Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2024: Ultimate Travel Planning Guide

woman with her face painted for oaxaca day of the dead in mexico

Is Dia de Muertos on Your Mexico bucket list?

Smart choice! and you’ve landed on the right article to learn how to plan your trip to Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico. I went to the 2018 celebration, and went again in 2022.

Oaxaca is truly one of the best travel destinations in Mexico; one not enough people have experienced. Its most popular cultural celebration, Oaxaca Day of the Dead, is a bucket list Mexico experience for many.

In this article, I’m going to share all my Oaxaca Dia de los Muertos travel tips, so you can have as amazing of a time as I did. By the end of this article, you’ll know all about Oaxaca City, where the festival takes place.

Prefer a group tour with everything planned for you?

This 7 Day Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tour has an amazing trip itinerary where you’ll venture off the beaten path to experience this amazing Mexico holiday like a local.

As Day of the Dead is just two days long, November 1-2, many stick around Oaxaca City for a few extra days, or head to the beautiful beaches of Oaxaca to lengthen the trip — so we’ll cover that as well.

Besides all that, you’ll learn about the history of Day of the Dead, the symbolism of things like ofrendas (altars), sugar skulls and La Catrina herself, which Oaxaca cemeteries to visit, and where to stay in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

In short, we’re covering everything you need to know for an epic Dia de los Muertos trip to Mexico. Ready to learn about all things Oaxaca Day of the Dead? Let’s get to it 🌺💀🌺

Is Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2023 Canceled?

No — The celebration is in no danger of being cancelled in 2023. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it will be a full-scale festival.

This Day of the Dead Ancient Ceremony experience, led by Ines, a local Oaxacan healer. (Photo: Airbnb)

I have received messages from readers about the Oaxaca Covid situation, and how it will affect Día de Muertos Oaxaca 2023. While no one can make any guarantees, there’s also no reason to believe the festival will not take place.

At this time, no official announcements have come from the local government in Oaxaca City.

However, do know that if they do, they likely won’t make any official statements about Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead events until October 2023!

I know this cuts it close for many travelers, but the government didn’t release a statement about Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2022 until early-October 2022 — just days before the holiday.

As many expected, the festival was back to it’s pre-pandemic glory in 2022, and expected to also be in 2023!

It was actually the first full celebration of Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City since 2019.

The 2020 festival was cancelled entirely, and the the 2021 festival saw a scaled down version, but Day of the Dead 2022 was back with a vengeance. I was there, and it was amazing!

With the number of Coronavirus cases at a completely manageable level in Mexico, I’m optimistic for 2023 — and even plan to attend! For those who are going, make sure to book your tours ASAP, as they will sell out.

Planning for Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2023

Oaxaca Day of the Dead cemetery

Where is Oaxaca, Mexico located?

The state of Oaxaca is located in southern Mexico, just a one-hour flight from Mexico City. You can also take a Mexico City to Oaxaca bus, but it takes about 7-8 hours.

Oaxaca City is in the center of Oaxaca state. It is not only the capital city, but also the state’s cultural, historic, artistic and agricultural hub. The entire Downtown Oaxaca City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

🗺️ Oaxaca Map

Oaxaca de juarez

You may hear Oaxaca City referred to by a few names. Officially, it’s Oaxaca de Juarez, though most people simply refer to the eclectic city of Oaxaca as “Oaxaca” (pronounced wa-ha-kah).

As Oaxaca is both the name of the city and state, you may want to clarify what the person means when they say Oaxaca — they usually mean the city, but not always.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

How do I get to Oaxaca City?

large oaxaca day of the dead decorations
Oaxaca is an amazing place to celebrate the festival, but there’s also a great Mexico City Day of the Dead parade.

Oaxaca International Airport (code: OAX), located just 20-30 minutes from Downtown Oaxaca, has direct flights from U.S. cities including Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, LA and Chicago.

In Mexico, you can catch a connecting flight to Oaxaca Airport from Mexico City, Tijuana, Guadalajara, Cancun and Monterrey.

Best Oaxaca Airport Transfers

IS THERE UBER IN OAXACA CITY?

There’s no Uber in Oaxaca, and no Lyft in Oaxaca, but there are taxis and some public transportation options.

Keep in mind Oaxaca Day of the Dead is the busiest week of the year, so you’ll want to consider this top-rated, private Oaxaca Airport transfer. If not, you can wait up to over an hour for an airport taxi!

You can also grab a taxi or take the colectivo (small, shared van) once you arrive at Oaxaca International OAX Airport.

The colectivo costs about $3-5 USD per person, and a private taxi will be about $15-25 USD to get to Downtown Oaxaca City.

Best Oaxaca Car Rentals

renting a car in oaxaca airport
The best place to rent a car in Oaxaca City is Oaxaca Airport.

Wondering, Should I get a Oaxaca car rental? In my opinion, if you’re just staying in the city itself, skip the rental car.

If you’re planning to take any Oaxaca day trips and explore Oaxaca before or after Day of the Dead, a Oaxaca rental car will come in handy. The OAX Airport is the best place for car rentals in Oaxaca City.

🚙💨 For more information, and 10 Mexico driving tips, head to Renting A Car in Oaxaca: Everything You Need to Know.

Find Your Rental Car

Best Car Rental in OAXACA: Discover Cars

When I rent a car in Mexico, I recommend, and personally use, Discover Cars.

They compare both local Mexican companies and all the big name corporate car rental companies, so you get the best price. Also, they offer FREE cancelation up to 48 hours before your reservation.

Lastly, their Full Coverage Policy is the cheapest I’ve found at about $10 USD per day. (⚠️ Note: In case you were wondering, you do need Mexican insurance to drive in Mexico, and your U.S. insurance does not cover you.)

If you’ll be renting a car in Oaxaca, double check the parking policy at your Oaxaca accommodation. Some offer free parking, but with others, you may have to pay extra to park.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Mexico City to Oaxaca City

Mexico City to OaXACA Flights

Domestic flight travel within Mexico is quick, convenient, and relatively inexpensive on low cost carriers like AeroMexico, Volaris and VivaAerobus.

Note: VivaAerobus is the equivalent to Spirit Airlines in the United States, so always remember, you get what you pay for them with.

In general, the bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca costs about $40 USD, and can take eight hours. However, you can often find Oaxaca plane tickets for as little as $50 USD, for the one hour flight.

Of course, the bus has less of a carbon footprint, so some travelers might opt for the bus over a flight.

Mexico City to Oaxaca Bus

red ado bus mexico

Mexico City is located about 7-8 hours by bus from Oaxaca City, with overnight trip options available.

If you’re looking into the buses, check for luxury class tickets through Mexico’s largest bus company, ADO. The luxury tickets are a little more expensive, but a lot more comfy.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Where to Stay in Oaxaca: Best Neighborhoods & Best Hotels in Oaxaca

colorful flags hung above the street in downtown oaxaca city mexico
Downtown, or Centro Historico Oaxaca, is one of about 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mexico — and exceptionally beautiful when decorated during Dia de los Muertos Oaxaca.

As they say — Location, location, location. Where you stay for Oaxaca Day of the Dead can make, or break, your trip.

For convenience, choose from the three Oaxaca neighborhoods listed below so you’ll have lots of amenities like restaurants, mezcal bars, ATMs and pharmacies within walking distance.

🚕💨 Oaxaca Travel Tips

There’s no Uber in Oaxaca and no Lyft in Oaxaca. However, there are taxis and buses. There’s also Oaxaca public transportation, but it isn’t great.

While taxis are usually easy to get, they take longer to hail during Dia de Muertos, the busiest time to visit Oaxaca, Mexico.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Centro Historico (Downtown Oaxaca City)

Quinta Real Oaxaca Hotel pool area | Best Places to Stay in Oaxaca City
The pool at Quinta Real is the perfect place to take a break from the Day of the Dead Celebrations. (Photo: Expedia, Best Oaxaca luxury hotels)

As with most cities in Mexico, you can’t go wrong staying in or around Centro Historico. This is the Historic City Center, or downtown.

This is the area where most Day of the Dead festivities take place, and a walkable part of town, so you won’t need to worry about catching a cab during this busy time in Oaxaca.

Located within Oaxaca Centro Historico, you’ll find some of the best hotels in Oaxaca, like these:

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Jalatlaco Oaxaca City (Best Neighborhood in Oaxaca)

pink hotel in oaxaca mexico (city centro oaxaca hotel)
💝 The pretty, pink Oaxaca hotel, City Centro Hotel Oaxaca, in the Jalatlaco neighborhood. (Photo: City Centro Hotel Oaxaca boutique hotel)

Located one neighborhood over from Downtown Oaxaca, you’ll find trendy, colorful Jalatlaco (pronounced ha-lat-lack-oh). This is a very safe area, with amazing restaurants, cool street art and colorful, colonial buildings.

The best hotel in Oaxaca City’s Jalatlaco neighborhood is City Centro Hotel Oaxaca. This is the famous pink Oaxaca hotel that’s quite famous on Instagram (seen in the photo above).

This one often sells out quickly, but Hotel Cazomalli Oaxaca is another nearby option.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Xochimilco Oaxaca

pink hotel in oaxaca city mexico
Casa de Arte, in the quiet Xochimilco neighborhood, offers a nice oasis away from the main tourist area. (Photo: Expedia)

Xochimilco (pronounced so-chee-mill-co), located north of Centro, is another one of the best neighborhoods in Oaxaca City.

This is the oldest, most historic Oaxaca neighborhood, so you’ll still get the colonial city feel in the buildings, but be further away from the crowds and noise.

🌺💀🌺 Oaxaca Travel Tip: Day of the Dead is LOUD! You’ll want noise canceling earbuds or noise canceling ear plugs to get a good night’s sleep during this festive holiday.

Being on the outskirts of Centro Historico means great value at Oaxaca boutique hotels, like El Callejón Hotel ($$$) and Casa de Arte ($$).

In these, you’re also near one of the most historic and best things to see in Oaxaca City; an 18th century aqueduct that runs along Callejon Rufino Tamayo street.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tips

large oaxaca day of the dead decorations
Book your Day of the Dead Oaxaca flights, hotel, VRBO and tours early!

Now that you know how to get to Oaxaca City, let’s get into some specifics about the actual Oaxaca Day of the Dead in Mexico festival.

Besides the Day of the Dead dates, which are November 1st and 2nd, there are two key things to keep in mind for Day of the Dead travel planning:

1. Book Oaxaca accommodation asAP

exterior of boutique Hotel NaNa Vida Oaxaca City
Hotel NaNa Vida Oaxaca City is one of my favorite hotels in downtown Oaxaca.

Oaxaca City is a smaller town, and eventually, ALL Oaxaca hotels, Oaxaca VRBOs, Oaxaca Airbnbs, and all Oaxaca hostels will eventually sell out. It happens every year — I’m not kidding folks!

If you have particular needs when it comes to where you stay (ie. no stairs, quiet area, full kitchen, on-site parking), book early so you find a place that checks those boxes.

Check out these articles to help you pick the best Oaxaca hotels for Day of the Dead:

2. Book Day of the Dead tours asAP

oaxaca day of the dead decorations

If you’re looking to do a Day of the Dead tour in Oaxaca, you’ll want to book these well in advance, and as early as possible.

For the most part, tours are kept small at just 5-10 people, and thousands attend this Oaxaca festival — so the tours all end up selling out as well.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tours

large oaxaca day of the dead decorations
You’ll see everything from street decorations to a comparsa (parade) when celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca Mexico.

As a lot of Mexican tour companies don’t have websites, so unless someone has recommended you a tour company by name, it’s not super easy to locate Oaxaca Dia de los Muertos tours online.

Note: Facebook is usually a better place to find Mexican companies and local businesses than Google. You’ll also want to check Facebook pages for up-to-date info about local businesses throughout the course of the week.

Since this festival also doesn’t have an official list of events posted online for you to research in advance, local tour guides are a game changer.

They will know best to show you where to find the best cemeteries, comparsas (boisterous parades with a live band), fireworks and festivities taking place.

woman dressed in day of the dead costume

Prefer a group tour with local Guides?

This 7 Day Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tour has an amazing trip itinerary planned, but also plenty of free time to experience Day of the Dead Mexico like a local.

If you want to do a group tour, and don’t want to spend hours (or days) searching for a Day of the Dead Oaxaca tour company, book an Airbnb Experience or group tour with Viator — you can book some below right now.

These tours are all led by Oaxaca locals, so you’re in good hands. Here are a few of the best tours in Oaxaca City, with a heavy focus on Day of the Dead and other uniquely Oaxacan cultural experiences.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead is one of the most important holiday celebrations in Oaxaca, and one of the best Mexican holidays. There are vibrant Day of the Dead celebrations throughout Mexico, not just in Oaxaca City.

artistic representation of the Aztec goddess, Mictecacihuatl, done in stone
An artistic representation of the Aztec goddess, Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld. (Photo: WikiMedia)

Since this is a highly symbolic holiday, the answer to What is Dia de los Muertos? is quite complex. However, the most important thing you need to know about Day of the Dead is that it is not Mexican Halloween.

Unlike many present-day rituals around death, Day of the Dead is not a somber funerary event.

On the contrary, Oaxaca Dia de Muertos is a celebration, one so grand even our deceased loved ones return to attend the party held in their honor.⁠

As this is a cultural celebration, booking a tour with a Oaxaca City local is the best way to truly appreciate all of Oaxaca’s celebrations.

However, even on days you don’t have a tour booked, you can just walk around Centro Historico (Downtown) and take in the visual magic that is Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca City.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

History of Dia de los Muertos

large oaxaca day of the dead decorations
Skeletons line the streets during Oaxaca Dia de los Muertos.

The holiday’s origins date back to the Aztec celebration of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, their Queen of the Underworld.

Much like the current incarnation of Day of the Dead, the Aztec festival was a celebratory affair — as is the Mayan Day of the Dead festival called Hanal Pixan.

After Mexican colonization by the Spanish, who brought with them Christianity, the festival was moved from early-summer to fall.

Its new dates coincided with what Christians called Allhallowtide, another multi-day holiday commemorating the deceased.

Allhallowtide took place on October 31-November 2. The first day, October 31, was known as All Saints Eve; November 1 was All Saints Day; and November 2 was All Souls Day.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

When is Day of the Dead?

Though it’s called “Day” of the Dead, the holiday takes place over two days each year, November 1-2, and the different days of the festival correspond to different spirits.

oaxaca day of the dead cemetary

What day is the Day of the Dead day?

Wondering, What day is Day of the Dead in Mexico? The actual Day of the Dead is November 2nd.

However, let’s break it all down further, because this really is a multi-day celebration:

As the spirits of our departed are said to return each day at midnight, many celebrations take place at night — so you might see some sources say Day of the Dead is October 31-November 2.

However, some celebrations start as early as October 28 in different parts of the state.

Since the first day of the celebration starts on November 1, the spirits will return at midnight, which is basically the night of October 31.

Though this is technically the “eve” of Dia de Muertos, much like Christmas Eve, many consider it a festival day.

As you might imagine with such an elaborate affair, the Oaxaca City preparations begin at least a week prior.

It’s really fun to see the city getting decorated with marigold flowers and watching the ofrendas (colorful altars) being constructed, and visiting the cemeteries during the day.

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Itinerary

October 31st

oaxaca day of the dead decor
People even celebrate departed pets during Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca Mexico.

Wondering, When does Day of the Dead start? The first day is November 1 at midnight, which is why many say it starts on October 31.

What to expect on All Saint’s Eve

Though not an official festival day, many families observe October 31st, the former All Saints’ Eve, by building elaborate ofrendas (altars) on the cemetery gravestone of their deceased loved one.

As the eve of the souls returning, these preparations must be ready for the spirits’ arrival at midnight.

There’s a lot of energy in town, as people are ready to officially celebrate Dia de los Muertos after weeks of prep.

Families visit the town’s cemeteries to decorate their loved ones’ graves and gravestones, and many put the finishing touches on the ofrendas (altars) outside of their homes.

What to do in Oaxaca on October 31

This is a great day to simply walk around the city, especially Centro Historico (Downtown Oaxaca City) and the Zocalo near the Oaxaca Cathedral.

An orientation walk like this is always a good idea so you get your bearings and get to know the city layout.

You can pop into all the shops and art galleries to see all the elaborate altars and floral displays, but don’t forget to look down at the sand art on the ground.

At night, don’t miss the Magna Comparsa, a main event in downtown. Magna Comparsa means Grand Parade, and this is the first official parade to open the Day of the Dead holiday.

You can also check out the local cemeteries, as they will be decorated by now. In fact, the decorations are usually up by October 27th, or sometime around the end of October, but definitely a few days before October 31st.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

November 1st: Day of the Little Angels

oaxaca day of the dead cemetary
November 1st is also called Dia de los Inocentes to honor the children who have passed.

What was formerly known as All Saints’ Day in the Catholic tradition, is present-day Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels).

This Day of the Little Angels on November 1 honors the children who have passed. Their spirits returned the night before, at midnight, but parties continue all day.

Note: You may also see this day called the Día de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents. However, don’t confuse it with the Day of Holy Innocents Mexican holiday, which is on December 28th.

What to expect on All Saint’s Day

Celebrations in cemeteries, as well as comparsas (theatrical parades), ofrendas (altars) in the streets and other city-wide festivities.

There are large booths with vendors set up near the Cathedral, selling Oaxaca art and Mexican folk art from other states in the country. This will often last from early November until the end of weekend following Day of the Dead.

What to do in oaxaca on November 1

The entire town is decorated and in full festival mode, and you’ll want to spend time walking around the colorful Jalatlaco neighborhood and eating some delicious Oaxacan food.

There will be smaller parades all night in the city, or you can head to the giant celebration in San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca.

San Agustin Etla pueblo is located about 35 minutes from Downtown Oaxaca. It has the biggest, most wild comparsa, and most beautiful cemetery.

I went with a small tour group booked through Agrado Guest House Hotel, and we were the only non-locals at the San Agustin Etla comparsa.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

November 2nd: Day of the Dead

colorful flags hung above the street in jalatlaco oaxaca city mexico
Todos santos, meaning “all the saints,” will have arrived by November 2nd for Día de Muertos in Mexico!

Formerly known as All Souls’ Day, November 2nd is the actual Day of the Dead day. On this day, family members and loved ones celebrate the adults in their life who no longer walk the Earth.

The spirits of all adults returned the night before, at midnight, but parties will continue all day.

What to expect on All Soul’s Day

More celebrations in cemeteries, as well as comparsas (parades), ofrendas (altars) in the streets and other festivities.

If Day of the Dead Oaxaca is starting to sound like one giant party, it is — but November 2 is often the most low-key day of the holiday.

What to do in oaxaca on November 2

If there was any place you wanted to see in town, like a shop, restaurant, cafe or art gallery, you’ll want to head there early. Many places have shortened hours for the holiday, though some don’t open at all.

If not, just enjoy the last few hours of parades and decorations and festivities.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Arriving Early, or Staying After the Festival

Playa Carrizalillo Beach Puerto Escondido Oaxaca Mexico
For a relaxing end to Dia de Muertos Oaxaca, head to the beaches in Oaxaca, like Playa Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido, one of the best beaches in Mexico.

Extending your Oaxaca trip?

As Oaxaca Day of the Dead is a two-day festival, many will arrive early, or stay after.

💁‍♀️ Here’s one of my best Oaxaca travel tips: Head to the best Oaxaca beaches, like Puerto Escondido, Zipolite, Huatulco and Mazunte, after the festival to decompress.

If beaches aren’t your thing, there are plenty of things to do in Oaxaca City. You can enjoy a mezcal tasting or one of these best Oaxaca mezcal tours, visit Monte Alban Ruins archeological site, and more.

In fact, there are unique places to visit in Oaxaca all over the state and great day trips from Oaxaca.

These include the surrounding areas of Hierve el Agua, San Felipe del Agua and San Pablo Villa de Mitla.

This is one of the Oaxaca pueblos magicos, or Mexico magic towns, famed for their indigenous culture.

Visiting Mexico City

If you have the time for a long journey, you’re also only a one hour flight from Mexico City. This is the largest city on the continent, and a good place to really get to know Mexico.

There’s no end to the things to do in Mexico City — including museums, tacos, ancient ruins, amazing restaurants, and so much more. In fact, I lived in Mexico City for a year, and still didn’t see it all!

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

10 Day of the Dead Do’s and Don’ts

Oaxaca Day of the Dead parade
The comparsas (parades) are one of the best Day of the Dead traditions.

🟢 Do: Book your Oaxaca hotel, Oaxaca VRBO or Oaxaca hostel, and your Day of the Dead tours well in advance. (You’ve been warned 💀)

🟢 Do: Participate! When you see a parade going by, jump in and start dancing with the locals.

This holiday is about remembering the deceased, so many local families in Oaxaca do love i when you ask about their departed loved ones honored on the altars.

🟢 Do: Have a day where your only plan is to walk the city. During Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, the whole town is transformed for this giant party, so explore as much as you can while the decorations are up.

🟢 Do: Ask for permission to take photos. To err on the side of caution, get permission from families in the cemeteries and at their ofrendas (altars), and when photographing people.

🟢 Do: Carry cash on you at all times. In Mexico, cash is still king, and in Oaxaca City, many places don’t take cards. This is especially true with taxis, in any local market (mercados), and with street vendors, which will all be cash only.

🟢 Do: Pack noise canceling earbuds or noise canceling earplugs to get a good night’s sleep during this festive holiday. Day of the Dead is basically a three-day party with loud music and city-wide celebrations.

🛑 Don’t: Treat this as a tourist attraction. The Day of the Dead Festival is a centuries-old cultural tradition, so have fun, but know this is not the same thing as getting wasted on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

🛑 Don’t: Touch or disturb anything, including altars, cemetery decorations, and sand art on the ground.

🛑 Don’t: Use flash photography anywhere. To be safe you’ll want to just turn your flash from auto to off so it doesn’t accidentally go flash at the wrong moment.

🛑 Don’t: On that note, don’t wear American-style elaborate costumes — especially not the “sexy” variety you see on Buzzfeed lists.

This is Dia de Muertos in Mexico, not Halloween in the U.S., and it has a different vibe. 💃 For an idea of what’s appropriate to wear, head here.

OAXACA DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

How to Dress for Day of the Dead

Wondering what to wear for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca? As mentioned, this is not a time for the “sexy costumes” that are popular in the United States.

However, since it’s Dia de Muertos, you’ll want to pack a special dress to enjoy the nighttime festivities — like the ones below ⤵

You can also head to a local Oaxaca City mercado (market), like Mercado 20 de Noviembre Market and Mercado Benito Juarez Market, to buy a dress.

Costumes are the norm for locals, and many do go all out, with traditional Oaxacan garments and face painting.

Want to get your face painted like La Catrina, the famous Day of the Dead Woman?

You don’t need to bring all your makeup for La Catrina face painting, as you can just pay someone about $50-100 pesos ($3-6 USD) on the street to do it.

You, however, will want a good makeup remover to get it off at the end of the night. This should be one of your Day of the Dead essentials!

You’ll find plenty of vendors selling inexpensive flower crowns to complete the look — or you can go all out with one of these elaborate flower crown headbands 🌸

You can also visit one of the Oaxaca mercados mentioned above, as you’ll sometimes find vendors selling fresh flower crowns.

Day of the Dead Symbols & Customs

1. Day of the Dead Cemeteries

Oaxaca Day of the Dead cemetary
Decorating the gravestones in the cemeteries is among the most beautiful Day of the Dead customs, and one of the oldest pre-hispanic traditions.

Oct. 31 is the date many families will begin to decorate gravestones in the cemetery. If you can, try to be in Oaxaca City to see this, especially if you’re into travel photography.

The biggest of Oaxaca City’s cemetery celebrations takes place at the Panteon General (AKA San Miguel Cemetery).

If you’re venturing outside of Oaxaca City, head to the Panteon Viejo and Panteon Nuevo in Xoxocotlan, and the Panteon San Agustin Etla in San Agustin Etla.

Both towns are known for lively celebrations, though you’ll want to have a guided tour booked, or transportation in place before going. If you’re renting a car in Oaxaca, you can drive, but know the roads can get hectic.

You can also check out the nearby towns of San Bartolo Coyotepec and Teotitlan del Valle. These different villages are a short drive from Oaxaca City, but rife with authentic Mexican culture and ancient tradition.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

2. Day of the Dead Sugar Skulls

No Oaxaca festivals for Day of the Dead are complete without colorful sugar skulls.

One of the icons of this holiday is the Day of the Dead sugar skull. Ironically enough, these confectionery treats don’t really have Mexican (or even pre-Hispanic) roots, and come from Europe.

Italian Catholic missionaries brought sugar art to Mexico in the 1600s. Unlike Europe, Mexico is abundant in sugar and sugarcane, so it became a natural place for these molded sugar figures to take root and form their own traditions.

Small sugar skulls vs large sugar skulls

During Día de Muertos, sugar skulls will be made in two sizes — large and small.

The small, bite-sized sugar skulls can be eaten. You’ll also see them used for an in-home ofrenda as a family altar decoration. They can be taken home, and make for one of the best Oaxaca souvenirs.

The larger ones represent a departed person, and that person’s name is written on the forehead of the skull. They can be in honor and remembrance of the departed children or of an adult.

You’ll usually see these more elaborate, larger sugar skulls placed on an ofrenda or gravestone for that person’s returning spirit. These larger sugar skulls are not meant to be eaten, as they’re part of the atmospheric vigils.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

3. Marigold Flowers

Oaxaca Day of the Dead decorations
The word cempasuchil means “20 flowers” in the Nahuatl Aztec language.

The marigold flower, or cempasuchil (pronounced sem-pa-souch-ill), has been a part of this celebration dating back to its Aztec origins.

Throughout Mexico, marigolds are often called flor de los muertos (flower of the dead) because of their close associations with Day of the Dead.

According to Aztecs beliefs, the flower’s bright color and strong scent served a sensory guide for the spirits. They believed the marigold flowers let our departed know exactly where they should return to meet us.

Nowadays, no Day of the Dead ofrenda (altar) is complete without some cempasuchil flowers on it.

You’ll also see marigolds and terciopelo rojo flowers (cockscomb) all over Oaxaca City — on restaurant tables and as elaborate floral archways outside shops.

🌮🍺 Discover the best Oaxaca restaurants! Head here to get a FREE Oaxaca Map with 33 places pinned so you can easily find all the top restaurants, street food stands and Oaxaca mezcal bars.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

4. La Catrina: Day of the Dead Skeleton Woman

No Day of the Dead celebration Mexico has is complete without La Catrina.

Besides Frida Kahlo, La Catrina might be the woman most commonly associated with Mexico.

This elegant skeletal lady, who everyone paints their faces to look like, was born in 1910 when Mexican printmaker/illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada first drew her.

He named this figure, La Calavera Garbancera (The Elegant Skull), and she was drawn as satirical social commentary.

His dapper woman with her fancy feathered-hat was a critique of Mexican society at the time, when many Mexicans were aspiring to dress and act more European.

Posada saw this as a snub to the more humble, and traditional style of Mexican dress.

He created his Calavera Garbancera character as a skeleton who would serve as a reminder that we all eventually die one day — whether we’re wearing fancy clothing or not.

History of La Catrina, Day of the Dead Icon

mural painting by diego rivera of festive scene in a park with about 50 people
Diego Rivera’s painting, with La Catrina in the dead center — pun intended 💀 (Photo: WikiMedia)

La Catrina’s transition into the official grand dame of Day of the Dead came after Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Frida’s husband) painted her with a full-body and Victorian dress.

Using a similar face, he took Posada’s La Calavera Garbancera and created who would become known as La Catrina.

Rivera’s 50-foot-long (15 m) painting, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park), is the first-ever depiction of La Catrina.

She is placed in the dead center of the painting (pun intended), with Rivera painted as a boy by her side. Just behind them, you’ll see Frida Kahlo.

🎨 Want to see the painting in real life? You’ll need to head to Downtown Mexico City, to the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, one of the best museums in Mexico City.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

5. Comparsas (Day of the Dead Parades)

woman with her face painted to look like a skeleton for oaxaca day of the dead festival in mexico
Oaxaca City is an amazing place to celebrate Day of the Dead, especially to enjoy the parades.

What are the parades in Oaxaca called?

A parade in Oaxaca is called either compara or muerteada.

You’ll usually hear the comparsa long before you see it coming. This is great because it gives you time to find it, and then join in with the procession as it passes through the streets

During the comparsas or muerteadas, multi-instrument groups of costumed musicians join together to play festive Zapotec (native Oaxacan) music in the streets.

Anyone can join in at any part along the route, and they are usually headed to a cemetery in Oaxaca City or to Downtown Oaxaca City.

The Grand Parade, or Magna Comparsa (as seen in this Day of the Dead YouTube video), is the one that opens the festival, and goes all over the city.

After it, there will be smaller comparsas, both day and night, and sometimes into the early morning hours around 1am (don’t forget your ear plugs).

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

6. Ofrendas (Day of the Dead Altars)

Oaxaca Day of the Dead altar
Altars for Day of the Dead in the family home can have candles, flowers, sugar skulls and colorful papel picado, which you’ll see at many Oaxaca festivals, not just Día de los Muertos.

Just walking the streets and alleyways of downtown Oaxaca City, you’ll see hundreds of ofrendas (altars).

They’re decorated with marigold flowers, candles, copal incense and papel picado colorful paper flags. You’ll also see photos of their loved ones, and whatever food and drink they’d want to consume on their arrival.

They say when the dead return they will be hungry and thirsty from the journey, so we have to prepare accordingly.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

7. Day of the Dead Sand Tapestries

sand art on the ground during day of the dead oaxaca
Day of the Dead sand art made with black beans, marigolds, flower petals and of course, sand.

In front of some ofrendas throughout Oaxaca City, you’ll find colorful and intricate tapetes de arena (sand tapestries).

If you’re very lucky, you’ll even see an artist making one. For this, you would need to arrive to Oaxaca City before the festival starts, around October 29th.

🌼 Oaxaca Travel Tip: Each year, a different neighborhood hosts the annual Sand Tapestry Competition, so make sure to find out where the this year’s will be.

The tradition of sand art plays into the deeper meaning of Day of the Dead, that all things eventually blow away in the wind, or die.

For this reason, you’ll also see ground art made of other natural materials the wind can carry away, like marigold flower petals and even beans.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

8. Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead Bread)

pan de muerto (day of the dead bread)
Pan de muerto from Oaxaca has sesame seeds and a face, whereas the pan de muerto common throughout the rest of Mexico has sugar and a cross shape on top.

Pan de muerto (Bread of the dead) is a type of bread roll or pastry that’s traditionally only made from about mid-September to mid-November for Day of the Dead.

It is most peoples’ favorite food associated with the holiday, and the pan de muerto recipe and preparation can vary.

☕️ Oaxaca Travel Tip: Many indigenous people of Oaxaca enjoy their pan de muerto dipped in a cup of hot chocolate. This is also the best way to enjoy other local foods, especially pan dulce, or sweet bread.

In Oaxaca, unlike many other places in the rest of Mexico, there’s a small candy face placed in the center of the bread. This is said to represent a departed soul.

However, in many other parts of Mexico, the pan de muerto dough has a cross shape on the top of the roll, and it’s topped with sugar. In Oaxaca City, the bread is topped with sesame seeds and isn’t as sweet.

To sample some, head to a panaderia (bakery), or the local markets in Oaxaca. You might also find Oaxaca pan de muerto for sale from a street vendor.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

9. Alebrijes: Oaxaca Art

oaxaca alebrijes

Alebrijes (pronounced al-lay-bree-hays) aren’t officially a part of Day of the Dead, but they have made their way into the celebrations. They are the most famous Oaxaca art, and among the best Mexican folk art.

Wooden alebrije sculptures were first made by Mexican artist Pedro Linares, in Mexico City. They made their way to Oaxaca art tows, like San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca, located near Oaxaca City, and became a holiday fixture.

Still, the first person to make them was Linares. At age 30, the artist suffered an illness which left him bedridden in pain, and having fever dreams at night.

One night, he saw what he named an alebrije, a hybrid animal, which he said served as a spirit guide through his frightening, vivid dreams.

He made an artistic representation of his colorful spirit guide, and Oaxaca alebrijes were born. Linares made them out of paper mache, but in Oaxaca, you’ll find them made of copal wood, and painted with bright colors.

The Oaxaca pueblos of San Martín Tilcajete and San Antonio Arrazola are now known as the Alebrije Towns, as many other artisans in town have started making alebrijes. These are two of the most popular Oaxaca artisan towns.

You may be familiar with alebrijes from the movie Coco, which has two alebrijes in it, Dante and Pepita. There’s also this great National Geographic feature about Oaxacan alebrijes.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD mexico

10. Mojigangas (Giant Puppets)

mojigangas giant puppet in mexico

Mojigangas (pronounced moe-he-gawn-gahs) come from Spain, but were brought to Mexico in the 1600s.

They are about 15-feet-tall (4.5 m), and a part of many celebrations in Central Mexico, especially festivals in Oaxaca and weddings in San Miguel de Allende. You’ll likely see some mojigangas during Day of the Dead.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Oaxaca Mexico Travel Guide & FAQ

How do they celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca?

You can expect large street parties, plenty of festive decorations all over town, La Catrina face painting, traditional dress and dancing, large altars in the streets (especially near downtown), and so much more.

Did Day of the Dead originate in Oaxaca?

No — It is a holiday celebrated in others parts of Latin America, like Guatemala and Bolivia, not just Mexico. However, the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities are the most lively and best-known; particularly those in Oaxaca City.

How long is the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca?

The holiday is two-days-long, and celebrated November 1-2. However, in Oaxaca City, festivities start to begin about 5 days prior.

large oaxaca day of the dead decorations

Is Day of the Dead better in Oaxaca or Mexico City?

It depends on who you ask! The Mexico City Day of the Dead parade and celebration is large and lively — but the Oaxaca Day of the Dead festival is more of a cultural celebration.

Is Oaxaca safe to travel to?

Short answer: Yes — For the cast majority of visitors, Oaxaca is safe for travel.

Longer answer: Aside from drinking too much mezcal, you’re in little danger in Oaxaca. In fact, Oaxaca is one of the safest states in Mexico. It is a great place to visit during Day of the Dead, and any time of year.

⚠️ If you’d like to do a deep dive into this topic, check out Is Oaxaca Safe for Travelers Right Now? to get Oaxaca travel safety advice, Oaxaca travel tips and more.

Oaxaca City is the country’s 67th largest city, with a population of about 275,000, but retains a humble pueblo (small town) vibe.

As no place on Earth is 100% safe, you’ll want to follow the 10 General Travel Safety Tips below — the same ones you’d follow when traveling anywhere.

You should also register for the STEP Program and put your mind at ease with travel insurance.

Mexico Travel Insurance

Wondering Should I get travel insurance for Mexico?

The answer is of course yes! It will give you an added level of security and peace of mind during these strange travel times.

Just as you insure your car, home and body, you can also insure your luggage, belongings and health while traveling.

If Mexico and Oaxaca travel safety are on your mind, get your free quote below from World Nomads and Safety Wing, two of the biggest names in travel insurance.

  • Safety Wing: Perfect for general travel coverage, and digital nomads who travel for extended periods of time.
  • World Nomads: Perfect for those who want to do adventurous activities while traveling.
10 General Travel Safety Tips
  1. This should be a no brainer given the state of travel and the world, but get Mexico Travel Insurance!
    1. World Nomads: Among the biggest names in travel insurance, World Nomads has their Standard Plan for general travel, and Explorer Plan for adventure travelers. World Nomads plans average $5-10USD per day.
    2. Safety Wing: Perfect for general travel coverage, and digital nomad who travel for extended periods of time — with plans starting at just $45USD per month!
  2. Don’t walk home alone at night if you can help it; take a taxi.
  3. Always listen to your intuition because your intuition is always right.
  4. If you get a sketchy or uneasy feeling about a person or place, get away from that person or place immediately. If you feel you’re in danger, don’t worry about making a kind, nice, or politically correct exit from a creepy person or bad situation — Just get away ASAP.
  5. Don’t keep your phone, keys, wallet, passport, or anything valuable in your back pocket. Better yet, invest in an anti-theft purse or anti-theft backpack.
  6. Brush up on your Spanish-speaking skills with Rocket Spanish — which will have you confident and conversational after just a few modules.
  7. Take all of your belongings into the bathroom with you, rather than asking a cafe or bar neighbor to watch your things.
  8. Speaking of bar neighbors, don’t take drinks from strangers and never leave your drink unattended with one.
  9. Don’t wear flashy clothes, expensive jewelry, designer sunglasses, etc.
  10. Keep some cash in your pocket so you don’t have to pull your whole wallet out every time you need to pay.
Register for the STEP Program

Make sure you enroll in the FREE STEP Program before your trip. The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, allows U.S. citizens traveling to Mexico to document your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

After you’ve registered, the U.S. Embassy or Consulate can contact you in the event of an emergency, including natural disasters, civil unrest, etc.

STEP can also put you in touch with your family and friends back home, in the event of an emergency while abroad.

Do I need to speak Spanish to visit Oaxaca?

Many Oaxaqueños (native Oaxacans) don’t speak English, however with so many U.S., Canadian and European tourists, they get by.

If you stick to the popular areas of Oaxaca, like Oaxaca City, and the beaches of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco, tour operators and people in the service industry often speak English.

However, when venturing off the beaten path in Oaxaca, you can expect little to no English.

As with traveling anywhere, it is good manners to learn at least some basic Spanish when traveling to Oaxaca and anywhere in Mexico. If you want to brush up before your trip, Rocket Spanish will have you confident and conversational in no time!

🎧 Listen to Episode 13 of the podcast as travel blogger Elizabeth talk about how she learned eight languages, and gives great tips for how to learn language basics in easy, fun ways.

If learning Spanish isn’t in the cards for you, #NoJudgement!

Pin and/or save the infographic below on your phone so you’ll always have the words and phrases you need, even if you’re off-WiFi.

List of useful spanish words and phrases
PIN THIS FOR LATER

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

Is Oaxaca safe for solo travelers?

I attended Day of the Dead as a solo female traveler in Oaxaca, and felt very safe.

el tule tree oaxaca mexico
Árbol del Tule Oaxaca, or El Tule Tree in Oaxaca, is a must see just outside of the city, as it’s the widest tree on Earth.

However, I’ve done a lot of Mexico solo travel, and likely have a biased opinion.

In an effort to add more solo female travel in Mexico voices to the conversation, check out Rebecca’s solo travel in Oaxaca story.

For a deep dive into the subject of Mexico travel safety, check out Is Mexico Safe? 25 Tips to Stay Safe in Mexico.

🎧 Prefer podcasts? This Mexico podcast is full of tips for Mexico solo female travel safety, which you can use during Oaxaca solo travel and beyond.

Do Americans need a visa for Mexico?

No — U.S., Canadian and most European and Asian passport holders don’t need a visa to travel to Mexico. To see if you need a Mexico visa, head here.

Note: You also don’t need to show proof of vaccination to travel to Mexico.

When you arrive in Mexico and go through Customs and Immigration, you’ll receive a 180-day (6 month) FMM tourist card. This is a small piece of paper that you need to have on you at all times, as it proves you’re in the country legally.

You also have to give your FMM back to a Customs and Immigration officer at the airport when leaving Mexico.

If you lose it, there is a fee of about $600 MXN pesos ($30 USD) to get a new one — so don’t lose your FMM.

⚠️ Update: Many Mexico airports are now using the passport stamp in lieu of the paper FMM visa. You won’t know what you’ll be getting until you arrive, but they are both valid.

OAxaca DAY OF THE DEAD Mexico

What do I pack for Oaxaca?

For the most part, Oaxaca weather averages 80-90°F (26-32°C) during the day, and 60-70°Fs (15-21°C) at night. Oaxaca has a desert climate, so pack layers.

With Oaxaca’s sunny, hot days, pack a Water-To-Go Bottle to stay hydrated, eco-friendly sunscreen to avoid sunburns. If you plan on drinking a lot of Oaxaca mezcal, don’t forget to pack these anti-hangover meds.

As far as how to dress, Oaxacans are modest dressers, so pants or jeans with sleeved tops are the norm, even on hot days. However, sundresses, flowy, breathable, cotton, and light-colored clothing works.

At night, you’ll want a jacket and boots in Oaxaca City. The temperature in Oaxaca can drop about 20°F (about 10°C) from day to night, so be mindful.

Packing for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Since it’s Dia de Muertos, you might want to pack a special dress or outfit to enjoy the nighttime festivities — like these.

You can also head to a local Oaxaca City mercado (market), like Mercado 20 de Noviembre and Mercado Benito Juarez, to buy a dress.

🧳 FREE Printable Packing List for Mexico

Wondering exactly what to pack for Oaxaca and all of Mexico? Download your FREE printable packing list for Mexico here.

This multi-page Mexico packing checklist covers everything you’ll want to bring, and more importantly, what not to bring to Mexico.

Want to get your face painted like La Catrina or El Catrín?

woman with her face painted like La Catrina for Oaxaca Day of the Dead

You don’t need to bring all your makeup for La Catrina face painting, as you can just pay someone about $50-100 MXN pesos ($3-6 USD) on the street to do it. You, however, will want a good makeup remover.

You’ll also find plenty of vendors selling inexpensive flower crowns to complete the look — or you can go all out with one of these elaborates flower crown headbands 🌸

You can also visit one of the Oaxaca mercados mentioned above, as you’ll sometimes find vendors selling fresh flower crowns.

Is Day of the Dead in Oaxaca worth It?

As it will take at least two flights, or a flight and a bus to get to Oaxaca City, you might be wondering if traveling to Oaxaca Day of the Dead is worth it. The short answer is — YES it is most certainly worth it!

Oaxaca Day of the Dead cemetery

Oaxaca, in a word, is magical. Oaxaca is the Mexico people imagine Mexico to be.

This state has it all: rich history, gorgeous beaches, colorful festivals, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, locally-made Oaxaca mezcal, beautiful nature, colonial architecture, artisan communities — and of course, Oaxaca food.

Mix all that with one of the most fun, beautiful, lively, cultural festivals on the planet, and you can’t go wrong with a Oaxaca trip to Dia de Muertos.

Final Thoughts: Oaxaca Day of the Dead in Mexico

large oaxaca day of the dead decorations

I have never met anyone who didn’t enjoy their Mexico Día de Muertos experience — me included. It is a magical time to visit Mexico, but you have to plan ahead if you want to celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca Mexico.

💀 this is Your Final word of warning!

The only caveat for going to Oaxaca Day of the Dead is you have to plan in advance. As I aimed to make this the ultimate guide to the Oaxaca Día de Muertos celebrations, I can’t stress this point enough.

Oaxaca is a small town, and all the hotels, VRBOs, hostels, and Oaxaca Airbnbs will sell out, and so will all the Day of the Dead tours.

If you make sure to book everything in advance, you’re in for the trip of a lifetime

🌺💀🌺 Need more tips for Oaxaca Day of the Dead? Check out this Day of the Dead Mexico podcast to learn even more about attending the Oaxaca Mexico celebration.

Oaxaca Travel Planning Guide

Should I buy Mexico travel insurance for Oaxaca?

100% YES! — With basic coverage averaging just $5-10 USD per day, enjoy peace of mind with a plan from Travel Insurance Master, one of the biggest names in travel insurance. (Read more)

Can you drink the water in Oaxaca?

No — You’ll want to buy this Water-To-Go Bottle, which filters your drinking water so you don’t get sick from drinking water in Mexico, and helps keep you hydrated while traveling to Oaxaca. (Read more)

Is it safe to rent a car in Oaxaca?

Yes — Renting a car in Oaxaca is one of the best ways to see the state. I always rent with Discover Cars, which checks international companies and local Oaxaca companies, so you get the best rates. (Read more)

Will my phone work in Oaxaca?

Maybe — It depends on your company, so check with your provider. If you don’t have free Mexico service, buy a Telcel SIM Card. As Mexico’s largest carrier, Telcel has the best coverage of all Mexico SIM Cards. (Read more)

What’s the best way to book places to stay in Oaxaca?

For Oaxaca hotels, Booking.com is the best site. If you’re considering a Oaxaca Airbnb, also check VRBO, which is often cheaper than Airbnb. For the best Oaxaca hostels, use HostelWorld.

What do I pack for Oaxaca?

Head to the Ultimate Mexico Packing List + FREE Checklist Download to get all the info you need on packing for Mexico.

What’s the best site to buy Oaxaca flights?

For finding cheap Oaxaca flights, I recommend booking through Skyscanner.

Do I need a visa for Oaxaca?

Likely Not — U.S., Canadian and most European Passport holders don’t need a visa for Mexico; but you can check here to see if you need a Mexico travel visa.

The vast majority of travelers will receive a a passport stamp, or 180-Day FMM Tourist Visa upon arrival.