Are you looking for the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead? The dia de los muertos originated in Mexico, but is celebrated in many countries in Latin America, as well as in places that have large Hispanic communities. It’s a holiday to honor friends and family members who have passed away. But it’s more than just a holiday, especially for the Mexican people. It’s a celebration of life and a cultural experience, a colorful and vibrant holiday which pays tribute and honor to those who are no longer with us. In 2008, the UNESCO recognized the Day of the Dead celebrations as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In this post, we will talk about where you can experience this multi day holiday at its best.
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History Of Day Of The Dead
The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a holiday that’s celebrated on November 1 and 2, though the dates may vary some, depending on the location. It’s origins lie in Mexico, which is where it is primarily celebrated. The tradition of honoring the dead dates back to the times of the Aztecs in central Mexico, and lasted until the Spanish conquered the region in the 16th century.
At that time, holidays were moved to be celebrated in line with Catholic holidays: All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which are celebrated on November 1 and 2.
How To Celebrate Day Of The Dead
The Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated to honor those who have left this earth. It’s a way to remember them, but also celebrate the lives they had. It’s a sort of family reunion, where the most honorable guest is a ghost of a lost loved one. Here are the best ways to celebrate this holiday.
Note: Unless celebrating Day of the Dead is part of your specific culture, doing so can be considered cultural appropriation. Learn more about cultural appropriation vs appreciation, and cultural appropriation dos and don’ts. However, it’s a holiday that offers a chance to learn about a culture that’s not yours. If you plan to attend the celebrations in one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead, check in with the locals. Share that you are interested in sharing their cultural experience, and get advise on what they deem appropriate.
1. Visit the graveyard
Check on the grave or graves of your lost family member or friend, pull some weeds, plant new plants. You can bring sugar skulls, the favorite foods of the deceased as an offering or even bring a picnic along and eat in the company of ghosts.
2. Set up an altar at home
You can make it as elaborate as you like. Traditional at-home altars include photos of your loved ones, skulls (sugar or porcelain), tissue paper banners, a floral arch, candles, salt, fruits, and pan de muerto.
3. Cleanse your home
On the Day of the Dead, the border between the world of the living and the world of the deceased is believed to be much thinner. To invite your spirits in for a visit, cleanse your home. Open the windows to allow plenty of fresh air to come in, then burn some incense.
4. Make Marigolds
For your altar, you will need marigolds. if you want them to last, make them out of tissue paper.
5. Bake pan de muerto
It’s a sweet bread topped with orange glaze that’s traditionally baked before and for the Day of the Dead. It translates to bread of the dead. It’s easy to make, with brown sugar, flour, yeast, anise seeds, cinnamon, milk, butter, the zest of an orange, and different colored sugar crystals. It’s one of the most important Day of the Dead foods.
6. Make sugar skulls
They are a Day of the Dead tradition and easy to make. All you need is a sugar skull mold and some sugary ingredients.
7. Prepare all the traditional Day of the Dead foods
- Mole Negro: a traditional sauce with intense flavors of burnt and blackened chilis.
- Red Pozole: a savory meat stew with loads of spices and red chilis.
- Tamales: wrapped in a banana leaf is a mixture of corn dough and different fillings.
- Calabaza en Tacha: this candied pumpkin, a specialty of the Yucatan peninsula, is flavored with cinnamon and served with a spicy syrup.
- Sopa Azteca: a very yummy spicy tortilla soup, a serious comfort food!
- Caramel Flan: a rich custard topped with caramel, a traditional dessert for centuries.
- Mexican Hot Chocolate: goes very well with caramel flan and includes cinnamon, nutmeg and cayenne pepper.
- Chapulines: these roasted grasshoppers are a delicacy.
- Alegrias and Pepitorias: candies made with puffed amaranth seeds, often decorated in bright colors.
- Atole and Champurrado: a traditional Aztec drink made of corn flour and sweetened with brown sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon.
- Horchata: a drink made from soaked rice, flavored with brown sugar and cinnamon.
- Tequila infused with marigolds: marigolds are not only used for decorations, they create a yummy, golden beverage worth of a celebration of life.
- Pulque: the fermented sap of the agave plant creates a strong, traditional alcoholic beverage.
8. Host a celebration
Invite your family or friends to a feast at your home and toast to the deceased.
9. Remember the dead
This is a fine time to remember your loved one who have passed away. Tell stories, remember them fondly, and toast to them!
10. Attend a parade
If you want the full experience, visit one of the cities we recommend in this article to attend a parade. But if you can’t make it there for the holiday, see if your country has cities with large Hispanic populations, there’s a chance they host a parade as well.
Day of the Dead costumes
- Floral headpieces are a beautiful adornment.
- Alternatively, wear a spiderweb tiara for more sparkle.
- A face tattoo is much less hassle than having your face painted.
- Wearing a mask is even handier than a face tattoo, and you can take it off occasionally if it’s too warm outside.
- A lace and rhinestone necklace is not just gorgeous, but adds glamour to any Day of the Dead costume idea.
- Long skeleton gloves are perfect for the occasion.
- Skull fishnet tights are extra cute.
- The classic Catrina costume is always a hit.
- The short version of the Catrina day of the Dead costume is extra adorable.
- Glamour Catrina is, well, glamorous!
- Vintage Catrina is cute and comfy.
- A skeleton body suit is perfect for cooler nights.
- A tie-on bustle is great for dancing all night long.
- Day of the Dead leggings are practical.
- A skeleton cape is light and airy, perfect for soaring temps!
Best Places To Celebrate Day Of The Dead
While many countries around the world host Day of the Dead parades and celebrations, here we will concentrate on all the wonderful places in Mexico, the origin of this holiday. Without further ado, here are our choices for the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead.
1. Mexico City
Mexico City, the capital, hosts without a doubt the grandest celebration. Events start as early as October 22, with the Alebrije Parade to honor Mexican handcrafts and folk art, and can last as long as November 4. Another parade that’ll blow your mind is the Procesion de las Catrinas, usually held on or around October 23. For a week after that, you can experience the Cempasúchil Festival on Paseo de la Reforma. It is all about the marigold flower, which is used for decoration on the Day of the Dead tradition as the “Flor de Muerto”, Flower of the Dead. Massive ofrendas (altars) are erected in the squares and museums all around town. Some of the most elaborate ones are the Ofrenda at Museo Frida Kahlo, the Jean Paul Gaultier Ofrenda, the Ofrenda at Museo Anahuacalli, and the biggest one in the city, the Megaofrenda of Zócalo. Don’t miss the Mexicraneos Exhibition, displaying monumental skulls designed by Mexican artists. Mexico City hosts so many festivals, you’ll be celebrating nonstop. Other notable events are the Pan de Muertos Festival, Coyoacan Festival, La Llorona in Xochimilco, a musical show, Lucha Libre Dia de Muertos show, and, of course, the main event: the Day of the Dead parade in the historic center.
If you only have a day or two, make sure to visit during the time of the main parade. One great option is to book a Day of the Dead Tour with a local tour guide. The historic center is also a great place to stay, and accommodations range from the 4 star Hotel Ritz to the 3 star One Ciudad de Mexico Alameda and many other hotels, to apartments and home stays. With so much going on, Mexico City is undoubtedly one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead.
2. San Luis Potosí
San Luis Potosí is a state located in central Mexico. The indigenous communities of this region, the Nahuas and Teenek of the Huasteca, have their own name for the Day of the Dead celebrations: Xantolo. Xantolo starts in late October and lasts into early November. Lots of towns such as San Luis, Chalchicuautla, Axtla de Terrazas, Aquismón, Ciudad Valles, and Huehuetlán put up large and elaborate ofrendas (altars), and they are all worth seeing. Teenek musicians perform music to honor the deceased, and candles are being lit and prayers offered in a living which lasts all night. The city of Potosí holds a great parade. Locals often erect arches to welcome visitors to the festivities.
November 2 is the Day of the Dead Faithful in San Luis Potosí. The indigenous communities move the offerings they made on their altars at home to the tombs of the pantheons in the cemetery. They decorate the graves of their deceased loved ones elaborately due to the believe that their souls return to earth and remain with them for the entire month of November. On the last day of this month, families bring new offerings, usually of fruit, for the deceased to take with them on their way back.
If you want to experience all the indigenous traditions, San Luis Potosí is one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead! Make sure you visit on November 1 and 2. Good places to stay in the capital city San Luis Potosí include the Gran Hotel Concordia, the Fiesta Americana, and the Hotel Real Plaza. Home stays and apartments are also available for rent.
3. Janitzio Island, Michoacán
Isla de Janitzio (Janitzio Island) is the main island of Lake Pátzcuaro, located in Mexico’s state of Michoacán. The traditions here go back to the Purépecha, the original indigenous people of this region. The dia de los muertos celebrations begin with a traditional duck hunt on October 31, and this flows seamlessly into another tradition: the food. It is everywhere, and it is delicious. The ducks turn into the famous Mexican cuisine dish pato enchilado (chili duck). It will be served alongside a white fish that is native to Lake Pátzcuaro as part of the Day of the Dead foods. Another typical food you will find here and at most other celebrations of the día de los muertos is calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin. It’s pumpkin cooked in a sweet, thick Piloncillo syrup, a special treat.
November 1 starts with Kejtzitakua Zapicheri, the Vigil of the Little Angels. On this day, families are honoring their dead children. Traditions for this celebration of life include arches covered in marigolds, with sugar candies in the form of little angels in bright colors, toys, and other offerings. Afterwards there’s a contest to choose the three best altars, and later the open air theater features traditional dances such as Pescado Blanco (White Fish) and Los Viejitos (Old Men).
That evening, the fishermen take to the lake in their canoes to ring in Animecha Kejtziatakua, the Night of the Dead. By candle light they perform the butterfly dance, waving their nets around looking like butterflies, to guide the souls of the deceased to the town’s cemetery. Women and children gather there, and the bells of the Catholic church toll at midnight to call the souls.
Isla de Janitzio is one of the best places to celebrate the Day of the Dead in the most traditional way. Stop by October 31 and November 1 to catch the best festivities.
Nearby accommodations such as Suites Mansión Pátzcuaro, Cabañas Yunuén by Rotamundos, the Hotel Pueblo Magico, or the Hotel Estancia de la Era B&B come highly recommended.
4. Pomuch, Campeche
The small town of Pomuch is located in the state of Campeche, in southeast Mexico. Here, visitors will find one very unique día de los muertos tradition: the cleaning of the bones. It’s a religious tradition dating back to pre-Hispanic times, and it takes place on November 1 and 2 every year. Because the deceased are still part of the social structure of every family, their bones are cleaned to keep them in perfect condition. Visitors are more than welcome to observe this unique ritual.
Stay nearby at the Casa de Zari B&B, the Hotel Boutique Casa Don Gustavo, the Bajo las Hojas, or the Casa Rosanna.
5. Xcaret, Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo
Xcaret, the beautiful nature park in Playa del Carmen, eastern Mexico, is worth visiting any time of the year, but it is one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead. Each year from October 30th to November 2nd Xcaret celebrates the Festival of Life and Death Traditions, and it’s huge! There will be live music and dance shows, theater plays and workshops. The Interactive Hacienda is a delight for all children. There’s even a gastronomic exposition, introducing visitors to the Mexican cuisine of the Yucatan Peninsula and the state of Tlaxcala. On November 1, a traditional mass will be held at the Catholic church for the Feast of All Saints. At Xcaret, every day of the celebration of life is fun filled. To get the full experience, stay for all 4 days!
To make the most of this fun experience, stay at the Hotel Xcaret Mexico All Parks All Fun Inclusive.
6. Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco
Puerto Vallarta is a gorgeous resort town on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Here, the Day of the Dead celebration starts on or around October 23 and generally lasts a week. The Malecon (boardwalk by the ocean) becomes an open air gallery, displaying beautiful shrines and altars, and hotels and businesses decorating the palm trees in bright colors. And there’s lots and lots going on every day: Catrina Day of the Dead costume contests, folkloric ballet, Mexican nights, and Mariachi bands. And of course there’s a parade!
If you have a chance to do so, stay the whole week in Puerto Vallarta. The town has much to offer, and the dia de los muertos events add to an incredible experience. If you can’t spend that much time, narrow your visit down to the day of the fantastic parade.
Accommodations are plenty: the Grand Miramar All Luxury Suites & Residences and the Hotel Luxury Patio Azul allow for a luxury vacation. The Hotel Mio Vallarta is for adults only. The Hotel Encino Malecón Centro and the Hotel Rosita are well-rated 3 star hotels. The Mondavi is a spa hotel with an infinity hotel overlooking Banderas Bay.
7. Sayulita, Nayarit
Sayulita is a small village only about 45 minutes by car from Puerto Vallarta, which gives you the perfect opportunity to visit two of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead. Here, the dia de los muertos celebrations take place on November 1 and 2. A contest for the best ofrendas fills the street with these altars in bright colors. Street vendors selling Day of the Dead foods like sweet bread and candied pumpkin pop up everywhere. The celebration of life continues all through the night, with live music and performances, and, of course, a parade!
Despite it being a small village, Sayulita offers plenty of great accommodations such as the Aurinko Bungalows, the Hotel Boutique Siete Lunas, the Villa Amor, and El Pueblito de Sayulita.
8. San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec, Oaxaca
San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec, often simply referred to as Tuxtepec, is a small village located in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca. Here you will find all the día de los muertos traditions, along with something unique. While in many places you will see competitions for the best altars, Tuxtepec features a competition for the best tapetes de aserrín – sawdust carpets. Locals spends lots of time making these elaborate sawdust carpets. The best time to come is November 2, when they have been completed and a winner is chosen.
Book a room at the Hotel Mesón de la Chinantla, the City Express Junior Tuxtepec, the Hotel blvd, or the Villa Esmeralda.
9. Oaxaca City, Oaxaca
Named the capital of Mexican folklore, Oaxaca City is not just one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead, it’s THE place to be! While día de los muertos officially starts on November 1, families start decorating the graves at the cemetery with elaborate ofrendas on the eve of October 31. Walk around town, admire the ofrendas, but don’t miss seeing the tapetes de arena – sand paintings. They are one of Oaxaca’s most beloved Day of the Dead traditions. The opening parade for the Day of the Dead celebration, the Magna Comparsa, happens that night, too. On November 1, walk around town, take in the decorations, admire the booths full of art from Oaxaca and Mexican folk art, and see the several small parades throughout the city that night. November 2, is the day for the big Day of the Dead parade in the neighborhood of Jalatlaco. To experience the best of the celebrations in Oaxaca, book a tour!
Oaxaca City offers plenty of places to stay, from 5 star hotels to 3 star hotels, and from vacation homes to hostels.
10. San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca
San Agustin Etla is a mere 35 minutes from Oaxaca City. This small place is well known for its día de los muertos comparsas, lots of musicians, and costumed characters. Here, all Day of the Dead traditions can be observed, plus one unique one which happens on November 1: muerteada. Local men dress in different costumes of important muerteada figures such as the old, the dead, and the devil, all adorned with bells and small mirrors. The bells serve the purpose of guiding the spirits, while the mirrors chase away witches. In the company of a band they wander from house to house, inviting the spirits to come out. The muerteada goes on all night, and all participants gather the next morning to merge right into a wild celebration.
From Oaxaca City, you can hire a taxi for the night. It can get quite crowded, so it’ll be helpful to have a taxi waiting to take you back to the city at the end of the night. Alternatively, stay at either at El Rincón de San Agustín Etla, or at Hotel Paraje Casa Blanca.
11. San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
San Miguel de Allende is a beautiful town in the central Mexican highlands, known for Spanish architecture and its lively arts and festival scene, and it’s one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead! All activities center around the main square, where a market is set up starting about 2 weeks ahead of the holiday. On the actual holiday (November 1 and 2), San Miguel goes all out with its Festival La Calaca. Locals and tourists alike dress up in Day of the Dead costumes and enjoy the multiple parades, the art installations, creative workshops, tours of cemeteries, the parties, and generally participate in a ginormous celebration of life. Book a tour with a local guide to make the most of your experience!
San Miguel de Allende has lots and lots of places to stay.
12. Costa Chicha, Guerrero
Costa Chicha, in the state of Guerrero, borders Oaxaca and the Pacific Ocean. The majority if the population in this municipality are Afro-Mexican and Afromestizos (Mexicans of African descent). It offers a unique blend of cultures and tradition, which makes it one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead. The villages of Costa Chicha are the only place in Mexico where you will be able to witness the ‘Dance of the Devils’ (danza de los diablos) during the Day of the Dead celebration, held between October 31 and November 2.
The roots of this dance go way back to enslaved Africans brought to Mexico by the Spanish. In their limited time off, the slaves honored their own customs and traditions, one of which was a ritual of dancing, dedicated to the Black God Ruja, asking to be freed of their harsh conditions. 24 men and women in masks perform this dance.
The best days to witness this ritual is November 1 and 2.
13. Mérida, Yucatán
Mérida is the state capital of Yucatán, located in southern Mexico. It is an area with lots of Maya traditions, and the dia de los muertos is no exception. In Mérida, the locals celebrate Hanal Pixán (Food for the Souls), the Maya version of día de los muertos. The holiday originates in the Aztec celebration of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld. The city puts on a three day celebration of life from October 31 – November 2 that doesn’t disappoint. If you are here to find one of the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead. Bright colors and special Hanal Pixán foods dominate the scene. In addition to the Day of the Dead foods you know from the Mexican cuisine in other parts of the country, Mérida offers a variety of traditional Mayan foods.
Grand decorations adorn the city throughout. Head over to Plaza Grande to see the most elaborate altars. One of the most breathtaking displays of art is located at Parque de La Paz (Peace Park): the Camino de Flores, the Road of Flowers. Tens of thousands of flowers are used to make displays featuring Hanal Pixán themes. The main event is the Paseo de las Animas – the grand parade. Note that it is often held on the Saturday before Hanal Pixán, which would make that day the best time to visit.
Mérida offers plenty of nice places to rest your tired head after a day of festivities. The Hotel Plaza by Kavia, the Hotel Palacio Maya, or the Hotel Zamna Boutique offer plenty of comforts. Vacation homes and home stays are available, and there are a few hostels in the area as well.
In Sonora, the state located in northwestern Mexico, the indigenous groups of the Yaqui and Mayo celebrate the Day of the Dead for a whole month! Here in the Northern part of the country the celebration of life happens mainly during the day, unlike in the south, where a lot of it takes place at night. Cities like Nogales spend one week celebrating ‘Feria del Hueso’, the ‘Bone Fair’, offering everything from a carnival to beautiful displays of ofrendas to face painting and from cultural shows to traditional foods such as pan de muerto. The main day of the festival is November 2, which makes it the ideal day to visit and get the most of the Day of the Dead celebration. Throughout the state you will find many small celebrations. Catrina parades, with lots of people in Day of the Dead costumes, the most popular costume ideas being the Catrina or a skull.
Sonora offers many nice towns to stay in. Rent a new home with a private pool in San Carlos, stay at the Loma de Guadalupe in Alamos, the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Nogales, or the Holiday Inn Express in Guaymas for an excellent día de los muertos experience.
14. Aguascalientes City, Aguascalientes
Aguascalientes is the home of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, the man who created the iconic Catrina skull in 1910. In his honor, Aguascalientes takes almost a whole week to celebrate the ‘Festival de Calaveras’ or ‘Festival of Skulls’. The celebration of life happens at the San Marcos facilities and the Cultural Institute, and you can expect more than 200 events to take place in those few days. There will be music, art exhibitions, and, of course, the highlight: the Parade of the Skulls on November 1. Be dazzled by dancers, giant floats, and a great variety of people in Day of the Dead costumes.
While in Aguascalientes City, don’t miss two museums. The Museo Guadalupe Posada houses the original Catrina alongside Posada’s other works. At the Museo Nacional de la Muerte (the National Museum of Death), you can immerse yourself in extensive exhibitions covering not just the día de los muertos, but also the cult of death.
While Aguascalientes is one of the smaller states in Mexico, it hosts one of the biggest celebrations. It’s off the beaten path location allows you to observe Mexicans honoring the dead without large crowds of tourists.
Stay at the Fiesta Inn, the Hotel Francia, the Fiesta Americana, or choose to rent an apartment or a vacation home. You can enjoy a homestay, or book accommodations at ONE WAY hostel.
15. Teotihuacan, Estado de México
Teotihuacan, located in Estado de México, is an ancient Mesoamerican city, and home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site: some of the most significant Mesoamerican pyramids ever built in the pre-Columbian Americas. The main road between these pyramids is called the ‘Avenue of the Dead’. To experience the Day of the Dead celebration among ancient pyramids makes it extra magical. Ofrendas line the Avenue of the Dead, parties will be held after dark by the shine of candle light, and bonfires and hot air balloons make the scene picture perfect. But the best thing? This isn’t just a celebration of life, but one of culture and heritage as well. You can participate in workshops to make pottery or paintings, and learn about the Aztec heritage and its importance for día de los muertos.
Teotihuacan is an easy day trip from Mexico City. But if you want the full Day of the Dead festival experience, stay in one of these places nearby: the Hotel Boutique Yaocalli, the Hotel Quetzalcalli, the Posada y Spa Jade Inn, or the CY CALLI YOLOTL.
16. Xalapa, Veracruz
Xalapa, located in the state of Veracruz near Mexico’s Caribbean coast, is a beautiful city surrounded by volcanoes and cloud forest. Here, you get the chance to enjoy the Festival Cultural Mictlán a Xalapa – one of the most theatrical and best places to celebrate Day of the Dead! For the festival, artists and performers from all over Mexico meet at Xalapa. The celebration is held at Bicentennial Park and features theater, musical, and dance performances. That’s on top of over the top decorations, Mexican cuisine, Day of the Dead costumes, ofrendas, and much more. In addition, you can venture out to one of four Pueblos Mágicos: Coatepec, Orizaba, Xico, and Papantla. What are these magical towns you wonder? These are places that have been recognized by the government of Mexico for their magical features such as natural wonders, beauty of the town, or history and culture. Xalapa is well worth a visit, and there are excellent accommodations. Hotels like the Hotel Clara Luna, the Gamma by Fiesta Americ, the Posada del Cafeto, or the Meson del Alferez will make you feel right at home.
We’ve just listed a handful of the best places to celebrate. Share more in the comments!
Jenny grew up in Germany. All she ever wanted out of life was to leave and have adventures. Jenny always traveled as much as the budget would allow, and when she met her husband traveling became a full-time thing. You can follow Jenny on her blog and Facebook.