Dio de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities began in Playa del Carmen around the 31st (Halloween) and finished around the 2nd. The official Day of the Dead was on November 1st, so we wanted to mark the occasion somehow and learn a bit more about this macabre celebration. But Playa del Carmen is not exactly traditional Mexico. In fact, it is one of the most rapidly growing and developing cities in the country, becoming more modern and multicultural by the minute as each new immigrant from Argentina, Italy, France or the US takes up home here. Even many of the ‘locals’ have migrated from other parts of the country in search of opportunity in the ‘Riviera Maya’.
A Mexican friend suggested we visit Xcaret, an eco-themed park, to partake in Day of the Dead celebrations. Every year they host the ‘Festival de Tradiciones de Vida y Muerte’, or the Festival of the Traditions of Life and Death, to mark the Day of the Dead. Initially, I balked at the idea of attending a ‘tourist version’ of the festival, but she assured us that the festival was very well-run and actually more popular with Mexicans than tourists. Our land-lord seconded her opinions, so we decided to bite the bullet and give Xcaret a go, even though I was a little concerned about spending so much money ($60 per person) to be let down by a tacky tourist trap.
As soon as I entered the gates of the Mayan-themed nature park, however, and spotted the pink flamingos and colourful parrots, I forgot all that and was completely taken with the purdy birds…
Told you they were purdy…
Our ticket for the festival enabled us entrance to the park from 4pm, which usually cost around $100 for the day. And, being the tight-ass that I am, I wanted to get the absolute most out of my ticket price, so I dragged Tyrhone to the ‘Underground River’ which closed at 4:30pm. We made it in time to swim the 500 meters through dark limestone tunnels with a life jacket and snorkel, seeing very little except dark, limestone tunnels.We laughed most of the way about how pointless the exercise seemed, except that we got some, well, exercise. We did however encounter a few bats along the way, which completely freaked me out, though did add a little excitement.
We then had a long, brisk walk back through the park in our swimming gear, dripping wet and feeling a little out of place since everyone streaming into the park was wearing suitable attire for a cool evening of art and theater. We passed colourful ‘grave sites’ adorned with marigolds and offerings of food and drinks, the strong smell of incense lingering in the air as we rushed past. After we dried off and changed, we put the underground river saga behind us and proceeded to the main theater which we’d heard hosted a magnificent show every evening.
As we entered the Gran Tlachco Theater I was blown away by its enormity and unique design; a huge open-sided Palapa (Mayan style thatched building) with stadium seating for thousands set around a sunken central stage.
We took our seats at the very back of the left-hand side, since almost every seat in the very large house was full. I couldn’t believe that a ‘theme park’ would be home to such a magnificent structure, and suddenly realised that the tickets were actually pretty good value.
The lights dimmed, those who had been given candles (i.e not us in the nose bleed section) lit them, and we prepared to be dazzled by Mexico Espectacular; a musical tribute to Mexico’s history and culture (because who doesn’t love musicals?).
A band to our left opened the performance with beautiful and powerful tribal music…
Then the Mayan Kings took to the stage, complete with wonderful costumes. Or were they Aztecs? I get them confused, but I’m pretty sure the Mayans were first. One thing’s for sure, they all had great outfits.
Then came what would prove to be the highlight of the performance for me, a theatrical reenactment of the traditional ball game that was once played in the huge ball courts of ancient Mayan cities. We had seen one during our visit to Chichen Itza and Tyrhone had tried to explain the rules of the ancient game to me in which no hands or feet were allowed to handle the ball. The aim was to pass the ball through a tiny hole in a ring made of stone on the upper wall of the court. I was like, “yeah, yeah, like that would have been possible,” but these guys actually did it. It was incredible!
The invasion of Mexico by the Spanish was then depicted (in a very ‘PG’ way of course, no slaughtering or pillaging). The Conquistadors entered the stage on real horses, which were apparently the first ones the indigenous people had ever seen.
Then there was more singing and dancing! I think they may have brushed over a few details, but that’s show biz baby…
It may have been the ‘Disney Version’ of Mexico’s history, without the blood and gore; all set to an uplifting, toe tapping, hand clapping soundtrack, but the crowd lapped it up, singing along with their favourites.
These guys definitely got the crowd going…
I loved it all – the music, the different regional dances from all over Mexico, and most of all, the costumes!
Even the Caribbean coast got a shout out, complete with a huge octopus, dancing fish, and men in frilly pants.
The mariachi bands really stole the show; the crowd went wild whenever they started to play, charging the atmosphere with an uplifting energy.
After the show’s finale was sealed with an understated display of exploding streamer bombs and live parrots soaring across the stage (!), we followed the happy crowds out of the theater for some post-show nosh. A food market had been set up for the event serving tortes (marinated meat in bread rolls), tamales and sopa (soup). We scored a table in the open-aired ‘market place’, and enjoyed our spicy treats as laughter and live music filled the cool evening air.
Afterwards, we made our way along flare-lit pathways past stations where people painted their faces as skulls for the evening’s Dios de las Muertas festivities.
We headed towards the La Isla theater, where the Dzul Dance Company were about to begin a contemporary dance performance, ‘Forest of Kings’. The theater was smaller in stature than its grand cousin, but equally beautiful in its design. I couldn’t believe that a ‘theme park’ was home to two of the most beautiful theaters I’d ever seen…
The show opened with a beautiful aerial performance by Javier Dzul, the company’s artistic director. He grew up in southern Mexico and went on to complete a scholarship with the prolific Martha Graham Dance Company in New York before starting his own company. Based in New York, the company has a strong connection to indigenous Latin dance styles, mixed with cutting-edge contemporary choreography.
I love contemporary dance and felt very excited to see this world-class show in such a magnificent setting. After some post-show dessert (hot chocolate and churros) we followed the crowds out into the night to get a taxi back to Playa.
After a theater-deprived year of budget travel, I definitely got my fix of music and dance that night. I was also very uplifted by the wonderful energy of the evening. I had feared the cultural commercialism of Xcaret, yet was really impressed by the Festival de Tradiciones de Vida y Muerte. Whilst it was far from a traditional Day of the Dead ceremony, it was a celebration of art, culture, life and death; an artistic tribute to the country’s rich cultural heritage in a truly spectacular setting.
Thanks for reading! Guess what? I have gone to the ‘dark side’, and now have a Facebook page which, when I work out how to use it, will be home to more photos and updates on our travels. I’d ask you to ‘like’ me, but… that’s kinda lame, so feel free to ‘like’ me, but only if you really do, well, like me
In two short months I’ll be putt-putting across India in an auto-rickshaw (yes, I’m questioning my sanity right about now)… We’ve reached over half of our fundraising target thanks to the generous support of our friends and readers, so thank you so much! If you would like to donate to Frank Water clean water projects, please visit our fundraising page.