International travel expert and CDMX superfan Rachel Rudwall shares tips on how to best enjoy Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade (after accidentally ending up in the parade one year—and having the time of her life).
Feather-covered warriors weave between bus-sized devils. Macabre brides lure you closer with the curl of a black-gloved finger. The stuff of nightmares this is not; it’s a snapshot of Mexico City during the annual Day of the Dead festival, an October fête that marries the old and new worlds of Mexican heritage through a celebration of life and culture.
Renowned year-round for its culinary offerings, historical sites, and colorful neighborhoods, Mexico City might actually be best enjoyed during the Day of the Dead. As streets fill with dancing skeletons, and marigolds line the avenues, the city breathes new life into its rich cultural history.
Initially founded by the Aztecs in 1325, the modern-day metropolis of Mexico City offers boundless opportunities for adventure, from bustling markets to ancient Mesoamerican temples, haute couture to over 150 world-class museums, and mouth-watering street stall tacos to five of the top 50 restaurants in Latin America. Mexico’s capital city, often referred to as “CDMX” (shorthand for “Ciudad de México”), boasts over 21 million inhabitants, which explains why there’s something for everyone, no matter the season.
For café culture, funky shops, and walkable boulevards, Roma Norte offers the equivalent of a Brooklyn-meets-Santa Monica love child. A leafy neighborhood with old colonial homes, Coyoacán boasts stunning historical architecture, including the former home of painter Frida Kahlo, which now houses a museum dedicated to her art and life. The Centro Histórico holds the government plaza, Metropolitan Cathedral, and also partially-unearthed Aztec temple ruins, resting right there within view in the city center.
Each of these neighborhoods explodes with color during Día de los Muertos festivities, shop windows filling with painted sugar skulls, bakeries advertising “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead), and flower markets selling out of multi-hued bouquets. However, none enliven more than those neighborhoods spanning the city’s parade route, a path beginning at Chapultepec Park – the largest green space in Mexico City – and continuing for over three miles toward the Zócalo in the historic city center.
In anticipation of the parade, CDMX’s grand avenue Paseo de la Reforma shuts down, welcoming floats and costumed dance troupes. Rows of cempasúchiles (in English, “marigolds’) line the boulevard, symbolizing the brevity of life. Backstage, hordes of volunteers slip into eye-popping costumes they’ve spent months preparing. Each group adopts a theme for the year, with selections ranging from ghastly bridegrooms to the iconic “calavera”, an oft-colorful depiction of a skeleton popularized by famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera.
A mix of pre-Hispanic and Catholic belief systems, Día de los Muertos unites communities across Mexico to remember and celebrate loved ones who have passed. During this weeklong celebration, the young and old alike come together to celebrate the people they’ve loved and lost, amassing offerings of art, flowers, food, drink, and photography, and placing them upon altars as dedications.
Although the Day of the Dead is a centuries-old tradition, typically celebrated in candlelit cemeteries a la Disney’s Coco, CDMX’s parade remains in its nascence, having just begun in 2016. In an example of life mirroring art, Mexican officials admit finding themselves inspired by the Día de Muertos parade sequence in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, thereafter launching their own grand interpretation of the festivities.
New though it may be, Mexico City’s Día de los Muertos celebration has quickly garnered global fame, earning its place as one of the top ways to celebrate the holiday—and one of the best times of year to visit this captivating city.