As many Día de Muertos events as we have in the US, there are many more in Mexico. All across the country, even in the Northern states now, cities and towns have their own unique events. There is one very special place though, so keep reading to the end!
You might think Mexico City, built on top of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, is the hot spot of this ancient holiday. You may have seen the James Bond film, Spectre. It opens with a chase scene through the main square of Mexico City during a Día de Muertos parade. Up until the movie though, there was no such parade! The city learned tourists had an interest see the parade, so to promote tourism they held the first in 2016. It’s a very commercial holiday in the city, and not overly authentic… But, it is fun and easily accessible.
The Yucatan Peninsula was influenced more heavily by the Maya than the Aztecs. None-the-less, they still celebrate Día de Muertos to the max. Here the holiday is known by its Mayan name, Hanal Pixan, or meal for the souls. In addition to the orange marigolds, you’ll see red cockscomb on altars as well.
In Merida, you’ll find the traditional altars all about town. Be sure to check out a newer tradition too, Paseo de las Ánimas (Passage of the Souls). Streets close and tens of thousands of people show up to take part in this parade and festival. All along the route, there are stages for musical performance and various activities.
You can also celebrate at Xcaret Park near Cancun, in Riviera Maya. Xcaret is like an eco-theme-park. For Hanal Pixan/Día de Muertos, they host the Festival of Life and Death Traditions. This event is different from the others because it’s a lot more commercial, though locals attend in equal numbers as tourists. There are concerts by both local folk musicians as well as international artists from places like Argentina and Spain. You can enjoy theater, dances, workshops, offerings, Catholic Mass, amazing cuisine, and lots more.
Oaxaca, located in Southern Mexico, is THE place to be for Día de Muertos in Mexico. The weather is mild and it is both one of the safest states and one of the richest in tradition. Schools and social organizations hold altar contests and throughout towns. You’ll see paths of marigolds petals leading up to amazingly elaborate beautiful altars. The markets are packed with everything needed for the perfect altar and family gathering: marigolds, more marigolds, chocolate, tamales, sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), candles, and more… The Friday market in Ocotlan is a great place to visit. It’s a little smaller and more manageable than the enormous Central de Abastos market in Oaxaca City.
There are numerous cemeteries all over the area, Panteon General (aka Panteon San Miguel) is beautiful with candle-lit niches, altars, and even treats and carnival rides just outside the cemetery grounds. Informal comparsas are parades (or, more accurately, processions) that take place in neighborhoods all over Oaxaca. You never quite know when you’ll catch one, but they’re a sight to see! People dress in costumes and there is lots of music and dancing. Each comparsa is unique to its barrio (neighborhood). The comparsa in the village of Etla is so popular that tour companies offer specific trips just to see and participate in them for one night only.
Día de Muertos is not Halloween, nor is it a somber time of mourning. It is its own unique celebration of our dearly departed loved ones. Whether or not you choose to travel to the heart of Mexico and celebrate like a local, I hope you’ve learned a little and are inspired to explore more international holidays and traditions.