I have been fascinated and moved by the Mexican celebration, Day of the Dead, since I attended a Dia de los Muertos processional the first year I lived in San Francisco. So while we were planing our trip to Mexico I knew I wanted to stick around long enough to participate in the observances of the holiday. Before leaving and in the first few weeks we were in the country I talked to several people who highly recommended spending the holiday in Oaxaca, the city is known for a beautiful and lively celebration. Unfortunately it didn’t work for our schedule to be in the city then, so we hoped we could make the best of it in Mexico City. I don’t know what I missed in Oaxaca but Dia de los Muertos in CDMX proved to be everything I could have ever imagined and more.
The Spectre Parade
We kicked off the celebration with thousands of other locals and tourists to watch the official Dia de los Muertos parade through the downtown. Fun fact: the parade didn’t exist until the James Bond movie, Spectre came out. After seeing the movie version, the city decided to host a parade in order to increase tourism to the downtown area during the holiday.
Because the parade is so new the information both online and among locals was very minimal at best. One article said the parade started at noon another said four. We even met a guy who was going to be a photographer in the parade and he didn’t know the start time. We showed up around 2 hoping we wouldn’t miss it. Luckily the parade hadn’t started but the crowd was already two to three people deep along the street. We spent about an hour making our way to an optimal spot and then spent another hour people watching as vendors passed us by selling everything from step stools for easier viewing, to sun umbrellas, to cotton candy.
When the parade did start it was a beautiful progression through Mexico’s history with colorful and detailed floats and people dressed in full skeleton costumes. It started with a pre-aztec float, then moved through the zapatas and industrial revolution period, and ended with a modern wedding complete with a gay and lesbian couple. The whole thing lasted just over an hour, so we ended up waiting longer than the parade actually was, but I was so impressed with the design and organization that we didn’t mind one bit.
After the parade we wandered with the crowd towards the Zocalo with the intention of checking out the fun in that area. This was the only bad part of the whole day, while being pushed through a small gated intersection I was pick pocketed and my phone was stolen. So everyone says this but it’s worth repeating, be vigilant with your belongings, and if you don’t absolutely need something leave it at home.
A Celebration in San Andres Mixquic
A few days later we joined a couchsurfing group of about 10 people and headed to Mixquic, a small village about as far south as you can get while still remaining in Mexico City proper. While downtown Mexico City was full of alters and festive decorations in every restaurant, shop, and bar, Mixquic has a reputation for hosting the most elaborate Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The small town proved to live up to the hype in every way.
The atmosphere was jubilant while also being deeply moving. The small streets were strewn with marigolds and decorated with skeleton dioramas some of one skeleton standing alone, others more elaborate with a group of skeletons playing cards or rowing boats. On one street that had sustained particularly rough damage after the recent earthquake there were several dedicated to the people who had died only a few weeks earlier. At each house there hung a star light serving as a beacon for the soul of the departed to find their way home.
I was cognizant of being a gringo in the midst of a city’s celebration of their lost loved ones, and I wanted to do my best to be respectful of the tradition. When we got there I was surprised by the welcoming and open atmosphere in the entire town. As we wandered, I was touched by the number of people who invited us into their homes to share their temporary alters full of items their loved ones enjoyed.
It was so easy to be captured by the festive atmosphere. I hadn’t planned on it when I got there but I saw a man who was about 15 beers in and despite his obvious drunkenness was still doing the most colorful and intricate face paintings I had ever seen so I decided to go for it and get mine done. Afterwards, walking through the crowd I felt awkward catching people’s eyes as they looked at my decorated face, but I also felt a bit more part of the crowd somehow. Everywhere I looked people’s faces were painted, so it was nice to pretend I was blending in a bit in that way, even though I obviously stood out as one of a few non-Mexicans there.
When night fell we took a tour through the church, cemetery, and a mock cemetery on the outskirts of town, which was being conducted in Spanish so our group was in varying states of rapt attention. At one point a man overheard us speaking English and he started giving us his own guided tour. A few minutes in he told us he was the director of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations and had crafted the tour himself. He introduced us to various locals who asked to take pictures with us and shared sides of the celebration we would never have caught with our basic Spanish. He said over and over how wonderful it was that we were there, wanting to learn and celebrate with the locals. I by no means believe this is what everyone the thought of us, but his kindness helped quell some of the fears I had about being at best an awkward observer and at worst an appropriator of the holiday. We spent about two hours with him and in the end felt like he had the most thorough understanding of the holiday we possibly could as tourists.
With these two major events and the countless tiny celebrations in between we couldn’t have asked for a better few days celebrating this beautiful Mexican tradition.
Getting to Mixquic Helpful Hint
Mixquic is absolutely worth visiting but it is quite a ways from Mexico City’s center. We took an Uber there which took three hours. On our way back, traffic was blocked from both sides of town and getting an Uber or taxi was impossible so we squeezed onto a bus hoping it would take us to a place where we could catch a ride. To our surprise it was an easy and cheap 40 minute bus ride that took us all the way to the new Tlahuac metro station on the number 12 line. From there we each took our usual metro back to our accommodations.
As a note the Tlahuac station only accepts metro cards, not paper tickets, so you’ll need to invest in at least one per group to enter the station on your return trip. One card can be used for multiple entries.