Huge effigy of skeleton woman in orange, red and pink floral dress stands in cobbled street in Oaxaca, Mexico

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico – with kids (2024)

One of my long held ambitions was to spend Day of the Dead in Mexico – specifically in Oaxaca, where I’d pored over the gorgeous pics of the festivities in the past. One of the main reasons we chose Mexico as a destination was because Day of the Dead fell in to our travel dates (and once I’d realised that there was really no going back for us!).

What is Day of the Dead?

For years I’ve been fascinated by the whole concept of Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos to give it it’s proper name) – the idea that families come together to remember their loved ones and their ancestors and to celebrate their lives and their love for them has always seemed (to me anyway) to be a really interesting approach to death and remembrance.

Day of the Dead is officially celebrated on the 1st and 2nd November each year across Mexico, although the spirits of loved ones are believed to return on the night of 31st October so events tend to start earlier. In reality in Oaxaca, the celebrations start several days before so it’s definitely worth making sure you have (ideally) a few days in Oaxaca before the official dates themselves.

On 1st November it is believed that the spirits of little children return at midnight (Dia de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents). On the 2nd November the spirits of adults are believed to return (also at midnight). These are important celebrations as they are seen as a chance for families to be close to their loved ones and to celebrate and remember them.

Why visit Oaxaca for Day of the Dead?

Whilst Day of the Dead is celebrated across Mexico, Oaxaca is typically seen as the most festive place in the country to experience the celebrations. Mexico City has in recent years started to organise a large-scale parade (following the scenes in the James Bond film ‘Spectre’) but traditionally Oaxaca has been THE place to visit as a foreigner.

Part of the appeal to Oaxaca’s size – it’s large enough to host such huge celebrations but is nowhere near the scale of Mexico City, and has oodles of charm too which helps!

How do you get to Oaxaca?

I looked at various different ways of getting to Oaxaca from Mexico City and after ruling out flying (too expensive) and driving (slightly terrifying) we ended up booking an ADO bus. The bus was a very good option – we went for the pretty luxurious Platino service on the way there – the seats reclined and leg rests came up to form a pretty comfy spot to chill out, plus the fare included bottled water and entertainment (albeit it dubbed in Spanish on the little screens). It took about 6hours 45mins in total but it flew past to be honest as it was such a comfortable journey. On the way back we booked the cheaper standard bus but it was still a pretty good experience (and saved us some cash!).

There are lots of flights from other cities in Mexico (including Mexico City and Cancun) if you are short on time or have the cash to spend. Remember though that once you’ve taken in to account getting to the airport, checking in, getting through security, collecting any bags etc you might be well be looking at a total journey time of close to the same time it takes to get the (much cheaper) bus.

As a family of four car hire was a cost effective option for us from Mexico City to Oaxaca (in fact, in came in cheaper than the return bus journey), even with insurance costs. The majority of the journey between Oaxaca and Mexico City is good, easy highway – however, driving in Mexico City is not for the faint-hearted and we just felt more comfortable with the bus. However, if you were travelling to Oaxaca from other destinations it might be an option for you – just research your route carefully before you make your decision.

Where to stay in Oaxaca

Oaxaca itself is a decent sized city in the South West of Mexico, down towards the Pacific side. We stayed in the old town part (to be close to the action) in a family room in Paulina Youth Hostel. This was pretty budget friendly (we paid £58.50 a night for the four of us), with a decent sized room and a massive bathroom.

Our room was though on the corner of two streets, and the windows faced right out on the street so it did get a bit loud at times. This was the one place I booked right back in January (as soon as we’d booked the flights to Mexico) as Oaxaca is insanely popular for Day of the Dead and gets booked up really early. 

I would definitely recommend booking a hotel/hostel/guesthouse within walking distance of the old town, as a huge part of the Day of the Dead experience in Oaxaca is being able to wander round the town and soak up the atmosphere. Also with kids, there is a LOT of wandering around, so it’s best to have a central base that you can retreat back to when little (and big!) legs get tired.

What is Oaxaca like?

I loved Oaxaca as soon as we arrived – the streets were very busy in the old town but there were Day of the Dead decorations and music everywhere and clearly a party vibe going on (this was on Sunday 29 October so a couple of days before the Day of the Dead itself).

The old town is very pretty and also very walkable – the main square is busy but full of street vendors and children in costumes, and the cobbled streets that run either side have some lovely little shops selling all kinds of artisan wares. During Day of the Dead there are also stalls set out right along the main streets selling handicrafts.

There are plenty of restaurants and cafes dotted around the town – some of the more touristy ones on the main square are pricier but they offer a fab front row spot for the parades. If you head off the beaten track slightly you can find some much smaller, cheaper options offering more budget tacos, quesadillas etc. We also enjoyed eating at the stalls in the huge covered market just a few minutes walk from the main square which was affordable and great for people-watching!

Oaxaca has a reputation for being a real hub for Mexican artists and there are lots of galleries you can visit during your stay. We didn’t venture in to any on our trip (the boys just weren’t interested and we were too busy enjoying the festivities).


What is there to do in Oaxaca?

We spent our four days in Oaxaca just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere. The old town was full of stalls selling all kinds of handicrafts, there were art markets set up in little plazas, face painters everywhere, candyfloss sellers, people dressed in amazing costumes – and every so often a brass band would pitch up out of nowhere and start a mini-party (often with flares going up and shaving foam being sprayed around). The word that kept popping in to my head throughout our stay was ‘intoxicating’ – and it really was. The streets were packed and it was hard to get anywhere quickly in the crowds, but the atmosphere was amazing.

On our first evening in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, we wandered down to the main square and were almost immediately caught up in a huge parade full of elaborate costumes, brass bands, huge puppets and endless fireworks. We discovered after that this is one of the biggest organised parades during the festivities, with stands constructed on either side of the streets and a seemingly endless array of participants of all ages!

It was a huge assault on the senses and immediately sucked us in to the festival!

You can spend hours browsing all the beautiful handicrafts on display in the little shops, street stalls and art markets that fill the town during the festival. We had a very hard time not buying far too much stuff!

There are also face-painters lining the streets throughout the week offering a variety of Day of the Dead themed designs. Griffin and I opted to have our faces painted and were really happy with the results – it was a great way to immerse yourself in to the fun.

And we even opted to get tattoos during our stay to remember our visit (by ‘we’ I am only referring to the adults!). As a bit of a haven for artists, Oaxaca has many options for tattoos that come with great reviews. We were able to get walk-in appointments but if this is something you want to do, check some of the artwork/reviews out before arriving (as they do get pretty busy).

Can you visit cemeteries in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead?

On the 31st October (All Saints Eve) we visited one of the bigger cemeteries in Oaxaca – this is the night when the spirits of children are believed to return. Because we had the boys with us we didn’t want to go too late in the evening but we did take a quiet wander through and saw the tombs decorated with lights and marigold petals and families sharing food and drinks. 

You are welcome to visit the cemeteries around Oaxaca during Day of the Dead, just remember that this is an important festival for the people involved so be respectful when walking around the cemeteries and taking any pictures.

There is a famous cemetery outside Oaxaca called Xoxocotlan where many visitors go to see the graveside vigils over Day of the Dead. This one is not in Oaxaca itself; as we had the boys with us we stuck to visiting the General Pantheon within Oaxaca itself. Whilst it wasn’t as decorated as I expected it was still a real privilege to see families celebrating the festival here.

The other amazing sight all over Oaxaca during Day of the Dead were the ofrendas – the altars that are decorated by families with pictures of their loved ones, their favourite foods and drinks and marigold petals (which are believed to help guide the spirits home). There were huge ofrendas in the main square, but also smaller ones in homes, supermarkets, restaurants – they really were everywhere and it was fascinating to see. The smell of marigolds was also EVERYWHERE we went that week, and I feel like I’ll never be able to see or smell marigolds again without being transported back to Oaxaca!

Top Tips for spending Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

  1. Book all travel and accommodation WAY in advance. We booked hostel the January before visiting in October/November; for popular spots you are likely to need to book even earlier. Remember that free cancellation on sites like is your friend – you can book somewhere for all the dates you think you might need then edit the dates later once your travel plans are confirmed
  2. Get your face painted by one of the real artists that line the street, but….
  3. DON’T visit the cemeteries with your faces painted. Costumes and face paint are very much for the partying in the town centre, NOT for visiting graves.
  4. Stay somewhere central so you have a base to rest up in during the day when you’ve wandered for hours!

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