Mexico

Where to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Yucatan

Jetsetter Jenn1052 views

When I realized that my travel plans to Mexico overlapped with the Day of the Dead, I was beyond stoked. The moment we touched down, I asked everyone in sight where we should celebrate. I was met with a few searching looks, as the locals pondered exactly what to recommend. It was on then that I discovered that the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos), was best celebrated in Oaxaca. This was a whole state away from where we were in Quintana Roo. Figures! Since I was on the Yucatan Peninsula, I needed to find the next-best thing. That turned out to be Xcaret.

Where to Celebrate The Day of the DEAD

Where to Celebrate the Day of the Dead in Yucatan

Dia de Muertos: The History

The Day of the Dead is a commemoration of deceased loved ones. It has roots in a mystical tradition that suggests a reunion, a split in the barriers that separate the living and the dead. It occurs over the first two days of November, and it’s a national holiday in Mexico. The first day, dia de los inocentes, honors deceased children and infants. The second day is a celebration of ancestors, family members, and friends who passed away.

Unlike America’s Halloween, there aren’t connotations of fear and danger around Dia de Muertos. It is a spiritual, religious, family-oriented holiday marked by joyful processions, playful face painting, and prayers. Visiting the cemeteries of loved ones is a common ritual, as is providing ofrendas, or offerings of flowers, food, and light (usually in the form of candles).

Ofrenda Day of the Dead
An Ofrenda in Xcaret

Celebrating in Xcaret

In Oaxaca, the streets fill with processions of music, costumed dancers, and sound. All you need to do is step out your door and get swept up in the celebration. In Quintana Roo, if you don’t have a local family to celebrate with, you need to seek out your own cultural experience. This is how we stumbled upon Xcaret.

Normally, I eschew anything that’s too ‘touristy’ on my travels. I didn’t want to visit the adventure parks of the Riveria Maya specifically because I felt that they commoditized what should be natural and free. Paved paradise and put up a parking lot, and all that. But after four different Mexican locals suggested Xcaret for Dia de Muertos, I grudgingly bought a ticket.

There are two kinds of tickets for Xcaret: full day or evening. Since we didn’t want to spend an entire day at a theme park, we opted for an evening ticket. For a little more than half the price, we had run of the park from 4 p.m. until closing.

The park was packed, of course, but with a solid balance of tourists and locals. It was fun to watch Mexican schoolkids run around with a giddy excitement I usually reserved for Christmas. They’d paint their faces, nosh on sugar skulls, and generally cause mischief around the park. In many ways, it reminded me of the Halloween celebrations of my own youth.

The Mexican Cemetery

Cemetery Day of the Dead

Xcaret boasts one of the most impressive and beautiful traditional cemeteries in the Yucatan region. Awash in color, with clever quips and religious icons aplenty, it’s a beautiful place to pay your respects. We found ourselves here at sunset, and what a lucky time to wander through the brightly colored tombstones! The lighting was surreal, and the Mexican sunset streaked through the sky on the other side of the cathedral. It was as if the spirits of loved ones past wanted to give us a beautiful end to a day of celebrations.

The Shows

Day of the Dead Dance

Xcaret offers many shows that celebrate the culture of Mexico, and on Dia de Muertos there are several special dances that are performed to honor the dead. While it may not have been as authentic as dancing in the streets of Oaxaca, it was fun to watch from afar.

The Food

Sugar Skulls Dia de Muertos

There are a couple of iconic dishes that accompany this holiday: Pan de Muertos and sugar skulls. Pan de Muertos is an egg bread that’s dusted with sugar, and the sugar skulls are… I’m sure you can figure it out. Both are sold in abundance all over the park, along with many handicrafts (which may or may not have been manufactured in China) that commemorate the holiday.

Overall, I was a little disappointed in my Dia de Muertos celebration. While Xcaret offered an interesting cultural experience, it didn’t feel as authentic as I would have hoped. Of course, what can you expect from a theme park? This year, I’ll settle for the ‘Disney’ version of Dia de Muertos. But next year? I’m gonna be dancing in the streets in Oaxaca.

Have you celebrated Dia de Muertos in Mexico, Central or South America? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments!

36 Comments

  1. I’m sorry you didn’t fully enjoy your festival, although the photos look lovely! The graves are beautifully decorated. It’s nice to see that death can be treated as a celebration of a person rather than something terrible and to be feared. I hope your next Dia de Muertos is more authentic, although I would have done as the locals suggested too.

    1. Oh man, now I feel like I gave it a bad rap! I definitely was happy to celebrate the holiday, I just wish I had been able to find a more authentic experience. That said, I would still recommend Xcaret if anyone is in the area on the holiday!

  2. I love the Mexican traditions of Dia de los Muertos. This one is slightly different for the whole theme park style, but it’s the perfect introduction for those who may find the real thing too morbid.

    1. I supposed that’s true, but I never felt Dia de Muertos was morbid — it seems like such a joyful commemoration of those passed. Though I will say the kids at Xcaret sure were having a blast! It felt a little bit like Halloween, minus the costumes. 🙂

  3. Such an inspiring article, it was a pleasure to read it! I haven’t been in Mexico, but I would love to go. I think that it must be a really inspiring place. I hope that your next Dia de Muertos will be more authentic, I’m sure that in Oaxaca it will be amazing 🙂

  4. I first heard of the Dia de los Muertos on my spanish lesssons. It is such a nice tradition and you were very lucky to be in Mexico ta the time.

  5. Thanks for the overview of your experience – sorry to hear you were disappointed with Xcaret – though I would have bought a ticket too if the locals were telling me it was the best! At least you enjoyed it for an interesting cultural experience. But live and let learn right! Can’t wait to see your photos next year from the streets in Oaxaca!

    1. Thanks Megan — it sounded like it was really the only thing in the area. The locals were telling me to go to Oaxaca also! Next time I’ll try to find a cheap local flight and make it happen. 🙂

    1. I know! Other than finding a family to celebrate with I wasn’t sure what else to do, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to check it out somehow. Live and learn! 🙂

  6. Sorry to hear it didn’t live up to your expectations- but as you said, what else do you expect from a theme park? 🙂 Oaxaca sounds amazing, so now you just have another excuse to get there!

  7. Gosh, what fabulous photography! I really do want to make it there now for Die de Muertos. I’ve been to some of the celebrations here in London and they are fantastic, but this takes things to a new level

  8. I always thought that graveyards in Mexico and Central America were beautiful places. They have such a different relationship with death. The graveyard in Xcaret looks like an amazing place to pay respects and celebrate the day of the dead.

  9. Wow, that’s a bummer that you didn’t have a good experience. But I totally get you, it sounds like it was more a tourist version of Day of the Dead. The cemetery looks beautiful, though.

    1. Yes! Though for families with kids this would probably be a perfect way to celebrate — just not for me where I am in my life. But at least I got to experience it nonetheless!

  10. I have never seen such a colorful cemetery before! The culture of celebrating dead is somewhat similar to one of our traditions. Great knowing this cultural aspect of Mexico.

  11. What an amazing cultural experience! I have always wanted to visit during the Day of the Dead. The offerings, food, and dancing all look so impressive!

  12. This is quite an interesting thing. A little similar to India where we honor the dead. This one though seems very lively and like you said, creates a positivity in living. Nice piece of culture that you have unearthed. Well done.

    1. I’d love to hear more about the Indian tradition! I have yet to visit the country and love hearing about interesting cultural celebrations that I could participate in when I go!

  13. Wow, looks like an incredible experience! The cemetery in Xcaret is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before while the entire celebration speaks of a rather unusual but kind of uplifting way of viewing death. Rather unfortunate that you were disappointed by the whole event but I guess a loss of authenticity is kind of to be expected with something that attracts so many tourists. That being said, I certainly haven’t been deterred from going and I hope find next year’s event in Oaxaca a little more to your taste

    1. Thanks Gareth! Well you can’t win them all, and for some people this could be ideal! Just not my personal style of travel… and everyone is different. 🙂

  14. So exciting that you were there to celebrate day of the dead! That’s honestly something I’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t gotten around to it–it just seems like such a festive time there. Also, I love your photo of the Mexican Cemetery. It’s so colorful and impressive–especially with the sunset in the background.

    1. I know! I want to do one year in Mexico City and another in Oaxaca — I think Quintana Roo might be a tad too touristy to really get into the traditions of Mexico properly. But at least we were still able to celebrate!

  15. It is a tradition I wish was imported to our occidental societies where death is so black and sad and boring. Your article is just awesome and you give good clues…Yucatan might be on my list now !

    1. Agreed! I love how much they celebrate passing into the next phase of existence. Takes a lot of the fear out of death and instead makes it a beautiful part of living a full and joyful life. I think Oaxaca does Dia de Muertos the best, but I have yet to experience it firsthand!

  16. I didn’t know about the day of dead in mexico before I read this article! interesting piece though! would love to try this out someday! How much did it cost you to go to the right place and do it? Let me know! Cheers!

    1. It’s a wonderful Mexican tradition! We went to Xcaret Park, which costs about $40 USD/person for the afternoon and evening pass. It was just enough time for us — we don’t love theme parks so we got to do the underground river before sunset, then watch the shows and festivities!

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