7 Ways to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Cancun
Have you ever wondered if they celebrate Day of the Dead in Cancun? The answer is yes! Día de los Muertos is a time when family and friends come together throughout Mexico to remember their departed loved ones through food, gravesite vigils and ceremonial altars.
While you might scoff at the idea of finding Dia de los Muertos traditions at a resort destination famous for its beaches and nightclubs, Day of the Dead is a very important holiday in Cancun.
Taking place between October 31 and November 2nd throughout the hotel zone, el Centro (downtown) and nearby communities, it’s actually one of the best times to visit Cancun.
While Michoacan, Oaxaca and Mexico City have traditionally been considered the best places to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico, there are special advantages to celebrating this important holiday in Cancun. You can:
- Enjoy a vacation on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches,
- Get cheap holiday flights to Cancun from many parts of the world,
- Experience Hanal Pixán or “Food of the Souls” the Mayan Day of the Dead.
- Enjoy perfect weather as the Caribbean hurricane and seaweed season are over.
You’ll be amazed by the many things to do during Day of the Dead in Cancun. Here are a few of my favourites:
1. Tour Day of the Dead Altars in Cancun
An important fact to note about Cancun is that it’s actually home to around 725,000 full time residents. This means that in the days leading up to Dia de los Muertos, families, hotels and other businesses build altars or ofrendas commemorating family members who have passed away.
The Aztecs believed the fragrance of marigolds (cempasuchil in Nahuatl) could awaken the souls of the dead and guide them to earth. So you’ll see marigolds used as pathways to guide spirits indoors and to the altars.
Other important elements of the altars include photos of the departed person, candles, copal incense, sugar skull candies, fresh fruit, pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread) and mementos of the departed’s favourite things such as toys or even bottles of tequila.
While you can see elaborate altars in hotel lobbies around Cancun, one of the best places to enjoy this Day of the Dead tradition is at Parque de las Palapas near the Chedraui in downtown Cancun.
Here, the family-friendly activities include altars, traditional food, face painting, live music and a Day of the Day parade from Avenues Chichén Itza and Tulum to the park. Check the official Cancun Visitors Bureau for a schedule.
Important dates for Day of the Dead are:
October 31: Halloween or Día de las Brujas or Noche de Halloween, an evening of trick or treating and face-painting.
November 1: ‘All Saints Day’ or Dia de los Inocentes, a day of remembrance dedicated to infants and children who have died.
November 2: ‘All Souls Day’ a day of remembrance dedicated to adults who have died
2. Shop for Day of the Dead Decorations in Cancun
A fun thing to do is shop for Day of the Dead decorations as souvenirs or to decorate your own home. The best places to shop for Dia de los Muertos trinkets are Mercado 28, Mercado 23 and independent street stalls, flea markets and shops around downtown Cancun. Download a map of Cancun before you go.
Another good bet is Ah Cacao cafe in La Isla Shopping Village for hot chocolate and quality sweets crafted of Mexican cacao.
Banners of papel picado, the intricate lacy cut-outs, adorn the doorways and shops throughout downtown, making it a colourful time to visit Cancun.
The best souvenirs include sugar skulls, skeleton and coffin-themed candy creations of all types, copal incense (if packaged), the sweet loaves of pan de muerto (Mexican Day of the Dead bread), Mayan chocolate and alebrijes, brightly painted wooden figurines.
Discover more about Day of the Dead souvenirs in our post on 10 Amazing Day of the Dead traditions in Mexico.
3. Sample Traditional Day of the Dead Cancun Food and Drink
One food you must try during Day of the Dead is the deliciously sweet pan de muerto, an anise and orange-scented egg bread shaped into a skull and crossbones form.
In addition to pan de muerto, other popular Dia de los Muertos foods to enjoy in Cancun include chachacuas (savoury tamales), pozole pork and hominy stew, lechon (roast pork), tamale de cazuela, wedges of tamal de cazuela, tamalitos (small tamales) and Tikin Xic, a Yucatec Mayan dish of marinated fish wrapped in banana leaf.
Be sure to try atole, a hot corn and masa drink. Small portions of these dishes and drinks are presented at ancestral gravesites as well as on altars within the home.
4. Visit a Cemetery on Day of the Dead in Cancun
In order to welcome the return of the souls of their ancestors, Mexican families clean and prepare gravesites in the week leading up to Dia de los Muertos. They then decorate the graves with candles, marigolds, sugar skull candies, photographs of the deceased and flowers.
Then, all-night vigils take place on Nov 1st and Nov 2nd within the cemeteries. The largest celebrations are for family members who passed away in the preceding year and those who are returning for the first time.
A top spot to celebrate Day of the Dead is the “BRIDGE TO PARADISE” Mexican Cemetery, a recreation of a traditional cemetery featuring Mayan and Mexican folk art motifs on 365 tombs at the Xcaret Park near Playa del Carmen. Their special Festival of Life and Death Traditions features live music, traditional food, dance and theatrical performances and more.
The Xcaret cemetery was built in the shape of a spiral to represent the conch shell used by Mayans to communicate with the gods and features seven levels, symbolizing the days of the week and 52 steps which represent the week of the year.
Visiting this cemetery is a good option for people who aren’t comfortable at real gravesites yet still want to see this important Day of the Dead tradition. For a more intimate experience, there are several cemeteries in Cancun and surrounding communities to visit.
Learn about how to experience Day of the Dead traditions, celebrations and vigils at cemeteries in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.
5. Participate in Hanal Pixán Traditions on Mayan Day of the Dead
One of the most unique things you can do in Cancun for Day of the Dead is participate in Hanal Pixán, the “Food of the Souls” celebration of the Maya indigenous people of the Yucatan. Much like Dia de Los Muertos, Hanal Pixán is a tradition that celebrates the lives of deceased family and friends. While it shares many of the same rituals such as decorative altars, ceremonial foods and cemetery vigils, it also features elements unique to the Maya culture.
The best way to experience Hanal Pixán is with Alltournative, a tour operator specializing in sustainable tourism. Their focus is delivering travel experiences that respect the environment and local indigenous cultures. Their Hanal Pixán experience includes return transportation to the Tres Reyes community, a guided tour of the altars and cemetery, participation in a Maya ceremony, a traditional dinner and more.
At Tres Reyes, your Hanal Pixán experience begins with an initiation by a shaman. You’ll then be escorted by a community member and translator who will introduce you to the family altars and explain the elements of the decorations, witness a dance ceremony at the cemetery and sample Hanal Pixán sweets. , cross a vast suspension bridge
After nightfall, you’ll cross a suspension bridge to the Cenote de La Vida, an enormous partially-submerged underground pool. Descending into this subterranean cavern by candlelight down a steep dirt path through the jungle is definitely an unforgettable experience.
At the cenote, shamans conduct a traditional Hanal Pixán ceremony, invoking the spirits of the cardinal points of East, West, North and South through chanting, music and drumming.
It’s a haunting and memorable experience to witness this sacred ceremony and listen to live music such as La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) and La Bruja (The Witch). The evening wraps up with a Maya dinner served by community members.
Listen to a version of La Llorona, a traditional Day of the Dead song, performed by Dakota Romero below.
6. Party at a Floating Fiesta on a Gondola at Xoximilco Cancun
If you’re looking to party beyond the Cancun nightclubs, you can celebrate Day of the Dead while gliding in a trajinera (gondola) along 7.4 kilometres of Venetian-like canals at Xoximilco Cancun. This attraction pays tribute to the legendary Xochimilco floating gardens of Mexico City with its festive colours, Day of the Dead folklore, traditional cuisine and tequila.
The original floating gardens of Xochimilco date back to the Aztec period, but this modern version of the canals is a fun way to celebrate Day of the Dead in Cancun at night.
Learn more about mariachi music and print our playlist of the best Day of the Dead mariachi songs to request before you go.
7. Gawk at Real Skeletons in the Museo de Cancun
One of the best things to do in Cancun during Day of the Dead is to visit the Museo Maya de Cancun, officially known as Museo Maya de Cancún y Zona Arqueológica de San Miguelito, INAH. Designed by Mexican architect Alberto Garcia Lascurain, this contemporary museum is filled with 3,500 valuable artifacts collected by the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
Some of the most fascinating exhibits include recreated tombs, mummified remains and real skeletons adorned with jade chest plates, precious jewellery, stone and textile treasures. You’ll learn a lot about Maya burial rites and beliefs in the underworld.
If you have only one day in Cancun, it’s also worth visiting the adjacent San Miguelito Archeological Site. Top things to see include the Chaak Palace, the North Complex, South Complex and Dragon complex, a collection of ancient stone platforms, ceremonial sites and pyramids connected by meandering paths through botanical gardens.
The Museo de Cancun is located in the heart of the hotel zone on Boulevard Kukulcán and is a good thing to do in Cancun if you’re on a budget as the cost of admission is just 70 MXN pesos (around 3.50 USD). Bring payment in pesos. USD and other currencies are not accepted. The Museo de Cancun is closed Mondays.
Day of the Dead Cancun Facts and Travel Tips
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Halloween in Mexico vs Day of the Dead in Mexico
Although one of the days overlap, Day of the Dead is very different from Halloween in Mexico. Halloween (Día de las Brujas or Noche de Halloween) is celebrated for children on October 31.
Although some elements of Halloween and Day of the Dead are the same (face-painting, masks and costumes), the main difference is that Halloween in Mexico is a commercial celebration featuring costumes and trick or treating. In Mexico, children also ask for pesos as well as calaveritas and dulces (sweets).
Day of the Dead is often a private family event and a deeply religious tradition with specific rites and rituals.
Halloween is followed by Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) celebrations on All Saints’ Day ( November 1st) and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd).
Dia de Los Muertos vs Dia de Muertos
Dia de Los Muertos and Dia de Muertos have the same meaning, although Dia de Los Muertos is more commonly used. How do you greet someone on Day of the Dead? You can say “Feliz Dia de Los Muertos.”
Photography During Day of the Dead in Cancun
Avoid using flash photography as it can be intrusive at night. You should request permission to photograph people especially children. Taking photos of altars is generally acceptable.
Where to Stay – Best Hotel for Day of the Dead in Cancun
Most of the luxury hotels in Cancun and Riviera Maya will celebrate Day of the Dead with special decorations, cuisine and altars. Here’s what to expect:
Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun
Set on a private beach in Cancun’s Zona Hotelera, the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun offers several ways for visitors to participate in this important Mexican celebration. During their stay, guests can sample traditional Day of the Dead foods, witness the creation of altars and enjoy special decorations throughout the resort.
If you’re travelling with children, they’ll be sure to enjoy the newly expanded KidZ Club. Day of the Dead face-painting is often available within the Kidz Club. Couples will enjoy the full-service spa complete with a Hydrotherapy Circuit featuring an aromatherapy steam room, multi-jet showers, ice room, polar pools and several Mayan-themed spa treatments.
For memorable fine-dining, opt for an evening of Mexican cuisine at the Grand Fiesta’s La Joya restaurant where traditional mariachi players serenade at dinner along with a spectacular light and sound show. The high-tech show draws on Mexican motifs, traditions and history for inspiration.
Get an upgrade to the Grand Club Unlimited Experience for VIP butler service, access to the exclusive Club Lounge as well as all-inclusive dining and drinks as well as Grand Club Junior or Master Suite accommodation with premium ocean front views.
Safety During Day of the Dead
Given that most of Dia de los Muertos activities take place at night, it’s wise to follow certain safety precautions. This is especially important if you are headed to the Tres Reyes community ( I almost fell into the cenote!) or walking outdoors where surfaces can be uneven, slippery and visibility is poor. Follow these safety tips to avoid accidents:
- Wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes like running shoes.
- Wear insect repellent.
- Bring water.
- Carry a flashlight.
- Bring small denominations of Mexican pesos in cash.
- Bring a hat, sweater and rain gear such as a folding poncho.
- Wear long-sleeved clothing and pants to avoid insect bites.
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