Celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico City

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Sometimes inconvenient flight schedules can mess up your plans … and create even better plans than you could have made yourself. For example, when we needed to attend a conference in Cabo San Lucas, the only flight to Cabo left Mexico City before our plane was scheduled to land. We made this a reason to book an extra day in town for sightseeing. After all, we had never been to Mexico City before…..

Little did we realize that we would be in town for a national holiday, Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Skeleton dressed up for the Day of the Dead in Mexico City

What Day of the Dead is about

Day of the Dead is celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the first two days of November, when Catholics observe All Souls’ & All Saints’ Days. The indigenous people have adapted those holidays with their own ancient practice of honoring their deceased loved ones.

The Day of the Dead holiday is a time when family and friends gather to remember and pray for friends and family who have died. They believe that every year, heaven allows the spirits of all deceased children to visit their families for 24 hours on November 1, and the following day, it’s the spirits of adult ancestors who are permitted to visit.

A taxi driver told us that a major part of the celebration is to visit the grave with the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Basically, families gather at the cemetery to have a picnic. Rather than view it as morbid, Mexicans see the Day of the Dead as a time of celebration full of eating and parties … it’s as much a family holiday there as Thanksgiving is in America.

But these days, since it occurs the day after Halloween, people turn it into a costume party, . Complete with trick-or-treating.

Read more: Mexico with Kids: Celebrating Dia de Muertos

Mexicans dress their kids in costume for Day of the Dead - here, 2 pumpkins and a ghoul.

Day of the Dead in Mexico City

We stayed in the historic district, just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest and oldest cathedral in Central America. Our taxi took us by the plaza, where we couldn’t help noticing an imposing statue – standing about 40 feet tall in the center of the plaza. We were eager to check it out, but our stomachs took us elsewhere.

We have found that the easiest way to find good food is to look for crowded places, and we found a lot of people standing around eating something. A closer look showed delicious-looking tostadas, so we decided to try them. The routine was different from what we are used to. First, we told the woman what we wanted, then she handed us a slip of paper with the items on them, we took the paper to the cashier and handed her our money, then we took the receipt back to the counter to get our food.

I ordered mine with salpicon de res, a typical Mexican dish of shredded beef and veggies in a sauce.

While we waited to pay for our lunch, we noticed the counter held both chocolate and colorful sugar skulls, treats that had been especially made for Day of the Dead. And then we noticed that the shop’s huge bakery had many appetizing pastries and cakes that had also been decorated for the holiday. Yum. (Not too sure I’d like to eat a skull, though!)

Special sweets for Day of the Dead

Dia de los Muertos at the Metropolitan Cathedral

After lunch. we headed to the plaza to see what was going on. The cathedral’s huge plaza was Party Central. Dan thinks there were several hundred thousand in attendance. I don’t know, maybe. All I know is that people were everywhere.

Here’s the statue I told you about:

Statue created for Day of the Dead in Mexico City 2010

They had created a beautiful natural mosaic in front of the National Cathedral, made mostly from the petals of yellow chrysanthemums, the traditional flower for the holiday.

Yellow Chrysanthemum Mosaic in front of the National Cathedral, created for dia de los muertos in mexico city

They had also set up a nice stage, with dance and musical performances late into the night.

Woman in feathered headdress performing for Day of the Dead Mexico City

All around the square, vendors sold food, drinks, and souvenirs at their booths and Native Americans offered their skills. I don’t know what they were promising for their efforts, but it looked like their patrons were getting something interesting.

Woman receiving a treatment from a shaman, Mexico City day of the dead 2010

Inside the cathedral

After that, we entered the national cathedral to look around. It was full of pilgrims in town for the holiday.

Where to eat in Mexico City

Our hotel clerk recommended a few restaurants for dinner and we finally selected Cafe de Tacuba, a historical though touristy restaurant that opened in 1912 in an old convent.

We enjoyed looking at the huge 18th century paintings, the old decor, and the servers dressed as nuns while we dined.

ⓘ TIP: If you go, make a reservation ahead of time to avoid the long wait.

Cafe de Tacuba

Then it was back to the hotel so we could be up early and ready to catch the first hop-on/hop-off bus of the day. But that will need to be another post.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It, where she documents her trips, shares practical itineraries, and offers insider tips. She’s passionate about helping fellow travelers save time, money, and hassle, and loves to discover new places to explore.

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9 thoughts on “Celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico City”

  1. The first picture cracks me up, haha! It sounded like a nice day to honor the departed but it’s sad it was turned into a commercial Halloween themed party. Do you think there still are people who celebrate the day in “the old way” ?

    • I’m not sure, Vlad, but I would hope there are some places that keep to old traditions and haven’t bought into the American commercialism. How is Day of the Dead/Nov. 1st celebrated in Europe?

    • This was my first-ever full day in Mexico and a great way to experience its culture. I hope you have as wonderful an experience when you finally go.

  2. So interesting to see the different ways that Dia de Muertos is celebrated in Mexico. The smoking was a ritual spiritual cleansing, by the way. It’s a practice shared in North America as well.

    • It would have been interesting to chat with the man performing the ceremony to learn more about his particular clan’s traditions. Too bad our Spanish wasn’t good enough at the time.

  3. There is something quite creepy about this celebration. There is a Day-of-the-Dead in Romania too, but it’s a sad one, when people go to the cemeteries to take flowers to their loved ones who departed. However, I think the Mexicans found a way to be merry even if they celebrate the dead.

    • Creepy is a good word for it, Anda. I can respect having a day to honor the dead as they do in Romania, but this was a commercial enterprise. It seemed to be a celebration of gruesomeness with a thin veneer of American trick-or-treating in costume.

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