I love celebrations and traditions. Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Fourth of July. The rituals, the togetherness, the FOOD. That doesn’t mean that it always has to be the same way – I’m looking forward to seeing how we interpret Thanksgiving here – and I also love experiencing new celebrations and traditions of different cultures. Obviously moving to Mexico has opened up all kinds of opportunities and one we have eagerly been looking forward to is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

I’m the first to admit that I had heard of Dia de los Muertos while in the United States, but my knowledge was limited to it being the day after Halloween and I vaguely thought the two were related. Not. At. All. Mexico please forgive my ignorance. Dia de los Muertos is not morbid or depressing or scary, it’s actually a holiday celebrating life by honoring the lives and memories of departed loved ones. And I do mean CELEBRATE!

While the holiday traces its roots back to an Aztec festival it has obviously undergone some changes in the last 500 or so years. In traditional areas it is celebrated by the building of altars either in the family home or near the graves of loved ones. The purpose of these altars is to entice the deceased’s spirit close enough to hear the prayers be said and stories being told in their honor. Favorite foods, drinks and possessions are often placed upon the altar to encourage the spirits to stick around.  It’s important to remember that this is not a festival about death but rather it’s a celebration of the life of those who have passed on.

So how did we celebrate Dia de los Muertos in Playa del Carmen? A bit differently naturally. Playa is not what you would call a “traditional” area of Mexico. Because of this, many of the old beliefs have gone out of vogue here and not many people celebrate Dia de los Muertos in the traditional way. For those that do, the celebration is a pretty private matter. We don’t have any ancestors of own buried nearby and we felt a bit weird about standing around the cemetery snapping pictures of someone else’s family so we had to come up with an alternative. Enter Xcaret Archaeological Park.

We’ve mentioned Xcaret before in our Xcaret Mexico Espactacular post about the excellent cultural exhibits, events and shows that they have there. This park puts on a massive four day Fiesta de Vida y Muerte event that was recommended to us by several friends. In lieu of witnessing a “traditional” celebration we decided to take their advice and head to the park.

What greeted us was so massive it was overwhelming. I truly think that it would take the entire four days just to see and experience everything! There were performance pavilions with everything ranging from story telling, to ballet, to traditional music.

There were 40 plus shows during the few hours we were there which means we couldn't make it to even a fraction of them. The ones we did see were pretty cool.
There were 40 plus shows during the few hours we were there which means we couldn’t make it to even a fraction of them. The ones we did see were pretty cool.
I didn't understand a word these guys sang, but it was really, really awesome. I was moved.
I didn’t understand a word these guys sang but they were quite moving and really isn’t that really the whole point of music?

There were workshops for kids, sweat lodges, photo contests, graffiti walls and places set up to paint your face.

Painted Faces at Dia de los Muertos
Some of the prettiest skeletons I’ve ever seen.

There were so many beautiful altars set up.

Day of the Dead Altar
Orange marigolds were EVERYWHERE. The color is supposed to represent the earth and is meant to guide souls to the altars.
Dia de los Muertos altar.
This person apparently enjoyed pineapple and tequila. I think we could be friends.

And there was so much food. Vendors were set up everywhere selling salbutes, tamales, pibils and empanadas. We just picked a random one to eat at and were not disappointed.

We sat and watched her cook our dinner.
We sat and watched her cook our dinner.
$40 pesos gets you a (delicious) dinner for two.
$40 pesos gets you a (delicious) dinner for two.
Oh so hot.
Although I should really have listened better when they pointed and said “picante” about one of the salsas.

And of course there were stands set up selling Pan de Muertos, a traditional sweet bread, along with a cup of chocolate that we made sure to try as well. There were so many things going on at once that we would have been a bit overwhelmed even if everyone hadn’t been dressed as skeletons!

A not so scary skeleton.
We didn’t dress the part so we had to make do.

Everywhere we went people were joyful and excited. I can’t stress enough how much this was a celebration of life, not a sad reflection on death. I’m thrilled we were able to participate in Dia de los Muertos and am thinking we’ve found a new tradition.