How to celebrate
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
As a Xicana (Mexican-American) that grew up in Southern California I feel a pretty close tie to my Mexican roots, but truthfully my parents didn’t teach me much about the traditions that are rooted within our culture. As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to educate myself more and make the yearly pilgrimage to my motherland to learn a bit more about my ancestors and where I’m from.
This year I was determined to make it down to Oaxaca to celebrate day of the dead, or dia de muertos.
My friends and I decided to go venturing together and had a week full of adventures, mezcal tasting and drunkenness, dancing in the streets with fireworks going off, and of course multiple days of day of the dead celebration!
So now I’m happy to share with you a bit of our own adventures and how we did it to give you ideas for how to celebrate day of the dead in Oaxaca.
First things first: everyone likes to travel differently. Some folks prefer to hit up all the beautiful and elegant spots while they’re traveling and frankly… that’s not exactly my favorite way to travel. I like to hit up the local spots, eat street food, and make friends with the locals and get recommendations for what to do while I’m visiting, and not everyone can or should travel in that way.
I spent every summer of my youth visiting Mexico, eating street food, and getting horribly sick and for the most part I’ve got an iron stomach from it. That being said, even I got a stomach virus and spent the better half of 24 hours feverish and getting some rest. So please, always be careful and do what makes the most sense for you! Okay, PSA out of the way, now on to the good stuff.
We arrived a few days before the official celebrations began because we explored some awesome sights on the city outskirts and… frankly, do some shopping. Here are some of our personal favorite spots we hit up:
Best breakfast spot: Tacos de Comal Plaza Del Carmen; this spot closes early so make it while you can! Order the chille relleno tacos or the chorizo tacos for breakfast along with a Mexican Coke.
Best lunch spot: Mercado Sánchez Pascuas; an incredible mercado with limitless options for what to eat. Pick your favorite spot or change it up and make friends with some lovely little abuelas, they wont let you go hungry.
Best tattoo spot: Tinta Sangre Tatuajes; ever impulsive and maker of questionable decisions, I had to get a tattoo in Oaxaca. NO RAGRETS.
Best bookstore: Amate Books; full of revolutionary literature and history of Oaxaca, make sure you pick up some great books while you’re here.
Best coffee spot: Yalalag; this place is inarguably cute AF. They have a sweet table in the middle full of incredible and reasonably priced ceramics. If you’re looking for some cute artisanal mugs or shot glasses then this is the spot.
Best mezcaleria: Cuish Mezcaleria; there’s two of them in town, the Southern one is a bit more roomie and worth the visit. There’s a guy working there named Bogart who gave us an incredible intro to mezcal for our tasting. Go and say hi to the homie! Also he lived in LA for 10 years so he was able to give us a lesson in English.
Notable mention: Los Amantes Mezcaleria; some major foodies might recognize this spot as having been in an episode of Munchies and it’s well worth the visit. There’s an incredible gentleman who plays guitar here in the evenings and performs some favorite Mexican folk songs.
BEST TACOS AL PASTOR: La Flamita Mixe (Taqueria); a little bit out of town in the Reforma neighborhood BUT IT’S WORTH THE TREK. I may be a little biased because tacos al pastor are my favorite food in the world but these tacos are everything I have ever wanted in my life. When I die, put these tacos on my ofrenda. Thank you.
Best grimey dive bar: Colectivo la Tostadita; as a lover of grimey dive bars, this was a personal favorite. Everything is built with palettes. The server was pretty drunk/high and when we ordered food it was like playing russian roulette. It was pretty damn magical.
Best karaoke spot: Tabuko; one night we were out wandering the streets and ended up drunkenly getting some street food when I heard it… the magic sounds of karaoke. So in the group went and we laughed, danced with some little old ladies, and sang our hearts out to some of our favorite Spanish songs. They have a special of 5 beers for 200 pesos… or $10 USD. So, yeah.
Notable mentions: right outside of Tabuko there’s a street vendor that sells burgers with ham-wrapped patties. Don’t question it, just get drunk, do karaoke, then grab yourself a burger. Thank me later.
Outside Oaxaca City:
Teotitlan del Valle: this is a must-see for anyone looking to pick up some textiles while they’re traveling. This town is full of markets and shops that consist of families with multiple generations of family members learning how to make intricate and beautiful textiles for use as tapestries or rugs.
Don Agave Mezaleria: this spot is really dope if you’re looking to do a mezcal tour and learn a little bit of the process for how mezcal is made. The tour guide Nancy was an absolute delight and was able to educate us in English, allowing for our entire group to be able to understand without having us translate.
Hierve el Agua: THIS IS A MUST! If you like hiking, infinity pools, and mountain views then DO NOT MISS OUT. You’re at around 5,000+ ft elevation which is nothing to scoff at so make sure you bring sufficient water and don’t forget your camera at home.
Day of the Dead traditions:
A short history;
Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead has its origins in Aztec traditions for honoring the dead. Much like with the idea of Halloween, the belief is that this is the time of the year that the divider between the living and the dead is the weakest and that the dead can walk amongst us.
Day of the Dead is a celebration of the deceased, with all night parties, dancing, drinking in cemeteries and food for the dead. Altars or ofrendas are created to honor the dead with their images and surrounded by marigolds. Marigolds are meant to guide the dead into the home or the altars with their strong scent and vibrant colors. Altars are decorated and usually have the favorite food of the deceased so they can taste it in the afterlife via smell. Families celebrate in the cemeteries and mezcal is free-flowing. Here’s a few tips for how to celebrate day of the dead in Oaxaca:
November 1st, All Saints Day: San Agustin Etla is the place to be. But just be warned: the party doesn’t start until 7pm or later and doesn’t REALLY start until 10pm and go late into the night. But once it’s going you’ll see parades all throughout the streets, music playing, and people in elaborate costumes with bells and mirrors attached to them. This place is a real treat!
November 2nd, Day of the Dead: Oaxaca City came alive for day of the dead. You’ll want to spend the night in the Xoxocatlan Cemetery to see the marigold altars and families drinking mezcal and celebrating. The new cemetery is where most people go so it is the most lively and bustling but the old ceremony still has many locals paying homage to their dead and is much more quiet and relaxed. Walking around the city you’ll also find their famous sand tapestries which are truly beautiful.
There you have it! These were the notable mentions for our favorite spots and how we celebrated dia de muertos in Oaxaca but is by no means an extensive list of all there is to do.
But what do you think? Have you visited Oaxaca and celebrated day of the dead? Let me know in the comments below!
Are you planning a destination wedding in Oaxaca? I would love to play tour guide, translator, and photograph your wedding down there! Shoot me an email or fill out my contact form and lets make it happen!