Sugar skulls and street parties
The blending of an ancient Aztec tradition with Catholicism, Día de los Muertos is most commonly associated with Mexico where it originated, although many other South and Central American countries also observe the holiday as well as cities with a strong Latino community such as Los Angeles. Believing the dead would be offended by displays of mourning and sadness, Day of the Dead is actually a two-day festival where the deceased are honoured and celebrated by their loved ones with happy celebrations involving ofrendas (offerings), decorated altars and graves and sweet treats like calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls), candy coffins and pan de muertos – a sweet bread.
One of the most enduring icons associated with Día de los Muertos are the skeletons, known as calacas. Catrinas and catrins (the female and male versions, respectively) are a type of calavera where people dress up in traditional Mexican costumes coupled with ornate skull-like makeup. In Mexico, mariachi bands play to ‘wake up the dead’, and families and friends leave alcohol, food, flowers, photos and candles on the graves of their loved ones with celebrations lasting well into the night.
When is it?
Tips and tricks
Many families celebrate Day of the Dead privately, but you’ll be able to join public celebrations in major cities – just be mindful and respectful and ask before you take photos, expecially in cemeteries.
The most colourful Día de los Muertos celebrations are in southern Mexico in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Michoacan as well as in the more touristy Yucatan peninsula.
For a stress-free way to sort out accommodation, transport, access and possibly even makeup for your costume, book yourself onto a dedicated Day of the Dead tour in Mexico City or Oaxaca.
Get involved – paint sugar skulls, string marigold garlands and learn how to make tamales.
Learn the lingo – practise some key Spanish phrases before you go so you’ll get more out of the cultural celebrations.
Tipping is customary in Mexico – use Mexican Peso notes and as a rough guide, tip 15 to 20 percent of the total.