I’m writing this post a full six months after experiencing Oaxaca’s Dias de los Muertos celebration, but honestly, the memories and impact live so vividly in my mind that I don’t even feel guilty about the delay (mostly).
What I don’t remember is exactly when or how Chad and I decided to spend a week in the city of Oaxaca to coincide with this fascinating holiday, but I’m pretty sure once we decided on Mexico to start the second leg of our travels, Oaxaca was a no-brainer. It has the most famous Dia de los Muertos celebration in the world and by all accounts is a fabulous city the other 51 weeks of the year. However, if you ever have the opportunity to time your trip to Oaxaca with Dia de los Muertos, you won’t regret it.
The Drive from Puebla and Arrival in Oaxaca
One of the great decisions we made about visiting Oaxaca is renting a car in Mexico City and driving there. It was a stunningly beautiful drive and felt perfectly safe. We chose to take the toll highways when possible to ensure the roads where in as good as shape as possible and did the whole 4-hour journey from Puebla in a single morning.
We arrived in Oaxaca and returned the rental car to a downtown location and then walked to our Airbnb. We’d been a little concerned initially that the holiday would dramatically raise prices for accommodations, but our two-bedroom apartment was extremely reasonable. Once we found it and navigated the “check-in” process with the caretaker, we settled in and walked down to the zocalo to check out the city. My review of our Airbnb accommodation is below with a link to the listing pictures.
Dias de los Muertos
We arrived on October 29 prior to the official start of the holiday, but there was still plenty of activity occurring throughout Oaxaca and decorations and ofrendas were already in place. “Day” of the Dead is really a misnomer because it seems to go on for a full week!
When we ventured out into the downtown area on our second night, we came almost immediately across one of the many parades that are held as part of the holiday. A large group of people walked down the street to the music of brass and drums, clapping and dancing and chanting. Often there are costumed participants and small floats or puppets within these parades. They went on throughout the period of Dia de los Muertos but finding one right away made us feel very much a part of the action.
Each night of our stay was virtually the same, with displays and music in the zocalo, cultural activities at Plaza de la Danza, and periodic parades and celebrations. One of our highlights was visiting the “Sabor a Oaxaca” with all sorts of vendors selling traditional bread and chocolate, plus music and art displays. Oaxacan hot chocolate is the best in the world – we really couldn’t get enough of it. The chocolate candy we tried was also amazing. Other nights we simply picked up hot chocolate at one of the many Mayordomo shops around town (a famous Oaxacan chocolate chain), which would be easy to enjoy any time of year.
The pinnacle, of course, was November 2, the actual “day of the dead.” That evening, we ventured out into some of the further neighborhoods we read about. We enjoyed a neighborhood celebration (featuring, of course, hot chocolate and bread) in one of the neighborhood parks adjacent to a cemetery. The highlight for us though, perhaps of the whole experience, was being invited into people’s homes as we walked around. Many were pleased to share and show off their ofrendas with tourists like us and had beautiful displays honoring their loved ones. It was extremely humbling and inspiring to be a part of their sacred holiday.
We loved our week in Oaxaca, but I must admit, by the end of the Dias de los Muertos going out each night to the parades and celebrations had become a bit repetitive. A few days would probably suffice to get the full experience, especially if November 2 is one of them. But with a week we were able to get solid work done during our stay and feel a bit more settled overall, as well as have time to take in some of the other local attractions.
El Arbol del Tule
One of the must-see attractions for us was the big tree of the nearby town of El Tule. It is the widest tree in the world and truly impressive. The town (El Tule) that is its home is quite charming as well and known as the originator of the Oaxacan-style ice cream called nieve. The tree is definitely big, and really cool. I’ll let the photos do the talking here, but they really don’t do its size justice.
Other travel blogs indicated there is a bus to El Tule, but we failed to find it at the bus station we tried and after speaking to a couple of taxi drivers, found one willing to take us for the price we wanted to pay. We later learned the bus to El Tule originates at the station that is near the main cemetery in town.
We learned this from a nice European family in El Tule waiting to take the bus back to Oaxaca. We joined them and it was a very nice journey by bus. The bus stop is not clearly marked, but you can find it on the corner of Calle Álvaro Obregón (I think) and the main highway. We were grateful to run into the group we did and following their lead, disembarked at the main cemetery to see some of the decorated graves. Honestly, I felt a bit awkward being a tourist gawking at these families’ sacred traditions, but no one seemed to mind, and people were unfailingly friendly throughout our time in Oaxaca.
The other big draw of Oaxaca are the nearby ruins of Monte Alban. While not as spectacular as Teotihuacan or Uxmal, these ruins have their own charm (including more green grass than you generally get at ruins) and are worth a morning visit. Our trip to Monte Alban led to one of our best breakfasts on the trip. We decided to follow the advice of other travel bloggers and take the tourist bus that departs from Hotel Riviera del Angel. We arrived in plenty of time to purchase our ticket for the first bus there and first bus back (at 8:30 a.m. and 12 p.m.) on a beautiful morning.
Since we were early, we wandered in search of breakfast while we waited for the bus to depart. A food cart was set up down the street selling tamales and Oaxacan hot chocolate. Chad and I shared a fantastic breakfast of one sweet and one savory tamale and two cups of the most delicious hot chocolate at a plastic table and stools next to the food cart. The rest of the patrons appeared to be locals and were very welcoming to us (despite our language barrier). We wandered back down in plenty of time to get on the bus, which was bumpy but serviceable and a great value at 55 pesos per person roundtrip (less than $3 a piece).
Again, I think I’ll let the photos do most of the talking about the ruins themselves. This was one of our more relaxing ruins visits, since they’re not as large as others we’ve been to and we were able to find shade to hang out under. The only challenge was waiting for the bus back to Oaxaca. It was slightly delayed, and we’d already stayed about an hour longer than we would have if there’d been an earlier bus option.
Food and Chocolate
I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a little time on the wonderful food in Oaxaca. I’ve already mentioned the fabulous chocolate (and I don’t even really like chocolate! Chad, however, loves it and was pretty much in heaven being able to eat all the chocolate he wanted). Oaxaca is known for its cuisine and did not disappoint. The must-try street food is tlayudas, a flat tortilla with beans and cheese, often served with meat. We had several good tlayudas but our favorites were the basic chicken tlayudas from the Mercado Mercado Cuarto Centenario and the slightly fancier tlayudas from Comedor Cecilia in Mercado Mercado 20 de Noviembre. With every lunch meal we enjoyed delicious agua fresca (jamaica flavor when they had it) and often fresh fruit from a nearby vendor. We also enjoyed Mexican street corn and marquesitas from the vendors who were out every night in the zocalo. We were a little disappointed to not be able to get into any of the most known Oaxacan restaurants without a reservation, but we didn’t have a bad meal through the whole stay (including those we cooked at home!).
We had an absolutely wonderful week in Oaxaca and I’d recommend it as a destination to anyone, especially for Dias de los Muertos. It is definitely a city we hope to return to at some point in the future.
Airbnb Review and Link
Really great place to stay in Oaxaca. We were given a 2-bedroom apartment, which was wonderful. The apartment was clean and spacious and the bed was comfortable. It was really nice to have two desks for working as well as a good kitchen table and there was even a private patio area. The apartment is quiet, especially because it is a little off the street within a complex. All the neighbors were nice and Ramon was helpful. The wifi worked well and it was a pleasant walk to the zocalo, and really close to a good supermarket and a great traditional market (Mercado IV Centario) where we had great lunches. The only slight negative (and not a big deal) is that we weren’t given great instructions for checking in. As a help to future guests, when you get to the street address, there is a phone number painted on the door that you can call to be let in. But I certainly highly recommend this apartment!