I celebrate Oaxaca Day of the Dead every year and in this guide, I will share with you everything you need to know about visiting Oaxaca during this festive season!
Historically, it is celebrated because the Mexicans believe that their departed loved ones come back (from the dead, literally) to visit them.
With this, the ever-so-entertaining Mexicans put on a grand show for the deceased relatives and friends by putting on a glamorous altar. Candles, photos, and even food are placed on the altar as offerings (ofrenda).
The Mexicans are also not afraid of death as they believe this is a normal cycle of life. Life should be celebrated as they say. I really admire this attitude because this makes them live a full life. I mean, look at how they celebrate their daily life!
Mexicans are the walking example of “we only have one life and we need to live it as best as we can.” There is no other time in the world but NOW.
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🕯️ Why celebrate the day of the dead in Oaxaca?
Quick answer: there is nothing like it. While I originally wanted to go to Mexico City to celebrate day of the dead (the flights were cheaper), I realized I’ve never really experienced Oaxaca day of the dead (not even once).
Oaxaca is the capital of day of the dead and I must warn you – if you do it here the first time, all the other DOTD celebrations in other parts of Mexico will be lame for you.
Take my credit card, please – now is a good time! I did spend a little more than what I planned because of last-minute poor planning that is why I am writing this Oaxaca day of the dead guide that doesn’t break the bank.
Honestly, if I planned it sooner, it would’ve been so cheap. I will share all the booking and planning lessons I learned in this trip so keep reading!
🌼 How is the day of the dead celebrated in Oaxaca?
I don’t even know how to begin but there will be events left and right. First, I would like to clarify that day of the dead in Mexico is not like Halloween. In fact, it is not Halloween. No trick or treating whatsoever.
As you are already familiar with how Mexicans are in terms of parties and celebrations, just imagine the most extreme festivity possible. You will be up against an unimaginable force of celebrating.
The whole city of Oaxaca will be filled with decorations from November 25th. All restaurants and establishments do their best with the decorations – there won’t be a single place in Oaxaca that will not comply. The grander, the better.
There will be events left and right although they are not the same every year. Mezcal tastings, drag shows, street parties, lots of raves, you name it.
I really can’t be specific with the events but along the way, you will definitely find one or five events that will suit your taste. I will give you tips later on how to find them.
You will feel left out (FOMO) because you can’t even decide what to do first. It got so overwhelming for me to plan it with friends. We had this long list of events and things that we wanted to do but guess what?
In the end, we just lived in the moment and followed our days. For example, we planned to go to this mezcal tasting then it overlapped with a drag show that was announced last minute. We ended up doing the drag show instead!
The good thing about celebrating day of the dead in Oaxaca is whatever you end up doing for the day/night will always be awesome!
📅 Oaxaca Day of the Dead dates
When I visited my local host family in Teotitlan (an hour’s drive from Oaxaca), I was so surprised that the children weren’t already in school on November 26th.
The parents told me that the government of Oaxaca declared November 25th as a holiday so the kids will have more than a week of vacation! It was all of day of the dead!
In reality, day of the dead is only celebrated for 3 days but the Mexicans always extend it to a week. Here are the important dates:
October 31st is what we know as Halloween but this is All Soul’s Eve. On this day, it is believed that the angelitos (spirits of the children) are the first to return to spend time with their families.
November 1st is All Saint’s Day is when the adult spirits return so expect a crazier shebang such as parades, drinking, and crazy parties.
November 2nd is All Soul’s Day which I thought is going to be calmer but this year, it ended up to be the craziest night!
🎊 Things to do in Oaxaca during the day of the dead
There are many things to do in Oaxaca (see my ultimate list for this!) but this time, I am only including Day of the Dead activities in this article. Below are some great activities:
1. Join our Day of the Dead tour!
Every year, we hold a 5-day Day of the Dead tour in Oaxaca where we host a maximum of 12 participants. Our itinerary is extremely unique it is mixed with essential activities in Oaxaca City.
Our group is dynamic, fun, and is composed of travelers from all over the world! This is a great all-inclusive package if you want to experience a traditional Oaxaca Day of the Dead celebration!
2. Catrina Make-Up in Oaxaca
La Catrina is an iconic figure in Mexican culture, often depicted as a skeleton wearing an elegant hat and dress, and she has become symbolic of the Day of the Dead. Many people paint their faces to resemble her as part of the celebration.
The issue of wearing La Catrina makeup as a tourist during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico is complex and varies depending on who you ask. Believe me, I’ve asked everyone and I did not get the same answer!
There are also the 3 ideal consecutive days to put your day of the dead make-up (Catrina) as I did. If you only plan to do it for one day, you should do it on November 1st.
If you are visiting cemeteries, I do not recommend you to wear the Catrina make-up as some locals may be sensitive about it.
I design my own make-up, draw it (see this video) and show it to my trusted Catrina make-up artist in Oaxaca!
3. Visit a cemetery
Visiting a cemetery in Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead is an experience steeped in emotion, reverence, and community spirit. As dusk falls, families gather at cemeteries carrying marigold flowers, candles, and food offerings to decorate the graves of their departed loved ones.
As you walk through the labyrinth of graves, you might hear live mariachi or string quartets playing nostalgic tunes, complemented by the laughter and chatter of families sharing stories and memories.
Below are some of the top cemeteries to visit in Oaxaca City:
Panteón General: Located in the heart of Oaxaca City, the Panteón General is one of the most visited cemeteries during the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Xochimilco Cemetery: The local community is very welcoming, and the cemetery becomes a hub of activity during the Oaxaca Day of the Dead.
Panteón de San Miguel: Located in the Etla Valley, the community here hosts various events, including parades and traditional music, adding a unique local flavor to the festivities.
Panteón de Atzompa: This cemetery is located in Santa María Atzompa, a town known for its pottery.
Panteón de San Felipe del Agua: Located in a suburb of Oaxaca City, this cemetery offers a more tranquil setting for Day of the Dead observances. It’s an ideal place for those looking to experience the tradition in a quieter, less crowded environment.
Remember that while these cemeteries welcome visitors during the Day of the Dead, it’s crucial to be respectful and considerate, as these are deeply personal and emotional events for the families involved.
Always ask for permission before taking photos, and try to observe local customs and traditions while you are there.
The best date to visit cemeteries in Oaxaca is November 1st and 2nd.
4. October 25th: Marigold field cultivation
Cultivos El Viejo is a marigold farm located in Zimatlan, just 45 minutes from Oaxaca City. This is where all those colorful photos you see on Instagram are taken.
They open their doors every year for guests to visit (and take photos) from 8:00 AM – 12:00 PM and 4:00 PM – 7:00 PM. Sadly, the. last day they allow it is November 24th because the flowers need to be delivered in many parts of Oaxaca by the 25th. I will definitely come ahead of time next year!
There is no entrance fee to enter these fields but they accept donations. You can also buy flowers from them directly to support what they do.
Please be careful not to step on the plants and move with caution while you are inside the farm! Also, don’t do crazy Instagram photos that will damage the flowers.
5. Altar Tours
Many homes, businesses, and public spaces create altars to honor the deceased. It’s a colorful and heartfelt tradition. Some families open their homes to visitors who wish to see these altars.
6. November 2nd: Comparsa (a must do!)
I am not kidding, comparsas are the best highlight of my Oaxaca day of the dead experience. I really had a blast!!! A comparsa is a band/musical group that usually performs on the streets. They are most common in Spain and Latin America.
They will start playing in one place and from there, parade along the streets stopping at every major point. The crowd has to go with it – you can’t wait for them in the spots they stop on.
The whole point of the experience is to parade with them and follow them around town. The most famous comparsas are that of Santiago de Cuba’s and Barranquilla’s carnivals.
It will be very crowded (check my Instagram stories) but the best thing to do is to always stick close to the band. If you are so far from the band, nothing is really happening and it’s quite boring so do your best to be close to them!
7. Go to the Zocalo
Oaxaca’s main square is usually bustling with activities, decorations, and stages for various events. People come here to socialize, eat, and take in the unique atmosphere.
8. Take photos in the colorful streets
Although Oaxaca is already festive without the day of the dead decorations, you will notice the difference if you arrive before these dates.
The moment you go out on the 25th, you will see everyone super busy decorating the facade of their establishments. The most common you’ll see apart from the marigolds are the altars.
Here are some streets and areas you might consider visiting if you’re interested in capturing the vivid visuals of the celebration through photography:
Andador Turístico: This is the main tourist corridor, running from the Santo Domingo Church down to the Zócalo
Calle Macedonio Alcalá: This street is known for its colorful façades and becomes even more vibrant during the Day of the Dead. It’s one of the most photographed streets in Oaxaca.
Calle 5 de Mayo: Located close to the Zócalo, this street often features a mix of traditional and modern decorations and can offer some eclectic photo opportunities.
Calle García Vigil: This street runs parallel to Alcalá and also leads up to the Santo Domingo Church. It is frequently decorated and offers a variety of colonial architecture that provides a great backdrop to the Day of the Dead decorations.
Xochimilco Neighborhood: The streets in this historic neighborhood come alive during the Day of the Dead with local residents setting up altars and decorations that reflect the rich cultural heritage of Oaxaca.
Jalatlaco Neighborhood: This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Oaxaca and its cobblestone streets offer a quaint, traditional backdrop for Day of the Dead decorations and festivities.
Calle Matamoros: This street is filled with galleries, artisan shops, and is often adorned with beautiful decorations during the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca.
Hearts & Heritage: A Family-Run Mezcal Palenque Tour in OaxacaUSD$129.00
Hierve el Agua: A Tour to Oaxaca’s Breathtaking Mineral PoolsFrom: USD$129.00
Mezcal Matriarchs: Discovering Oaxaca’s Female-Led PalenqueFrom: USD$149.00
💀 Travel Guide to Oaxaca Day of the Dead
Book flights 4-6 months before day of the dead
You can start booking your day of the dead flights as early as April. I booked mine 2 weeks before and guess what I paid for the domestic flight from Cabo? US$400, which, by Mexican standard is super expensive.
I live in Mexico and I know very well that you can easily get a domestic flight here for less than US$100. My flight was also super complicated as I had to stop in Mexico City for 8 hours!
It was the dumbest idea ever but for next year, my plan is to just book a 2-way flight (Cabo-Mexico City-Cabo) then take the bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca (and back).
The overnight bus only costs US$35 (one-way) and you don’t have to pay for the luggage. Although I only travel with a carry-on, I did some shopping in Oaxaca so I had to pay for checked luggage (one-way). That cost me US$45 (UGH!).
Another good thing about taking the bus is that the ride will be throughout the night (7 hours) and you don’t have to pay for accommodations. Just sleep in the comfortable bus which you can even upgrade to first class for US$50.
Because of poor planning, I had to stop in Mexico City for a night (both flights) and pay an extra US$40 for accommodation. I know I wasn’t very smart on this trip but I am happy to share these stories as they can help you plan your Oaxaca day of the dead trip without spending as much as I did.
The bus should also be booked ahead of time via ADO. My friends Brock and Ciara got trapped because the busses were full and the bus website was not loading (a week before DOTD).
It was painful and stressful for them to stay in Mexico City while all of us were already celebrating in Oaxaca. Plus all the extra expenses you have to pay while being stuck in Mexico City.
It’s not a bad place to be stuck in because it’s my favorite city in the world but if you originally planned to party in Oaxaca, this is very frustrating! These two cities have very distinct day of the dead celebrations but many prefer Oaxaca over the capital.
Anyway, they made it in time but it was already the 30th so they definitely FOMOed. A lot already happened in our group and they missed out.
Mexican roads will also be crazy at this time so you want to be in Oaxaca by the 25th. Traffic was insane so the bus trip will take longer. Additionally, we also had friends whose flights were canceled last minute because of overbooking.
Remember that the most important thing to book during this event is transportation. Logistically, I find that harder to arrange because accommodation is always easy – you can always stay with friends when push comes to shove (which most of us did but more on that in the next part).
Secure your Oaxaca day of the dead accommodations 6 months before the trip
Tip, tip, tip! Golden golden tip. Let’s start with the tip as I plan to do it now and for my future trips in Oaxaca. Book your accommodations as early as March/April.
I know that’s too far ahead to book and that life can take you to different places for the next 6 months but guess what? If you decide to cancel, you can just sell the hotel reservation and probably even earn from it!
Many friends of mine canceled their trip to Oaxaca because you know, life just happened and they were able to sell their hotel accommodations for even a higher price!
You won’t believe what people would pay for especially closer to the date. A friend who must not be named booked a private room for US$50 in April and he was able to sell it for US$100.
And fast! As soon as he posted it on Instagram, the hotel room was taken within the hour. I do hope you won’t cancel your trip last minute but just in case, this is a freaking great alternative!
If you are alone, another money-saving tip is to book hostels in Oaxaca City. I swear to you, you will always be outside and you will not have the chance to stay in your hostel.
This party’s round the clock, honey! It doesn’t make sense for you to get an expensive Airbnb unless you’re with a group and you’ll split the costs. I don’t remember being in my accommodation. I literally was just in my bed to sleep and that’s it.
Since I always stay in hostels, I didn’t really spend a lot on accommodations but often found myself sleeping in friends’ hotel rooms because, oh well, the party went on until 5:00 am and I can’t walk back. It’s also not that safe to walk in Oaxaca after 10:00 pm so my friends always insisted I stayed (more on safety later).
What’s so funny is that even if you’re in a dorm in a hostel, you’ll barely see people. It’s crazy! I was in a 4-bed dorm and somehow just always never saw my dormmates.
There was one night that I decided to stay in. I slept at 8:00 pm and nobody was there so I popped a 10mg melatonin and slept like a baby. Having slept that early, of course, I woke up at 5:30 AM.
Surprise, surprise! I was still alone in the dorm room by the time I woke up. People just started coming in after 6:00 AM when I was already starting my day!
Everyone’s always out and about so believe me, if you are on a budget, don’t sweat on accommodation. Hostels are the cheapest without compromising your comfort.
What to wear for Oaxaca day of the dead
The day of the dead in Mexico is not Halloween so please avoid wearing costumes like zombies, or anything related.
Below are some great outfits for men and women to wear during day of the dead. Click on the images to order and check prices.
Arrival in Oaxaca
On day of the dead, taxi prices from the airport and from the bus stations can be unreasonable. Luckily, I have some local contacts in Oaxaca who give me the best rates.
You need to book this in advance but if you are arriving last minute, you can just walk out of the airport to get an Uber.
How long should I be in Oaxaca for the day of the dead?
A week or even more. Look, you don’t just want to experience the day of the dead – you want to experience Oaxaca in its fullness. Without the day of the dead celebrations, Oaxaca is a cool city and you need to explore it!
I would say 7 days is the most ideal since there is also other stuff to do outside of Oaxaca City. Don’t worry, Oaxaca is one of the cheapest places in Mexico so I assure you, you can travel here at low costs.
In the next parts of this Oaxaca day of the dead guide, I will give you a sample itinerary. From there, you can decide how many days to stay.
⛔ Safety in Oaxaca during day of the dead
Sadly, this time of the year in Oaxaca is super dangerous at night. There are many tourists in town so expect the streets to be crowded and for bad people to take advantage.
Lots of theft after 10:00 PM
On our first day, one of our good friends was robbed and hit in the face. They took his wallet and his phone but no guns were involved. He had to cut this trip short to go home and that was just our first day (26th Oct).
The following days, we’ve heard from common friends that bartender A was attacked by kids with guns and masks. The stories went on and on that most of us got worried.
Only take yellow taxis if DiDi is not available
We all did a buddy system and promised not to walk home after 10:00 PM. Always take a taxi. In Oaxaca, they use the DiDi app, not Uber.
Taxis are not always available on DiDi so if you are hailing one from the street, make sure to only go with yellow taxis, not white. The yellow ones are safer.
Don’t bring a lot of valuables. Leave your phone at your hotel if you can
Some of us also left our phones when we’re going out at night. Don’t bring a lot of valuables especially if you plan to get drunk. I mean, let’s be real – it’s day of the dead. Even if you don’t plan to ‘party,’ it will happen.
Oaxaca is a cash city so you always need cash but don’t bring crazy amounts with you. Bars and restaurants accept credit cards. But you need cash because you’ll want to try street food and eat in the markets at night!
Don’t party with people you don’t know
Easier said than done. When everyone gets drunk, we all go huggy and friendly and we end up in random places with people we don’t know.
I am speaking from experience and this is the dumbest thing I did during Oaxaca day of the dead. I am not ready to tell that story yet but it will be in my (future) book.
Don’t take drugs at all costs
Also easier said than done especially if you are one of those kids who want to take molly in raves. Don’t buy drugs on the streets because you will get in trouble.
This is the ‘dangerous’ Mexico everyone’s talking about. You will only be in danger if you willingly involve yourself in this situation.
⁉️ FAQ: Oaxaca day of the dead
Trisha traveled to Mexico in 2018 and after a year, she found herself obtaining a 4-year residency visa in Mexico. She is the Editor-in-chief for our Living in Mexico Series which has helped over 3,000 Americans move to Mexico with ease. Trisha currently resides in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur.