During the time when many Western countries are celebrating Hallowe’en at the end of October, Latin countries are preparing for the festival El Dia de los Muertes, or Day of the Dead, which is October 31 and November 1. I celebrated with the Mexican people of the Yucatan Peninsula last year in Playa del Carmen, which surely must be the very best place to experience this, one of the most important festivals of the year.
On any day of the year the large Eco/Archeological Theme Park called Xcaret is filled with locals and tourists who come for the many fun activities which teach about Mexico’s history, natural environment and people. Xcaret is the Mayan word for “little Inlet,” and it is the site of a once very active port and a place where Mayans came to purify themselves in special ceremonies. You can choose attractions like floating through an underground river in a limestone tunnel, visiting a coral reef aquarium and a mushroom farm. You can take a hike through the tropical jungle, enjoy an equestrian show and admire the beautiful tropical birds in the aviary or swim with the dolphins. At night there is always the spectacular Xcaret Mexico Espectacular Show with native costumes, songs, games, and dancers from all over the country presenting their native celebratory dances. During the Day of the Dead celebration week Xcaret has the most comprehensive and fun activities because they present El Dia de los Muertes in ways that show how this holiday is observed all over Mexico, with each region and village differing.
At Xcaret we were especially drawn to the scores of beautiful altars, which were lovingly built by real families to honor their deceased relatives. During the Day of the Dead observations all homes throughout the Latin world have special altars of flowers to welcome the spirits of the departed back home for two days. It is the belief that on October 31 the souls of deceased children return home and on November 1 the souls of adults who have passed away return home. Sparkling clean homes with the altars, marigold blossom arches, and candlelit walkways welcome the spirits and show them the way to their places of honor. The altars themselves have a photograph of the departed person and of his or her Catholic saint for the day the person was born, and many have also a picture of Jesus.
The three tiers of the altar represent the stages of life: the lower is earthly life, the middle is for the time spent in Xibalba, or the underworld where all spirits go when they leave earth. Mayans, and now Mexicans do not fear death but acknowledge that life and death are always together: life sits on your right shoulder and death on your left shoulder from the time you are born. The underworld, according to these beliefs, is a place of learning where the soul must spend time before being reborn on earth. At the altar the upper tier represents Paradise.
The tiers contain flowers, candles, toys or cherished possessions of the person, when he or she was alive, and the favorite foods that person enjoyed. The food is prepared fresh for the October 31 celebration. The family believes that the visiting spirits partake of the aromas of the fresh foods. Then on November 2 the living family has a feast honoring the dead and eating this food, before ushering the spirits back out of the home and helping them on their journey back to Xibalba.
At Xcaret there are many fun activities for adults and children, and thousands of Mexicans and tourists flock to this center for the education, instruction, history, culture, and family fun offered. Many come in costumes, often with skeletons decorating them. The children enjoy many different craft activities, and all ages are entertained with story telling, ghost stories, films, dances, and face painting. Many adults as well as children are painted with a half dramatic life face and a half skull face. Little sugar skulls are given as gifts to everyone. Special festival favorite foods are plentifu,l and we loved every bite. You can enjoy traditional street food from the many booths or dine at several restaurants within Xcaret.
One of my favorite activities was the night’s candlelight tour of the simulated cemetery on a hillside within Xcaret. Some famous artists were commissioned to visit graves all over Mexico and then create this cemetery to be representative of all Mexican burial sites. The scores of tomb replicas here are about half life-size and are the most beautiful artistic creations you can imagine. Each is completely different, featuring anything from pebble mosaics to intricate stained glass creations. Each represents someone’s life treasures or work. The fascinating tour is by candlelight and winds slowly up the hillside. However, do not go if you cannot climb steps easily.
Another of our favorite activities was the ghost tour through Xibalba. Because the site is over many natural limestone caves, it is a perfect place to stage a tour of the underworld. Along the way we met the nine scary looking underworld creatures, each of whom taught a lesson in Spanish. Although we couldn’t understand the words the messages were clear through the acting. It was a really memorable and fun drama for adults and kids (who don’t frighten easily.)
The culmination of the long day of fun was the spectacular evening show, which is every night year round at Xcaret. It is a spectacular extravaganza which depicts some of Mexico’s history through games, song and dance. The show features musicians and dancers in traditional costumes from many different states in Mexico, and they perform their native dances, which are unique, vibrant and colorful. There is a presentation of historic Mexican games such as a type of basketball/soccer mix, which is very interesting and seems impossible. One game is played with a ball of fire while the players are barefoot…amazing! The show is a must if you go to the Yucatan at any time of year!