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Mexico

Day of the Dead in the Yucatán

Hanal Pixán translates to "food for the souls" in the Mayan language, and it’s the name the Maya people of the Yucatán Peninsula have given to their Day of the Dead celebrations.

The roots of Hanal Pixán lie in the ancient beliefs of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Those beliefs included that the deceased traveled to an underworld, an arduous journey of nine levels. But once a year, the departed would make the return journey to the material world to visit with their loved ones. While you don’t need to travel nine levels into the earth to be a part of Atlas Obscura's trip to the Yucatán for Day of the Dead celebrations, we hope you'll come along. 

Highlights

  • Food for the Souls: In this region and during this festive time, food takes on special meaning. Traditional dishes are prepared for the spirits, believed to return on this day to visit their families. You’ll taste mucbipollo or "pib" (a large tamale cooked in an underground pit), salbutes (snacks served on top of fried corn tortillas), atole (a hot beverage thickened with masa) and other favorites of the departed. You'll also learn about and participate in their preparation.
  • Syncretism: Today, many Maya carry on the beliefs of their ancestors. While some of today's most visible symbolism may appear Catholic (including All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day), in this part of Mexico—due to the syncretism of the pre-Hispanic and Catholic world—tradition is ancestral. Learn about the relationship between the ancient pre-Hispanic, Maya world and the Catholic, Spanish world—and how that combination has informed the region's understanding of the relationship between the living and the dead.
  • Day of the Dead Celebrations: The holiday, which stretches out over the course of three days, is a way of celebrating and honoring deceased family members and friends. Families set up home altars and decorate graves in the cemeteries. Learn more about and participate in these local traditions.

TRIP SIZE & COST

This trip is limited to 25 travelers. A $250 non-refundable deposit is required to secure your spot; we have a limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill quickly. The trip will cost $2,999—the $250 deposit plus $2,749 final payment—and will cover all fixed costs including accommodations, all meals listed in the itinerary, and all the activities included below.

Itinerary
Mérida Tourism Board (as well as banner image)
Day 1
Arrival: Land of the Itzá
  • Arrive at Cancún International Airport by 12pm and head to Chichen-Itza, the once-thriving ancient capital of the Yucatán Maya, a sacred site with over 1,000 years of history and imbued with myth and mystery.
  • En route, we’ll enjoy Mexican tortas (sandwiches) before stopping at Ek’ Balam, now a small archeological site, but once the seat of the Maya kingdom. There, we’ll stretch our legs and begin learning about the pre-Hispanic history of this area.
  • Then, we’ll head to our hacienda in Chichen-Itza, land of the Itzá people, for a welcome reception and explorative discussion of the concept of mortality in the Maya world.  
  • Experience regional foods over dinner—many of which we’ll see take center stage during the Hanal Pixán (“Food for the Souls”) observances, before slumbering at our boutique-style hacienda.
Yucatan Tourism Board
Day 2
Skulls and Sinkholes
  • Rising early, we’ll have an incredible opportunity to see the sunrise as it illuminates the great structures of the early Postclassic city of Chichen-Itza, a manifestation of the Maya and Toltec visions of the world and universe. This time of year, sunrise is at about 7:30am—and you’ll be glad you woke up early for this one-of-a-kind feast for the eyes.
  • Our expert guide will share insights on the important and necessary role that death and sacrifice held in the ancient Maya world. We’ll visit a tzompantli, or skull platform, used for the display of skulls from war captives or other sacrificial victims.
  • Next, we'll see the Sacred Cenote: physically, it is a beautiful sinkhole filled with water, but spiritually, it is also considered a two-way portal for the living and the dead between this world and the underworld.
  • In the afternoon, we'll return to the hotel to relax, grab a drink, or swim. Afterward, head into town at your leisure and choose among many local specialties for dinner on your own or with your fellow travelers. 
Day 3
The Yellow City of Izamal
  • Leaving the world of the ancient Maya behind, we’ll travel toward the capital city of the Yucatán, Mérida. En route, we’ll visit the colorful cemetery at Hoctún and begin to learn about the “syncretism” of this region: the intermix of the ancient Maya world and the Catholic, Spanish world.
  • We’ll continue to the yellow-painted city of Izamal to see more of the co-mingling of these two worlds before arriving in Mérida, the largest city on the Yucatán Peninsula and our home for the next two nights.
  • We'll meet with a group of local women who are a part of a sisal co-operative, a traditional fabric derivative of agave that was once used for the rope of most every ship in the world. Today, its use is diminished due to synthetic fabrics, but the material is still used to produce local handicrafts.
  • For dinner, explore on your own or join fellow travelers at recommended restaurants. Enjoy the evening walking the streets of this vibrant capital. Those hills you're meandering over? They’re the remains of ancient temple pyramids.
Day 4
Mayapan and Teabo
  • Today we explore the rarely visited site of Mayapan, the only city that was still inhabited by the Maya people upon the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. We’ll see how Mayapan is a small replica of Chichen-Itza, though Mayapan was the cultural giant of the region in pre-Columbian times.
  • Jumping into nearby cenotes, not only will we refresh in these aqua-blue sinkholes, we’ll also continue to learn about the role of cenotes and their relationship to the underworld in Maya culture.  
  • We’ll then visit the special Maya community of Teabo to meet a family and artisan. We’ll learn about home altars in current Maya communities, and have lunch on delicious regional foods—such as cochinita pibil and poc chuc—in Maní, a town that traces its history back four millennia.
  • This evening, enjoy some free time to explore Mérida, a city always pulsating with music and dance.
Yucatan tourism board
Day 5
Archaeology, Sound, and Light
  • Hanal Pixán altars go on display in Mérida's Zocalo, the main city square. Here, residents display their finest assemblies of foods, gourds, drinks, fruits, flowers, decorations, and photos of their loved ones—and we’ll learn what each element on the altar represents.
  • We’ll enjoy lunch together with fresh items from the market before heading to the Puuc Hills region, where the Maya of the Classic Period settled in these gently rolling hills.
  • Home to archaeological sites such as Kabah, Sayil, and Labna, we’ll arrive at the grandest of them all: Uxmal, where we will be introduced to Chac, the rain god, as he is beckoned during the light and sound show here at night.
  • This evening, we’ll revel in our near-death experiences and toast to our health—salud!—over local delicacies.
Day 6
Underground Cooking and the Underworld
  • This morning, we’ll enter an extraordinary “mouth” in the ground—the cave of Calcehtok, a ceremonial site and another gateway into the underworld. In this deep and mysterious place, we’ll see evidence of offerings made to the ancestors.
  • After, we'll set out for Pomuch, Campeche, where we’ll witness the annual ceremony of the cleansing of the bones, a tradition where family members wash the bones of their loved ones each year as part of Hanal Pixán preparations.
  • We end our day experiencing the underground cooking of the mucbipollo tamale, or simply "pib," the most important and symbolic food during this period of the Hanal Pixán. Here, we’ll help in the preparation of this important feast, learning the elements of making one of the world’s largest tamales.
  • Tonight, we’ll return to Mérida and enjoy our last dinner—concluding our vibrant adventure while also celebrating the spectrum of life in Maya culture, experienced over the last few magical days.
Day 7
Final Sunrise and Departure
  • Enjoy a final sunrise or stroll before your day’s travels and a farewell breakfast.
  • For those departing from Cancún, transfers will be arranged for flights departing Friday at 1pm or later. For those departing from Mérida, transfers will be arranged for morning flights or we can arrange private transportation for an additional cost for later in the day.
The Fine Print

This Atlas Obscura Mexico trip is conducted in partnership with Insider Expeditions, a travel company with extensive experience designing and leading trips to Mexico and elsewhere. Please email us at journeys@atlasobscura.com with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.

NOTE ON FINAL ITINERARY

Itineraries and pricing are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific events in mind, and schedules and availabilities may change in coming months. If any activity or person that is advertised is missed or not available, it will be replaced with an activity or person of equal interest and value.  A final itinerary and briefing packet will be ready two weeks before the trip.

PAYMENT

You will be charged a non-refundable, nontransferable $250 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $2,749 will be due on August 1, 2017. All reservations will be final after this date, and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $495 will be included in the final payment. 

NOTE ON HOTELS

Accommodation throughout the trip is at 4-star boutique hotels.

FLIGHT ARRANGEMENTS

Travelers on this adventure should plan to fly into Cancun, Mexico, arriving by 12pm on Saturday, October 28 and departing after 1pm on Friday, November 3. For your departure, you can also consider a flight from the Mérida airport (multiple flights daily) any time on Friday, November 3.

To find the lowest fare, best connections, or just to get settled and sleep off the jet lag, also consider coming in a day early, on October 27th; we are happy to help you find a hotel in the area at a variety of price points as well as a flight that works best for you. Contact us at [email protected] or 929.399.4975 if you'd like help with flight options for this upcoming trip.

TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR

  • Transportation and flights to and from Cancun, Mexico. (Departing flights from Mérida are also an option.)
  • Baggage charges.
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings, including three dinners during the trip.