provides top-quality private home rentals and fraud protection. Again, you need to book these at the very least 6 months in advance.
- Oaxaca City Penthouse: 3 bedroom and 3 bathroom condo with incredible views and walking distance from the main square
- Charming Colorful Apartment: Charming 1 bedroom and 1 bath about a 15-minute walk from the main square
Best Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tours
Taking a Oaxaca Day of the Dead tour is a must for truly experiencing Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. The knowledgable local guide help you gain a better understanding of everything that’s happening on the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca (it’s a lot to take in!). You really do need a guide because there’s a meaning and symbolism behind every dance, costume, and even the number of steps on the altars.
Remember to book your tour as soon as possible! A few of the most popular tours are already sold out for 2023.
- Authentic Day of the Dead Celebrations in Etla: a visit to witness the unique muerteada celebrations in nearby Etla. Visiting the village of Etla for Dia de Muertos is once of our most memorable experiences so far!
- Day of the Dead Tour in Xoxocotlán: a guided tour of the cemetery and celebrations in the town of Xoxocotlan
- Celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca Tour: a guided walk around the historic city center and the Oaxaca City cemetery
- Oaxaca City Day of the Dead Night Tour: a guided tour to Jalatlaco and multiple cemeteries
- Sacred Day of the Dead Experience: a true cultural immersion with face painting, professional photos, altar building, and a cemetery visit (SOLD OUT UNTIL 2024)
- Nat Geo Day of the Dead Tour: a 7-Day small group tour of Oaxaca and Day of the Dead celebrations with guided tours, transportation, and accommodations included
When is the Day of the Dead?
Day of the Dead is an annual event in Mexico that takes place across three days: October 31, November 1, and November 2.
What is the Day of the Dead?
Day of the Dead is a sacred time when family members that have passed return to this world to visit their living relatives.
Mexican believe that each dead family member can visit on only one of these nights. Their night depends on the age they were when they passed away.
Midnight of November 1 (the night of October 31) is when the “little angels” return. These are the spirits of children that have passed. November 2 at midnight (the night of November 1) is when those who died as adults come to visit.
Imagine if you got to spend one night per year with your deceased loved ones. You’d probably want to do everything you can to make their short visit as amazing as possible!
This is basically what the Day of the Dead is all about. Its families eagerly preparing altars for their relatives’ return, spending time at their graves, cooking traditional Oaxacan cuisine, and throwing parties to celebrate this joyous event.
We arrived in Oaxaca on October 1 and observed how the preparations took place over the course of a month. This is not just a 3-day event. The Day of the Dead events and celebrations and decorations take months to plan and prepare.
History of Dia de Muertos
The roots of Day of the Dead celebrations date back centuries to a time when prehispanic civilizations ruled the land. They believed that death was simply the beginning of a sacred journey into the underworld. Because of this, the dead were buried along with items they would need to survive during this long trek.
After the Spanish arrived, these prehispanic traditions mixed with Catholic beliefs to form the holiday known as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Dia de Muertos (Day of Dead), or simply, Muertos (Dead).
The festivities are so significant that In 2008, the Day of the Dead became recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Modern-day Day of the Dead includes celebratory events like muerteadas and comparsas (more on these later), and even some Halloween costumes.
Although the holidays are celebrated on the same dates because the Spanish moved the celebrations to coincide with All Saints Day, it’s important to remember that the Day of the Dead is not Mexican Halloween.
In fact, some Mexicans are actively trying to prevent Halloween’s influence from encroaching on Day of the Dead’s ancient traditions.
Day of the Dead Traditions and Altars
A few weeks before November, candied pumpkins, cempasúchil flowers (marigolds), and pan de muertos begin invading the Oaxaca markets, the rich smell of freshly milled cacao permeated throughout, and the plaza filled with plumes of copal incense rising from vendors’ carts.
During this time, locals are busy gathering all of the essentials to build their Day of the Dead altars, or ofrendas, at home. The altars are beautifully decorated with photos of the deceased relatives and all of the things they loved, including their favorite Oaxacan food and drinks.
There’s usually a glass of water to quench their thirst upon arrival from the long journey. Entire plates of typical dishes like tamales and mole con pollo. Pan de muerto and hot chocolate for dessert. Along with mezcal, beer, and some cigarettes.
The altars are filled with a colorful mix of prehispanic symbolism and Christian beliefs. Fresh fruit, tree branches, marigolds, copal incense, sugar skulls, candles, and crosses.
Many of the hotels and restaurants will have altars set up for tourists to take photos. You’ll also find an enormous altar at the Zocalo (main square).
If you want to see the real thing inside people’s homes, you should make the rounds at the Altar Contest. The last time we were there, it took place on the evening of November 2 in the Xochimilco residential area.
Day of the Dead Parades and Parties
Although the altars and cemetery vigils were what we thought defined Day of the Dead, spending just a few nights in Oaxaca made us realize we were so, so off.
Looking back at it now, it’s obvious that Day of the Dead celebrations would not be complete without the never-ending comparsas and muerteadas.
These are Day of the Dead parades and parties that take place throughout the month of October into November. From what we saw, they take place at pretty much any hour of the day or night and can last an entire day.
Yes, as in 24 hours straight of music, dancing, and mezcal (the local liquor).
Tip: Check out this Mezcal and Mole Tasting Experience to learn more about Oaxaca’s favorite liquor and famous mole sauces.
By the way, party parades (as we like to call them) also take place throughout the year for different reasons such as weddings, but these are called calendas.
You can quickly tell a regular calenda apart from a comparsa or muerteada because the latter will include people dressed up in Day of the Dead costumes, such as catrinas, skeletons, or devils.
Anyway, the best thing to do when you hear the firecrackers, beating drums, and cheerful shouting off in the distance (or better yet, coming your way) is to run out into the street and follow that noise and join them!
One random Wednesday at around 2 pm, we had just finished up lunch when we heard the telltale firecrackers and music. We followed our ears to the iconic Santo Domingo church where we came upon several bands playing, people dancing, firecrackers in the air, and spinning globes (see photo).
As soon as we entered the church atrium, one reveler with a giant glass jug of homemade mezcal and cups spotting us, flashed us a huge smile, and quickly handed us drinks. As if he was embarrassed that no one had offered us one sooner.
Hello, new best friend!
After that, we had at least 2 other people hand us shots of various libations, including the deliciously fruity one featured below.
To see the biggest comparsa of them all, be sure to arrive in Oaxaca the Sunday before the Day of the Dead. That’s when the Day of the Dead Parade (Magna Comparsa) took place the last time we went. It was about 2 hours’ worth of non-stop, jaw-dropping costumes, musical bands, giant paper mache puppets, and fireworks.
The Day of the Dead parade usually takes place along Calzada Porfirio Diaz all the way to Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña.
Visiting the Cemetery on Dia de Muertos
Another essential aspect of Day of the Dead traditions is spending time with family at the loved ones’ tombs. During the days leading up to the big night, relatives tend to the tombs by cleaning them off and decorating them with colorful flowers and candles.
On the Day of the Dead, the families head to the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They set up chairs, tables, and tents to spend the day and night remembering those who have passed. Just like you would set up for a day at the park with your family, except at a cemetery.
Some families spread tablecloths on the tombs where food and drinks are laid out for everyone to enjoy while they reminisce about the good times spent with their loved ones.
Musicians strolling the cemetery are hired to play the dead person’s favorite songs. Mezcal toasts are made in honor of the lives of loved ones. The candlelit veladas (vigils) continue from sunset to sunrise.
Day of the Dead Celebration in Oaxaca City
Oaxaca is the place to experience the Day of the Dead. It’s considered by many to be the cultural and culinary capital of Mexico. That alone makes it a must-visit destination, but when you add in the Dia de Muertos celebrations, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The streets are alive with music, fireworks, and colorful papel picado. Multi-level altars for the dead adorn entryways everywhere you turn.
This city lives and breathes the Day of the Dead. So much so that the city sponsors back-to-back events on the last week of October into the first days of November. You can pick up a brochure with the events schedule at the tourist booth in front of Santo Domingo.
Some of the main city-sponsored events for the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca typically include:
- Magna Comparsa (Day of the Dead Mega Parade)
- Day of the Dead Altar at the Zocalo
- Feria de Pan y Chocolate (Chocolate and Bread Festival)
- Video mapping and sand tapestries at Plaza de la Danza
- Free concerts
- Free hot chocolate and pan dulce
- Costume contests
- Dance exhibitions
- Altar contest
If you’re eager to join in the festivities, you can get your face painted like a skull, wear these glow-in-the-dark skeleton gloves and a crown of flowers, and join in on one of the many parties or just walk around the city. The locals are more than inviting and are happy to share their traditions (and mezcal) with tourists.
Or go to the market to sample some of the seasonal specialties like ponche (hot fruit punch), candied squash, and pan de muertos (a bread baked only for the occasion with bone-like designs on top).
Where to Go for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Since there are an endless amount of things to do in Oaxaca during this time, you can quite literally walk out your hotel door and run into all kinds of memorable Day of the Dead experiences.
If you want to celebrate like the locals, visit the places below. Just be prepared to stay up late for all of these, as the later into the night, the better the celebrations get.
Oaxaca’s main cemetery is within walking distance from the city’s historical center. Stroll over during the day or night (October 31-November 2) to observe the families gathering around the tombs in remembrance.
We enjoyed visiting during the day to get a better view of the decorated tombs. We then grabbed a drink and a bite to eat at the fair right outside the gates.
This guided Oaxaca Cemetery Tour takes you to visit the Panteon General on the night of Day of the Dead.
Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan
Xoxocotlan, or Xoxo (pronounced ho-ho), as the locals call it, is a small city about a 25-minute drive from Oaxaca. This is a good place to visit if you’re looking for a more traditional celebration in a cemetery and a bit of muerteada.
For the best experience and reliable transportation back to the city, book this guided Day of the Dead tour to Xoxocotlán.
San Agustin de Etla
This town is known for its traditional muerteada and a unique play meant to make light of death with actors playing a bishop, devil, widow, mayor, and others. The play starts around 11 pm, followed by the muerteada, and goes into the next morning.
This was hands down one of the most memorable, unique, and craziest things we’ve ever witnessed.
I’m not really sure how to put it into words, so I’ll let the photo above speak for itself. But we did get a few blurry photos while drinking mezcal with our new friends: a mob of dancing devils and skeletons.
We took a 30-minute taxi to San Agustin, but it was hard finding transportation back. We highly recommend taking this guided Day of the Dead tour to Etla to get an explanation of what’s happening and to secure your transportation back. Remember, most of the taxis will be celebrating, too! Another option is to show up early, get a room at one of the few posadas, and just go with the flow until sunrise.
Oaxaca Day of the Dead Itinerary 2023
Here’s the perfect 7-day itinerary for Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2023:
Day 1: October 27
- Spend the day settling in and getting to know the city (check out this Ultimate Guide to Oaxaca for the best things to do).
- Take an Oaxaca street food tour to learn about its world-famous cuisine
- A little before 6 pm, grab a spot along the street to watch the city’s official Day of the Dead parade from 6-8 pm
Day 2: October 28
Day 3: October 29
- Take a Monte Alban guided day tour to explore the ancient ruins of Monte Alban.
- Enjoy Oaxaca’s best foods and drinks in the evening
Day 4: October 30
- Take a day trip or guided Mitla tour to explore the Zapotec ruins in Mitla, see the world’s largest tree in Santa Maria del Tule, and sip some mezcal in Matatlan.
Day 5: October 31
- Explore the best markets in Oaxaca city and take a stroll around El Zocalo to see the Day of the Dead decorations and altars
- Later that night, visit the Panteon General to witness the locals preparing for the arrival of the angelitos (deceased children) or take this guided tour of the Oaxaca Panteon.
Day 6: November 1
- At night, take a guided tour to see a muerteada celebration (a once-in-a-lifetime experience) in San Agustin de Etla or a tour of the Xoxocotlan cemetery
Day 7: November 2
- Walk over to the Panteon General to experience the Day of the Dead in the daytime. Enjoy a michelada and some elote at the festival just outside the cemetery gates.
If you have more time in Oaxaca…
- Book an ADO bus or rent a car in Mexico to explore the Oaxaca beaches along the Pacific Coast. Check out the surfer haven of Puerto Escondido, Mazunte, the laid-back Zipolite beach, and the beautiful Huatulco bays
- Take a guided hiking trip to the Sierra Norte mountains just north of the city.
Day of the Dead 2023 Event Schedule
The city of Oaxaca sponsors its own Day of the Dead activities every year, including parades, costume contests, workshops, and free concerts.
Unfortunately, Oaxaca City doesn’t publish its schedule of events for the Day of the Dead until just a few weeks before the holiday. We’ll update this article with the latest info once it’s available in October.
In the meantime, you can take a look at last year’s Dia de Muertos event schedule below to get a better idea of what’s in store.
Final Thoughts on Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead
There is so much to learn about and experience during the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca that it would be impossible to write it all down in one post, but I’ve done my best to cover the basics. Just know that no matter what you end up doing, the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you won’t soon forget!
Remember to book your Day of the Dead tour as soon as possible because they sell out quickly!
- 🌼 Best Cultural Tour: Sacred Experience: Face Painting, Pro Photos, Build an Altar, and Cemetery Visit
- 💀 Best Private Tour: Celebrating Day of the Dead in Xoxocotlan
- 🪅 Best Village Tour: Authentic Day of the Dead Celebrations in Etla
- 🇲🇽 Best Multi-Day Tour: National Geographic Day of the Dead 7-Day Small Group Tour
Do you have any questions about celebrating the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca? Leave your questions in the comments below.
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