Cancun is my airport when the underworld is the destination. I left familiar Halloween heritage and All Saints Day to seek truths others hold dear in late October: Day of the Dead. Bypassing Riviera Maya’s fine hotels with palapas and hammocks by the Caribbean Sea for celebrations with the dearly departed.
Cemeteries to discover how families celebrate Dia de los Muertos, real cemeteries in the city and the jungle.
Festivals at Xcaret to determine if deep, ancient cultural habits can be honored in tourist settings. Of that I left home skeptical.
Welcoming spirits is a well-defined tradition; altars abound with foods and flowers, a photograph or small drawing. In a little community, neighbors share an altar.
In city cemeteries, each grave becomes an elaborate tribute to welcome the departed.
These are happy altars, extending a joyous welcome. “We help the spirits find us,” teaches Alberto Cencaamal, my Mayan guide in Muyil, an archeological site.
“I knew a shaman who could become an eagle,” he said. “Wise men can become shape shifters.”
He’s helping shape a cooperative of Mayan women and men sell marmalade made from dragon fruit, baskets from local grasses, textiles woven in communities.
Everything means something, and more in Riviera Maya where myths helped me understand the Day of the Dead.
Listen to their stories, Catholic and Mayan.
Coba, a little to the west, is a do-able drive from whatever resort, hotel or bungalow on the beach you choose.
The ruins are spectacular, tours led by smart local Mayan people and abundant history. Coba was a ceremonial center, larger than Tulum and Chichen-Itza.
My discovery of pottery-making villagers in the Yucatan jungle, and the plate I now serve my family sandwiches on with the design of a shaman praying, strikes me as spectacular too.
Day of the Dead reaffirms the Mayan belief that death is a part of life, going through the underworld simply a journey.
I began to see skeletons in a new light. Satirical and political art, for instance, painted by Jose Guadalupe Posada a century ago and revered today. Honored, not silly as in my Halloween tradition.
Death is just another place to go, I heard repeatedly. Started seeming logical for the dearly departed to visit as November arrives.
If my search for local people in their communities isn’t your idea of a holiday, head to Xcaret for the four-day Traditions of Life and Death Festival.
Quality even though a motorcoach place, 35 miles south of the Cancun airport, 200 acres calling itself an eco-archeological park.
Here they present the Traditions of Life and Death Festival: music, dance, theater, art, handicrafts and cuisine.
Day of the Dead altars abound with orange flowers called cempasuchitl and candles, sugar skulls and special foods and drink.
“These items are all guides to help our loved ones return; they serve a specific and joyous purpose,” Iliana Rodriguez taught me.
Skulls made of sugar and others with amaranth and honey, an Aztec cereal for immortality, are everywhere, evidence again of joy and welcome, never intended to be fearful.
Maybe I opened my soul to learn enough at Day of the Dead to receive more.