Dia de Los Muertos is an annual Mexican holiday that celebrates and honors people who have died. The holiday isn’t approached with sadness, but rather happiness and merriment as many believe that the dead awake during this time to celebrate with their living loved ones.
The celebration is complete with dancing, parades, mariachis, and plenty of good food as droves of people come out to pay homage to those that they’ve lost. And while many people celebrate in the U.S., Mexico City is the epicenter of this holiday, so it’s the best place to experience all that it has to offer.
The holiday technically takes place on November 2nd, but formal celebrations usually begin on October 31st, when the dead are thought to be ushered in. But if you head to Mexico City a week or so prior, you’ll still find a lot of festivities as the holiday has expanded to a week-long affair in many respects.
One of the primary ways to celebrate is at the parade, which takes place at 1 p.m. on November 2nd this year. During the parade, thousands of people gather in downtown Mexico City to watch the demonstration of ancestral traditions. The parade includes traditional dancers, boundless costumes, large skeleton puppets, moving altars, and many other compelling sights. It’s also accompanied by street vendors serving up delicious grub and live mariachi bands.
But there’s a lot more to this celebration than the parade. If you head to Zocalo, the city’s main square, you’ll find massive colorful ofrendas, which are altars honoring the dead, including an annual themed Great Ofrenda of the Zocalo. In 2018, the theme honored immigrants around the world who have died while seeking better opportunities. Around the ofrendas, you’ll also discover indigenous people performing traditional dances and offering spiritual cleansing for passersby, which takes the form of blowing smoke and incense around your body.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood of Xochimilco features a network of canals created by the Aztecs that you can explore by gondola. The canals draw people year-round, but during Dia de Los Muertos, the neighborhood offers boat rides where a guide will tell you the story of La Llorona. La Llorona is a fable about a woman who drowned her children and now spends eternity weeping and searching for them in the rivers. During the ride, you’ll see a separate boat featuring a large puppet of La Llorana and hear the song dedicated to her, which was featured in the Disney-Pixar film, Coco. The boat ride ends with a gathering of other boats in the lake where you’ll watch a light and sound show in addition to live performances.
And those events are just the tip of the festive iceberg. There are also endless parties that take place in cemeteries throughout the city. One of the most popular celebrations happens in the Mixquic cemetery. On the evening of November 2nd, graves are lit up by candlelight and decorated with flowers while people mingle, dance, and celebrate those they’ve lost. But even though it’s a party atmosphere, take care not to touch the grave displays or offerings as it’s considered highly disrespectful. People are also discouraged from taking photos at these events.
As you bounce from event to event, make sure to try Pan de Muerto at some point. You’ll find a variety of vendors selling this bread that’s baked especially for Dia de Los Muertos. The sweet bread is light, fluffy, and often topped with sugar, and it features shapes that are meant to represent the bones of the deceased.
All of that being said, the true beauty of celebrating this holiday is that it takes place pretty much everywhere in the city. It’s nearly impossible to walk down the street and not see celebrations happening or vendors selling traditional fare, so it’s a good idea to set aside some time just to wander—some of the most memorable and authentic celebrations are those that you stumble upon by chance.