The Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a Mexican holiday that spans over 3 days, from October 31st to November 2nd, to honour those who have died and to encourage their spiritual journey. It is said that Mexican festivals to celebrate the deceased have been taking place for as long as 3000 years, carved deep in the heart of Mexican culture. Each day celebrates different elements, with November 1st, known as Día de los Inocentes or Day of the Little Angels, is a day to honour deceased children. November 2nd is a day to honour deceased adults, known as Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Over the 3 day festival, the families of those deceased build alters in their homes to honour those departed and decorate them with their favourite food drinks, toys and photos to encourage a visit from their spirit. The same is done to their graves, with the families cleaning and decorating them with gifts, sugar skulls, marigold flowers and muertos, the flowers and bread of the dead, and funny anecdotes to honour the departed.
Unlike the name might suggest, the Day of the Dead is far from a somber occasion but a colourful celebration of the lives of those passed.
To celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico has to be on nearly every traveller’s bucket list and we were definitely one of them. I could not wait to see this festival in person, to celebrate with the locals and honour the dead. We were ecstatic to be in Cancun at this time of year, but had no idea how to join in on the celebrations, so we started to ask around.
Could you imagine our panic when people were suggesting we go to a adventure park to celebrate Day of the Dead. Even if you take out the fact it appeared to be a humungous tourist trap, it was also not cheap. Not cheap is an understatement, it was US$120 per person, with transport. We would never spend that, even if it boasted to be the ‘best way to celebrate the holiday’. Nope, Xcaret Park was not for us. It was time to do what we do best - find the free things to do.
First point of call, Google. That proved to be quite unhelpful, with most websites also suggesting Xcaret Park, or to just get out of Cancun entirely. We wanted to see how people actually celebrated Día de los Muertos. We were determined to find that in Downtown Cancun, away from the hotel zone, away from other touristy areas, into the real Cancun that we had been exploring for the last week. How you do this is to put your walking shoes on and start wandering, into as many nook and crannies as you can find. You will never be disappointed! These Birkenstocks and thongs took us all over Cancun, into food markets, colourful buildings, bustling transit areas, quiet neighbourhoods where kids were playing in the streets and to where we would end up finding exactly what we were looking for; Parque de los Palapas.
Every night of the week Parque de los Palapas is a bustling town square filled to the brim with local fast food, street performers and market stalls. A place for locals to come and dance, eat and shop, otherwise known as a backpacker’s Holy Grail. It was also where Day of the Dead celebrations would be held over the 3 days. You could imagine our delight to stumble across this gem.
On the night of the 31st, a parade of locals dressed in traditional Day of the Dead costume, lead by the King and Queen of Día de los Muertos, proceeded from Avenues Chichén Itza and Tulum and ended where we were in Parque de las Palapas. You could hear the echoing drums and horns of the parade for 5 minutes before they started spilling into the square. All the while, on the stage were a few people reciting the history of Day of the Dead in Spanish (we found this out by a kind local who noticed that we were unable to understand Spanish at that speed). The King and Queen took centre seats as local children started to dance on stage. For the next few hours there was non-stop traditional artistic performances, which were hard to tear your eyes away from.
The square was filled with alters, honouring the deceased and people dressed in La Calavera Catrina costume and face paint. There were also stalls selling bread of the dead; a knotted bread topped with sugar, traditional food, and more skull candies than I have ever seen. As we were eating our $2 dinner of tacos and fresh juice, a man approached us and asked us if we understood the celebration. He proceeded to tell us of the history and the importance of every aspect of the festival. We parted ways, feeling more informed and with hearts and belly’s full.
Over the next 3 days we celebrated Day of the Dead at Parque de los Palapas, in the company of very few tourists and hundreds of locals. We sat in silence in mesmerisation of the rich culture surrounding us. We noticed some local ladies painting children’s faces and I could not help myself but ask if it was ok if I did too. The day was abundant with family unity and celebration and we were lucky enough to be experience it. We were also blessed to have been able to visit a cemetery on Isla Mujeras, an island off the coast of Cancun, where we were able to bear witness to the celebration of the deceased in its purity, an experience I will hold dear for a life time.
What we hope to show is that you do not need to spend a lot of money to experience a festival such as this one. We emphasise immersing ourselves into the local life, resulting in a once in life time experience.