Travel

8 Incredible Dia de los Muertos Celebrations Across the US

These celebrations of the dead are full of life.

Muertos y Marigolds
Muertos y Marigolds
Muertos y Marigolds

With its close proximity to October 31st, Día de los Muertos-or Day of the Dead- tends to get conflated with Halloween in America. But while good ol’ All Hallows Eve centers around gorging on candy and terrorizing everybody within a five-mile radius, Día de los Muertos is a joyous two-day celebration of the deceased, a colourful affirmation of life through the embrace of death.

Originally an Aztec holiday dedicated to the god Mictlantecuhtli and the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, the rulers of the underworld, it was later melded with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day after the Spanish arrived in the New World. Today, many Latin American countries celebrate a pair of holidays coinciding with the harvest: November 1, Día de los Inocentes, on which the spirits of children who’ve died return to their families; and November 2, Día de los Muertos, for departed adults.

Leading up to their loved ones’ return, family and friends decorate altars known as ofrendas with heartfelt adornments-old photographs, marigold flowers, shots of mezcal, candles, tissue paper cutouts, the deceased’s favourite food and drink, and other personal items-and light up the world with parades, parties, song and dance, elaborate costumes, painted sugar skulls, and more. Cities across the United States are coming around to these unique traditions-and these are among some of the best Día de los Muertos celebrations North of the border.

Photo by Josh Huskin
Photo by Josh Huskin
Photo by Josh Huskin

Day of the Dead

San Antonio, Texas
October 23 – November 2; parade on October 29
Cost: Free; seated tickets for the procession $22-$27

San Antonio is a major melting pot, with Native American, Spanish, French, and German influences found throughout town. But the Latin American culture that vibrates throughout the city runs strong, especially in the La Villita Historic Arts Village, set right off the River Walk. The entire Day of the Dead celebration here is loud, energetic, and totally infectious, but the highlight of the festivities is the River Walk parade, with over 20 floats and barges, Calaveras skulls designed by local artists, giant puppets, skeleton drummers banging out beats for traditional dancers, and people dressed up in costumes including La Catrina-the iconic skeleton first drawn by illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada in Mexico around 1910. The smell of burning incense fills the air, and a beautiful fleet of stunning altars carried through the festival cast their glow.

Nik Wheeler/Getty Images
Nik Wheeler/Getty Images
Nik Wheeler/Getty Images

Olvera Street Día de los Muertos

Los Angeles, California
October 25 – November 2
Cost: Free

Considered the “birthplace of Los Angeles,” the historic, tree-lined Calle Olvera is the oldest part of Downtown Los Angeles, where in 1781 travelers from what is now northern Mexico arrived and settled. You’d think the Olvera Street Día de los Muertos festivities fell right out of Mexico’s own celebrations: There are the stalls selling tacos, fruit, and churros at La Golondrina Mexican Cafe, as well as nightly Novenario processions, colourful and vibrant parades of the living dead with participants carrying bowls of burning incense and huge photos of their loved ones.

After each procession, pan dulce (sweet bread) is passed out to the crowd, who can also bring photos of deceased loved ones to place on a community altar. There’s also the Carrera de los Muertos, a 5K run that’s rapido, divertido y pintoresco-fast, fun, and scenic. Runners paint their faces as sugar skulls and honour their loved ones at a runner’s altar.

National Museum of Mexican Art
National Museum of Mexican Art
National Museum of Mexican Art

Day of the Dead Xicágo

Chicago, Illinois
October 30th
Cost: Free

You probably can’t get a more accurate Día de los Muertos experience than at the Xicágo celebration held by the National Museum of Mexican Art because, well, it’s the National Museum of Mexican Art. As at most Day of the Dead celebrations, you’ll be able to get your face painted like a sugar skull and hear some incredible live music. But the museum also immerses guests in a full art experience.

Throughout the afternoon, artists will draw live illustrations that’ll be projected on the building, and to make the event even more personal, the museum’s two-story entrance will feature photos of lost loved ones that people submit. “We’re located in a predominantly Mexican neighbourhood on the South Side of Chicago,” Barbara Engelskirchen, the museum’s chief development officer, said. “It’s not just art, it’s social. It’s cathartic to talk about people who have passed away.”

Visitors will also have a chance to peruse the 2021 Dia De Los Muertos exhibition, which remembers the many from the US and Mexico who passed away in the last two years due to Covid-19 and offers a space of collective mourning. The exhibition runs through December 12, 2021.

Muertos y Marigolds

Albuquerque, New Mexico
October 8 – November 13
Cost: Free

After a pause in 2020, the South Valley Día de los Muertos Celebration and Marigold Parade-more succinctly known as Muertos y Marigolds-is on again this year, with a few alterations due to the pandemic. This month-plus festival brings art workshops, sugar skull and face painting, food, vendors, music, a parade, and more to the streets of Albuquerque. The 2021 theme is “Unity is the Center of Community,” and although the parade is still on hold for this year, in its place comes an event just as riveting: an enormous community ofrenda featuring 11 altars honouring different people and causes important to South Valley residents, including family members, community leaders and activists, and those lost during the pandemic.

Bob Berg/Getty Images
Bob Berg/Getty Images
Bob Berg/Getty Images

Hollywood Forever Día de los Muertos

Los Angeles, California
October 28
Cost: $40-$50

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery is the final resting place for some titans of the earliest days of show business and is often regarded as one of the most interesting cemeteries in the world. Their celebrations are split into two parts so that you can choose your own adventure: the family-friendly Dia De los Muertos during the daytime, and the (already sold out) Noche de los Muertos, which runs from 3pm to midnight.

This year’s theme is “The Return of Quetzalcoatl,” the phoenix rising from the ashes. Events include a traditional Aztec blessing, dancing, a procession throughout the cemetery, and live music from Grammy Award-winning artists before festival-goers explore some of LA’s most intricately crafted and personally adorned altars. There’s also an altar contest that pays out up to $5,000 in three different categories: best event themed, best traditional, and best contemporary altar.

Day of the Dead Procession

New Orleans, Louisiana
November 2nd
Cost: Free

New Orleans’ Krewe de Mayahuel-named after the Aztec goddess of agave, the primary ingredient in tequila-is made up mostly of Mexican immigrants and their families. This November 2nd, the community will host their fourth Day of the Dead procession-a solemn but beautiful event featuring four bands, a gigantic puppet, and a parade along St. Claude Ave to the historic St. Roch cemetery followed by a short cultural program by locals. All are welcome, and participants are encouraged to bring a candle and pictures of loved ones to place at the altar at the entrance.

Flickr/Photo-gator
Flickr/Photo-gator
Flickr/Photo-gator

Florida Day of the Dead

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
November 2
Cost: Free

Fort Lauderdale goes all out for their seaside Day of the Dead. All manner of bones come to life at the Skeleton Processional, which pays homage to the traditional cultural elements of the holiday with some added Florida twists: alongside giant puppets ambling down the riverwalk, you’ll also find skeleton alligators, sea turtles, pirates, and mermaids. Anyone can join the parade, which begins at Huizenga Plaza. There, and at several stops along the way, you’ll find bands, performers, stilt walkers, mariachi musicians, makeup booths, and special photo ops with those giant puppets. To get the community involved, the festival also offers workshops on traditional Folklorico dance, giant puppet and mask making, and creating Milagros, a sort of religious folk charm.

DiegoMariottini/Shutterstock
DiegoMariottini/Shutterstock
DiegoMariottini/Shutterstock

Day of the Dead San Diego

San Diego, California
October 30 – November 7
Cost: Free

You can’t get any closer to Mexico without actually being in Mexico. The purported birthplace of California, San Diego runs deep with Latin American influences, and a lively and unique Chicano culture that honours American and Mexican traditions. San Diego’s Old Town provides the backdrop for the Mercado del Arte on October 30, where businesses will be decorated with ofrendas. On November 2nd is the procession to the cemetery, where student mariachi bands perform and Aztec dancers keep the crowd moving. Along with the traditional costumes and outfits, this festival features a huge skeleton puppet and a skeleton stilt walker that towers over the crowd.

Elsewhere in San Diego, you’ll find Ofrenda: A Día de los Muertos Celebration, a visual and musical concert by the sea with traditional music and dances. On November 1st, the California Center of the Arts offers free admission, with Aztec dance performances and community participatory altars. And on November 7 is the Carrera De Los Muertos, a 5K or 10K run along the bay with mariachi bands and costumes where you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with delicious food.

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Tanner Saunders is a contributor for Thrillist who misses celebrating Día de los Muertos in Texas. 

Vanita Salisbury contributed reporting to the updated version of this article.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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