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Day of the Dead at Riviera Maya



My two boys last homework was to make a skeleton for the "Day of the dead", or "El dia de los muertos". They will need it for decoration purposes during the main event in their school where the entire school yard will be transformed into a dark, silent, but warm place in order to remember the dead.

I have to admit, for the kids it is rather a reason to stay up longer and eat more candies as usual. They are excited about it anyway.

Since kids generally are crazy about candy they see the opportunity to get even more by "celebrating" the Day of the dead and Halloween as well. Even though most of them do not know the difference between the two holidays.

Do you know the difference between Halloween and El dia de los muertos?

Some might think El dia de los muertos is just the Mexican version of Halloween, but that is not correct. Both events are two separate holidays with different origins, beliefs, festivities and meanings, even though they fall almost on the same dates. The origins of this holiday date back over over thousands of years when descendents of Toltecs, Aztecs and Nahua considered mourning the dead as disrespectful. In the pre-Hispanic culture death was just a phase in life's circle.

Today Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos, but now the celebration is a mixture of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian traditions. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

So what are the main differences?​


We asked Juanita, a lady who is working at a famous cenote close to Chichen Itza at the Yucatan state, how she and her family are celebrating El dia de los muertos. Please keep in mind, there are many ways to celebrate this holiday. It varies through the different regions and cultures of Mexico and Juanita has a Mayan heritage.

The last day of October is considered as the day the dead arrive and are amongst us. In the afternoon of October 31st Juanita and her family members would prepare an altar or "orfrenda" at center of the house, which you also might consider as the living room. It is not meant for worshipping, but to welcome the dead at their house. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, a candle for each dead relative. one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar.

No glass or mirrors near the altar! It scares the spirits away

The altar consist of three levels, will be decorated with Marigolds, since their petals guide the wandering souls back to the place of rest, chocolate and on top with pictures of the dead they want to remember. There would be no glass or mirrors at or near the altar, since it scares the spirits away. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.


On November the 1st in the morning, they are placing oranges and candies at the altar.

After coming home from work they will cook so called "vaporcitos", which are a certain kind of Tamales, filled with meat. In Mayan they call it "Chichacua" and they put them in a specific bowl, called "Lac". The entire family is sitting around the altar and is praying together in memory of the dead beloved one's.

Later that that night of the 1st of November they're visiting the graves of the dead believing that the spirit is leaving the grave and will be amongst them.

In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos and added the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

It is also very common to place other favorite treats of the dead, like cigarettes, alcohol or a cake on the altar. The decorations are not limited to the houses only. You will find candles, flowers, skulls, skeletons, little paper cut flags and the bread of the dead everywhere in the streets, restaurants and shops. It is part of the streetscape during these days.

The next day on November the 2nd the family is cooking the favorite meal of the dead and they would eat it together with the dead by placing a plate on the altar.

It is also very common to place other favorite treats of the dead, like cigarettes, alcohol or a cake on the altar. The decorations are not limited to the houses only. You will find candles, flowers, skulls, skeletons, little paper cut flags and the bread of the dead everywhere in the streets, restaurants and shops. It is part of the streetscape during these days.

Calavera Catrina

Today you find a lot of skulls or "calaveras" . These are nice souvenirs though, but it is actually about the "literary calaveras". During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they were used to describe short, humorous poems, which were often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs published in newspapers that poked fun at the living. These literary calaveras eventually became a popular part of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Today the practice is alive and well. You’ll find these clever, biting poems in print, read aloud, and broadcast on television and radio programs.

In the early 20th century, Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada created an etching to accompany a literary calavera. Posada dressed his personification of death in fancy French garb and called it Calavera Garbancera, intending it as social commentary on Mexican society’s emulation of European sophistication. “Todos somos calaveras,” a quote commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath all our manmade trappings, we are all the same.

In 1947 artist Diego Rivera featured Posada’s stylized skeleton in his masterpiece mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Posada’s skeletal bust was dressed in a large feminine hat, and Rivera made his female and named her Catrina, slang for “the rich.” Today, the calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is the Day of the Dead’s most ubiquitous symbol.

​As you can see, these two holidays are not quite as similar as you might expect in the first place. Dia De Los Muertos is not about honoring death nor is it meant to be a scary holiday as some might be lead to believe.

Dia De Los Muertos is about celebrating with love one’s deceased relatives and the precious memories we have of them.​​​​

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​​​​Would you like to meet Juanita and get to see the famous cenote Selva Maya?

Take a look at our Private Tour to Chichen Itza.

We also recommend the "Festival de Vida y Muerte" at Xcaret. The 11th edition of the Festival of Life and Death Traditions, brings together the traditions of the Yucatan Peninsula and the state of Puebla, to enrich the event with customs and culture of different regions country.

"Festival de Vida y Muerte" at Xcaret. Sunday, 30. October 2016, Playa del Carmen

Have you experienced El dia de los Muertos in Mexico? Feel free to share your impressions in the comments below. Follow us on Twitter & Instagram @tourguidekay

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