Coming alive to celebrate the dead in Oaxaca

I’ve been very aware of death this year – it’s been all around me in the form of people I love losing people they love, and though these losses haven’t been mine to grieve, I have.

Which is one of the reasons I really wanted to be amongst the festivities for Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, this year. I’d heard Oaxaca was the place to experience this celebration, and so we drove 2,000 KM across the country to get there.

We took it slow, taking six days and stopping in Campeche, Palenque, San Cristobal de las Casas and Tehuantepec, before arriving in the city of Oaxaca which sits in a high valley surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountain ranges.

The route forged over mountains shrouded in wispy cloud and plunged into valleys thick with sticky jungle air, through six states and about as many changes in climate and altitude, taking its toll on us physically and mentally.

The final section of the drive from the coastal lowlands to Oaxaca city was a beautiful one. The sun rose over the cactus-clad mountains as pigs snorted around tiny villages, barely awake.

When we popped out over the top of the final mountain and began our descent into the valley, the morning sky was bright and crisp in stark comparison to our impending fatigue.

We had set off before sunrise and arrived at the zocalo in the center of town around 930 AM. We drifted into the El Jardin cafe to refuel with much needed coffee and fluffy hotcakes with butter and syrup, before setting off in search of our apartment in the outer suburb of San Felipe del Agua.

The day was spent relaxing in our cute apartment and recuperating from the drive, as well as adjusting to the cooler climate and thinner air once again.

It actually took us a few days to re-coup our energy enough to explore the city fully, yet from the first day I knew I was in love. Golden marigolds and fuzzy, fuscia flowers whose name I cannot seem to find were displayed for sale in bulging, vibrant bunches.

I simply could not get enough of looking at these flowers.

I’ve since read that the marigolds are the ‘official’ traditional flower for the Day of the Dead, and that their color and smell is believed to lead the spirits of the dearly departed back to their loved ones for the day. I can’t find any information on the pink ones, but I like to think of them as a tiny sneak peak of the colorful beauty awaiting us in the next realm.

The flowers are used to adorn altars inside homes, which are constructed to pay respect to departed relatives and decorated with food, drink, sugar skulls and other trinkets.

Altars adorned almost every store and hotel lobby in the lead up to the Day of the Dead, and I loved sneaking in to take photos of these colorful creations.

Of course, I had to get involved, so Mum and I sent Tyrhone off to the museum for the day and hit the stores and markets for our Dia de los Muertos swag.

Inside the 20 De Noviembre market, we passed rows of painted chocolate and sugar skulls, and mounds of pan de muerte, or ‘dead bread’ as it came to be known by us; round, golden loaves of every size with little faces baked into them, then hand painted with vegetable dyes.

Though not specific to the Day of the Dead celebrations, we also picked up some drinking chocolate – balls of cocoa, cinnamon and sugar which we later melted in hot milk (and which goes very nicely with ‘dead bread’ I might add).

I also delighted in the fragrant stalls of Copal, a resin which is burned during ceremonies; believed to purify energy. I first smelled this substance inside the Church of San Juan Chamula on our first trip to Chiapas last year, and can only describe the smell as ‘of the earth’. For me it evokes a feeling of connectedness with nature and creation, and I absolutely love it (and frequently smoke Tyrhone out of the house when I exit the bathroom after a shower in a billow of smoke). I just had to purchase some more of the pure, petrified resin and a burner to go with it.

These guys had quite a laugh trying to explain what I needed, but I appreciated the help, and was happy to provide them with their daily entertainment.

What can I say? I’m a market tragic. I love nothing more than wandering around, looking at all the trinkets on display, inhaling the intermingling scents of chilli, chocolate, cheese and spices, and sampling the local flavours.

(like Tejate, a Oaxacan drink made from maize, water and cocoa. Not bad!)

And so, I was in heaven in Oaxaca the week leading up to Dia de los Muertos. An already lively, culturally rich city filled with wonderful restaurants, markets, cafes and museums, there was an added energy of aliveness in the air in late October. The festivity and ceremony of remembering the dead was like a thread binding everyone together, reminding us that we are here, now, and that is a miracle and a gift.

Raised in a culture without much tradition and ceremony, I usually find myself fascinated, yet detached from the cultural and religious festivals I witness around the world. But I really felt a part of this one, drawn in  by the colours, costumes, sights, smells and tastes of these customs which pre-date Spanish colonization and Catholic conversion.


In remembering the dead and acknowledging death as an absolutely vital part of what makes life so precious, I was reminded that even though life can be heartbreakingly sad, unfair and often tragic, every moment we have is available to experience, filled with simple pleasures like the rich sweetness of chocolate, the heady scent of incense, the visual beauty of a flower, and the softness of freshly baked bread.

And for all those things and more, I’m grateful.


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Coming alive to celebrate the dead in Oaxaca — 14 Comments

  1. Beautiful photos Sarah. I love the way Mexican’s celebrate death with just as much colour and passion as they do life. I wish we did the same in the UK – death seems so hidden there, like a family secret you daren’t mention. I’m so sorry for your loss, and hope the festivities brought you some peace x
    Hannah recently posted..The art of long-term travelMy Profile

  2. love this post!!! like you, i love the colors and vibrancy of the mexican life. it was so incredible to spend this day with you and to have a surprise bag of ‘supplies’ to take back to the ship with me. i will post pics in my next blog- i was so moved by your letter and the provisions. you are beyond thoughtful! it was an awe inspiring experience to be a part of the day of the dead, and certainly gave me a new perspective to enjoy. mason was remembered in a very unique, special way that day, thanks to you! xo
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  3. Hi Sarah, And what a colorful way to celebrate the dead. (We have the same celebration in the Philippines but not the colorful.) It seems like the whole town comes alive in remembrance of their dead love ones. Such lovely photos, Sarah. I love all the little details you captured – like the chocolate skulls, the altars, the lanterns, the flowers, etc. And I love that photos of you with your mom.
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