Candles illuminate photos of the dead. Vibrant marigold flowers add pops of orange everywhere in sight. Incense fills the sticky air. Dancing, face-painted strangers pour you shots of mescal. This is Day of the Dead in Cancun. And it’s amazing.
Celebrating Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) in Mexico should be on everyone’s travel bucket list; it’s definitely worth experiencing at least once. The colourful music and tequila-filled holiday happens every November 2 and the days leading up to it, and is celebrated throughout the country – everywhere from fancy hotel lobbies, to cemeteries and parks. It’s creepy in the best way possible and adds another layer to your breezy beach escape that you didn’t know you were missing.
While most people are familiar with the traditional Day of the Dead face makeup, the significance of the holiday and its associated rituals are something best discovered in Mexico firsthand. For those in the dark, the purpose of Day of the Dead and Hanal Pixan (Mayan Day of the Dead) is to celebrate the dead in all of their glory through prayer, remembrance, and – yes – shameless partying. And it’s as good of a reason as any to book a Mexico vacation. The multi-day holiday unites family and friends, who honour those who have died and help aid their spiritual journey. Loved ones create colourful shrine-like altars (ofrendas) to remember those who have passed and to invite their spirits to return by offering things they loved in their living years – whether that be a cigar, wine, or a steak dinner. Skeletons, sculls, flowers, and candles serve as added décor on these vibrant altars.
The nice thing about experiencing Day of the Dead in Mexico is that you don’t have to leave your hotel to get an authentic experience. The pristine Paradisus Cancun – a luxury five-star resort that sits on a stunning, seaweed-free white-sand beach – cut no corners in the Day of the Dead department (or any department, frankly). Upon check-in at the sprawling all-inclusive resort’s adults-only Royal Service section, we were greeted by the friendly hotel staff, as well as by an eerie skeleton couple with painted “faces” and creepy old-fashioned costumes.
The Royal Service upgrade at Paradisus Cancun includes appreciated perks like a personal butler (!), superior suites, a reserved (childfree) beach area, a private lagoon pool, a private breezy beachside restaurant, and VIP facilities – and is totally worth dropping the extra dollars on, especially if screaming and splashing kids in the background isn’t your idea of a vacation.
Another area where Paradisus Cancun excels is in its foodie-approved culinary offerings at each of the hotel’s nine restaurants. Whether it’s the fresh sushi at pan-Asian spot Bana, the wood-oven pizza at Vento Restaurant, or the authentic Mexican and made-to-order quesadillas at Mole, the food at Paradisus Cancun is completely social media “like-worthy” and definitely worth writing home about. The star of the show when it comes to dining is Tempo, an elegant restaurant that redefines the all-inclusive resort dining experience and attracts a steady stream of non-guests thanks to the memorable cuisine dished up by Michelin-rated Chef Martin Berasategui (this spot comes at an extra, completely worth-it cost).
From the fully loaded gyms and pristine YHI Spas, to the thoughtfully curated buffet offerings and the five-star service, the Paradisus brand is known for its relentless attention to detail – and Day of the Dead was no exception.
Throughout the hotel, eye-catching shrines to former employees and associates of the Paradisus chain were found in the days leading up to the holiday. These were filled with candles, colourful flowers, fruits, and other offerings for those who have passed. The November 2 Day of the Dead celebrations at Paradisus included stunning costumes, live music, professional dancers, and authentic Mayan ritual ceremonies and attracted hotel guests of all ages.
To celebrate Day of the Dead off the hotel grounds, the bright and boisterous Festival of Life and Death Traditions at the sprawling Xcaret Park offers a stimulation-filled celebration. While one may assume the tourist attraction may offer a less-than-authentic experience, it was actually – completely refreshingly – the opposite, with locals outnumbering the tourists by a landslide. The UNESCO award-winning annual event takes over the eco theme park each October 30 to November 2 with theatre, dancing, food of the region, live music, flowing mescal, and colourful altars to honour past employees. The park is about an hour drive from Paradisus Cancun and transportation can be arranged with the front desk.
Of course, going into downtown Cancun is another option to celebrate the holiday. From October 31 to November 2, the city hosts a Day of the Dead Festival that includes a parade, over 450 artists, performances, and traditional Day of the Dead food. The most interesting takeaway from the Day of the Dead festivities in Cancun was an eye-opening exposure to a drastically different culture surrounding death – one that is completely celebratory and uplifting instead of sad and depressing. It doesn’t hurt that the celebrations take place just at the cold Canadian weather starts to roll in.
Cancun is a four-hour and fifteen minute Sunwing flight away from Toronto. Rates at Paradisus Cancun vary seasonally; book your travel with Sunwing here. The author of this piece received a complimentary trip in exchange for this story, but was not directly compensated. Check out the SWAGGER travel section more of our travel content.