If you happen to be traveling to the Yucatan capital of Merida during late October or November, you may be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in some of the Hanal Pixán celebrations. Hanal Pixan is a distinctly Yucatecan tradition that is celebrated during the Day of the Dead in Merida, and it is a magical fortnight-long affair consisting of parades, processions, live musical and cultural performances and local competitions.
In this guide, written by a British Travel Writer based in Merida (me!), we will look at everything you need to know about celebrating Hanal Pixán in Merida, the history and traditions behind the holiday, and the schedule of events for Fall 2023.
Hanal Pixán Merida: Experiencing the Day of the Dead in Merida
Hanal Pixán is the Yucatecan answer to Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) festivities. The holiday is celebrated on the same dates as Dia de los Muertos and the two traditions share a lot of similarities, but there are also distinctive differences.
(Culture, traditions and cuisine in the Yucatan are distinctly different to those in other parts of Mexico – so much so that people often joke that the area is like a different country entirely).
People around the world recognize Mexico’s unique relationship with death. Obviously, the loss of a friend or loved one is always sad but instead of dwelling on the fact that the deceased person is no longer with us in their physical form, the Mexican holiday celebrates the fact that they once lived and uses the opportunity to remember loved ones lost and share stories and anecdotes about their lives and accomplishments.
Halloween is not really celebrated in the Yucatan (or in Mexico in general) and it’s important not to think of Hanal Pixán or Dia de Los Muertos as a sort of Mexican Halloween or anything macabre. In 2008, UNESCO recognized the Day of the Dead as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”, cementing its reputation as one of Mexico’s most important traditions.
Crucial dates in the 2023 Hanal Pixán celebrations
The Hanal Pixán holiday, also sometimes referred to as “Comida de Ánimas” (food of the souls) officially takes place from October 31 to November 2nd. However, the festivities usually go on for much longer.
Tuesday, October 31st 2023 is “U Hanal Palal” in the Yucatan – a day to remember children (niños) who have lost their lives.
Wednesday, November 1st 2023, All Saints Day is a day known as “U Hanal Nucuch Uinicoob” in Yucatec Maya and is a day to remember adults that have lost their lives while “U Hanal Pixanoob” on Thursday, November 2nd, remembers departed souls of all ages.
Stores, bakeries, mercados and dulcerias across Merida and the wider Yucatan will start selling Hanal Pixán/skeleton-themed pastries (like pan de los muertos), sweets, chocolate skulls and other treats in the lead-up to the holiday.
Differences between Día de los Muertos and Hanal Pixán
Hanal Pixán is a holiday steeped in indigenous Mayan traditions. Locals believe that during these three days towards the end of the year, Ah Puch (Yum Kimi), the God of Death allows departed souls to return to the earth for a limited period.
Dia de los Muertos is a pre-hispanic celebration that massively pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico, to a time when the ancient Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld. Although Hanal Pixán is a regional celebration that is only celebrated across the Yucatan peninsula, it is important to note that differences exist in the way that Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated from one part of Mexico to another too.
For example, Mexico City has completely different festivities compared to Oaxaca, which in turn celebrates differently to Veracruz and Puebla, etc.
Paseo de las Ánimas (walk of the souls)
The Hanal Pixán celebrations in Merida are kick-started by a procession known as the Paseo de las Ánimas or the “walk of the souls”. Anyone is welcome to join the procession, which typically starts at around 7-8 pm outside the Cementerio General of Merida and weaves through the cobbled streets and passageways of the city en route to the pastel yellow church of La Ermita de San Isabel.
Paseo de las Ánimas processionary route
This processionary route is said to represent the journey that departed souls (Ánimas) make from the cemetery to the land of the living for the Hanal Pixán holiday. Locals dress in traditional Yucatecan clothing (embroidered huipiles for women and guayaberas for men) and paint their faces with Catrina makeup.
Many people hold candles to light the way for departed souls as they make their way to La Ermita church, and prehispanic music is played along the route. There is plenty to see and do along the walk, which is around 20 minutes long.
You can walk the entire route with the thousands-strong procession or there are places that you can stop along the way to buy street food, admire altars, take photos with people in fancy dress, or shop for baked goods, costumes, artisanal handicrafts and other souvenirs. The celebrations go on for most of the night so you can make your way to La Ermita as fast or as slow as you like.
Once you arrive in the plaza beside the little church, you will note that tianguis (Mexican street vendors) have set up shop selling all manner of treats, and a little stage has been erected from which musicians and mariachi perform.
Note that the traffic in Merida can be really bad before the procession so if you have to travel across town, try and get here at least an hour before.
Altars dedicated to the deceased
During Hanal Pixán, people prepare altars or “ofrendas” for their deceased relatives. These altars are usually prepared in private in the home and kept there for the duration of the holidays.
However, you will also see decorative altars in public places like hotels, the centro ADO bus station, malls and airports, etc.
Storefronts across Merida are decorated for the season and children are often tasked with creating ofrendas in schools.
As a tourist or expat in Merida, you will still have the opportunity to see some of these altars for yourself and learn more about the tradition. There is usually an altar competition along with the Paseo de las Ánimas in Merida, whereby locals prepare beautiful vibrant altars for loved ones, celebrities and important local figures at the side of the roads.
At the end of the procession when everyone heads to La Ermita, a winner, along with the runner-ups, will be chosen.
How is a Hanal Pixán altar prepared?
Altars are prepared differently in the Yucatan compared to other parts of Mexico. In most parts of the country, Dia de los Muertos altars have seven different levels, with each one representing a step that the soul must go through before reaching heaven.
In the Yucatan, altars have just three levels. These represent the three planes of existence: earth, the celestial plane/heaven and the underworld (Xibalba) and can be linked with Ancient Mayan traditions.
At the top level, you will usually find a wooden cross made from a sacred ceiba tree, and photographs of Catholic saints along with other religious icons, as well as photos of the deceased and illuminated candles. As per Yucatan traditions, it is customary to only share photos of the deceased if they have been gone for a year or longer.
The central platform is decorated with fresh, fragrant cempasúchil flowers from across the Yucatan peninsula, as well as offerings of the deceased person’s favorite food and drinks. These are laid across a traditional embroidered tablecloth that has been decorated with colorful flowers.
The lower level is usually filled with nine offerings of food and drink that each represents one of the nine gods of the underworld. These are typically regional delicacies like relleno negro, handmade corn tortillas, cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork prepared in an underground oven known as a “pib”), puchero (Yucatecan stew) and Xe’ek’ (a fruit salad prepared with orange, mandarin oranges, jicama and chilli)
Candies and sweet treats are also often offered, though these tend to be traditional candies rather than commercial ones. For example, homemade mazapan or camote (sweet potato) sweets from the city of Puebla.
Pan de Muertos (“bread of the dead”) and other festive treats
Different Hanal Pixán/Dia de los Muertos treats start being sold across Mexico in the lead-up to the festivities, sometimes from as early as late September. One of the most typical is a sweet bread known as “pan de muertos” or “bread of the dead”.
This sweet bread is usually prepared in a circular shape known as a “hojaldra” which represents the circle of life and death but you can often find it prepared in animal shapes and all manner of other figures.
The bread has a consistency that is comparable to a fluffy doughnut. Similar to a doughnut, pan de muertos is glazed with sugar but it usually has an orange flavor.
You will find this sold everywhere from traditional bakeries and patisseries to places like Starbucks and Walmart that stock the treat in Mexico.
Sugar skulls are another iconic symbol of Hanal Pixán and Dia de los Muertos. Interestingly, they don’t have roots in Mexican or Spanish culture and were brought to the region by Italian Catholic missionaries who introduced sugar art to the local people in the 17th century.
You can purchase sugar skulls from various places across Merida and the wider Yucatan but my personal recommendation would be to stop by Ki’ Xocolatl Chocolaterie (Av. Andrés García Lavín 315, San Antonio Cucul). Small decorative skulls are available in dark, white and milk chocolate and make great edible gifts for yourself or your friends and loved ones back at home.
Marigold Flowers (Cempasuchil)
In both Hanal Pixán and Dia de Los Muertos traditions, it is customary for people to head to the panteon (cemetery) before the celebrations and clean and decorate the graves of the deceased. Fresh flowers are brought to the graveside, typically bright yellow Mexican marigolds known as Cempasuchil.
Children’s graves may be decorated with balloons and toys, while large sugar skulls displaying the names of the deceased in sugar art may be placed on adult graves. Families will sometimes clean the graves and create ofertas and flower displays here together, while enjoying good food, drinking and sharing stories about the deceased.
Camino de Flores
The Camino de Flores (walk of flowers) is one of the biggest Hanal Pixán traditions in Merida. It sees thousands of colorful flowers organized in beautiful displays to depict scenes of life and death and traditional life in the Yucatan.
The flowers are divided into three different sections, each reflecting a different vision of death. Huge, larger-than-life papier mache figures are displayed alongside the flowers and created by different schools, locals and businesses from across the city.
The displays are usually set up a few days before the official Hanal Pixán holidays and remain there for about a week. Locations can vary but in 2023, the Camino de Flores will be held at the Parque de la Paz in the historic center of Merida from October 25th to November 2nd.
The displays can be visited every day between 10 am and 10 pm.
Experience unique traditions and practices in Pomuch, Campeche state
If you are interested in venturing further off the beaten path during your Yucatan itinerary and learning more about unique Hanal Pixán traditions, you can take a trip to the little Campeche state village of Pomuch. There isnt an awful lot to see and do in the village itself, but it makes a worthwhile stopping point en route to visit Campeche City.
During Hanal Pixán in Pomuch, the locals exhume the bodies of their deceased family members and lovingly clean and polish their bones. Once this process has been completed, the bones are placed in a small wooden box displaying the person’s name.
The box is decorated with colorful drawings and paintings, flowers and sugar skulls, and then is left out on display in the cemetery for the holidays. Families will sit beside the bones telling their deceased relatives about what they have been up to throughout the year.
Obviously, this may sound a little gruesome and macabre to some so it takes an open mind to appreciate this tradition. If you do decide to stop by Pomuch, it’s important to be respectful of the families at the cemeteries.
As you continue onwards with your journey from Merida to Campeche, you can also stop by Hecelchakán and sample the cochinita pibil. Although this popular dish can be found in abundance across countless places in the Yucatan peninsula, locals will tell you that the very best place to try it is Hecelchakán.
Eat mucbipollo tamales and other traditional dishes
Yucatecan food is distinctly different from the cuisine that you will find in other parts of Mexico and it is only really found in the tri-state area of the Yucatan state, Campeche state, and the state of Quintana Roo. You will no doubt have plenty of opportunities to sample an abundance of different local dishes during your trip everywhere from Merida to the yellow city of Izamal and Valladolid but the Hanal Pixán celebrations are a great, additional excuse to enjoy feasting with the locals.
During these festivities, it is customary to eat a Yucatan delicacy known as “pib” or “mucbipollo”. This is a large tamale made by stuffing corn flour dough and butter with chicken and pork, wrapping it in banana leaves, and then slow-cooking it in an underground oven.
You will see mucbipollo tamales on the central and bottom shelves of Hanal Pixán altars as offerings to the dead and served in street carts around town during the various parades and festivities.
The dish is best enjoyed when washed down with traditional beverages like atole, Xtabentun liquor and balché. Atole is a traditional hot corn- and masa-based beverage that has a thick, creamy consistency and is often flavored with vanilla, cinnamon (canela), guava, and other Mexian fruits.
The Catrinas parade (Desfile de Catrinas) is another one of several parades (desfiles) that takes place in Merida during Hanal Pixán. It is comparable in some ways to the Paseo de las Animas/Parade of Souls but is arguably more light-hearted.
People dress up in elaborate catrina (skeleton) makeup and costumes and dance through the streets close to the Zocalo. The official schedule has not yet been announced for 2023 (I will update it here once it has), but a couple of weeks prior to the event, the Merida government and tourist board usually announce all of the events, their locations and their start times.
If you want to paint your face Catrina-style, several tents tend to pop up around the Plaza Grande, Parque San Juan and Parque Santa Lucia, with ladies offering face painting for as little as 20-30 pesos per person. You can also find makeup palettes sold at Walmart for just a couple of dollars, as well as in cosmetic stores like Sally Beauty and Sephora in the various malls across Merida.
(But I actually found the Walmart stuff really really oily and it became a greasy nightmare after an hour or two in the humidity, so I wouldn’t personally recommend this option). You can also find lots of great accessories, costumes, headbands, etc. at the Lucas de Galvez and San Benito mercados.
History of the Catrina skeleton in Mexican culture
Over the past few decades, the Catrina skeleton has become synonymous with Mexico on the whole, and the Day of the Dead celebrations in general. This image was actually created by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada who was born in Aguascalientes in 1852.
Posada was a satirical cartoonist and pictorial journalist who often contributed witty sketches to various newspapers and publications across Mexico. Sadly, like many artists, he never really achieved significant fame, wealth or recognition while alive and he died in poverty after developing a severe drinking problem.
His first Catrina sketch appeared in a Mexican newspaper in 1910 and the depiction of this skeleton has only really blown up in recent years. It’s important to remember the roots of the Catrina skeleton when people comment that painting your face in Catrina makeup is cultural appropriation of some kind – it isnt, as this isnt an indigenous tradition.
Provided that you embrace Catrina makeup and costumes as part of celebrating Mexican holidays, it shouldn’t be seen as disrespectful.
Final thoughts on experiencing Hanal Pixán in Merida
Celebrating Hanal Pixán in Merida or in other parts of the Yucatan can really help enrich your trip to southeastern Mexico. The good thing is that currently, Merida still remains somewhat off the beaten path as far as travel in Mexico goes.
This means that you do not have to book your trip and reserve Merida hotels, transport, etc. months and months in advance as you do if you want to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico City, or more popular areas.
If you are flexible about when you can travel to the Yucatan, it may be worth planning your trip so that it coincides with this holiday.
Do you have any further questions about experiencing Hanal Pixán in Merida or finding other things to do in Merida in general? I have been living in Merida since January 2022 and I am happy to assist you with any concerns you may have.
Please dont hesitate to reach out to me if you need any other recommendations or information for your Merida itinerary. Have a safe trip to Mexico.
Buen Viaje! Melissa xo