Where to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Yucatan
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 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).
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
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.
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.
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!