While the U.S. is gearing up for Halloween with everyone picking out their costumes and buying their Halloween candy, our neighbors to the south are getting ready for a similar – but truly unique – holiday. Rather than a ‘spooky’ time of year, Dia de los Muertos — or Day of the Dead — is more of a celebration of the life of loved ones who have passed on. The festivities often take place on November 1st (although they can include the surrounding days as well), and just about every place in Mexico has their own way of celebrating this special time of year.
That’s just one reason to visit Mexico for a cooking vacation during this time… after all, what better way to experience a culture than through its holidays and traditions? And there are so many traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos. Altars are created (such as the one pictured here in Tepoztlan), special foods — those that people enjoyed eating while alive — are left on the altars and enjoyed also with family and friends, sugar skulls are made, graves are decorated, music is played, and reminiscing and celebrations occur late into the night.
While some celebrate the holiday privately, there’s also a number of public displays that visitors can experience firsthand. In Merida, Yucatan, for starters, the celebration is actually called Hanal Pixan, which translates to “feast for the souls.” While similar to Dia de los Muertos, it is a unique Mayan version of the holiday and actually lasts a full eight days.
As the name of the holiday in the Yucatan implies, there is quite the focus on food, especially the famous tamale known as mucbilpollo. As the word ‘mucbil’ means buried, the chicken dish is traditionally cooked in an underground “oven” known as a p’iib, and it is supposed to be shared with the departed ancestors who visit for a week with the living. Since the dish is so big, it’s eaten by friends and neighbors. One last interesting note about this traditional dish? The late Chef David Sterling of our Culinary Yucatan cooking vacation said of making tamales, “You should only use a hen for the tamal, since a rooster might crow and wake up the dead!”
The Riviera Maya is another wonderful destination for a Dia de los Muertos celebration, as the area hosts an annual festival that includes dance and theater shows, parades, concerts, and, of course, some very special food.
No matter which part of Mexico you decide to visit for the holiday, you can be sure of one thing: a memorable trip, packed full with exciting adventures and an insight into the interesting Mexican culture.
By Liz Hall
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