While Americans are celebrating Halloween and All Saints’ Day, Mexico has its own sort of eerie celebration. Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead which began as a ritual by the Aztecs 3,000 years ago is now publically celebrated on November 2nd as a way to honor friends and family who have passed on
Costumes are festive and elaborate, based on the now iconic catrina – intricate face painting resembling a skull, made famous by 20th century Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. The original intent was to mock upper-class Mexicans who had replaced their heritage with European culture. Because the intent is to celebrate the deceased, the costumes – especially for women – are elaborate, incorporating vivid colors and multi-layered ruffles, The costumes are worn in parades with prizes being awarded for the most outrageous outfit in many cities.
During Day of the Dead, families decorate the graves of their loved ones and build ofrendas – private alters where they place offerings of marigolds, favorite foods of the deceased, traditional sugar skulls, and sometimes tequila or mezcal. They gather to pray and tell stories of remembrance about the dead and to eat pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a small sweet bread in the shape of a tear drop.
While Day of the Dead celebration has spread to many other parts of the world, the most vibrant revelries are still in Mexico, and the 3-day party in Xcaret in the Riveria Maya is arguably the most elaborate and festive. Live theatrical performances, expositions, concerts, parades, dancing, altars, tours and religious ceremonies take place to celebrate the occasion.
Ancient Mayan Dances
Set in a replica of a Mayan jungle village complete with an underground river, the deep bellowing of the conch followed by pounding drums marks the beginning of the ritual dance. Painted warriors dance in rhythmic movement, telling the mythological story of Mexican deity and sacrifice.
Bridge to Paradise
The cemetery at Xcaret is a showcase of Mexican ingenuity. In accordance with the pre-Hispanic culture, death is a celebration, as observed by some of the whimsical epitaphs and tombs. The cemetery is built in seven layers to represent the seven days of the week, holding a total of 365 tombs, by which you must climb 52 steps at the main entrance.
Catrina Mask Workshop
The iconic symbol of Day of the Dead, the Catrina, is on display everywhere, but it’s also possible to participate in a workshop to make your own character of Mexican folklore. Throughout the day interactive workshops are held for anyone wishing to embrace the colorful Catrina tradition.
Sugar Skulls are an integral part of the Day of the Dead celebration. Adults and children alike can make their own skulls from a granulated white sugar mixture which is pressed into special molds. After drying the skull is decorated with icing, caraway seeds, beads, sequins, feathers, and other bling depending on whether the desire is to eat the skull or display it.
Making and Tasting Chocolate
The history of chocolate dates back to 1900 BC in Mesoamerica. According to Aztec legend, cacao seeds were gifts from the gods and valued and used as currency. At Xcaret, tourists can prepare the ancient chocolate drink xocolatl by crushing cacao seeds and sugar between a flat grinding stone and heavy stone rolling pin. The resulting bittersweet paste can be melted in your mouth, or mixed with water or spirits to drink. Folklore insists the drink contains aphrodisiac and fertility powers.
Homemade Traditional Food
A local market sprawls over part of the grounds. Tamales, hand-rolled dough stuffed with meat or cheese and wrapped in a corn husk, are cooked in the ancient traditional way, steamed in an underground oven filled with hot coals. The wafting aroma is irresistible making your mouth water as the wrapped package is lifted out and the sizzling, spicy treat is passed into eager, outstretched hands.
With a year-round tropical climate, Xcaret offers many possibilities for dealing with the heat. Float along the underground river, swim in the cenotes (natural sink holes), or sunbath in the stunning iridescent aqua, palapa-lined beaches.
Visitors typically end the day with at the Espectacular, an extravaganza dinner show depicting Mexico´s culture and traditions from pre-Hispanic to present. The costumes and lighting are magical.
If You Go:
Admission: Ranges from $89USD to $116USD for adults.
Where to Stay: Grand Velas, a luxurious, all-inclusive resort in Riviera Maya situated on a turquoise, sugar-sand beach surrounded by mangroves and cenotes.
All photos ©Patti Morrow
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Xcaret during her stay in Mexico, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.