Day of the Dead has been celebrated here in Mexico for hundreds of years.
Originally, it was celebrated in line with the summer solstice, however, when the Spanish arrived, they moved the celebration to coincide with All Souls Day.
Dia De Los Muertos, is a Mexican holiday made up of a wide variety of celebrations, all focused on remembering the past lives of their dead family and friends and ritually inviting their spirits back to the-land-of–the-living for a short period every year. The tradition is to honour the dead, who in turn, will watch over the living and bring them good fortune.
In 2015, the festivals ran from Saturday to Monday.
During the day on the 31st October we wondered the city, taking in all of the beautiful sights and sounds. Last minute touches were being made to altars, and those that were already finished looked incredible. Everyone seemed to be out in the centre buying last minute bunches of marigolds and cockscomb, we joined in and decided to build our own mini-altar at home before setting off for the evening.
Our friend José had decided to run a tour and we decided to tag along. Throughout the day and evening, the streets were full of ‘calendas,’ these are street parades which include a band, dancing, fireworks and lots of mescal. They happen ALL of the time in Oaxaca, but during Day of the Dead, they really go all out.
We got to José’s for 8pm where we enjoyed some Mezcal, beer, tacos and a presentation about the festival. Afterwards we all hopped in a mini-bus and headed out to the main cemetery in Oaxaca, Pantheon de San Miguel.
This is a huge cemetery, famous for the lighting of over 2000 candles in the niches (tombs) that line the walls. It was a really beautiful sight, very peaceful and with some beautiful graves. Not all of the graves were decorated for the festival as they were very old which meant they didn’t have living relatives. In the middle of the pantheon was a Beatle’s cover band! It was rather funny walking round a cemetery at night, admiring tombs with Hey Jude being played in the background!
Next, we headed to Xoxocotlan, one of the biggest celebrations in Oaxaca. Xoxo (pronounced Hoho), had a HUGE cemetery and this really was more of a fiesta vibe! To be buried in this cemetery you need to be fairly well-off, so the tombs are all beautiful and were all decorated to the highest level. Families were all gathered to spend the night at the graves, lots had bought along grills and were rustling up Tlayuda’s and drinking mezcal. Mariachi bands were serenading the families as well as some lone singers offering more tranquil songs, other families sat more peacefully by the candles and light small fires.
In the centre of the cemetery was huge brass band. It really was a beautiful sight.
After getting lost in the maze that is the cemetery, we headed on to the next and final stop of the night, Atzompa, which sits 5km outside of Oaxaca, looking down on the city. It’s a relatively poor village, so we were the told the graves would be much simpler and the atmosphere would be a little different here.
Walking into the cemetery at Atzompa was magical, I’ve never seen anything quite so beautiful. The atmosphere was very calm and peaceful. Families gathered around the graves, lighting candles, building fires, cuddling up under blankets and drinking hot chocolate. A band played gentle songs on a stage under the moonlight.
It’s exactly what I imagined Day of the Dead to be like. The graves were merely mounds of dirt, with handmade wooden crosses in some cases, but they were covered in flowers and candles and the families were all set to spend the night with their loved-ones. As you look down from Atzompa across the valley, you could see distant celebrations in other cemeteries, shining brightly from all of the candles alight.
We got back to Oaxaca around 2am after a long old night. In the end, we were really glad we opted for the tour as we got to see 3 very different types of celebrations. On the Sunday, we wondered around the city centre watching all of the street parades and fireworks (most of which were set off about a meter away from us every time!!)
It was an amazing week in Oaxaca. The colours, sights and sounds were incredible! We were so lucky to witness the festival, and Atzompa cemetery was a real highlight for us. If you do go to Oaxaca for Dia De Los Muertos, then be sure to leave the city and find your way to some villages for a real traditional experience.