Celebrating the Mexican festival of Day of the Dead in Guanajuato, Mexico was on top of my travel bucket list for a very long time. So, for my last birthday, I gifted myself a Mexican holiday to enjoy Día de Muertos (Spanish).
This was the best birthday gift to self ever. I spent over a month in Mexico but the adventure started when I flew from Atlanta to Leon to partake in weeklong Day of the dead festivities in Guanajuato. This was the perfect start to my Mexico itinerary, which was pretty open by the way.
My month in Mexico was spent slow traveling, soaking in the sights and sounds whilst grasping at learning basic Spanish. Apart from spending a few weeks learning Bachata in Mexico city, I then wanted to check out the stunning Mexican Caribbean beaches and headed off to Playa del Carmen in this quest.
However, my most memorable time was surely my bucket list experience of witnessing Dia de Muertos en Guanajuato.
[Post updated Sep 2022]
Table of Content
- What is Day of the Dead Festival all About?
- How to Celebrate Day of the dead in Guanajuato, Mexico?
- Things to do in Guanajuato for Day of the Dead
- Look Spooky!
- Start at Teatro Juarez
- Party in a Tunnel
- Don’t miss the Parade
- Outdoor Shows
- Try Day of the Dead Food
- Gawk at decorated altars at the University
- Pay Homage by visiting a Graveyard
- Check out Colorful Floor Murals
- Mezcal shots in Quirky bars
- Learn about the Day of the Dead customs
- Soak in the Incredible Views
- Common Spanish terms for information about Day of the dead
- Day of the Dead Costume Ideas
What is Day of the Dead Festival all About?
Day of the dead is a Mexican holiday that celebrates dearly departed souls. There is no room for sadness as people prepare for the festivities by decorating alters, cooking traditional day of the dead recipes, dressing up in Dia de los Muertos costumes, and skull makeup. This is just a small part of the multi-day festival which is celebrated by almost all Mexicans all over the globe. However, the best places for Day of the dead celebration are said to be Mexico City and Guanajuato.
We picked Guanajuato as I had already planned to spend a couple of weeks in CDMX and I like to explore new places. This was a good call as Guanajuato is a small cute cobbled street town, which made the perfect backdrop for this soul-stirring, colorful festival. However, Oaxaca is another excellent off-beat option for celebrating this festival. You can easily take a bus to Oaxaca from Mexico City, which takes around 7 hours, and enjoy the other sights this upcoming destination has to offer as well.
How to Celebrate Day of the dead in Guanajuato, Mexico?
Our jazzy skull make up
Fancy Day of the Dead floor murals
Celebrations for Dia de Muertos en Guanajuato begin around 29th Oct though the main festival dates are 1st and 2nd Nov. My birthday falls on 6th Nov so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. My friend Michael was already living in Mexico City and he flew down to Leon to accompany me as well.
So, we had an occasion, good company, and a perfect experience lined up – I was psyched!
All festival days pretty much started in the same theme – drinking beer at our hostel rooftop – Hic!
For a snippet of the festival, here is my travel vlog that details everything from Day of the dead makeup, Dia de Muertos parade, graveyard celebrations, Mezcal shots, DJ party in a tunnel and much more –
And now the long version of our story/ experience …
First fail was that our flight landed in Leon and we assumed that’s where the grand festivities were happening. Guanajuato is actually part of Leon but a good 2 hours away from the main airport of Leon where we flew into.
We had booked a hostel for the entire week in Leon and on our second day there we thought that the city seemed kind of boring – nothing like those travel vlogs of Guanajuato we had seen before.
We did some quick research and realized we were in the wrong city – damn! Being the queen of misadventures and lacking in proper planning, I wasn’t surprised by my misfortune.
Michael and I quickly packed our bags and left our hostel in Leon then and there (forgoing our pre-payment), booked an Uber right up to Guanajuato, and made it right in time for the main events.
Obviously we had to drink a LOT to forget our big fail and lack of planning 😉
This was the best decision ever! Guanajuato was love at first sight. Cute narrow streets, cool mountain air, cobbled roads, and hundreds of quirky bars – THIS was my kinda place!
A tiny drawback for me, was having to carry my big suitcase (Since I flew straight from Atlanta and had my gear of 3 months on me) up and down umpteen stairs.
Let me give you the biggest tip for traveling to Guanajuato – Pack light!
This was my second big fail and I found myself dragging my bags up and down over 100 narrow stairways – no kidding!
Second tip for your Guanajuato tip – wear comfortable shoes and expect to walk a LOT and climb a shit ton of stairs.
By the time we settled into our new hostel, it was almost midnight and we headed off to check out the bars. Cute bars lined every corner and bar hopping seemed to have instantly become our new favorite thing to do in Guanajuato. From ambient rooftop bars to cozy dens, vintage diners to neon-lit caves – the nightlife in Guanajuato is surely something to travel for!
Things to do in Guanajuato for Day of the Dead
Enjoy the cool, spooky decor everywhere!
There are many reasons to choose Guanajuato as base for your day of the dead celebrations as this little mountain town has a lot to offer for tourists and locals alike.
Hell yeah – we can do Spooky!
Seeing everyone all dressed up in their Halloween/ Day of the dead costumes was a splendid pass time and made us crave for a cool costume ourselves.
If you plan to visit Guanajuato for the day of the dead, bring your own scary costume. There are barely any shops selling them (we assumed there would be) and what’s on sale is mostly skull suits for kids.
Had to make do with just black clothes!
This lack of planning had us costume less and cranky but finding the perfect skull make up artist made up for it.
Start at Teatro Juarez
Teatro Juarez is perfect for photo opps 🙂
Teatro Juarez is your best starting point for the Day of the dead activities in Guanajuato. You will see bold decorations and get right in the celebratory mode.
From there, you can choose to grab a bite at the main square or walk around. Sometimes, we would just follow people and end up finding something amazing.
Party in a Tunnel
Beautifully decorated tunnel for Day of the Dead
We were surprised to hear that there were mega celebrations happening in an underground tunnel. This sounded so bloody cool and there was an entire program of events.
From costume competitions to make up artists, mezcal shots to mouth-watering BBQ’s, quirky trinkets to goofy shirts, DJ party to horror movie festival – there was literally something for everyone – heck, even a mummy museum, and art show.
Day of the dead tunnel activities programme
You could walk around all day for several hours or choose to simply go “overground” for a different array of events. There are so many things to do in Guanajuato during Day of the dead festival – literally, we were totally drained from all the walking and drinking for 12+ hours each day. It is one gala celebration and you will surely love it to bits.
Don’t miss the Parade
Once we were done walking around the tunnel, we decided to see what was going on in the city center, right above us. As soon as we stepped out, it was already dusk and we were pleasantly surprised to see a magnificent parade.
Gala Day of the dead parade in Guanajuato
The Day of the dead parade is the single biggest top draw for the event and I can’t believe we were just ‘lucky’ to have not missed it. So be sure you check the parade timings before hand – its worth it!
We also stumbled upon a funky bike parade after this one – guess, it was our lucky day!
As we walked around the city later that evening, we noticed there were big crowds gathered around a stage. This stage was hosting musicals and artist showcases randomly one after the other. This can easily keep you occupied for an hour.
Try Day of the Dead Food
Decorated sugar skulls for Day of the dead
Cutely decorated sugar skulls and chocolate molds are the best Day of the dead treats for kids. You can also use them as offerings on the altars and even cook or buy some traditional Mexican Day of the dead recipes to get into festival mode.
Loads of street food vendors sell local delicacies at dirt cheap prices. Pretty much anywhere in Mexico, food is cheap, good and spicy (just how we like it).
Street food vendors – even for those midnight hunger pangs!
Gawk at decorated altars at the University
Universidad de Guanajuato, with the help of students and locals, builds the biggest and the most stunning altar on its steps, using skulls, candles, and flowers.
This is something you have to see for yourself, especially after sundown when the stairs are all lit up with candles. Once you are on top of the stairs, you can also gawk at the entire city of Guanajuato in amazement.
Universidad de Guanajuato – All lit up for Day of the dead
If you happen to walk around and find a personal altar in one of the houses, those are simply surreal. I found myself starting for one for several minutes, mesmerized by the beauty of it all. These altars are well-decorated shrines where the families dearly departed are said to come back to eat, drink and make merry with them on this day.
One of the many private altars we stumbled upon
Altars have food, drinks, flowers, candles, skulls, and pictures of loved ones – usually, an entire family tree of ancestors who would be visiting the altar that night to celebrate with the family they left behind on earth. Isn’t it an amazing ideology?
Pay Homage by visiting a Graveyard
It’s a lovely 30 mins walk to Panteón de Santa Paula – the local graveyard, where tourists and locals flock to pay homage to the dead and join in the commemoration. You will quite enjoy the walk as the streets are full of happy strangers and Tacos stalls.
You can also choose to take an overpriced taxi but if not, be aware there are lot of stairs en-route and if you have been walking for 8+ hours, like us, you will feel the burn.
Tip – Buy a bunch of marigolds to pay homage to empty shrines and graves, which don’t have any flowers or any relatives visiting them.
Marigolds for graves that haven’t been visited 🙂
This was a beautiful thing my friend Michael told me about and it felt extremely soulful while we were there. It was also surprising to see everyone cheerful and in happy mode – literally, there was no one crying – rather hosting their glasses in glee saying ‘Salut’ to support the spiritual journey of those in the other realm.
You can even visit this or other cemeteries during the day as the festivities continue for several days.
Beautiful offerings at the cemetery
Check out Colorful Floor Murals
Awe-inspiring colorful carpets of sawdust, seeds, and flowers, decorate the entire city center of Guanajuato on Day of the dead. As part of El tapete de la muerte (mat of death) competition, you will barely find any room to walk the streets during the day.
Stunning floor murals
El tapete de la muerte
These pretty decorations are made by each family using various hues of seeds, flowers, grass or literally any naturally colored item. They are amazing to watch and if you are early, you can see families making this floor art right in front of you.
We must have seen at least 200+ such murals dotting the wide lanes of Guanajuato city center and were amazed at the crowd they pulled and the magnificence of the designs and bold natural colors.
Hundreds of beautiful floor murals aka mats of death!
So when you arrive in Guanajuato, do check the date and time for El tapete de la muerte competition. Usually, its held all day on 2nd Nov. Going early gives you fresh bright designs, before the birds start nibbling at the seeds.
Mezcal shots in Quirky bars
Cute Mezcal decor
Mezcal is the local traditional oven-cooked agave and the national spirit of Mexico. Your trip to Guanajuato is incomplete without having a shot (or plenty) of this smoky concoction. Every bar , supermarket, restaurant and even a few street shops, sell this.
The nightlife of Guanajuato is pretty amazing and a few must-try bars include – Golem bar, Bar fly, Dada, Why not, and Medicina, among an array of others in small alleys and rooftops. I would recommend having a Mezcal shot at each bar and eventually heading to the tunnel for more shots and overnight party.
Learn about the Day of the Dead customs
Learning and understanding the history of Day of the dead and its customs is best done by talking to a local. I took this opportunity to interview a staff member of our Hostel – Casa de Dante.
Here’s our short tête-à-tête, which will help you understand the origin and traditions of this Mexican holiday –
Soak in the Incredible Views
Now that you are in Guanajuato, it’s important to enjoy the stunning mountain views. Book a hostel atop one of the many hills, to wake up to this view every day –
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Our pick for hilltop hostel was Hostal Casa de Dante, for first 2 nights and then we moved closer to the center and stayed in a quaint guesthouse for our remaining 2 days to be closer to the festivities.
This saved us a good 500+ stair climb to/fro to the center, however, views from the hill were amazing. I would recommend breaking up your Guanajuato accommodation options up like we did to enjoy different experiences.
Common Spanish terms for information about Day of the dead
You can easily navigate bigger cities like CDMX with zero Spanish but it is imperative to know basic Spanish especially in a small town like Guanajuato.
However, if you are like me and enjoy “winging it” and end up there knowing just ‘Hola’ and ‘Adios’, here are few common Spanish phrases you can use in Guanajuato to get information about Dia de los Muertos –
Donde esta el desfile (Where is the parade?)
A que hora es el desfile (What time is the parade?)
Como llegar al cementerio (How to reach the cemetery?)
Donde puedo comprar disfraz (Where can I buy a costume?)
¿Dónde puedo comprar mezcal? (Where can I buy Mezcal?)
A que hora comienza la DJ (What time does the DJ start?)
Donde esta la universidad de guanajuato (Where is the University of Guanajuato?)
Once you know these few basic words like where, where, what time, how far etc, you can use broken Spanish to navigate with ease. Locals appreciate if you are learning and trying to speak their language so don’t be scared if your Spanish is rusty (or non-existent, like in my case) – Go forth, smile and say ‘Hola’ 🙂
Looking the look for Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead Costume Ideas
Since we were left costume-less due to lack of planning. Be sure, you pick up a neat costume – think elegant corset dresses for women and grand tux’es for men to compliment your sugar skull makeup.
Day of the dead flowers play a key role in costume, decoration as well as make up. Those red roses look amazing no matter if you hold them, put them in your hair or add them to your belt. You can even try some DIY day of the dead costumes.
You can wear matching skeleton body suits with your day of the dead makeup if you need couple costume ideas or just twin with friends. Though generally anything black, long flowy dresses, hats, belts, skull fans, roses, stockings- can all add to your Day of the dead look.
So, have fun with it and as long as you try to look like La Catrina, you are all set.
So this was my complete guide to enjoying this amazing Mexican holiday of Day of the dead in Guanajuato with locals as they support their dearly departed in their spiritual journey. Are you ready for Day of the dead 2022? Share views in comments below. Its a festival I wish I could partake in every year.