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The Beginner’s Guide to Day of the Dead

For millions of people around the world, this time of year means one thing and one thing only – Halloween.

But for the Mexican population, this time of year plays host to a different celebration – Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead.

What is Day of the Dead Exactly?

Day of the Dead happens across two days – November 1st and 2nd – a little confusing.

And this festival is the one time of the year when Mexican people remember the deaths of their family members, friends, and loved ones, celebrate their lives, and help them on their spiritual journey in the afterlife.

Mexican people believe that this is a time when the souls of the deceased return to their loved ones – so it is a cause for celebration and not despair.

The celebrations date way back to the Aztec period when there was a day for celebrating the lives of dead children and a separate day for commemorating the lives of dead older people.

Then, when the Spanish came along and introduced Catholic holidays, the traditional indigenous celebrations merged with All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1st and November 2nd to create the Day of the Dead celebrations that can be found in Mexico today.

Skull candy
Skull candy Image source

Why Should You Travel to Mexico for the Day of the Dead?

Visiting a country during a time of local celebration is always a win.

Mexico has plenty of celebrations to choose from.

There is Guelaguetza, the month-long celebration of indigenous cultures in Oaxaca during July, there is the Cervantino arts festival in picturesque Guanajuato, and the country goes crazy for Semana Santa too.

But, in my opinion, the most fun celebration of them all (yes, fun even though it’s a national holiday centered around the concept of death) is Day of the Dead.

These are a few of the things that you can expect from visiting Mexico around Day of the Dead.

Skull Candies

Walk around any Mexican city or town during this time, and you’ll see street sellers offering little sugar skulls with intricate colorwork.

These cute little candies came about because Mexico has always had vast reserves of sugar, but the people haven’t always been able to afford expensive decorations.

And so, sugar art started to play a big part in Mexican festivals from the 18th century.

Head into churches around Day of the Dead, and you’ll find gigantic and ornately decorated sugar skulls.

Cemetery Visits

I love a cemetery, but like. I encourage the feeling of being connected to my mortality, and you’ll never feel that with greater force than at a party in a graveyard during Day of the Dead.

And while the idea of visiting a cemetery in the West is something solemn, on Day of the Dead, it’s all part of the celebration.

The cemeteries are especially spectacular at night when they are lit up with hundreds and hundreds of burning candles.

Street Parades

Mexico is a country that loves a parade, and Day of the Dead is no exception.

The Day of the Dead procession is called a comparsa, and consist of people walking and dancing in time to live music, all while displaying incredible costumes.

You’ll find many people painting skulls on their faces in the style of the ornate sugar skull candies.

In my opinion, Oaxaca is the best place in the country for the most vibrant celebrations, but anywhere from Mexico City down will host parties and parades, and there will be lots of fun to be had.

If you do make it to Oaxaca, don’t limit yourself to the city – head to neighboring small towns and villages like Etla and Ocotlan for a vibrant local experience.

Day of the Dead Elsewhere

The tradition of Day of the Dead has found its way to many nearby countries.

Last year, I was in Guatemala for Day of the Dead, and while it wasn’t quite the epic celebration that it would have been in Oaxaca, it was still a celebration for sure.

And as Western countries begin to learn more and more about Day of the Dead, they want a little slice of the action as well.

The London restaurant, Wahaca, is throwing an epic 12-hour Day of the Dead celebration in the heart of the British capital, and parties, live music events, and street parades can be found all over the States.

Wherever you are, make sure that you celebrate!

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

Erick R

Wednesday 4th of November 2015

What city do you recomend to visit for Day of the Dead? The capital city of Oaxaca or another town from that state? I might go next year because honestly this sounds awesome.

David M

Saturday 7th of November 2015

Definitely go! I'd say make Oaxaca City your base, and you can travel around to smaller towns and villages on the outskirts from there very easily.

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