How to Catch Día De Los Muertos Celebrations

Honoring the dead with festivities for the living.

Día de los Muertos” translates to “day of the dead.” It’s a big celebration throughout Mexico, where people often dress up, paint skulls on their faces, and gather in the streets. Have you seen the movie Coco? If so, you know about Día de los Muertos, but do you know the origins and traditions of the event?  

This Mexican holiday is actually a blend of culture and rituals from the Americas and Europe and has a much deeper meaning than skeleton costumes and decorations (though that’s a bit part of it).

Here’s a breakdown of why Day of the Dead is celebrated each year and the best locations for you to experience this incredible spectacle that’s actually a celebration of life. 

Altars are a traditional part of the celebration.

Honoring the ancestors

The roots of Día de los Muertos go back to the ancient Aztec civilization in the middle of present day Mexico, so you could say that it “started” 3,000 years ago! 

The Aztecs believed that the dead would have to make a difficult journey through the afterlife to reach their final resting place, so some of their rituals involved leaving out food to help them along the way—which is now a part of Día De Los Muertos celebrations throughout Mexico. 

The holiday also has a mix of European customs from Spanish influence. All Souls Day in Spain was celebrated by putting candles and flowers on family members’ graves, and that same tradition made its way to Mexico. These weren’t just decorative, but helped “guide” dead souls back to earth. Today, the tradition of honoring deceased ancestors and friends remains at the heart of the holiday.

Dia de los muertos parades have only become popular recently.

How it’s celebrated 

The fascinating (and well recognized) ornately painted faces and sugar skulls, or “calaveras”, help remind people of their loved ones and that death is a natural part of life. But there’s more to the celebrations. 

For one, offerings to the dead are placed on altars called “ofrendas,” where you’ll see candles, colorful flags, and pictures of the dead. There’s even a special, sweet “bread of the dead” (pan de muerto), which is often decorated with icing to resemble bones. But the food isn’t only for those being remembered—tamales are a staple for the living, as well as other favorite foods or drinks of friends and relatives that have passed on.  

Another tradition is writing poems about the dead, but not sad or sappy ones. It’s tradition to both memorialize the good things, but also lightly mock the person with ample use of comedy and absurdity to help keep things light!  

Contrary to popular depictions, parades haven’t traditionally been part of this holiday, as it’s so family-focused. The ofrendas and shared meals, poems, and stories often take place at home, though parades and street celebrations have popped up in recent years. 

Puerto Vallarta is a top spot to see the celebrations.

Where to experience it

This traditional Mexican holiday is celebrated across the country, from the serene beaches of Costa Maya on the southeastern tip to the ornate churches of Mazatlan in the west. 

One great option, that’s now available, is to set sail for Puerto Vallarta from Long Beach,  California to see the decorative shrines that line the boardwalk and town square, and mariachi bands and face painting contests that let everyone in on the fun. 
Outside of Mexico, American cities with large Mexican populations are where you’ll catch some Día de los Muertos celebrations. In Los Angeles, the Hollywood Forever cemetery is a fitting host for one of the largest celebrations outside of Mexico. And in San Antonio, Texas, the famous river walk transforms into a Día de los Muertos ground, with decorated barges along the water.