The last couple of years you have seen an emerging trend during Halloween in the US - many girls (and guys) dressing up as skeletons. But beautiful skeletons, paying homage to to the holiday of Day of the Dead in Mexico (Día de los Muertos). Many, including me before I went, didn't really understand the entire meaning behind it. It’s colorful, beautiful, and perfectly instagrammable. Unfortunately, that's a huge reason to take interest in a holiday.
I always wanted to know more, and in October 2018 I had the chance to experience the festival first hand!
If you find yourself lucky enough to be in Mexico City over Halloween weekend you won't be celebrating by dressing up and saying trick or treat door to door. Official Día de Muertos usually falls on November 2nd, and the festival -- although different in every city across Mexico -- takes place the weekend before.
Day of the Dead in Mexico For First Timers
Partaking in any celebration of a culture other than your own—can be a little intimidating. And in this day and age with accusations of cultural appropriations running rabid, you may be wondering if it's appropriate at all to head to Mexico in late October and celebrate this very important festival alongside locals.
You should know, there's definitely a right way to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico, and a wrong way. Even the fact that you're looking stuff like this up means your trying. Kudos to you. From my own personal experience in Mexico City and Aguascalientes during Day of the dead is that local communities are quite welcoming to curious outsiders.
For starters, Day of the dead is known as Día de los Muertos in Mexico —just in case that wasn’t clear.
What you should not call Dia de Muertos:
A display put on for tourists’ benefit
Please let me emphasize... just because Day of the Dead in Mexico takes place around the same time as Halloween doesn’t mean it has ANY connection to our version of Halloween. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite.
Day of the Dead in Mexico is one of the most impressive occasions you’ll ever witness. Even though it is true that the large parade now put on in Mexico City was coordinated because of the popularity of a scene in a James Bond movie, Dia de Muertos is in no way a spectacle put on for anyone’s benefit - especially tourists. Día de Muertos is an incredibly personal holiday of Mexicans. But because Mexican culture is so open and loving you shouldn't be surprised if households invite you in to celebrate with them! If you do get a chance to go don’t just stare and take pictures for Instagram likes. Ask questions. Learn what the holiday is all about. Be a part of it.
When is the Day of the Dead Festival?
The annual holiday is celebrated in Mexico (and many of the surrounding regions in cities big and small) from late October 31st through November 2nd. It should probably be called Days of the Dead, in English to avoid confusion but alas, it is not. You should definitely understand that this is a multi-day festival and that Oct 31st is not the most important day!
What Does Dia de los Muertos Celebrate?
The entire holiday centers around remembering and honoring all of your loved ones who have passed. If you've seen Coco (and you really should watch it ASAP) you probably understand some of the thoughts and traditions behind the holiday. Mexicans believe in having a positive relationship with death and this holiday helps young kids understand what happens after we die.
It is believed that during these special days, deceased loved ones come back to visit. The hang out, and eat/drink the offerings you left for them on your ofrenda (more on the ofrenda below). During the holiday, family members honor their lost loved ones by cleaning up gravesites, playing music, and telling their favorite stories.
Day of the Dead Traditions
The ofrenda is an altar every household will set up to remember lost loved ones. You'll also see them in churches and even public squares. They are usually quite beautiful, actually they are impressively beautiful. The ofrenda is covered in marigolds (the official flower of Day of the Dead celebrations), sugar skulls, and candles. It is also decorated with tissue paper banners called papel picado. The most important part of the ofrenda are the pictures of the families deceased loved ones. Next to the pictures some of your loved ones’ favorite food and drink items are placed for them to enjoy when they come to visit.
If you’ve seen pictures of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, you probably can thing of the image of a female skeleton wearing a big hat. This is the original La Catrina. These days many people dress up as La Catrina by painting their face and dressing up in the Victorian style dress.
Where Should I Celebrate Dia de los Muertos?
Mexico City holds many events leading up to and during Dia de Muertos. But small cities across the country hold their own version with events, and parades, large and small. Check out the tourism board website for more information on different cities plans.
Best Things To Do in Mexico City for Dia de Muertos
Mexico City Day of the Dead Parade
I touched on this above but yes the rumor you may have heard is true. In the 2016 James Bond film (Spectre) the opening scene is him running through a large parade for Dia de Muertos. Before this movie, Mexico City actually didn’t have its own large scale Day of the Dead parade. After the movie came out, travelers actually started emailing the tourism board asking when the parade was taking place this year. The rest is history. The city decided to actually make the parade a reality and use it to share Mexico’s traditions with both tourists and the world.
How to see the parade: The parade starts at Estela de Luz and finishes at the historic Zócalo. The people who walk in the parade are over 1,500 volunteers from around the country! It is definitely something you shouldn't miss. The best vantage point is on the parade route but that requires you to get your spot early and not leave. If you want to have a perfect bird's eye view head to the St Regis and book a seat at their rooftop restaurant. A full buffet (and open bar) comes with your seat price, usually around $75 a person.
Eat (or learn how to make) Pan de Muerto
The most delicious part of the holiday! Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is a sweet bread you'll see everywhere. They are places on ofrendas as an offering to the souls of the deceased.
If you want a truly special experience you should take a cooking class to learn how to make the bread. I recommend Casa Jacaranda, I was lucky enough to attend a class in Oct 2018 and learned how to make tamales (vegan ones!) and pan de muerto. The class started with a walking tour of the nearby market with the two chefs. Then we headed back to their house, Casa Jacaranda, for the actual cooking lesson. We finished the delicious day eating lunch in the rooftop garden.
Visit Frida Kahlo House
Also known as La Casa Azul, for the bright indigo blue painted walls, Museo Frida Kahlo is one of the most popular museums in all of Mexico City. Frida Kahlo spent the last years of her life here and eventually died in one of the upper rooms. Admission includes access to the courtyard, a small series of galleries, and a portion of the house which has been preserved from the days when Kahlo was alive. The lines to get in can be ridiculously long - plan accordingly.
A visit to the museum is a must do if you are in Mexico during Dia de Muertos. Marigolds decorate the courtyard and a beautiful ofrenda is set up in Frida’s honor. If you want to take pictures inside the museum, you'll have to pay extra for a photo pass. Do it - it's worth it.
Planning a trip to Mexico, and Mexico City in general is overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion on this beautiful location. Rest assured that no matter what you choose to do or where you choose to stay you'll have a beautiful time.
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing a Mexico travel guide along with you. Here are some books I recommend...
And of course, if you have any questions DO NOT hesitate to reach out to me via Instagram, Twitter, or just shoot me an email (tessajuliette at gmail dot com).