Day of the Dead or Hanál Pixán festival in Mexico

As I entered the gates of the park which were decorated with the scent of Cempasúchil  , immediately it felt like a transition to another world. I was engulfed by such thick clouds of overpowering incense, I was coughing and sputtering.

Enormous village bands played loudly and heartily, and authentic Mayan warriors sprinted through the crowd, refusing to stop for photos.

Walking along torch lined path-ways,  I experienced feelings of sadness, sorrow, contrasted with frenzied energy emanating from the dramatic thundering of drums, and primal shouting from fierce looking warriors dancing.

For four days in Mexico, everything stops. The eco theme park, Xcaret, an hour south of Cancun, holds its Day of the Dead or Hanál Pixán  festivities to honor the souls of the departed.  From October 30 to November 2nd, the annual Life and Death Traditions Festival swings between reverence and joyfulness with parades, dancing, face painting, and numerous elaborate altars adorned with candles, food and toys . The Bridge of Paradise is a replica of a Mayan village, with 365 decorated tombs that symbolize the days of the year.    This year, even torrential downpours from the remains of hurricane Rina didn’t dampen the spirits being honored or those honoring them.













A number of theatres featured a variety of dances. The interpretative dances were quietly haunting, morbidly accented by skulls the dancers wore along with elaborate torn lace costumes.  They moved as if in a trance, and writhed in the ecstasy of death leaving  my heart pounding uncomfortably, the similarity to nightmares made me squirm in my chair.

Traditional music played in another theatre, the musicians playing drums, flutes and guitars joyfully and enthusiastically, an odd contrast to a stage featuring mournful square dancers  who circled the stage, stepping briskly to bizarrely slow music, several of the dancers mimicking pall bearers carrying a corpse.

The powerful emotions and sensations were all reminiscent of the journey of grief.   Dancing, singing, celebrating, and mourning, a mad jumble of every emotional reaction associated with death.

Cemeteries in Mexico  (the real ones and the replicas at Xcaret) are colorful and vibrant, which is no surprise. The people live as they depart . We visited a local cemetery in Tulum, where families gathered at the gravesides, some beautifully built with elaborate structures completely tiled in bright colours, others made modestly, with hand painted signs. All demonstrate the love put into each gesture.  Part of the annual tradition is to clean up the gravesite of the deceased friend or family member, decorating it with lit candles and bright orange flowers – ‘Cempasúchil’-we know as a Marigolds used only at this time of year . No altar is complete without the gathering of wild Cempasúchil and the spreading of them everywhere from family altars, pathways, and graveyards. The Aztecs believed that the spicy smell could wake the souls of the dead to bring them back for the festival.  The gravesites of the ‘small souls’ of the children are the most precious and heartbreaking,  festooned with the favorite foods, toys, and photos of the little angels  cherished in life and death.

Death takes a break

Where to stay:  Even the resort staff were in costume . There are numerous options in the Playa Del Carmen area. We stayed at the all-inclusive Catalonia Riviera Maya, a high end resort that offers superb guest services, several different restaurants to choose from, white sandy beach,  swimming pools, entertainment, water sports, and  luxurious on-site spa .  For a little extra, bump it up and stay in the Privileged section.

Melody’s trip was sponsored by Riviera Maya Board of Tourism,


About The blog of travel & lifestyle journalist Melody Wren

Melody is a freelance writer because she believes that work and fun should not be mutually exclusive. She writes about travel, food, lifestyle and green living. Melody loves staying in a place long enough to get acquainted. Local customs, markets and traditional cultures are magnets for this writer. When not writing she’s either on the road, in the air, or savoring something tasty. Most of her travels feature outdoor adventures of some sort, although she typically avoids sleeping on the ground. She is an ordinary person that enjoys challenging and pushing herself, facing fears with an eye on experiential travel. She needs to do it, feel it and see it so she can write about it. Her hope is that her stories encourage readers to get out there and do the same.
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