Where we’re at: Here, I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this trip to Mexico in November.
There are few greater honors in my travels than to experience a holiday in the country of its origin, alongside its people.
I always wanted to spend Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico, someday. When I realized it was one month to the day after my mom passed away in my arms in 2019, I felt deeply drawn to do so.
Carefully booking a lucky itinerary from Tel Aviv, I arrived just in time. My third trip to Mexico in 2019 — it was my year of our neighbor to the South, indeed — was mostly about a big birthday extravaganza I’d planned in Isla Mujeres.
However, I’d arrived in Downtown Cancun a few days early in order to kick my jetlag, check out the local arts scene, and celebrate a low-key local Dia De Los Muertos. Cancún wasn’t exactly a destination in Mexico I was dying to get to (I feel like there’s a potential Dia De Los Muertos joke in there but I can’t find it), but the downtown area is really a diamond in the rough. More on that, soon.
Cancun is not one of the destinations travelers flock to, to experience larger-than-life Dia De Los Muertos. For that, head to Oaxaca or Mexico City for that. In fact, when I researched how to experience the holiday in Cancun, I mostly came up with recommendations for the events held at various theme parks in the area, like Xcaret.
While I’m sure they hold great events, it wasn’t really what I was looking for. While Cancun is indeed a master-planned resort destination built up from swampland in the 1970’s, and thus not known as a hub of cultural immersion, it does today have close to a million residents that work hard to make vacationers dreams come true — surely, they would find a way to celebrate one of Mexico’s most spiritual holidays. And thus, so would I.
Dia De Los Muertos at Parque de las Palapas in Cancun
In my deep, deep searches of the internet, I’d found mention of a parade kicking off at 5PM at Avenues Chichén Itza and Tulum and ending in Parque Las Palapas. I showed up promptly that day, and found nary a parader in sight.
Shrugging, I wandered through some of the other Cancun destinations I’d seen mentioned online: Plaza de la Reforma del Palacio Municipal, Teatro 8 de Octubre, Parque Bohemia, Parque del Pintor, Luum Pakul and Centro Cultural de las Artes. I couldn’t find anything going on at any of them.
Undeterred, I made my way through Mercado 23, where heaps of sugar skulls, tiny painted skeletons, and face paint reassured me that the city’s celebrations would come to life, and death, at some point — as did the banners of papel picado, the intricate lacy cut-outs, which adorned doorways and business throughout downtown.
And they did indeed, at Parque Las Palapas, just a five minute walk from my accommodation in the heart of Downtown Cancun. The sun was setting just after 6PM that day, and I was grateful to have discovered the heart of the local celebrations while there was still a peek of day, so I could get the benefits of both seeing the details in the sunlight and soaking up the atmosphere after dark.
While I can’t be sure, as I’d only arrived that day, it was my understanding that this was the third evening of a three-night celebration. While Day of the Dead is officially on November 2, the Dia de Muertos celebrations have evolved to include October 31st and November 1st, as well. On October 31st, Halloween, or Día de las Brujas is celebrated — an evening of trick or treating and face-painting merging our North American traditions with the local ones. November 1st is ‘All Saints Day,’ or Dia de los Inocentes or los Angelitos, a day of remembrance dedicated to infants and children who have died. On November 2nd, ‘All Souls Day’, Day of the Dead or Dia De Los Muertos, is a day of remembrance dedicated to adults who have died.
It sounds a tad gruesome, right? Yet they say in Mexico death is not so taboo, and is more naturally accepted as part of the life cycle. Without death you cannot have a beautiful life, and the only true death is to be forgotten — so it is believed that on this day, the dead come back to earth for one night to be close to their loved ones again. The elaborate traditional altars and the face paint are to welcome them home, and the sugar skulls and the toys are to start to introduce the next generation to the idea of death as something not to fear.
It’s a tradition that has touched the world, most recently through the ubiquity of the award-winning children’s movie Coco. Day of the Dead has been recognized by UNESCO in its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the icons of this holiday are at least recognized, if not completely understood, in many corners of the world.
Dia De Los Muertos dates back o a month-long Aztec celebration which honored the gods of the underworld, with many traditions that endure today, including giving offerings or ofrendas to the deceased. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores arrived in modern-day Mexico and attempted to impose Catholicism on the indigenous people. They were largely succesful — today, 91% of the total population is Catholic, making Mexico the second largest Catholic country in the world after Brazil. Still, some traditions persevered. While the festival shifted to early November to coincide with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day, many of the pre-Hispanic traditions lived on.
Those traditions can vary wildly throughout Mexico and by family.
In Cancun, I observed several. The park had a jovial atmosphere, with artists setting up elaborate altars, a concert and an apparent costume contest of some sort taking place onstage, dancing breaking out in the crowds, the usual food vendors that line the park selling cheap tacos and tortas — don’t miss sweet loaves of pan de muero, Mexican Day of the Dead bread, or Mayan chocolate, on this particular holiday — and locals and tourists alike getting their faces elaborately painted. It surely is a sign of my severe jetlag and travel exhaustion that I didn’t hop immediately in a chair to join them.
While there were certainly some travelers in the mix, the crowd was largely local, which I loved, despite the relatively small size of the celebrations.
Right after sunset, I headed back to the hostel to meet my dear friend Kat, who had also just landed. This time, I knew exactly where to take her. Returning back to Parque de las Palapas, the crowd was only growing.
We grabbed dinner from the park vendors, marveled at the lit-up altars, and clapped along as local performances broke out.
Eventually, though, I asked Kat if she was game for an adventure. As if I didn’t already know her answer to that…
Dia De Los Muertos at Panteón Cementerio Municipal in Cancun
I knew from my research that Dia De Los Muertos is in many ways a family holiday, and a large part of the significant moments happen not in public parks but in cemeteries. Unable to find any information about Cancun specific ones online, I simply looked for the closest one on the map and suggested we take an Uber there.
We arrived to a quiet scene at the small, colorful cemetery, with evidence of many families having recently visited. At first, we lingered, looking on from the outside, not wanting to intrude, until a friendly-looking security guard and his family waved us in.
We wandered quietly, both deep in reflection. Kat is one of my close girlfriends who, too, has lost a mother far too soon. I knew this day was meaningful for both of us.
In the week leading up to Dia De Los Muertos, Mexican families gather at cemeteries, cleaning and preparing the gravesites of their loved ones to prepare to welcome their souls back to Earth. The graves are then decorated with ofrendas of candles, marigold flowers, drinks and sweets, sugar skulls, and photographs of the deceased to prepare for the late-night vigils that take place on November 1st and 2nd, with the largest celebrations taking place in honor of those who are returning for the first time. Candles are lit to guide their spirit home.
Some of the ofrendas we saw were deeply personal — a person’s favorite brand of cigarettes, an old soccer jersey. It made my heart ache. But I reminded myself that this was meant to be a joyful time, one to reconnect and celebrate a returning journey of souls past. Many report that they feel the spirits of their loved ones especially deeply at this time — a feeling I yearned for.
Dia De Los Muertos at Panteon Municipal Los Olivos in Cancun
As we turned to leave the first small cemetery we visited and find an Uber back, the friendly security guard chased us out. When my Spanish clearly didn’t pass muster, he pulled up a translation app on his phone and earnestly tried to relay a broken message to us: there was a bigger celebration, at a much larger cemetery, further out of town. He would put us in a taxi there.
Now, this is kind of one of those scenarios where I look back and laugh at how shady it sounds. We were on the side of the road in a dark corner of downtown Cancun, in between an old autobody shop and an actual gravesite. A strange man was urging us to get in a car and drive to a darker, more remote corner of said city. Eh, why not, we both shrugged. We had a good intuition about the whole thing.
Always trust that intuition (and kind security guards who go out of their way to help you.) We arrived at Panteon Municipal Los Olivos to an enormous, gorgeous local celebration in a sprawling cemetery that reminded me of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. We were, without question, the only tourists who were there, and likely that had been there the entire night.
Several local families approached us to welcome us, ask friendly questions, offer to take our pictures, and welcome us to Mexico.
After soaking up the dazzling displays at the cemetery entrance, we made our way through the maze of gravesites, many of which still had candles lit from their family’s visit, and at some relatives still gathered and softly strummed guitars or chatted, giving us neighborly nods as we passed.
This was truly a magical experience — and one I felt so lucky to be living. I had dreamed of finding a true, authentically Mexican celebration in Cancun. And here we were.
It was an honor.
While we wandered, we talked — about our moms, about our travels, about the beauty of this moment and how lucky we were to be alive.
I’ll never forget it.
The only snafu of the night came as we attempted to get home. Uber repeatedly told us there were no cars available, and we weren’t exactly sure if we’d find a cab twenty minute outside of downtown, so late in the evening. Luckily, one showed up on Uber as 15 minutes away just as we managed to hail a taxi — definitely bring cash, be patient, or perhaps make a plan with a driver if you too plan to come here.
Dia De Los Muertos Party at Selina Downtown Cancun
Finally, having managed to find a cab back to our accommodation at the Selina Downtown Cancun, we swung by to check out their own party. The Selina hostel brand, which I’ll discuss much further in my upcoming Wanderland Guide to Downtown Cancun post, is known for lifting up local and expat artists and DJ’s and throwing great community events.
We’d lingered so long at the other celebrations and cemeteries, we definitely missed the bulk of the party here — but we loved the decorations and the setup and it was the perfect place to sit down for one last drink of the night at toast to an amazing night, and those that it made us remember.
. . .
Years ago I went to the Dia del Los Muertos celebration in Los Angeles, home to a large Mexican population, without knowing much about it other than the visuals that the US has adopted. I was incredibly moved, of course not knowing how soon I’d be craving any way, however mystical and far fetched, to feel closer to someone I loved and lost.
So I arrived in Mexico, with a photo of my mom in my backpack, to try to see if I could feel closer to her again, to see if maybe she would come to visit me there in this place with this beautiful tradition and belief.
And if it’s true, she will never truly be gone — because she will never be forgotten. I’m grateful to this beautiful Mexican tradition, and this special spiritual land, for making me feel closer to her. I hope this guide might help someone else, a wanderer who’s path crosses with Cancun on November 2nd, do the same with someone they love.
Have you experienced a Day Of The Dead celebration, at home or abroad?