Day of the Dead in Oaxaca: Your Questions Answered

The Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most important and personal holidays. Of the many incredible places to experience Day of the Dead, Oaxaca is among the best. Maintaining a balance of small-town charm but with enough of a reputation for its Day of the Dead festivities so that you don’t feel like an intruder, you’re sure to enjoy your time there.

In this post, we’ll cover the essentials about the Day of the Dead that we wish we would have known before arriving in Oaxaca.

Accessible Travel Note: Scroll towards the bottom of this post for tips on enjoying the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca as a wheelchair user.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

First things first: Oaxaca State vs. Oaxaca City

Oaxaca is both a state and a city in Mexico. When talking about celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, people are typically referring to the city of Oaxaca.

Basing yourself in the city of Oaxaca is an excellent option for celebrating the Day of the Dead. From the city, it’s easy (and recommended!) to take day trips to smaller countryside towns where you can experience among the most authentic Day of the Dead celebrations.

In true local fashion, this post refers to Oaxaca city when we use the word “Oaxaca”.

A colorful, adorned road in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
A street in downtown Oaxaca decorated for the Day of the Dead.

Psst…since you’ll be spending time in Oaxaca, don’t miss our guide on the Best Wheelchair Accessible Things to do in Oaxaca.

Q & A: Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

This post is designed in question and answer format. We had many questions leading up to Day of the Dead and many more that arose once arriving in Oaxaca. Here’s hoping our experience can help you with your trip planning!

When is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead takes place every year from October 31st – November 2nd. This three-day event starts by visiting loved ones’ graves in the evening on October 31st, followed by the remembrance of children’s deaths on November 1st, and the remembrance of adults’ deaths on November 2nd.

At least, this is what Wikipedia tells us.

On the streets of Mexico, we got mixed answers about when the adult and children’s deaths are recognized. We also had a guide tell us that the Day of the Dead starts even before October 31st, with people remembering those who were in accidents and people without family.

To our foreign eye, the Day of the Dead seemed to be celebrated in the same, beautiful way each day.

A candle lit for Day of the Dead.
An offering for a loved one who passed away.

Is it okay to take photos of Day of the Dead decor and celebrations?

Yes, it (mostly) is. Colorful decor, skeletons, offerings to loved ones, and marigolds will surround you during the Day of the Dead.

Did we mention marigolds?

This is the Day of the Dead flower and we’re confident that will have never seen so many marigolds in your life. The belief is that the marigolds absorb the sun’s rays and then light the path for loved ones to find their way back home on Earth.

In downtown Oaxaca, businesses are the primary places adorning the streets. Many businesses will specifically design benches with space for you to take a photo with their skeleton adornments. The more adorned a business is, the more attention they get. Thus, businesses welcome your photos.

The only situation where you should avoid taking photos is if you find yourself in someone’s private residence or at a cemetery. It’s a tradition to put together an elaborate altar of offerings for deceased loved ones. Refrain from taking photos of the offerings without permission.

The good news is that you can see public offerings throughout Oaxaca. It’s common to see offerings in hotel lobbies, restaurants, and even on the street. In many cases, the offerings are for famous Mexican people who have passed away. These public offerings are all okay to take photos of.

Travel Tip: Go inside the Biblioteca Pública Central (library). They have an amazing, free display of traditional offerings in each of the eight regions of Oaxaca. Photos are allowed.

What about donation boxes?

When walking around downtown Oaxaca, you’ll come across some extra elaborate Day of the Dead stagings. These stagings usually have a donation box beside them.

If you’re going to take a photo, you should leave some money in the box- a few pesos will do.

Oftentimes, it isn’t even obvious whether the artist is in the vicinity of his or her masterpiece. We saw plenty of people taking photos without leaving a donation, but please don’t be among them.

A donation basket for taking photos of the skeletons.

Should I arrive in Oaxaca before Day of the Dead?

At the very least, you should plan to arrive in Oaxaca on October 30th, the day before the Day of the Dead.

If you have the ability to arrive a few days earlier, all the better since it’s fun to watch the decor go up before the crowds arrive. We arrived in Oaxaca almost one week before the celebrations started and were amazed by how each time we stepped out of our hotel, new decorations seemed to appear in the streets.

The traffic in downtown Oaxaca can be a nightmare during Day of the Dead (and leading up to it, if we’re being honest). Trust us when we say that you’re not going to want to spend your precious Day of the Dead time fighting traffic by arriving to Oaxaca after the celebration has already started. But if you must, aim to arrive early in the morning.

Should I stay in Oaxaca after Day of the Dead?

There’s a notable shift with Day of the Dead related things in Oaxaca after November 2nd, but it’s not to say that November 3rd becomes an instant ghost town. In fact, by the afternoon of November 3rd, there were stands back to offering face paintings and bands playing in the street in the evening.

Some of the special markets designed for Day of the Dead ran through November 3rd. However, we noticed that some of our favorite skeleton decorations were already gone.

A pile of skeletons being ready to adorn Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.

How far in advance should I book my accommodation?

The moment you decide to travel to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, book your accommodation.

We waited until about a month before traveling to book our hotel. Upon our first online search, we had no options in downtown. It was the first time in our lives we had ever seen Booking.com completely in the red for availability.

We avoided the issue by booking our stay over the course of three different hotels. It was far from ideal but something that a lot of people we ran into had to do as well.

Moral of the story- plan your Day of the Dead trip to Oaxaca far in advance and book your accommodation immediately.

Do tours run during Day of the Dead?

They do. There are tours designed specifically for Day of the Dead, the most popular being cemetery tours.

The cemetery tours will bring you to a local cemetery, oftentimes in Xoxocotlán (locally referred to as Xoxo), so you can witness families visiting their loved ones’ graves to invite them back home. No need to worry about tracking down one of these tours, as you’ll be offered them on countless occasions if you make your way to Oaxaca’s main Zócalo square.

Free walking tours in Oaxaca also run, along with popular year-round tours such as those to Hierve El Agua and Monte Albán.

A skeleton family greeting customers outside of a business in Oaxaca.

Should I rent a car?

Probably not.

While renting a car is normally a great way to explore the countryside of Oaxaca, having a car around during Day of the Dead can be a nightmare.

You’ll encounter traffic, blocked roads, and the seemingly impossible task of finding a parking space. Plus, if you’re staying in downtown Oaxaca, all of the Day of the Dead events in the city are within walking distance.

Instead, we recommend relying on taxis and/or tours from October 31st – November 2nd. If you’ll be in town before or after these dates, by all means, rent a car so that you can explore the beautiful state of Oaxaca at your own pace.

What are good towns to visit from Oaxaca during Day of the Dead?

Although the city of Oaxaca is known for its Day of the Dead celebrations, it’s becoming increasingly more touristy as locals and foreigners alike are catching on to this incredible event.

Therefore, if you’re looking for an even more authentic experience, try heading out to one of the towns in Oaxaca state, such as Xoxo (Xoxocotlán). Just remember to be aware and respectful of where you’re at; whereas in Oaxaca city taking photos is the norm, some smaller towns may see it as an invasion of privacy.

A marigold cross let with candles during Day of the Dead.

Are shops and restaurants open during Day of the Dead?

Yes! You won’t have to worry about finding food and there will be plenty of souvenirs for you to purchase during Day of the Dead.

For us, the Day of the Dead fell on a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. We were surprised by how normal everything appeared to be running on Thursday and Friday. Banks, grocery stores, tour agencies, bakeries etc. were all running according to their usual schedule.

On Saturday, November 2nd, there were slightly fewer places open, but there were still plenty of options.

Are there Day of the Dead festivities in Oaxaca before Day of the Dead starts?

Yes there are. We arrived the weekend before the Day of the Dead started and there were parades in the streets, bands playing, and people dressed the part.

The week then died down in terms of street festivities, although livened up by the hour when it came to decorations for Day of the Dead.

So, if you’ll be traveling to Oaxaca near Day of the Dead but can’t get your dates to align right, chances are good that you’ll be able to experience some pre-Day of the Dead festivities.

Dancers for Day of the Dead.

Is Day of the Dead a constant 3 day celebration or are there quiet periods?

The liveliest moments of Day of the Dead are in the afternoons and evenings…especially the evenings.

It’s not to say that you won’t see any activity in the morning, but the mornings are a better opportunity to photograph the decorations in the streets before lots of people wake up.

Remember, visiting the graves of loved ones is an important part of the Day of the Dead, and the celebration for this is held in the evening.

Is it safe to visit Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead?

Yes, it is. As with any crowded area, pickpocketing can occur. However, Oaxaca is a very safe place to visit during Day of the Dead and serious crimes in downtown are uncommon. We felt comfortable walking around with phones in hand, day and night.

A nighttime Day of the Dead parade in the streets of Oaxaca.
Parades and fireworks are common in the streets of Oaxaca to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

Traveling to Oaxaca

Will you be traveling to Oaxaca by bus? If so, consider booking your trip with our friends at Bookaway. They offer incredible deals on buses not only in Oaxaca, but all over Mexico.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that booking tickets in person in Mexico can be a hassle at best. And sometimes, the most popular travel times and dates sell out. It’s a bummer when it happens (speaking from experience here!).

Wheelchair Accessibility for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Since most of your time celebrating Day of the Dead will likely be in the city of Oaxaca, our post on A Wheelchair User’s Guide to Oaxaca, Mexico will give you a solid base for learning how to navigate the streets of Oaxaca as a wheelchair user during Day of the Dead.

However, we’ve put together a list of a few key points here that pertain solely to Day of the Dead:

  • The Biblioteca Pública Central (library) has an approximately 4-inch cement ledge to cross over at the entrance. Once inside, the ground floor is fully accessible. You’ll get to see many offerings up close there, along with some of Oaxaca’s best Day of the Dead decorations.
  • We saw lots of wheelchair users around Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead, but it’s important to be comfortable with crowds. Alcalá Street, in particular, is a fun place to watch the Day of the Dead parades, but the crowds are extra intense here. Mornings are a great time to enjoy the decorations before the crowds arrive.
  • When exploring, try sticking to the sidewalk. It’s common for parades to pop up on any given street, but especially Alcalá Street. In this case, anyone walking in the street becomes part of the parade. It’s hard to move away from the direction that the parade is (usually very slowly) moving in.

Photos: Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

The Day of the Dead celebration in Oaxaca left us constantly in awe. The colors, music, and beauty in welcoming the spirits of deceased loved ones back home was like nothing we’ve ever experienced.

We sorted through hundreds of photos we took to share some of the best with you. We’ve included descriptions where needed, but for the most part, the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies.

Two skeleton grandmas with hearts in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
A woman skeleton adorned in flowers.
A voluptuous skeleton at the entrance to a restaurant.
Marigold decor that lines the streets for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca.
The streets in Oaxaca are lined with these fake marigold flowers during Day of the Dead.
A street in Oaxaca decorated for Day of the Dead.
A skeleton on a balcony in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
A cowboy skeleton on a wreath for Day of the Dead.
A skeleton couple kissing in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
A skeleton in a wheelbarrow.
A dancing skeleton in the streets of Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
Special Day of the Dead bread.
Traditional Day of the Dead bread.
Day of the Dead bread at a bakery in Oaxaca.
Another version of Day of the Dead bread.
A man going up the ladder with a skeleton to decorate for Day of the Dead.
A man putting up skeletons in the days before October 31st.
A skeleton dog in a marigold wreath.
Dogs and other pets are remembered on the Day of the Dead.
A Mexican skeleton couple on a bench in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.
A mother and son skeleton dressed up at a restaurant.
A local restaurant with Day of the Dead seat covers.
A local restaurant with Day of the Dead seat covers.
A bride and groom skeleton couple during Day of the Dead.
An outdoor offering for Day of the Dead outside of a cathedral in Oaxaca.
A group of skeletons in Oaxaca, Mexico.
A staging where a donation should be made if you take a picture.
Marigold and oranges for Day of the Dead.
A woman bride skeleton.
A skeleton couple and their baby for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca.
An evening ceremony for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca.
A dressed up woman skeleton.
A wagon filled with skeletons.
Face painting on the streets of Oaxaca.
Face painting on the streets of Oaxaca.
Skulls on a grass background.
The famous decorated sugar skulls for Day of the Dead.
Sugar skulls are commonly used to adorn altars.
Grandma and grandpa skeleton figures.
The Mexican military playing in a band for Day of the Dead.
The military celebrating Day of the Dead.
A skeleton dressed up at a market in Oaxaca.
A skeleton bridal party for Day of the Dead.
A sign that reads "In Oaxaca, Death Lives!"
A sign that reads “In Oaxaca, Death Lives!”

Offerings

Below are some examples of altars with offerings for the Day of the Dead. The offerings include loved ones’ favorite food and drinks.

A traditional Mexican offering for Day of the Dead.
A Day of the Dead offering with the Virgin Mary.
An offering with beer and cigarettes.
Beer and a pack of cigarettes were laid out for this person.
An offering with a lot of marigold greenery.
An outdoor offering in Oaxaca.

Conclusion

This post is all about questions and answers, so now it’s time for you to ask us some questions! Let us know if you have questions about spending Day of the Dead in Oaxaca that we didn’t cover here.

If you’ve already been to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, feel free to share your experience and tips in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you.

Also, don’t forget to head over to our posts on general wheelchair accessibility in Oaxaca and 5 Wheelchair Accessible Day Trips from Oaxaca for ideas on other things to do in the area. We’ve also put together an accessible post on Puerto Escondido, a beach destination in the state of Oaxaca.

P.S.- Traveling to Mexico City? Check out our post on 16 Wheelchair Accessible Things to do in Mexico City.