Travel: Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico
Last month, I had the chance to experience the culture around the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in one of the most well-known regions for the holiday: Oaxaca. We spent most of the trip in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, within the state of Oaxaca. Below is an explanation of the holiday, tourism suggestions, and general tips for traveling in the area.
Anyone who has seen the Disney movie Coco is vaguely familiar with the importance of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos. In Mexican culture, death is celebrated rather than feared. Mexicans set aside several days to remember and honor their loved ones who have passed away, setting up Ofrendas (alters) as a memorial with the deceased’s favorite items. They believe that on the holiday, the spirit of their loved ones comes back to visit and set out drinks and foods for the spirit’s long journey. An arch of flowers is created for the spirit to pass through upon entering our world.
This three-day long celebration takes place October 31 through November 2, each day marked with traditions and festivities. On October 31, families gather at the gravesites of their loved ones to honor them. Candles are lit and food is served while families share stories and memories of those who have passed. For many, it’s a night of celebration for the life their loved ones lived.
November 1 is usually referred to as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents), the day that children or babies are believed to travel to this world, while November 2 is the day it is believed the deceased adults pass to this world. These occasions are marked by general festivities and parades. People get their faces painted at the outdoor markets. Two types of Pan de Muertos (Bread of the dead) are served everywhere, one a traditional sweet type and the other a regional savory type.
The region of Oaxaca is especially known for its Día de los Muertos celebrations. The streets in the city are extravagantly decorated for the holiday. Door frames are surrounded in marigold garlands and sugar skulls can be seen on nearly every available surface. Ofrendas are set up in public spaces and in the doorways of private homes. Parades happen continually, usually a band of people following a group of musicians. Some parade participants wear traditional dress, some wear Halloween-type costumes, and others simply wear normal clothes. Although parades can happen any time of day, they usually get louder and livelier the later it gets.
Many of the cemeteries have stages with live music and the surrounding streets are lined with food stands and souvenir vendors. Our group joined a tour that included an authentic explanation of Dia de los Muertos, a light supper of mole, and a tour of three cemeteries. I would recommend this option for anyone wanting to take in the festivities on October 31 as the streets were so crowded it would have been nearly impossible to drive to and park near the cemeteries.
Although the region is widely know for its Día de los Muertos celebrations, the city has a lot more to offer than just ofrendas and cemeteries. The city has a remarkable food scene, offering traditional Mexican, regional Oaxacan, and modern twists on them both.
The Zócalo (town center) is bursting with restaurants and street vendors. All of the side streets that lead to the Zócalo are full of restaurants as well. This region is known for its mole, specifically Mole Negro – a thick sauce, made from chiles, nuts, chocolates and other ingredients cooked and ground into a paste. It’s typically served over chicken. Other variations are also quite popular, such as Mole Rojo and Estufada.
Another popular dish in the region is a Tlayuda. Found at almost every restaurant, it is similar to a flatbread pizza, with a “sauce” of refried beans and is usually topped with lettuce, Oaxacan cheese, and various meats and vegetables. There is also a never-ending supply of tacos, elotes (street corn) and ice cream. Stop into any restaurant and you will not be disappointed with their menu.
The state of Oaxaca is also known for its production of mezcal, a distilled spirit that comes from agave plants. It differs from tequila in the distilling process and therefore has a much smokier taste. Mezcalerias are common all over the city of Oaxaca and most restaurants serve the spirit in small glasses to be sipped and enjoyed over a meal.
Oaxaca city is populated with mercados (markets). A few notable ones are Mercado Merced, Mercado Benito Juárez, and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. All of these markets are lined with stalls of vendors selling breads, spices, leather shoes, traditional dresses, sports jerseys, fresh fruit and souvenir trinkets. The Mercado 20 de Noviembre is known for its food, and it has a central area with dozens of places to eat. Most places serve traditional items like tamales, tacos and tlayudas.
Before starting this trip, I did a ton of research on what to do and where to do it within the city. Almost everything I found said to spend some time walking around and seeing what you stumble upon. I tend to need a more structured plan than that, but we gave “wondering around” a shot and we were not disappointed. We even made time to sit and enjoy an afternoon treat of coffee or ice cream while people watching, something I would highly recommend doing around the Zócalo.
In addition to the indoor mercados, street markets are everywhere. Vendors selling clothes, jewelry, shoes, handmade sweaters, magnets, key chains, sculptures, and textiles line the streets. These markets are great places to pick up a few souvenirs.
Throughout the whole area, street performers are extremely common. Musicians frequent the restaurants and mercados, stopping to play a song and collect tips before moving on. Because of the tourist influx during the Día de los Muertos celebrations, people in costumes posing for pictures or performing street shows were more common than usual (all for tips, of course).
We stumbled upon a theatre production of Catrina, performed by Alejandra Robles and the Philharmonic Ensemble. The outdoor amphitheater was packed as Robles’ powerful voice conveyed the emotions of the dancers and performers in the production about a young girl’s death and the rituals surrounding it.
When you are ready for a more organized activity, the city of Oaxaca is packed full of museums celebrating not only its own culture and heritage, but all of Mexico’s as well. A few noteworthy ones are the Museo de las Culturas (cultural museum), Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Museo Textil de Oaxaca (textile museum), Museo de la Filatelia de Oaxaca (stamp museum).
We spent a couple hours at the stamp museum and discovered entire art pieces made out of stamps, stamp collections from all over the world dating back hundreds of years, and exhibits of note-worthy mail (such as letters from Frida Kahlo). There is also a well-known botanical garden in the city, which offers tours in both Spanish and English.
Located about thirty minutes outside of the center of Oaxaca is a famous tree known as El Tule. This tree, which is a Montezuma Cypress, is believed to be thousands of years old and is the widest tree in the world with a circumference of almost 138 feet.
Visitors can walk around the perimeter of the tree and take in its wide expanse from all sides and angles. Because of the grooves and branches extending from the tree, it is impossible to take in its breadth from one place.
The tree is located on the grounds of the church in the center of the town, Santa Mariá del Tule, and is easily accessible by public transportation. Tours headed to other popular destinations frequently make stops to see the tree. The town surrounding the tree offers shopping, dining, a market, and a kiosko (gazebo) in the plaza (town center), as well as beautiful gardens.
Hierve el Agua
Located about two hours outside of the city, Hierve el Agua is a rock formation that resembles waterfalls. The formations were created from water that is oversaturated in calcium carbonate running over the cliffs. The cliffs rise a couple hundred feet up from the valley below and offer sweeping views of the area. Visitors can hike to both the top and the bottom of the “waterfalls” and swim in the pools on the edge. A stretch of vendor stands and restaurants populate the entrance to the area, so visitors can make a whole day of exploring. Several tours groups offer trips to Hierve el Agua, but on this trip our group hired a private driver to allow us to spend as much time at the site as we wanted, as well as make a few stops along the way.
The region of Oaxaca as a whole is a beautiful, diverse area with a lot to offer. Whether traveling to experience a new culture, try new foods, or visit new landmarks, there is something for everyone in the area. In addition to the Día de los Muertos celebration, the Guelaguetza festival in July is extremely popular with locals. Whether traveling around the area during either festival season or during a quieter time, visitors will find an endless supply of food, shopping, and culture.
All photos by Randi Walle