Day of the Dead in Oaxaca: My Experience Traveling on Nat Geo and G Adventures’ Group Trip

As a travel blogger and expat who’s been living and traveling long-term in Mexico, one of the first things I was told after arriving in this country was that I HAD to experience Day of the Dead, Mexico’s vibrant, elaborate, and legendary holiday to celebrate, honor, and remember deceased loved ones. (If you’re one of the lucky folks who has heard about it outside of Mexico’s borders and want to see it for yourself, I applaud you… you are in FOR A TREAT!)

In fact, as a Mexican resident and person who spends a significant amount of time in Mexico each year, I LIVE for the fabled and famed festivals: and I had been yearning especially to experience Day of the Dead. So in 2023, I joined a 7-day, 6-night group trip, offered by National Geographic and G Adventures, to celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca — and here’s my honest review.

But first, Mexico and their festivals

  • I first arrived in Mexico for my long-term stay in January of 2022, and I’ve been absolutely blessed to celebrate SEVERAL amazing festivals during my time here, to include Semana Santa (the week before Easter — which includes processions, reenactments of the Passion of Christ, and various other customs) — first in Morelia, Michoacán and San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
  • Día de Independencia (Mexican Independence Day), which is celebrated on September 16th, marking Mexico’s independence from Spanish rule in 1810; festivities include parades, music, and the iconic “El Grito” (the cry for independence) — I celebrated in Mexico City this year and had my fill of delectable chiles en nogada!!
  • The Guelaguetza. This indigenous cultural festival takes place in the city of Oaxaca and is celebrated in late July. It features traditional dance, music, and colorful costumes representing the diverse ethnic groups of the region. I was fortunate to observe a Guelaguetza show in Oaxaca, but I was not there for the bigger festival in July… maybe next year!!
  • Carnaval: Celebrated in various cities across Mexico, Carnaval is a lively pre-Lenten festival with colorful parades, music, dance, and elaborate costumes. The celebrations often vary by region: Veracruz is well-known for theirs
  • Psst: Cinco de Mayo is actually not widely celebrated in Mexico, except in Puebla where the Battle of Puebla occurred in 1862 and the Mexican army was victorious over the French. It’s waaaay more of a thing in the states!!

And of course, Día de los Muertos (or Día de Muertos)!:

  • I’ve long heard about the celebrations of Día de los Muertos, which is celebrated everywhere in Mexico at varying levels of fame and fanfare on November 1st and 2nd. This is the most iconic Mexican festival, honoring deceased loved ones with elaborate altars, colorful decorations, and visits to cemeteries. Oaxaca is by-and-large considered one of the best places to experience it (and to that, I can attest), plus the tiny island of Janitzio in Michoacán, as well as Mexico City

Oaxaca is an incredible part of Mexico with so much heart, and so many sights and varied activities to offer (just check out my Instagram travel guide to Oaxaca). Last year, I spent 10 days in Oaxaca and fell in love with it, and I absolutely LOVE the city and surrounding areas. I’m telling you, there’s a reason it was named the best city in the world in 2023 by Travel + Leisure!

With all this being said, you might be asking… “Julie, if you’re so well-traveled and familiar with Mexico, you’re a self-proclaimed solo traveler, and you’ve been to Oaxaca before… why did you choose not to go it solo?” I’ll tell you.

Why I joined a group to experience Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, and why I suggest you do too

The reasons I appreciate group travel is many-fold: there are logical reasons, financial reasons, and psychological reasons. 

THE LOGICAL and LOGISTICAL: I appreciate a thoughtfully curated itinerary, where all the planning and booking and coordinating has been done for me, and the logistics of getting from point A to point B are thoroughly handled. 

In Oaxaca, many of the activities on our itinerary were out of town and off-the-beaten-path — for example, our visits to the cemeteries and villages — which required transportation and coordination with locals. We visited small artisans that weren’t the “most popular” on Google, who opened their doors to us, delivering an incredibly unique experience — everything was effortless and easy, and as a professional traveler, it was a relief to “turn it off” for a bit.

THE FINANCIAL: There are cost savings associated with group bookings, which are typically negotiated in bulk, and there’s ease and convenience in booking and paying all in one go.

Día de los Muertos is one of the biggest festivals in Mexico, and thus, one of the most expensive: accommodations begin to book up (and prices start to accelerate) a year in advance! While it is possible to do Oaxaca cheaper at other times of the year, the packaged price for everything you get on this trip is extremely reasonable and competitive. 

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL: International travel can be intimidating. It can be hard to find the motivation to arrange a trip from scratch, and decision uncertainty and fatigue can be frustrating or debilitating. There’s the safety and security of a group and of a guide, and the opportunity to nurture quality friendships, create memories, and experience something life-changing that you wouldn’t have been able to do or find on your own.

I made lifelong friends, I learned SO much, and I discovered things in one week — that in my year and a half exploring Mexico solo — I would not have been able to uncover. And being able to be part of something bigger, with the awesome people in my group… that is an experience I will treasure forever. 

The most memorable moments in Oaxaca

It’s kind of like watching a really good movie — you want to see it again and again, because every time, you notice something different. For this reason, I’ve decided: I’m going back to Oaxaca for Día de los Muertos next year, and you’re invited to travel with me (learn more)!!

Overall, I’m very happy with the experience I had on this Nat Geo and G Adventures trip. Some of my favorite moments include (in no particular order):

⭐️ Browsing the markets in town, and seeing the incredible displays and ofrendas everywhere: so much pride, so much artistry, so much commitment. Plus, we were welcomed at every turn. 

⭐️ The comparsa on November 1: we had our faces painted, we shared mezcal, we mixed with the locals dressed in crazy costumes, we danced to the frenetic tunes of the marching band, and we followed the villagers through San Agustín Etla… this was one of the coolest experiences of my life. I remember looking around and thinking that I cannot believe I am here doing this. Just thrilling!

⭐️ Catrina makeup: Our G Adventures CEO (aka tour guide) arranged for makeup artists to come in and paint our faces in catrina makeup, in advance of the comparsa. It was so helpful that they coordinated this for us, and so fun to dress up!! There’s no way I would skip this next year.

⭐️ The cemetery visit on October 31: Day of the Dead is not a grievous time, but a time to commemorate and share. How special to be able to observe these customs, honestly. I also appreciated so much that our CEO arranged for us to put photos of our loved ones on a family’s ofrenda, and take part in this meaningful tradition… memory eternal, Dad.

⭐️ Painting my very own alebrije: I’ve visited alebrije shops before, seeing their amazing artistry firsthand — but being able to try it myself? Even though I shouldn’t quit my day job, it was super cool to participate in the art for once, instead of just being an observer!

⭐️ The mole cooking class: I love to experience a culture through learning how to make its food. It was delicious too!

⭐️ The group bonding time: We talked, we laughed, we learned, we frolicked through agave fields… I had such a blast getting to know all the wonderful people in my group. Can’t wait to travel with you again, mis amigos!! Thank you for being so awesome 💗 

What would I want to do differently next year in Oaxaca?

  • I’d buy or bring a few more festive outfits for photos! (BTW, the weather changed drastically right in the middle of the trip — the first few days it was very hot, but the last few days it was cooler, and extra chilly at night — so I would prepare better for that next year!)
  • I’d spend more time in town, experiencing (literally!) the dozens of different parades and markets per day — our days were pretty full of activities, but I’d make extra time to soak up everything
  • I liked our hotel — the rooms were big, it was fairly quiet out there, and the breakfast was really good — but it was a long walk from the center. Next year, I might prefer a hotel in town
  • I’d add on a few extra days in Oaxaca at the back end, because there really are so many great places to eat and so many things to see (like the street art and murals scattered throughout town), and just not enough time for it all! If you decide to travel with me next year, I suggest two extra days.

Guys, I’m still coming down from the high of this trip, and I recommend to anyone — GO and experience Day of the Dead in Oaxaca — it’s a bucket list trip. Whether you’d like to join my group, or book your own, I’m happy to help. ❤️  What else do you want to know?!

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