juliamhammond

Feliz Dia de Muertos!

Today is the last day of Dia de Muertos, the Mexican festival that commemorates the ancestors. The festivities stretch across three days, though the preparations begin in earnest in the last week of October.  The Day of the Dead officially begins on October 31st.  On November 1st, the souls of departed children are remembered and on the 2nd, it’s the turn of adult family members.

Here’s my guide to getting the best out of a Day of the Dead trip.

Choose where to go

Dia de Muertos is celebrated everywhere in Mexico, but some places have a wider range of events in which to participate than others. I’d recommend heading for Oaxaca, a day’s bus ride or a one hour flight out of Mexico City.  The city plays host to a packed programme of things to experience and also has a lot of accommodation options.

Plan well ahead

It’s possible to get a room pretty much up to the last minute and of course, wandering down to the parades takes no planning at all. There are a lot of organised packages to experience Day of the Dead but these tend to be very expensive.  Book early to stay somewhere intimate that will offer you the opportunity to participate rather than spectate: I chose Las Bugambilias right in the centre of town.  They can be found online at http://lasbugambilias.com/   This wonderful boutique hotel books up fast but don’t worry if you are too late to get a room – they’ll let you participate in their Day of the Dead activities if you email them in advance.

Catrina

Catrina

Decorate the altar

Preparations for Day of the Dead begin a few days ahead of the main festival. Each family decorates an altar in the hope of attracting their ancestors back to earth for a party.  Garlands of marigolds are strung, crosses of flowers are painstakingly created and decorative bunting is hung.  On the altar, gifts are laid out for the deceased: their favourite fruits, perhaps, and definitely a bottle or toast of Mezcal.

Preparing strings of marigold

Preparing strings of marigolds

Visit the cemetery

Cemetery visits are an integral part of the Dia de Muertos experience. If that sounds a little morbid, or maudlin, don’t be alarmed.  While some locals will be sat next to the graves of their ancestors in quiet reflection, others will be hosting the mother of all parties, with music, eating and drinking all playing a big part.  Tourists are welcome, so take your cue and join in if you’re asked.  On October 31st, head for Xoxocotlan old cemetery first, where stems of red gladioli and vases of pungent marigolds are lit up by white church candles before heading to the sound stage and buzz of the new cemetery next door where the party will be in full swing.

The old cemetery at Xoxocotlan

The old cemetery at Xoxocotlan

The after party

Comparsas, or parades, are at times raucous and always entertaining. Participants clad themselves in wildly extravagant costumes and parade through the streets of Oaxaca and neighbouring villages such as San Agustin Etla.  Some are dressed as the grim reaper, others panteoneros.  These are the living dead – missing eyes or wearing terrible wounds, they are a scary sight as they mingle with the crowd afterwards.  The parade becomes a party as everyone drinks and dances into the small hours.  It’s worth going on an organised tour if you choose the November 1st San Agustin Etla parade as arranging transport back to Oaxaca can be tricky.

A panteonero

A panteonero

San Agustin Etla parade

San Agustin Etla parade

Don’t rush off

Allow at least another few days to get to know Oaxaca. As well as the many souvenir shops and markets selling Dia de Muertos themed sweets – think candy skulls and lollipops – the city has a beautiful historic core packed with pretty colonial era buildings and interesting museums.  It’s also a foodie’s dream: try exotic dishes like deep fried grasshoppers or delicate courgette flowers or hang out in one of the many cafes watching the world go by.

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