How to live through Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead festival in Mexico

At first glance, the Day of the Dead in Mexico City sounds like it would be a solemn, quiet affair, but don’t be fooled.

In fact, it’s filled with brightly coloured altars, delicious celebration food and spirits of all kinds – from visiting ancestors to a cool mezcal cocktail! So what do you need to know to survive the deathly trip of a lifetime?

Day of the Dead was developed as a ritual by the Aztecs, who believed that death is not a thing to grieve, rather it was more fitting to celebrate life while still welcoming the return of the dead once a year. Ornate altars are created, with the ancestor’s favourite meals placed as offerings – like pan de muertos – a sweet bread that’s baked into the shape of bones. Other additions to the altar include candles to guide the spirits back to the land of the living for the day, and small dog figurines to guide them back to the afterlife after the celebrations are over. When the ofrendas are completed, it’s time to celebrate with the dead!

Dia de Meurtos highlights the wonderful contradictions of life – the poignancy of those departed and the exuberance of remembering that we are still alive. You’ll see many little skeleton dolls, but these skeletons will be dancing, drinking wine, and behaving as silly as the living do.

Families gather to talk about the ones they’ve lost, but also to sing songs and laugh together. The orange glow of the candles matches the orange petals of the marigolds that are strewn along pathways, and though there is a slight chill in the air, there is nothing but warmth in the sights and sounds around you.

Top tips to help you live through the Day of the Dead

1. Get ready to get your hands dirty! You’ll have a chance to shape and paint sugar skulls, braid flower garlands, build altars, wrap tamales – there’s a lot of work to be done to welcome the spirits!
Dad of the Dead chocolate skulls in Mexico

2. Don’t forget a spot of fancy dress! Top hats, canes, capes – these all make an appearance in Day of the Dead.
Dad of the Dead fancy dress in Mexico

3. Practice your singing! Music is large part of every Mexican celebration, and this one is no different. La Calaca Flaca (The Skinny Skeleton) is a good place to start:

4. After the dead go back to the afterlife, see a little more of the country!
Mexico has beautiful archeological sites, jungles and beaches, as well as a thriving art and music scene. Take the time to drink in some more of culture and country – after all, you only live once! After that, you’ll still get to visit for Dia De Muertos, keep an eye out for the candles and the music to guide you!

Festival photos by Fabiola Secaira.

About the author

Rebecca Swink - Rebecca's obsession with exploring worlds beyond our own has taken her on adventures all over our planet and like everyone at Intrepid, she has a passion for responsible travel.

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