Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, or Mexicans Really Know How to Fiesta

Day of the Dead parade Oaxaca

I didn’t know what to expect from the Day of the Dead festivities in Oaxaca, and I was trying not to get my hopes up. After all, many things in this world don’t live up to the hype: New Years Eve, most Super Bowls, Star Wars Episode I.

However, as soon as we arrived in the colonial city we knew we were in for something special. The streets were abuzz with people, the zocalo was packed with vendors, music was everywhere and catrinas and diablos mingled among the throngs of people. The festivities seemed to be going full throttle, yet the Day of the Dead was still three days away!

October 29-31: Parades and non-stop Fiesta

Every year at the end of October/first of November, Mexicans take a few days to celebrate the dead. On November 1, or thereabouts, the spirits of the deceased return and family and friends gather to remember, pray and party with the dead. Oaxaca is famous for its celebrations and we went out of our way to be there for the fiesta.

In the days leading up to Dia de los Muertos, small yet raucous parades featuring costumed locals, with marching bands in tow, flowed through the streets, clogging traffic and attracting gangs of spectators. Some parades consisted of kids and others of adults in gruesome costumes who passed out free shots of mezcal as they went along – you gotta love Mexico! Even the dogs took part, with a parade of costumed pets.

Aside from the frequent, noisy processions, the zocalo and squares were filled with activity. Food stalls, craft vendors, lectures, political speeches, rock bands, costume contests, and street musicians all vied for the attention of the hordes of people.

November 1 – A Visit to the Cemeteries

On the night of November 1, the focus shifted from the streets to the cemeteries. We visited three local cemeteries, all of which had very different atmospheres. First, we went to the San Miguel cemetery, or Panteon General, the main burial place in Oaxaca City. The atmosphere within the cemetery was tranquil and beautiful. On this night, the spirits of deceased children visit the cemetery, so only the graves of kids were decorated. In addition, the burial niches in the old part of the cemetary were illuminated with candles creating an ethereal atmosphere.  Well, to a point…

Near the niches, a makeshift stage was erected in the cemetery and a Beatles cover band was rocking the deceased and living alike. Colored stage lights danced over tombstones and illuminated costumed revelers while crowds of people stood atop tombstones to get a better view. It was a surreal experience, like entering a kaleidoscopic fever dream of an opium addict.

Just outside the cemetery walls the scene was almost as bizarre – a carnival, complete with games, rides and food stalls – filled the streets. It looked like an independence day celebration, not a day to mourn the dead.

Next, we traveled to the nearby town of Xoxocatlan, known as Xoxo and pronounced ho-ho. Xoxo has two cemeteries, a larger new cemetery and an older, smaller one. The new cemetery was the scene of a riotous party as mariachi bands played while inebriated people danced around graves, nearly tripping over mourners who sat pensively, silently, next to tombs.

The old cemetery was a completely different scene, as all the graves were illuminated with candles and the few mourners sat quietly. Outside the walls, however, was a scene of street food, heavy drinking, loud music and many people partying despite the late hour.

November 2 – The Fiesta Won’t Stop

After staying up nearly all night to see the festivities, we had every intention of going to bed early on the 2nd of November. As we had dinner in the Zocalo, the square began to fill up with revelers. Shortly after dark, three raucous parades converged in the zocalo, this time with dancing more wild and costumes more elaborate than the day before. It was a Monday. Don’t these people have to go to work tomorrow?

Swept up in the carnival-like atmosphere, we ended up staying awake late into the night again. “I will sleep when I’m dead,” I thought. Although a couple of times a year, if I’m Mexican anyway, I’ll come back to visit the living and I won’t be sleeping much at all.


How do you celebrate the dead where you are from? 

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Planning to visit Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead? This post might help.

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca: A Day by Day Guide (Mexico Retold)

29 Comments on “Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, or Mexicans Really Know How to Fiesta

  1. What a festival!! Mexicans sure know know how to party. I prefer their manner of dealing with death to the somber, dress in black, mourn for days way other parts of the world deal with it. Given a choice, I’d rather be buried in Mexico.

  2. Not sure we publicly celebrate the dead at all, and if we do, certainly not in as fun a manner 🙂 Fascinating post and images Jeff. Love that there is a day dedicated to dead dogs! Did you hire a car to move around between the cemeteries?

    • We went on a tour of sorts to the cemeteries. It is probably doable with public transport but getting back could be hard.

  3. I’m not a fan of our way of mourning the dead (somber funerals, burials, etc.), but I might find it hard to adjust to a full-on party, too! In spite of long-time familiarity with these customs (I work in the Mexican community), I still find some of the costumes and decorations kind of creepy. But I loved your post – it’s a fascinating look at a unique celebration.

    • I agree that some of the decorations and costumes were creepy, especially the skulls on the graves. It was interesting because probably 90% of the people at the cemetery were partying but about 10% seemed sad and mourning.

  4. Wow – quite the days of fiesta – ready for some siesta! Lol and I like how you noted some things don’t live up to the hype – glad this did and then some dear “boss man” and the pictures are vibrant and um – quite alive! Ha!

  5. I always enjoy your posts about Mexico, I love the way you portray it and the photojournalism type photos. It was very interesting reading about your experience of different “moods” at different cemeteries.

    • Thank you Mani. I am glad that you like it. It makes me a little nervous to comment on different cultures but since you approve I guess I am okay :).

  6. Jeff I think I would have to train up for this kind of traveling. After staying up all night…..not sure this girl could take the action. Amazing photos. The skeleton dog cracked me up. I wondered if he worries that the other dogs would laugh at him. 🙂

    • Trust me, staying up late was very hard on us too. We usually go to bed early when we travel. He may have been embarrassed but there were other dogs in way worse costumes.

    • Thank you. I think Oaxaca is one of the best places to see it in Mexico. Although there were a lot of tourists, it didn’t feel touristy by any means. Most everything there was for the local people. It is interesting that they celebrate it in Nicaragua too.

  7. Oh man, what a great series of photos – the colors, expressions and creativity must have been an amazing sight to see. Great series of photos and thank you for introducing this amazing day. Cheers to a great year…

  8. New layout! Love it!! I have been wanting to see this event – I guess I have to wait for a while..Thanks for the tips and review, Jeff!!

  9. Day of the dead in Oaxaca, what an amazing experience! We were in Oaxaca two years ago and we mentioned it would be amazing to be there for Day of the Dead. Now we enjoyed your pictures! they are great! some people go full on with their costumes, even the dogs, thats so cool.

    • Yeah, that was one of the coolest experiences of my life and travels. That was a full on party as you say. Thanks for commenting!

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