Colleen Fliedner & Karen Hamlin

Make your plans now to visit Cancun in late October, it is a perfect time to visit Mexico’s most popular tourist destination. Because this is a month before the “high season” begins, hotel prices are still low. But perhaps the best reason to go to Cancun at the end of October is to participate in the Day of the Dead festivities held throughout the area.

Arriving in the city known as the “jewel of Mexico” on October 30, we were invited to visit
a cousin to spend Halloween, Dia de Muertos, a three-day festival (October 31-Nov 2) celebrated throughout Latin America to welcome home the souls of the dearly departed. There are regional variations, and in Cancun, influences from ancient Mayan customs have been combined with traditional Mexican ceremonies to create “Hanal Pixan,” the Mayan ritual of the dead.
On October 31 a Hanal Pixan ceremony was held among the ruins of El Rey, a magnificent Mayan city about 30 minutes from Cancun. Three shaman from a village in the Yucatan jungle conducted a candle-light prayer service before a group of about 200 people. Mayan women prepared the traditional foods as offerings to be placed upon the altar. Hundreds of small chicken tamales were wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an underground pit. Both the living and the dead were served this delicious dish (the dead are thought to absorb the “essence” of the food). We drank homemade wine and a watery chocolate drink from coconut shells, which were passed among us to ritually cleanse and purify our souls. This experience alone would have made the trip a memorable one, but we would have many more adventures during the next few days.




Elaborate, temporary altars are constructed throughout the city – from the airport, to El Embarcadero, to local restaurants. An altar typically consists of a table covered with a white cloth, colored candles, food offerings, and skulls made of sugar or white chocolate. There’s always a wooden cross, which represents more than the Christian symbol of Christ. It’s also symbolic of the energy that emanates from corpses. Brilliant orange marigolds are used for decoration and their fragrance supposedly attracts souls to the altar. A glass of water wets the dry lips of the dead after their long journey. Photographs and personal belongings of the beckoned souls are also laid out.

The altars on public display throughout Cancun have become so elaborate through the years, there’s a competition to see who has prepared the prettiest, most original altar in the city.

Restaurants throughout Cancun prepare special dishes to observe the Day of the Dead. In case you don’t attend the Mayan ceremony or the Gastronomic Fest, you can order any number of traditional dishes from the special menu to commemorate the holiday. Dance clubs, bars, and host of other hot spots around town celebrate Dia de Muertos with special events, including costume parties.




Xcaret Nature and Cultural Park is an hour south of Cancun along the Mayan Riviera. “The Bridge to Paradise,” one of the world’s most unusual cemeteries, was officially opened on November 1. Xcaret’s one-of-a-kind cemetery is made up of 365 individual gravesites, each created by a different artist to represent a place or theme that reflects something uniquely Mexican. Each grave is distinct from the others in design, style, and building materials. One might look like a bed with headboard, blankets and a pillow — made of smooth, colorful cement — while the next is a tiny replica of a magnificent cathedral, complete with stained glass windows.

It was no coincidence that the inauguration of Xcaret’s mound-shaped, above-ground cemetery was held during the festival that honors ghosts. We “living” guests were served milk candies, vanilla and chocolate hot drinks, tamales and sweet breads. The food had been placed on beautiful altars to honor the souls who apparently hovered around enjoying the fiesta with the rest of us.




While shopping in downtown Cancun the night of November 2, we were surprised to see local children dressed in costumes trick-or-treating. This was last night of Dia de Muertos, when the souls must leave the comfort of their families’ homes and return to the netherworld. Like American children, kids in the Yucatan carry bags to collect candy and small toys. One big difference is that they wear a twisted red string on their wrists – traditionally believed to prevent bad spirits from stealing the child’s soul.




Cancun is an amazing place where the present intersects with the mysterious past of the Mayan culture. Visiting this beautiful resort city during the Day of the Dead festival is certainly one way to connect with these people’s ancient beliefs and traditions.

We stayed at the J. W. Marriott part of the time, and then at Casa Magna. Stretching across the long, the white sand beach, most rooms have views of the famous clear aqua ocean. The J. W. Marriott has a fabulous spa, but the Casa Magna is set up for families, offering amenities like a kids’ club and an outdoor play area.