Oaxaca Day of the Dead (2022) – Ultimate Guide to Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca City

At a Cemetery in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, a gravesite is topped with a variety of lit candles and vases of traditional flowers.

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’re in the right place.

I often use the city as a base for my travels so not only do I know the city well, but I’ve experienced the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca more than once.

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.

For Oaxaca Day of the Dead, Marigold flowers are woven together with a red flower and hung from the metal balcony.

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.

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.

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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.

The sun shines down on this Dia de Muertos street art in Jalatlaco. Among a painted field of marigolds, it features a skeleton catrina and skeleton dog with it's tongue out towards the cup of mezcal in her hand.

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

During Oaxaca Day of the Dead, a woman with her face painted and wearing a black dress stands in a field of yellow marigold flowers. Mountains, blue skies, and white clouds are in the background.

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 a bright dress while others go all out in costume.

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

A man squats to work on a sand tapete in Zaachila. In the foreground is a large catrina face with a green grasshopper on top of his head and flowers in the background.

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.

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.

At a cemetery during Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, a gravesite is topped with lit candles, an intricate flower cross, and a picture of the deceased.

Traditionally the cemetery in Xoxocotlán has been the most open to outside visitors. When I first visited Oaxaca for Dia de Muertos, the scene outside of Xoxo cemetery was similar to a fair with bright lights and food vendors, though the scene inside was much calmer.

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. Families continued to gather in the cemeteries, but outside visitors were not welcome. 

It created quite a different atmosphere than when I first visited several years ago. I don’t know if we as outsiders will be welcomed again once things get closer to normal. 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

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.

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.

People gather wearing masks and costumes adorned with bells and mirrors in Etla, Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
Participants gather at the Muerteada in Etla, Oaxaca for Day of the Dead

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.

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tours

Guests on this dia de muertos experience make their contributions to the altar using maize, cacao, and colored flowers.

There are lots of Day of the Dead Tours in Oaxaca. The key will be finding an authentic one and booking early!

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 an authentic Oaxaca Day of the Dead Tour. To get a better idea, read about my experience with a family in Atzompa.

Where to Stay in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead

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.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Oaxaca City. As a result, I’ve gotten to know the different neighborhoods very well. 

For Dia de Muertos, I recommend staying either close to Santo Domingo Church, the neighborhood of Jalatlaco, or the area between centro and Mercado La Merced.

I constantly find myself in these areas more than the Zocalo or the areas south and east of the city where the streets turn quiet among the residential atmosphere. Those quiet streets might be good for other visits to Oaxaca, but they wouldn’t be my pick for experiencing Day of the Dead.

If you’re a solo traveler, read my picks for the best hostels in Oaxaca. For me, the top hostels to stay for Dia de los Muertos are either Ticuchi Hostel, Casa del Angel, or Iguana Hostel. All are extremely social with an excellent central location.

For other travelers, let’s look at some of the best hotels for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca.

Where to Stay for Day of the Dead, Oaxaca Centro

I always enjoy staying in the center of town, especially when I first arrive in a new city. This is especially important during Day of the Dead. Oaxaca Centro stretches south of the Zocalo, past Santo Domingo Church. Regarding where to stay, I prefer the area around Santo Domingo more than the Zocalo.

For top luxury, book a stay at Quinta Real Oaxaca ($$$$), a former convent turned luxury hotel with a fabulous location and beautiful pool. Or stay at the historic yet modern Grana B&B ($$$) which features large rooms and included breakfast.

For mid-budget accommodations, Hotel Parador de Alcalá ($$) has a beautiful rooftop pool in an amazing central location. And Casa Dos Lunas ($) provides a great value in a good location with a patio to enjoy.

Where to Stay for Día de los Muertos, Jalatlaco

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 for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. Visitors flock to this area in the evenings for the parades during the celebration.

The classic Los Pilares Hotel ($$) is a favorite among visitors. It features a rooftop pool and jacuzzi with tropical plants throughout. For a luxury stay in Jalatlaco, Hotel Tabáa Oaxaca ($$$) fits the bill. And on the other side of the budget, Paraje La Huerta ($) has gorgeous gardens and comfortable rooms for a really reasonable rate.

Other Neighborhoods to Stay for Día de Muertos

Xochimilco and the Zocalo are both centrally located, thus they are also good places to stay for Día de Muertos. I would avoid going too far north or too far south if you want the most convenient location.

Xochimilco is quite charming and more tranquil than centro. And the Zocalo is technically the center of town so you’ll feel as though you’re right in the action, though there are a few quieter streets nearby if you prefer.

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 with 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 market and preparing food to create their Day of the Dead altar. You’ll be able to spot several 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 ofrendas.

Both yellow marigolds and red cockscomb, traditional Day of the Dead flowers, are piled high on top of wooden crates at the market in Oaxaca

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. 

A close up view of the Oaxaca Day of the Dead Bread which is decorated with red flowers and the face of a woman.
Central Valley pan de muertos
An overhead shot of pan de muertos which is dome shaped and characterized by bone-like formation with a dusting of sugar on top.
Traditional pan de muertos

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 sesame seeds and a small painted face. It is said that the bread itself represents the grave while each face represents a deceased person.

You can find both of 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

A woman sits to get her Day of the Dead face painted. Her face is all white with a rainbow of blue yellow and pink around her eyes and pink skeleton-like mouth. In her hair is a purple, pink, and yellow flower headband attached to a small white veil.

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.

You should be mindful of which activities you attend with your face painted. It is appropriate for a comparsa or the muerteada in Etla, Oaxaca. It is not appropriate when visiting a cemetery or going on a traditional Oaxaca Day of the Dead tour.

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.

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.

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.

What are you most excited about your Oaxaca Day of the Dead experience? Let me know in the comments below!

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