The Day of the Dead begins every year at midnight on October 31, and is observed as a way to honor and celebrate dead ancestors. The colorful festivities include homemade altars, lively markets, carnival-like processions, sugar skulls, elaborate costumes, marigolds, and pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread. The holiday concludes on the afternoon of November 2, with a family visit to the cemetery.
The World’s Best Places to Celebrate the Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a vibrant and meaningful holiday in Mexico, as well as in other Central and South American countries. You’ll find traditional and non-traditional celebrations in nations around the world, as well. Interested in experiencing the gorgeous spectacle? We’ve compiled a list of 10 of the world’s best places to celebrate the Day of the Dead, plus a couple of Day of the Dead vacation packages.
In Oaxaca, you’ll find spectacular markets selling festive items from which locals construct their Day of the Dead altars—look for sugar skulls and specialty food items like black mole sauce. Oaxaca schools have contests for homemade altars, and the city goes all out with elaborate creations like sand tapestries. You’ll also find spontaneous carnival-like processions in surrounding villages and neighborhoods, like Etla.
Los Angeles, California
You’ll find a traditional Day of the Dead celebration in Los Angeles, on vibrant Olvera Street, home of one of the city’s largest Mexican marketplaces. This area upholds many festive Mexican traditions, commemorating the holiday with face painting, theatrical performances, altar displays, nightly candlelit processions, and more.
Santiago Sacatepequez, Guatemala
The Day of the Dead is a religious holiday in many countries with a Catholic majority; its traditions blend with All Saints Day, on November 1, and All Souls Day, on November 2. And while the holidays have different origins, the meanings and celebrations are essentially the same.
Guatemala emulates Mexico’s colorful decorations; in Sacatepéquez, one of the beloved traditions is to fly huge, hand-painted kites over cemeteries. Known as El Festival de Barriletes Gigantes (“the giant kite festival”), the kites serve as cultural and religious symbols, connecting the living and the dead.
Xcaret Park, Cancun, Mexico
Head to Xcaret, the famous eco-archaeological park in the Riviera Maya, to celebrate its special festival for the Day of the Dead—the Festival of Life and Death Traditions. The four-day event presents concerts, parades, dances, and customary food from throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, Argentina, and Spain.
Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art celebrates the Day of the Dead with a special presentation, called Día de los Muertos Xicágo. Families are invited to upload a photo of a loved one they want to remember, which is then projected onto the museum’s exterior during the one-day celebration. Other highlights include a community altar display, traditional foods, face painting, and live performances.
Lake Patzcuaro, Mexico
The Lake Patzcuaro region of Mexico is a less touristy spot to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Lake Patzcuaro has traditional festivities, but the region offers something more—the Night of the Dead. Each town around the lake celebrates in a different way, but the candlelit pilgrimage onto the lake is especially festive on Isla Janitzio.
San Antonio, Texas
Mexican traditions are alive and well across Texas, and the Day of the Dead is no exception. San Antonio’s La Villita Historic Arts Village hosts a free, two-day Día de los Muertos festival near the River Walk amphitheater. These Day of the Dead celebrations include an altar contest, cultural workshops, colorful processions, live poetry and music, and plenty of art and food vendors.
The Day of the Dead is known as the “Day of the Ancestors” in Ecuador, where it’s a public holiday. The tour operator Viator (SmarterTravel’s sister site) hosts city tours in Quito and recommends looking for Day of the Dead trips that “include a visit to the San Diego Cemetery, one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. Known as the ‘Corner of Souls’, the cemetery is not only an exquisite example of Quito‘s colonial architecture but provides an atmospheric setting in which to learn about the rich history and culture behind the Day of the Dead, while watching the hundreds of local families sing, dance, and eat around the graves of their loved ones.”
Tucson‘s All Souls Procession and All Souls Weekend are held just after the Day of the Dead. With more than 150,000 participants walking in the two-mile-long procession, it’s one of the most powerful Día de los Muertos celebrations in North America. Events include a communal urn burning, cultural performances, and art installations.
On a Group Tour
Are you interested in celebrating the Day of the Dead with little to no trip planning on your part? G Adventures offers a Day of the Dead vacation package to Oaxaca, while Intrepid Travel offers one to Mexico City. Thanks to a major uptick in cultural interest, travel companies are starting to offer more holiday packages to many of the best places to celebrate the Day of the Dead. You’ll get a more authentic Dia de los Muertos experience, plus expert knowledge from local guides, as opposed to if you went at it alone.
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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.