October 30 to November 2
Flickering candles illuminate a trail through the jungle lined with altars laden with garlands of cempasuchil or orange marigolds and velvety red cockscomb flowers, crosses and images of saints, fruit and gourds full of food and drink. There’s a sound of murmured prayers and the scent of aromatic copal incense fills the air. Everywhere you look there are flowers, colorful tissue paper panels, whimsical representations of La Catrina or Death, heaped sugar candy skulls, pan de muerto and other offerings. It is the time of year that Xcaret prepares to host the Festival of Life and Death Traditions, which showcases one of Mexico’s richest and most colorful customs, the Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos
Día de Muertos takes place on October 31, November 1 and 2. At this time of year, Mexicans believe that the souls of the departed are permitted to return to the world of the living for a short time and they welcome their loved ones back with elaborate altars decorated with flowers, the favorite food and drink of the deceased, water, fruit, treasured possessions, photos, toys and other offerings. They visit the cemetery where the deceased is buried and hold candlelit vigils by the grave; they take part in masses, processions and even serenades to honor them.
According to tradition, the souls of children or angelitos return to earth on October 31, the adults on All Saints’ Day (November 1), and they are all reunited on All Souls’ Day (November 2).
Xcaret Festival of Life and Death activities take place from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. in Xcaret Park from October 30 to November 2. The program features processions, altars, traditional cuisine, art exhibits, music, dance, theater, children’s events and a visit to the colorful Mexican cemetery.
Mayan communities from Quintana Roo and Yucatán and this year’s guest state Campeche will be sharing their customs with visitors, through altars, cuisine, crafts and performing arts.
On November 3, La Ceiba Park in Playa del Carmen will be the venue for an altar display and additional Festival events.
The Mayan Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, which means “feast of souls.” Throughout the Yucatán, families make the pilgrimage to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones and erect altars to honor the souls of children and adults.
Tables set with offerings of mucbilpollo, large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit, and dishes of tan-chucua, a thick corn drink flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed are placed outside the house. Pumpkins, squash, corn, bread, fruit, sweets, honey cakes and flowers are added and the candles are lit. Incense burns, prayers are said and as night falls on November 1, the Maya believe that the dead draw near to dine. The next day it is the turn of the living; they eat the mucbilpollo, washing it down with gruel, chocolate or balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and the bark of a tree.
Where to see Day of the Dead Altars
Guests staying at Royal Resorts can see altars on display at The Royal Market and in some of the restaurants and can sample the traditional sweet bread known as pan de muerto, which is traditionally served with hot chocolate.
Altars and other Day of the Dead symbols will also be on display at Cancun Maya Museum and in Las Palapas Park in Downtown Cancun and in Playa del Carmen.
In neighboring Yucatán, altars are erected in the main square and outside San Bernardino de Siena Convent, and in Merida, local people and visitors can stroll along the Paseo de las Animas (the path of the souls), which follows Calle 66 between La Ermita and the City Cemetery and admire over 150 altars erected by local schools, universities and businesses.
Further afield, Mexico’s most famous Day of the Dead celebrations take place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán and at Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Given the importance of the Day of the Dead tradition, which has its roots in pre-Hispanic Mexico, UNESCO granted it World Heritage status in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity category in 2008.