Growing up in Southern California, Mexican culture runs through every aspect of my hometown and my childhood: our streets are all Spanish words, in elementary school we put on Cinco De Mayo performances, and real authentic Mexican food tastes more like home than hotdogs or hamburgers ever could. I remember being 8 or 9 years old and my mom taking me to my first Dia De Los Muertos celebration in downtown Ventura, just a few minutes from our home. There were altars and lit candles, framed photos and glowing skulls, and music in the streets.
Experiencing the celebration in its home Mexico had been a long-time dream of mine. We love being a part of major cultural experiences in their original homes and experiencing the true authentic origin of where traditions that we know begin. From celebrating Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany to attending an Indian wedding in Northern India, these have become some of my absolute favorite travel experiences. So when Visit Guadalajara reached out to us about joining in on Dia De Los Muertos in one of Mexico's greatest cities, there was no chance we could miss it. Since we were traveling with locals, we were able to see a truly authentic, local side of the celebration - read on for all the details on how to do the same for yourself!
Dia De Los Muertos (or Day of The Dead) Is a holiday in Mexico where families welcome back the souls of their passed on relatives for an annual reunion and celebration. Family and friends gather to remember and honor their deceased loved ones with food, drink, offerings and celebration. It is viewed not as a day of sadness but of joy and celebration, as the souls of their loved ones are seen as awake and celebrating with them. The roots of Day of The Dead date back 3000 years to Aztec times, and the celebration now is a blend of native rituals and European religion and influence from colonial times. The holiday originally took place in the summer, but was moved to early November during Spanish colonization to coincide with Christian All Saint's Day. Though the customs and many aspects of Day of the Dead celebrations have continued to evolve through time and cultures, the heart and essence of the holiday has stayed mostly the same over thousands of years.
The calaveras, or sugar or clay skulls, have been made for hundreds of years, and the tradition is for families to place them on the alters (or ofrendas) of their lost members. The Catrinas (skeletal face painting and statues) actually did not become a part of Day of the Dead until the early 20th century. According to Wikipedia:
The Holiday is celebrated in Mexico, where it is a public holiday, and in US communities with Mexican populations. The exact events and traditions that are a part of the celebration are not universal, and will often vary from city to city.
- Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico with a metro area population of 5 million.
- You can get direct flights from a number of US cities (LA, SF, Dallas, Portland, Chicago, Atlanta, etc), as well as many cities in Mexico.
- Currency is the Mexican Peso, which is currently about 20 pesos to the US Dollar (prices are generally much less than major US cities)
- While the state of Jalisco can sometimes have travel safety advisories, the city of Guadalajara is quite safe.
- Dia De Los Muertos Celebration dates generally run from November 1st-4th. The exact parade date can vary slightly.
- Weather: 65-80 degrees in the day, 50-70 degrees at night during early November
Where To Stay:
- Hotel Demetria Bungalows - One of the coolest and most instagrammable hotels in the city, we loved our stay at Demetria! The bungalows are massive and beautifully minimalist. Ours had a full kitchen and an indoor/outdoor shower! The hotel is right in a very fun, young area of town and is close walking distance to a huge selection of restaurants and nightlife. From $100 per night.
- Villa Ganz Hotel Boutique - Beautifully designed, this modern hotel is full of Old World elegance and is one of Guadalajara most acclaimed hotels. From $150/night.
- Hotel Demetria - Demetria Bungalows ultra-modern, glass towered sister property, complete with floor to ceiling windows and a rooftop pool. From $130 per night
- Hotel Morales Historical & Colonial Downtown Core - Located right in historic downtown Guadalajara, this historic hotel is luxurious but puts you right in the heart of the city. From $58 per night.
- The Westin Guadalajara - A beautiful modern hotel with all of the details you would expect from a Westin. From $107 per night.
Local Food Not To Miss:
- Pan De Los Muertos - This special, sugared bread is everywhere during the holiday. The puffed bread is fluffy and tasty, topped with sugar, and is served for breakfast, lunch and dessert. The design across the top represents femur bones.
- Torta Ahogada - This 'drowned sandwich' is a local favorite. You start with a classic Mexican torta sandwich, and then is is drowned in a spicy tomato sauce in a bowl. It is messy and delicoius!
- Cafe de Olla - The traditional Guadalajara way of serving coffee, mixing fresh brewed coffee with cinnamon and raw sugar and traditionally brewed in clay pots for an earthy flavor.
- Street Tacos - You can't go wrong! We stopped a couple of times around the city at little street taco stands and fed our entire group for just a couple of dollars
- Birria - A spicy meat stew in a red adobo sauce traditionally made with goat meat, but also is available is beef and chicken. If you're cold, there is no better way to warm up. This is also known locally as the best hangover remedy.
- Cantarito Cocktail - This tequila drink is called a cocktail, but it is more accurate describes as an entire punch bowl- they are HUGE! A mix of tequila and citrus juices, this differentiates itself from a margarita not only by its dangerously large vessel, but also by being topped with soda for a bubbly drink.
- Pozole - Another form of delicious, delicious stew, pozole is warm, comforting, spicy, and amazing with tortilla. A long time favorite food of mine and is not to be missed in Guadalajara!
Where To Eat:
- Casa Luna in Tllaquepaque - If you go out to only one restaurant in Guadalajara, make it this one! This absolutely gorgeous restaurant is one of Guadalajara's finest, and is always decadently decorated. The location right on the main Tllaquepaque street also makes it the hottest spot to eat during the Dia De Los Muertos Parade - make a reservation in advance. During the middle of our dinner, they had a performer come in and perform a fire dance right in the middle of the tables - and it was amazing!
- La Postreria - An ultra-chic and modern bakery, La Posteria is amazing for brunch and also some of the most beautiful pastries I have ever seen.
- Casa Bariachi - A super popular birthday and party restaurant, Casa Bariachi serves large family-style dishes and has live lunch performances with mariachi music and groups of dancers. Locals LOVE to come here in large groups and have a ton of fun getting a bit rowdy.
- ..... Did I mention street tacos? Cost: Less than a dollar. Location: Literally everywhere. Taste: AMAZING
The Parade - Tlaquepaque:
The place to be for the Dia De Los Muertos parade is Tlaquepaque, the incredibly instagrammable city just South of central Guadalajara (about a 30 minute drive from the historical center.) In the day, the center of the town is known for colorful umbrella-lined streets, cobble stones, and lots of shops. However on the evening of Novermber 2nd or 3rd, the town transforms to a full on parade and sea of people. After the sunset, the street became so packed that it took quite a while to move through the crowds. Over the last few years, Dia de los Muertos has become one of Tlaquepaque’s most popular and exciting events.
While in Tlaquepaque, don't miss the Catrinas Brides Fashion Show - a contest where local women dress up as Catrina Brides (Bridal Gowns, but with skull face paint makeup.) The women here really go all out on the contest - some has full body paint, some had dresses with endless cathedral trains, some of the gown were woven with glowing lights, and some had husbands or children walking with them. The show is fashion show style, where each walks down the runaway for their moment to shine. It's definitely an experience not to be missed!
Cost: Free to join, vendors are all around for food, drinks, shopping, face painting, and games.
Location: Jardín Hidalgo, Tlaquepaue Center. Map link here.
One of the most recognizable symbols of Dia De Los Muertos is the skull - from the sugar skulls to the Catrina painted faces, image symbol is what the celebration is known for. While celebrating, one of the things you must do is have your face painted!
Luckily, there are many, many vendors throughout the parade area set up early to paint for you. The cost is only around $5 US for a hand-painted face, and the girls have a huge deck of reference face paint designs to choose from - I also found the flower crown to complete my look at the face paint stand for just a dollar or two. I went with a floral design that left my lips red, and Brandon was really loving his half and half skull face. I wold recommend to show up to Tlaquepaque a bit early, around 4PM or so, to get your face painted before the crowds - and so you can get a few photos before the sun goes down.
If you are looking for something particularly specific, intricate, or with lots of add ons like rhinestones, crystals, flowers, feathers, etc, you can hire a painter to come directly to your hotel room for a personalized service.
The Coolest Theme Park - Calaverandia:
One of the coolest experiences we had in Guadalajara was a visit to the Calaverandia! The theme park opened in 2018 and has become very popular over the last couple of years (I read there may be talk of expanding to to Los Angeles). Walking into the park is a lot like stepping into a scene in the movie Coco, with live musicans, neon lights, skulls, candy, cempasúchil flowers, ofrendas, rides, and stage performances - it is WILD. Inside the parks are many food options and bars to enjoy, and all the vendors are entirely cashless - instead there are workers floating around that will load your bracelet from your credit card that you use to make purchase. My favorite section was El Inframundo (or Underworld), and interactive performance dripping in glowing neon lakes and trees and incredible performers. A nice at the Calaverandia is definitely not to be missed! If you only have two days, the combination of a night at the park and a night at the parade at Tlaquepaque will not disappoint.
Cost: $25 for Normal Ticket, $50 for VIP Ticket. Children's tickets are discounted.
Time: The Park runs for 3 weeks from late October to mid November, and is open from 7PM to Midnight
Location: Central Guadalajara, map location here.
Budget Hotels: $40-80 / Night
Luxury Hotels: $80-130 / Night
Meal in Cheap Restaurant: $5 / Person
Dinner for 2 in Mid-range Restaurant: $20-40
Cocktails at Restaurant/Bar: $3-6
Beer at Restaurant/Bar: $1-3
What To Do in Guadalajara:
Outside of the Dia De Los Muertos celebration, here are the top sights and things to do while in Guadalajara
- Check out the Historical Center - Many of the old Guadalajara buildings look like they were teleported straight from old European cities. Spend an afternoon taking exploring by yourself, or check out a walking tour. Don't miss the Guadalajara Cathedral! Check out some tour options here.
- Take the Jose Cuervo Express to the town of Tequila, Mexico - One of the coolest daytrips you can take anywhere. I will be sharing a full blog on this and the Magical town of Tequila soon!
- Visit the Instituto Cultural Cabanas - Once an orphanage, this museum is a Unesco Heritage site and serves as a gallery for Mexico's most famous muralist.
- Stroll through the Bosque Colomos - An endless, gorgeous park in the middle of the city with forest trails and a Japanese garden.
- Look Up at the Palacio de Gobierno - A historic 18th Century building originally built for government use has some of the most wild ceiling murals I have seen anywhere.
- Take a Day Trip to Lake Chapala and Ajijic - Mexico's largest lake and a cute, vibrant, popular ex-pat town are just an hour's drive from the city.