After over two years of living in Mexico, we finally got to experience Day of the Dead. With no Phish Halloween show on tap this year, we knew we had to stay in Mexico. The traditional holiday known as Dia de Muertos in Spanish is a very festive time in the capital city. We spent an entire week there to check it all out. Read on for more about celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico City.
An Introduction to Day of the Dead
This festival dates back to the Aztecs, who had a holiday dedicated to Mictecacihuatl. Try saying that one three times fast! She was the goddess of the underworld whose name means “Lady of the Dead.”
While this holiday traditionally took place in August, this changed with the arrival of the Spanish. They moved it to the end of October so that it could line up with the Christian holiday of Allhallowtide (which eventually became Halloween).
Day of the Dead takes place between November 1-2. At midnight on the 1st, it is said that the gates of heaven open. At this time, the spirits of deceased children can return to visit family. Adults are allowed to join the festivities the next day.
It’s a busy time in the lead-up to Day of the Dead. Families will visit the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of loved ones. Bright orange flowers known as cempasúchil (Mexican marigolds) are the most popular. Some families even spend the entire night in the cemetery and basically throw a little fiesta for the departed.
At homes and business, people construct elaborate ofrendas (altars). These are meant to honor the dead and welcome them home. In addition to flowers, people also use candles and incense. It’s also common to add some food and drink items that the deceased enjoyed during their time on Earth.
In Mexican culture, the spirits of the deceased provide good luck and protection. That’s why some families spend tons of time and money constructing their ofrendas. Not honoring the dead properly can have some pretty bad side effects. Sickness and even death can come as a result.
If you’ve seen the movie “Coco,” you’re probably already pretty familiar with the Day of the Dead. We actually watched it at the end of our week in the city and found it to be a very accurate portrayal. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely check it out!
Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico City
Doing a Google search on the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead will usually turn up the states of Oaxaca and Michoacan. We looked into Michoacan but hotels and Airbnbs were all booked up for the week. Ditto for Oaxaca. Plus, we had a friend coming to join and it was easier for him to meet us in CDMX. So to the capital we went!
While it may not be the most traditional place for it, we had a great time celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico City. Here’s a little rundown of our week in the capital and what we got up to.
Calaveras and Alebrijes
You’re probably wondering what in the world those words mean. Calaveras are the skull symbols for Day of the Dead. They are usually very colorful and intricate, and people use them as decorations. They also make candy and chocolate skulls to eat and leave on the ofrendas.
All up and down Paseo de la Reforma, there were dozens of colorful calaveras. My personal favorite was the one with the luchadores. If you don’t know about Mexican lucha libre, be sure to read our post. I actually went to the arena three times in one month!
Ok now onto the alebrijes. According to Wikipedia, these are “brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures.” Some are awesome, some are weird, and some are downright creepy. I’m really not sure what they have to do with Day of the Dead, but they sure are cool to look at!
Day of the Dead isn’t the only cool thing going on in CDMX. Check out our post on some of the best things to do in Mexico City and plan an epic trip there!
Ofrendas in Coyoacan
This was our 5th trip to Mexico City together, so we decided to try a different neighborhood out. We usually stay in Condesa or La Roma, but this time we headed further south to Coyoacan.
The neighborhood of Coyoacan is famous for La Casa Azul (the Blue House). Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived here together once upon a time, and it’s now a museum. With the line stretching around the block, we decided to save the museum for our next trip.
In the central plaza of Coyoacan, the atmosphere was very festive. We enjoyed walking around and checking out all the amazing ofrendas on display. One of my favorites had a dead guy straight chilling in a hammock. They were also blasting some tunes at that one. That’s how I imagine myself as one of los muertos!
Even if it’s not Day of the Dead in Mexico City, it’s worth it to head to Coyoacan. This neighborhood is full of interesting sights beyond the Frida Kahlo house. We enjoyed our time in Coyoacan and definitely plan to come back next time we’re in the city.
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Museums for Day of the Dead
There’s a lot more going on in Coyoacan than the ofrendas in the plaza. We took a short stroll from the plaza and eventually wound up at the cultural center. They go all out with the decorations for Day of the Dead!
One of the best places to visit for Day of the Dead in Mexico City is the former mansion of Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez. He was a director and actor in the Golden Age of Mexican film, and his house becomes one big, incredible ofrenda during Day of the Dead.
All around the house, there are different altars to honor the greats. There are actors, singers, directors, artists, and more. It only cost a few bucks to go in, but there were barely any people there. We’re so happy we went here, as the crowds were pretty intense at all the free activities.
While there’s a lot going on in Coyoacan, you also have to head to the historic center. Let’s see what’s going on there during Day of the Dead in Mexico City…
Festivities in the Historic Center
On the actual Day of the Dead, we headed to the Zocalo. This is the historic center of Mexico City and there’s a lot going on there. First of all, there are some epic ofrendas in the square.
In front of the cathedral, people come out dressed in traditional indigenous clothing. They perform cleansing ceremonies (for a fee, of course) as well as dances. We watched it for a bit and then tucked into a restaurant when it started to rain. Cheap tortas FTW!
There was never a parade for Day of the Dead in Mexico City traditionally. That all changed after the 2015 James Bond movie “Spectre.” They showed a massive parade in the capital for the holiday, and the city decided to go ahead and throw one the next year!
Some people aren’t fans of the parade as it’s not traditional. That being said, a huge crowd still turned up in the rain to watch it. Rather than push through the hordes of people, we headed up to the bar at the Torre Latinoamericana to see it from above.
Our favorite part of the parade was when these badass cars and moving skulls came through. We had a nice laugh at the funny scene from the comfortable bar with our margaritas.
In case you’re planning a trip to enjoy Day of the Dead in Mexico City, be aware that there are two different parades. This year, the first one took place on Saturday, October 26th. The main one took place on the actual Day of the Dead (November 2nd). We’ll see what they decide to do next year and will update the post.
Before we wound down our time celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico City, we had to try some of the famous pan de muerto (“dead bread”). You can find it all over the city, as it’s the most popular snack for the holiday. It’s quite sweet, and we enjoyed ours with some craft beer at Drunken Dog in Condesa.
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Final Thoughts on Day of the Dead in Mexico City
Overall, we had a great experience during Day of the Dead in Mexico City. While we were sad to once again leave our beloved Puerto Vallarta, this was a great start to another long stint on the road.
Our biggest takeaway from Day of the Dead is how festive of a holiday it is. In American culture, we’re quite morose and somber when it comes to death. Everything is black, people are crying, and there’s depressing music playing. That’s not the case in Mexico cabrones!
Day of the Dead is about remembering the deceased and welcoming them back, even if only for a short time. It’s a very festive holiday full of color, music, and laughter. We certainly prefer the Mexican attitude toward death, and wish our amigos north of the border would learn something from them.
In the end, it was certainly an eye-opening experience celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico City. We enjoyed it so much, in fact, that we’re thinking about traveling to Michoacan for the traditional celebrations next year!