Day of the Dead in Oaxaca: One of Mexico’s Most Fascinating Traditions

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By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) in the City of Oaxaca is one of the most exhilarating and interesting festivals anywhere in the world. While it’s difficult to miss out on any of the major “muertos” activities without pre – planning, most travelers to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead want advance advice and assurances, rather than wait until their arrival in the city. Once you have your accommodations, and have selected a couple daytime tours in advance, all you’ll need is this primer to know what’s in store for you, and when; whether cemeteries, comparsas, altars or tapetes. 

Visiting Cemeteries In and Around Oaxaca for Día de los Muertos

The main downtown Oaxaca cemetery to visit during Day of the Dead is the Panteón Municipal or Panteón de San Miguel, located near the east end of downtown, walkable from most lodgings. For this cemetery, both daytime and nighttime st experiences are equally impressive, from October 31 through nd November 2 .

Of the village and suburban cemeteries, three stand out. The most popular for tourists is at Xoxocotlán, a 20 minute drive st from the city. It’s traditionally visited on October 31 , from just after dusk until well into the early hours of the next day. As with other cemeteries, though not a requirement many visitors bring a small bouquet of flowers to place on a selected grave. On the same night, but beginning much later (I tend to go after 11 p.m.), there’s the cemetery in the town of Atzompa, also a short drive from Oaxaca. It’s a quainter experience. The pilot for the Festquest television series, and part of the feature documentary Acquainted with the Night, were filmed in these two cemeteries, respectively.

On November 2 , the cemetery at San Felipe del Agua is the place to be, beginning anytime after dusk, although Oaxacans are still bringing flowers to decorate graves well after 9 p.m. Whereas at the two first mentioned cemeteries the municipalities pay for live music, at San Felipe music is heard from small bands, marimbas and groups of guitar strumming troubadours, all hired by particular families. San Felipe is about 15 minutes from downtown. Photographing is both permissible and expected at the cemeteries, but it’s always prudent to request permission at gravesites.

Day of the Dead Comparsas / Parades

Comparsas are parades through the streets and neighboring villages, with participants often dressed in elaborate costumes, many of which are custom designed by expert craftsmen. It’s not unusual for Oaxacans to spend 3,000 – 4,000 pesos to have a costume made. Comparsas always include brass bands playing traditional songs, dancing in the streets, and of course imbibing mezcal. You’ll encounter at least one man toting a bottle of mezcal and small plastic cups, passing out the spirit to everyone inclined to partake.

Comparsas usually begin in the late afternoon, and continue throughout the night. In Oaxaca comparsas are encountered downtown, and in neighborhoods such as Jalatlaco. In the villages comparsas are generally restricted to a particular nd night. In Atzompa the comparsa occurs on November 2 , and in the various Etla villages about a half hour outside of st Oaxaca, on November 1 . Regarding the latter, there’s generally a comparsa for each village. Sometimes they converge at or near a designated location for a spirited informal “battle of the bands & costumes” competition

One characteristic of the traditional comparsa is its tendency to stop at specific pre-arranged households; playing music and dancing in a large courtyard, then returning to the streets for reveling, then stopping at another household for perhaps an hour for comida (late lunch), then at another later on for cena (dinner), then picking up again. This means that it’s sometimes difficult to select the right time to be heading out to a village. But with a little patience one invariably comes across the comparsa.

Altars and Tapetes for Día de los Muertos

Constructing elaborate altars to honor deceased relatives, and hiring someone to prepare a colored sand carpet or tapete, are common Day of the Dead practices. Regarding the former, most households and many downtown Oaxaca businesses erect an altar, usually inside an arch made of tall upright sugar cane plants, elaborately decorated with flowers (always including marigolds). The altar is adorned with a photo of the deceased being honored, and the person’s favorite food and drink – beer, mezcal, mole, cigarettes, fruit, and so on. A path of marigold petals leading from the street right up to the altar, guides the soul of the deceased into the business or household.

The City of Oaxaca and some commercial establishments prepare tapetes, sometimes with skulls and skeletons, often with religious imagery such as the Virgin of the Soledad or Guadalupe. Religious tapetes are also encountered in front of tombstones.

Visiting cemeteries, participating in comparsas and searching out the most elaborate and thought – provoking tapetes and altars are but a few of the innumerable Day of the Dead activities available to tourists. A visit to Oaxaca which st includes October 31 and the first two days of November inevitably results in memories lasting a lifetime. Residents are extremely generous with their time, and offer their beliefs, feelings and interpretations of the significance of Day of the Dead. Don’t be shy. Learn how Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca represents a fascinating fusion of indigenous Zapotec tradition and Catholic religious belief, not to be missed; but book accommodations early so you won’t be disappointed.

Alvin Starkman and his wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( ). Alvin is a contributing writer for Mexico Today. Alvin often takes visitors to Oaxaca out into the central valleys to enjoy the sights, including craft villages, natural wonders, pre-Hispanic ruins, as well as for more off-the-beaten-track experiences.

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