Traditional Day of the Dead face painting // © 2013 Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau
Throughout Mexico, El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one of the most important and joyous celebrations of the year. Observed from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, it is a time to remember and honor deceased loved ones. Traditionally, it is believed that souls return on those days to rejoin their families. Dia de los Muertos includes customs such as decorating tombstones and graves with altars, using items like candles, photographs, flowers and embroidered tablecloths where the favorite foods of the deceased are placed. Kids play with skeleton toys and witch dolls and ask others for skull-shaped candies and pastries, much like trick or treating in the U.S. At loved ones’ gravesites, there might be mariachi bands performing while families picnic.
Cancun and the Riviera Maya, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, are areas heavily influenced by Maya culture, so visitors will likely find Mayan traditions melding with Dia de los Muertos festivities. Over a backdrop of turquoise waters and white-sand beaches, the region celebrates with vibrant colors, music and mysticism. In the Mayan language, the celebrations are called Hanal Pixan, which means “feast for the souls.” Maya believe that souls receive permission to visit their relatives on these days, and families gather to prepare a special seasoned chicken tamale wrapped in banana leaves (called pibi pollo or muk-bil), cooked underground in a pit.
Several eco-archeological parks also celebrate Dia de los Muertos, particularly Xcaret, which holds its colorful and lively Festival de la Vida y la Muerte (Festival of Life and Death) that features traditional altars, theater, music, dance, parades, folk art and food. The 200-acre preserve, drawing more than 700,000 visitors annually, invites artists, dancers, storytellers and musicians from some 40 Maya communities to recreate the sacred rites and rituals of Hanal Pixan. Xcaret has a mock cemetery with 365 artistic gravesites at which the festivities are held with copal, an aromatic incense used in religious ceremonies, wafting in the air. It is highly recommended that travelers buy Xcaret tickets in advance for this very popular festival, and that they take a shuttle or taxi there since parking is difficult.
Nearby, at the cemetery in the beautiful coastal community of Tulum, mariachi bands play during the three-day festival and many locals decorate their loved ones’ tombs. Most of Tulum’s bakeries sell Pan de Muerto and many cafes prepare pibi pollo tamales.
North of Xcaret, in Playa del Carmen, the Maya restaurant Yaxche hosts its reservations-only Hanal Pixan celebration with traditional food on Nov. 2. At the event, a local shaman weaves through the tables while chanting over a cup of burning incense and a dance troupe with elaborate headdresses bids farewell to the souls of the dead with an energetic display.
Alltournative, a local tour company committed to preserving Maya heritage, includes the celebrations for Dia de los Muertos in its itineraries. On Nov. 2, Alltournative brings 12-person vans to the Tres Reyes Maya community, where tourists and locals alike observe the different altars, enjoy traditional Day of the Dead meals and experience a ceremony in which Don Crisanto, a Maya shaman of the community, invites the souls of the dead to join in the celebrations. It is recommended to reserve no less than a week in advance.
No matter where visitors experience the Day of the Dead in Mexico, it will surely create memories for a lifetime.