The Day of the Dead is a fascinating cultural celebration dating back to ancient times. It is a time of honoring and remembering those who have passed, through color, food, drink and music. On November 2, families all across Mexico gather in local cemeteries, singing, laughing, eating and drinking, believing that the spirits of their departed loved ones return to visit them that day.

During the week leading up to November 2, visitors to Mexico gain a sneak peak into this ancient tradition, experiencing some of the sights, smells, tastes and customs unique to Dia de los Muertos. 

Day of the Dead in Playa Del Carmen

At the end of October, colorful skulls made from sugar and chocolate appear on the shelves of the local supermarkets.

Day of the Dead skulls

These are often used to decorated altars within family homes, along with other food, drink and trinkets. It is believed that the spirits of the departed return on November 2 to enjoy earthly pleasures like food, drink and music, and families ensure their loved ones have their favorite treats waiting for them.

Day of the Dead altar

Altars and grave sites are decorated with golden marigolds and other flowers. It is believed that the bright color and strong scent of the marigold helps the spirits find their way back to the earthly realm to spend time with their families.

The flowers are sold in the market in large, bulging bunches of color, and are an important ingredient of the festivities, reminding us of the vibrant beauty of life.

Day of the dead flowers

A special bread, Pan de Muerte is baked and sold in the market leading up to the Day of the Dead. The type of bread varies in different regions of Mexico. In the Yucatan, the bread is covered in sugar crystals, while in Oaxaca, faces are baked into crust and hand painted with vegetable dyes.

pan de muerte

Many stores and homes will be decorated in the last week of October. As the Day of the Dead is just after Halloween, in some parts of Mexico with a large ex-pat community from the United States, Halloween decorations will also abound.

Children dress up in their best ghoulish costumes and ‘trick or treat’ for candy and small coins. I’m always impressed by the lengths parents go to to dress their children up as scarily as possible!

My favorite part of the celebration, however, are the ornate altars erected in homes, stores and hotel lobbies. Altars usually have three levels, signifying the different realms of existence, and are always decorated in bright colors of gold and pink.

day of the dead altar lobby

It is a real treat to visit Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations, and I love observing all the different customs associated with the ancient tradition. In coming together to remember the dead, people are filled with a sense of togetherness and aliveness, while enjoying the good things in life -family, friends, food, drink, music and laughter.