Oaxaca Day of the Dead (2023) – Ultimate Guide to Día de los Muertos
Oaxaca City is a magical, festive place no matter the time of year but it becomes especially so during Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. If you have plans to attend the celebration, you are in the right place.
I live in the city so not only do I know the city well, but I’ve experienced the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca multiple times.
This guide to Oaxaca Day of the Dead was created to help you plan your visit. It includes the main events of the festival as well as some special bonus things to do on the days surrounding the festival. If you prefer, you can skip ahead to my Oaxaca Día de los Muertos itinerary.
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When is Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico?
Just like Día de Muertos in other parts of Mexico, Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. Though in reality, the celebrations start on the night of October 31st when the spirits return at midnight.
Preparations for the Oaxaca Day of the Dead festival begin earlier. I recommend you arrive in the city at least a few days before to soak up all of the Día de los Muertos vibes.
November 1st – Día de los Inocentes
The first day of celebrations is called Día de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents. This is the day to remember children that have passed. It’s believed that spirits of the angelitos (little angels) return at midnight on this day.
November 2nd – Día de los Muertos
The second day of celebrations also begins at midnight. This is the day to welcome the spirits of the adults that have passed. This is generally the most festive day, but you can rest assured Oaxaca Día de los Muertos celebrations are lively throughout.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead (2023)
Celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca means jam-packed days and nights. You most likely want to stay in the center of town to have easy access to your room for a quick refresh or a siesta.
For where to stay in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, I recommend staying close to Santo Domingo Church, near the Zocalo, or the neighborhood of Jalatlaco.
If you’re able to book a hotel for Day of the Dead in advance, you’ll be rewarded with the best options and prices since many travelers book months in advance. I’ve detailed the top hotels for Day of the Dead below.
If you’re booking with less notice, you should click to browse this search for places to stay in Oaxaca to see what’s available for your dates.
Quick Look – Where to Stay for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Casa Quiote Hotel Boutique $$$$$ | Gorgeous hotel with luxurious suites that feel like a peaceful sanctuary
Casa Hidalgo Hotel Boutique $$$$ | Beautiful hotel in a central location with comfortable rooms
City Centro Oaxaca | $$$ A top-pick Jalatlaco hotel with modern, stylish rooms and a rooftop swimming pool
Paraje La Huerta | $$ Charming Jalatlaco hotel with extensive gardens and comfortable rooms
Centro: Best Place to Stay in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead
Conveniently located one block from the Zocalo, Casa Quiote Hotel Boutique is a peaceful sanctuary with luxurious suites that are the perfect place to relax between the Day of the Dead events.
Another place to stay for in Oaxaca Day of the Dead with a fabulous location is Casa Hidalgo Hotel Boutique. You’ll be in the center of the action near the Zocalo but be able to retreat to your room to rest in between.
Located in a former convent, Quinta Real Oaxaca is one of the most luxurious hotels in Oaxaca. And the location, steps away from Santo Domingo Church and the pedestrian street is exactly where you want to be.
And if you’re just looking for a comfortable place to sleep, both the Holiday Inn and City Express Oaxaca are well located, with lots of availability for Muertos.
Jalatlaco: A Great Place to Stay for Día de los Muertos
The neighborhood of Jalatlaco is charming and colorful all the time but it particularly comes alive this time of year.
And the regular Muertos events in the neighborhood make it a great place to stay in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. Visitors flock to this area in the evenings for the parades during the celebration.
In the heart of Jalatlaco, modern design hides behind the doors of City Centro Oaxaca, one of my top picks to stay in Jalatlaco for Día de Muertos. The rooms are stylish and the rooftop pool is refreshing.
The extensive gardens and affordable rooms at Paraje La Huerta makes this hotel another top pick for where to stay in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
And the brightly decorated rooms at Hotel Posada San Rafael are also great choice for a hotel in Jalatlaco.
Xochimilco and Reforma: Other Areas to Stay for Day of the Dead
These two neighborhoods stretch north, just above the highway and center of Oaxaca. While they aren’t my first pick for where to stay for Day of the Dead, they each have their perks.
For convenience, you’ll want to stay in a location further south to be near the center.
Mision De Los Angeles is a Reforma hotel with extensive grounds and a swimming pool conveniently located just a few minutes from the center. The basic rooms at Suites Colibri are comfortable, affordable, and a short walk to Centro.
The minimalist rooms at Santa Cecilia Hotel are tastefully decorated in hues of cream and ochre. Located in La Cascada, a neighborhood that seamlessly blends into Xochimilco, this is also a traditional area to stay in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
Hostels: Where to Stay for Day of the Dead
If you’re a backpacker or budget traveler, there are a few hostels in Oaxaca with availability for Day of the Dead.
For shared rooms in a fabulous central location, I recommend Hostal De Las Américas. This family run hostel has a rooftop terrace and breakfast is included in the rate.
Alternatively, Andaina Youth Hostel is an incredible value for private rooms with the community of a hostel. There is also a rooftop and shared kitchen.
Why Celebrate Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca?
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is one of the most traditional Día de Muertos celebrations in Mexico. I attribute a lot of that to the strong family ties within the community. As the festival approaches, it feels as though the entire city embraces the essence of Muertos.
The smell of cempasúchil flowers permeates the air as homes and businesses decorate their entrance with traditional flowers and create altars. There are also many nearby pueblos that have their own traditions for Día de Muertos, some of which are available to respectfully visit.
Planning to come to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead? Don’t forget to read my tips for staying safe in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tours
It can be difficult to find Day of the Dead Tours in Oaxaca online. And even more difficult to find an authentic tour!
You’ll likely be solicited for a tour while you’re walking around. But from speaking with a fellow traveler during my first Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, these tours aren’t likely to provide anything that you couldn’t do on your own.
If you’re looking for a more intimate view of the celebration, then you should definitely book this authentic Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tour.
When I joined this tour, we met at a local restaurant where we were served a complimentary snack and cocktail. While we were getting to know each other, we took turns having our faces painted and a professional photo shoot.
Afterward, we returned to the upstairs patio where we learned about the origins and traditions of Day of the Dead from a local guide.
Then our Oaxaca Day of the Dead tour took us to a nearby cemetery where we met with another local resident and his family as they celebrated their loved ones. The cemetery was lit with candlelight and awash with yellow marigold flowers. This part of the tour was a truly magical experience.
Day of the Dead Festival Oaxaca – An Itinerary
This Oaxaca Day of the Dead itinerary is a guide for the main activities. I’ve included a few bonus Muertos events below, many of which take place in the surrounding pueblos of the Central Valleys.
I recommend you pick up a schedule of events from the tourist booth that is located in front of the main cathedral, near the Zocalo. Small events change each year, so you’ll want to keep your ears and eyes open for other activities happening in the city.
Before the 31st
Spend the days before the Day of the Dead festival wandering around Oaxaca, taking in the essences that have begun to take over the city. The mercados are full of fresh-cut flowers, the bakeries are busy making pan de muerto, and just about everywhere is putting up decorations.
In addition to centro, the neighborhood of Jalatlaco is one of my favorites to wander during Día de Muertos. There you’ll find a lot of street art, including pieces by one of my favorite artists, Bouler. And you may even stumble across an artist in the midst of creating a large mural.
Here are a few bonus things to do during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca before we get into the full itinerary.
Explore Nearby Pueblos – Artisans, Markets, and Mezcal
The days before Día de los Muertos is also a great time to explore the surrounding villages. Oaxaca City is unique in that you can travel in one direction outside of the city and visit several surrounding pueblos in one day.
Whether you opt to use colectivos or book a tour, use this guide to plan day trips and tours from the city. Inside, I help you navigate different routes or tours, depending on your preferences.
Try to plan a visit that coordinates with one of the weekly markets, called a tianguis. Different towns have a designated day. During Day of the Dead, these markets become even more extravagant with piles of flowers and specialty pan de muertos. Some of my favorites are:
- Zaachila Market – Thursdays
- Ocotlan Market – Fridays
- Tlacolula Market – Sundays
Visit a Flower Field in Oaxaca
For a unique experience, travel an hour outside of the city to Cultivos el Viejo, a flower field near the town of Zimatlán. Among the rows of vibrant marigold flowers, visitors pose to have their pictures taken. Some wear bright dresses while others go all out with a special Muertos look.
For a small donation, you can enter the fields to take pictures. I recommend arriving in the late afternoon when the golden hour sun enriches the scenery. Keep in mind that you’ll need to visit the week before Dia de los Muertos. The flowers are harvested around the 30th of October.
TO GET THERE: Take a bus towards Zimatlán from Terminal Autobuses Halcón. Let the bus driver know you want to go to Cultivos de Viejo. In case he doesn’t know where that is, you will want to get off the bus here.
After you exit the bus, look for the tree-lined dirt road on the right that parallels the highway. Walk this road in the same direction the bus was traveling for about five minutes until you reach the marigold flower farm on your right.
Sand Rugs (Tapetes) in Zaachila
In the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, colorful sand rugs have a long history of celebrating the dead. Depending on the town, they are created nine days, forty days, and one year after the death of a loved one.
They have also become a Oaxaca Day of the Dead tradition as a way to welcome the spirits and share the ritual with visitors.
You can see the tapetes of Zaachila along Calle Coquiza which leads from the cemetery to the church. Ideally plan to visit during the Thursday market. If not, I recommend eating at Mercado Gastronómico de Zaachila where you can find barbacoa and other specialties.
Recently other communities such as Xochimilco and Xoxocotlan have created a display of sand rugs to celebrate Day of the Dead. While they aren’t as impressive as those in Zaachila, they are closer to the city if you’re tight on time. You can also see some examples at the Oaxaca cemeteries.
La Catrina Exhibition in Mitla
This small town about an hour east of Oaxaca is home to the second most important archeological site in Oaxaca. It was also a sacred place for the Zapotecs. The name is derived from the Nahuatl word, Mictlán which means “place of the dead,” as it was considered the place where souls go to rest in the afterlife.
So it’s a particularly appropriate town to visit during the Day of the Dead festival. In addition to visiting the archeological site, you can wander the streets to view the catrinas created for Día de los Muertos.
You’ll need to pass through Mitla if you’re planning to visit Hierve el Agua (which you absolutely should!)
October 31st – Xoxo Cemetery
Families in Oaxaca spend the days prior to the Day of the Dead festival preparing the gravesite of the deceased. They clean the grave and begin to decorate it with flowers. During the celebrations, they gather in the cemetery at night to light candles and welcome their loved ones to visit.
Traditionally the cemetery in Xoxocotlán has been the most open to outside visitors. When I first visited Oaxaca for Dia de Muertos, I was a bit shocked by the scene outside of Xoxo cemetery.
There were street vendors and lots of people throughout the streets, though inside the cemetery was a bit calmer. This is still the case. For a more peaceful visit, I recommend arriving near dusk so that you can visit the cemetery for Day of the Dead before the throngs of people arrive. Then enjoy a snack of tacos on the street before heading back to the city.
It should go without saying, foreigners who wish to visit a cemetery should be incredibly respectful of this private time. In recent years (due to you know what), the cemeteries were reportedly closed by the government.
In some Oaxaca cemeteries, families continued to gather but outside visitors were not welcome. I do think we should take this as a lesson to take a step back and show even more respect for this family tradition.
How To Get To Xoxo Cemetery During Day of the Dead
If you plan on arriving later than 8 pm, I recommend taking a tuk-tuk near this area on the Periferico. This cemetery draws large crowds and with that comes traffic. When we visited the tuk-tuk drove in places buses and cars simply would not, thus getting there much faster.
Other Oaxaca Cemeteries for Day of the Dead
There are other Oaxaca cemeteries that I recommend visiting for Day of the Dead. Several of these are within the city which makes it convenient to visit on nights before other events.
Atzompa Cemetery – Located less than 30 minutes west of the city, Atzompa is a traditional cemetery in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. It has a more rustic feel than Xoxo and draws a smaller crowd.
Xochimilco Cemetery – A small cemetery located in the traditional neighborhood of Xochimilco. While this Oaxaca cemetery was a bit calmer on the night I visited, there were a few families and many gravesites with flowers and candles.
San Felipe Cemetery – A medium-sized cemetery with a long tradition. Lots of families gather in this cemetery on the nights of October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd.
General Pantheon – Located east of the city, this is the main cemetery of Oaxaca. However, the night I visited on the 1st it was very calm without much decoration or families. I wouldn’t put this cemetery at the top of your list.
November 1st – Etla, Oaxaca – Day of the Dead Muerteada
In San Agustin Etla, Day of the Dead celebrations takes the form of a muerteada, one of the strongest traditions in the city. On this night, male residents dress in costumes adorned with small mirrors and bells.
The mirrors are used to scare away the witches and the bells help guide the spirits in the night. The costumes are complete with masks that represent important muerteada figures such as the devil, the dead, and the old.
Accompanied by a brass band, they meander through the neighborhood, going from house to house, welcoming the spirits to come out. The festivity turns into an all-night parade that ends around sunrise.
I have recently learned there is a second version of this Muerteada in Etla. One week later, females dress up and go through the town in a similar fashion.
How To Get To Etla, Oaxaca for Day of the Dead
Since you will arrive at night, a taxi is the best way to get to Etla for Day of the Dead. It’s about a 40-minute drive from the center of Oaxaca, so it’s best to organize a group to share the cost.
In fact, I recommend you hire a taxi for the entire night so that they are available when you are ready to go back to Oaxaca City. In the years prior to 2020, the muerteada in Etla drew a crowd of more than 3,000 people, so you can imagine the difficulty of finding an available taxi in a sea of people.
November 2nd – Jalatlaco Comparsa (Parade)
There always seems to be something going on in the neighborhood of Jalatlaco for Day of the Dead. In the evenings of both the 1st and the 2nd, people gather in this traditional neighborhood to celebrate. And around 9 pm, you will most likely find a parade in the streets, called a comparsa.
To locate a comparsa, look and listen for the telltale signs – a brass band leading the parade, large puppets with their arms swinging wildly, and “El Patron,” whose job it is to keep everyone lubricated with shots of mezcal.
This Day of the Dead parade is typically much shorter than the muerteada in Etla, though no less fun! In fact, the traditional neighborhood of Jalatlaco is the perfect backdrop for the Day of the Dead festival in Oaxaca. You can expect the parade to wrap up around 11 pm this night.
Are you looking for an authentic Oaxaca Day of the Dead tour? Check availability for this special tour which includes getting your face painted, building an altar, and visiting a cemetery.
Oaxaca Day of the Dead Traditions
Dia de los Muertos is enveloped in tradition. It’s always been a celebratory time, but unfortunately, some traditions have been diluted by a party atmosphere. While there is plenty of celebrating to do, it’s important to understand the roots of Day of the Dead and when it’s appropriate to party.
Day of the Dead Altars
Altars, or ofrendas, are a centerpiece of the Day of the Dead celebration, created to welcome the spirits as they pass from the underworld to visit with family. The altars are filled with favorite items of the deceased, flowers, candles, and photographs.
The offerings include their favorite food and drinks, and often mezcal and cigarettes for adults or candy and toys for children. Families spend countless hours going to the market and preparing food to create their Day of the Dead altar.
While Day of the Dead altars are typically on display at private homes, there are several made by hotels and neighborhoods that you can see while you’re wandering around Oaxaca City.
Day of the Dead Flowers
The orange marigold flower, called cempasúchil, has been prevalent during Day of the Dead celebrations since pre-Hispanic times. It’s believed that the flower’s bright color and pungent smell help to guide the spirits to the ofrenda.
During Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, various venues put these flowers on full display by creating intricate decorations and altars throughout the city. You’ll often find them interlaced with another classic Day of the Dead flower called terciopelo rojo, or red cockscomb.
Pan de Muertos – Day of the Dead Bread
Another essence prevalent in the city comes from the bakeries. Pan de Muertos, or Bread of the Dead, is only eaten in October and November since it’s strongly associated with the celebration.
There are several varieties of pan de muertos in Mexico. The most well-known is decorated with a bone-like formation across the top and dusted with sugar.
The Central Valleys region is known for pan de yema, or yolk bread. Its name comes from the large number of eggs and egg yolks used in place of other liquids when forming the dough.
The Day of the Dead tradition is to decorate this bread with a small painted face. It is said that the bread itself represents the grave while each face represents a deceased person.
In the Central Valleys region near Oaxaca City, it is a round shape while in the Sierra Sur and La Costa, the pan de muertos takes on the shape of a human figure.
You can find these pan de muertos at bakeries throughout Oaxaca City. Grab a cup of hot coffee or chocolate to enjoy this Day of the Dead tradition.
Oaxaca Day of the Dead Parades
One of the most festive traditions is the Day of the Dead parades in Oaxaca. As I mentioned above, the neighborhood of Jalatlaco is one of the best places to experience a comparsa.
But you should keep your eyes and ears open for a passing parade throughout the city and surrounding small towns. The sounds of a brass band, fireworks, and a crowd of people following the larger than life-sized puppets that lead the way are all signs of a Dia de Muertos parade (and a fun-filled time).
Day of the Dead Face Painting
Okay, this one is a little controversial because La Catrina was created in the early 1900s as a satire about Mexican society. Thus, painting your face is not a Day of the Dead tradition with a lot of history, but it has become popular with locals and tourists.
If you want to get your face painted during Oaxaca Day of the Dead celebrations, walk along Alcalá (the walking street) south of Santo Domingo Church. There you’ll see lots of artists offering their services.
To complete the look, you can find marigold flower headbands throughout the city. You’ll find the freshest ones at a flower shop, but there are also vendors selling them on the streets in the center of the city.
While I used to believe you should only attend certain activities with your face painted, I’ve since loosened up on this after hearing opinions from Oaxacans. Nonetheless, I’m most comfortable having my face painted for events such as Day of the Dead parades and the Murteada in Etla.
Tips to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Plan Your Dia de los Muertos Trip in Advance
The best tip I can give you is to plan in advance as much as possible. Oaxaca City has become one of the most popular places to celebrate Día de Muertos in Mexico. Planning early will assure you can reserve the best accommodations and Day of the Dead tours.
With that being said, both times I celebrated Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, I only planned a month or two in advance. If that’s the case, you may just need to be more flexible. I certainly think it’s more important to experience this amazing tradition than make sure everything is perfect.
Book an Authentic Day of the Dead Tour in Oaxaca
If you want to book a tour, one of the biggest tips I have for enjoying this special celebration is to find an authentic Oaxaca Day of the Dead tour.
While you’ll still be an outside observer, a Day of the Dead tour should educate you about the history and traditions as well as expose you to a traditional celebration whether it’s in a local’s home or at a cemetery.
Be Respectful and Mind Your Alcohol Intake
Day of the Dead is a traditional celebration that truly revolves around family. Oaxacans are incredibly generous and mostly excited to share their traditions with foreigners. However, it’s important to respect the history of Muertos.
Yes, it’s festive. Yes, it’s a celebration. But it’s not an excuse to party and drink excessively. It also makes you vulnerable to potential theft.
Ask Before Taking Someone’s Photo
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca transforms an already picturesque, culturally rich city into a photographer’s paradise. There are vivid scenes everywhere you look. Unless they are participating in a parade or other public event, you should ask before taking someone’s photo.
This is especially true when visiting the cemeteries and with the flower vendors at the mercado. The rounded piles of fresh-cut flowers always draw visitors in. But I’ve seen vendors get upset and turn away from the camera multiple times. Make sure you ask ahead of time. They will often generously agree if you photograph the flowers only.
Final Thoughts on Oaxaca Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is an amazing cultural experience. Although its popularity has diluted this family tradition, it is still possible to experience the authentic traditions of Dia de los Muertos.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to observe, participate when appropriate, and reflect upon this unique way to celebrate life and death.
About Julien Casanova
I’m happy you found me. I’m a solo female traveler and the creator of Cultures Traveled. I specialize in Mexico and Colombia travel with an emphasis on getting out of routine bucket list travel so you can immerse yourself in the local culture, make new friends, and experience different traditions.