My Honest Review of The Hanal Pixan Traditional Tour (Mexico)
Pronounced HAN-AL PISH-AN.
The Day Of The Dead is perhaps the biggest and most significant holiday in Mexican culture…and it’s a lot less grim than it sounds. 🙂
For Mexicans, it is a celebration of life!
Remembering the lives of our loved ones who have already passed.
Hanal Pixan is the name given to the Day of the Dead celebrations by the Maya people who still live in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The term literally translates as “food of souls” in the Mayan language.
In a bid to bring sustainable ecotourism to rural Maya communities, a small beautiful town called Tres Reyes (about 1.5 hours from Playa del Carmen) kindly opened the doors to its fascinating celebrations.
For tourists like me and you, this offers an extremely rare insight into the local traditions which date back 1000s of years.
My Honest Review of Hanal Pixan
- Our Guide and Tour Information
- The Maya’s Beliefs Surrounding The Universe, Life & Death
- Hanal Pixan
- The Mayan Town of Tres Reyes
- Altars, Cemetery & Suspension Bridge
- The Welcome Ritual Performed By A Shaman
- Enjoy a Musical Performance
- The Main Ceremony
- Enjoy A Traditional Mayan Dinner
Let’s begin, MALO’KIN (AKA hello in the Mayan language)!
The tour begins at around 1.30 pm with pick up from your hotel or designated location.
For me and my boyfriend, who actually live here in Playa, we were picked up outside of Coco Bongo on 12th street.
Our shuttle arrived on time and what I noticed is that the participants were split up into groups of English and Spanish speaking people.
I’m all for integration, but if you don’t speak Spanish a mixed group on a tour can be a little draining.
So, in this respect, the tour for me was already off to a good start and well organized.
The van that picked us up was clearly marked and a friendly driver bounced out to meet us and tick us off from his list.
We were the last couple to board the transport and we managed to get two seats right at the front – win! It was comfortable and air-conditioned.
In total, our group was around 14 people.
The tour itinerary states that the day starts at around 1.30 pm and you can expect to be back at your hotel for 12 am.
I know what you’re thinking…long day, right?
In our experience, we did get caught up in some rain (more on that later) and we arrived back in Playa around 10 pm, so I guess it really does just depends on a number of factors including weather, traffic, and so on.
2. Our Guide and Tour
Once we were on the road we were introduced to Rafael, our tour guide for the day.
What a pleasure this man was to meet and get to know!
Rafa had a brilliant sense of humor, was extremely knowledgable, and spoke perfect English.
He gave us just the right amount of context which was delivered in a compelling and hilarious manner to ensure we got the most out of Hanal Pixan experience.
His role was to help us get inside the minds of the Mayan people, understand how they think and their beliefs towards death, time, and the future, before arriving at Tres Reyes.
Rafael had a background in archeology and was clearly very passionate about his profession – he’d been doing it for over 30 years!
He even played the song “Remember Me” from the film “Coco” (a kids film dedicated to showcasing Mexican history surrounding the Day of the Dead) – you have got to watch this before embarking on the tour, it will really help you to understand what’s going on in Mexico during this special holiday!
The tour includes:
- Guided tour
- Artistic performance
- Maya ceremony
- Traditional dinner and soft drinks
However, for your reference, you can choose to complement your experience and add a visit to the archeological site of Coba home to the highest Maya temple in the peninsula.
I recommended that you take with you:
- Comfortable closed shoes
- A raincoat
- Spare clothing
- Biodegradable bug repellent
3. The Maya’s Belief Surrounding The Universe, Life & Death
Unlike most westerners, Mayans believe that death is not the end.
They believe life is cyclical functioning laregly in dualities.
You get the picture.
Despite popular misconception, they did not predict the end of the world in 2012 when the Mayan calendar ended *eye roll*.
They actually had two calendars one was 260 days long and one was 365 days long.
A date in the Mayan calendar is specified by its position in both the Tzolkin and the Haab calendars. This creates a total of 18,980 unique date combinations, which are used to identify each day within a cycle lasting about 52 years.
The Maya had 2 Calendars:
- The 365-day Calendar was called The Haab composed of 18 months made of 20 days, and one month, made of 5 days.
This 5-day month is called “Wayeb” AKA the unlucky month (Mayas often didn’t leave their homes during these 5 days).
2. And the 260-day calendar was called the Tzolk’in which is not divided into months. Instead, it is made from a succession of 20-day glyphs in combination with the numbers 1 to 13 (levels of the super world), and produces 260 unique days.
Interestingly, the length of the Tzolk’in matches nine cycles of the Moon and the gestational period of humans.
If what they believe is true and time is cyclical this would mean you outlive one cycle and another begins. When a certain period ends they carry out rituals and make sacrifices.
Mayas also believe that there were 3 levels to the universe:
- Underworld (made up for 9 levels) – the sacred ceiba tree (pictured above) is thought to connect them to the underworld, and you will actually see one of these during the tour.
- Superworld (made up of 13 levels)
I found all this information very interesting and could hamper on about it all day as it completely fascinates me.
In my opinion, the Mayas were way ahead of their time and far more advanced than even today’s civilization, but as not to overwhelm you, I’ll leave it there and let you experience the rest of the mindblowing info for yourself.
Perhaps, it will change your outlook on life forever…
4. Hanal Pixan
So, what is Hanal Pixan for the Maya’s?
The celebration is divided up into 3 days:
- 31st of October is dedicated to children and they call it a palaal hanal.
- November 1, is dedicated to the dead adults and they call it a nucuch uinicoob hanal.
- The third day is the pixanoob u hanal called in some places pixan mass, because that day a mass dedicated to the souls is applied, usually in the cemetery of the population.
The tradition is characterized by several rites, the main one being a table that works as an altar, lit with wax candles, under the trees of the patio and near the graves of the relatives.
Typical food of the season is placed: atole new, pibes or mucbipollos, jícamas, tangerines, oranges, xec (mixture made with orange, tangerine, jicama and other fruits, as well as ground chili), papaya, coconut and nugget, tamales de x’pelón, vaporcitos, balché (intoxicating drink that is made with the bark of a tree that is called that), sweet bread and jícaras of tasty tan-chucuá (atole that is made with corn dough, cocoa, pepper and anise).
All that adorned with candles, flowers, branches of rue and photographs of deceased people.
It’s a pretty spectacular sight to behold.
5. The Mayan Town of Tres Reyes
After traveling around 1.5 hours from Playa we arrived at the Mayan Village around 4.00 pm.
There were around 5-6 other buses at the site when we arrived. I began to worry about whether the place would feel too busy and overcrowded.
Luckily the tour organizers had done a great job of splitting the groups up in perfect timing with one another as not to clash or arrive at the different areas at the same time.
I think it helped that all the leaders had walkie-talkies. 😉
The tour route was made up of:
- Suspension Bridge
- Cenote de la Vida
- Dining Room
It was an extremely eye-opening experience to see how this Mayan village lived. As we roamed the town with our guide he stopped to explain to us some of the local flora and vegetation here that is used in cooking or even to create paint!
6. Altars, Cemetry, and Suspension Bridge
The order in which you will visit these 3 landmarks will vary.
First, we headed across the suspension bridge.
Dun, dun, dunnnnn!
If you’re scared of heights then this one may be a little tricky for you. I felt like I was on some sort of jungle TV program. It was wobbly, very wobbly, but lot’s of fun.
The bridge connected the two sides of the cenote from the air, looking deep into the cave you could see everyone setting up for the main event – the ceremony!
From the bridge, we headed on over to the local cemetery.
For me this part was a little strange I didn’t want to feel like I was stepping on the toes (literally) of the people who had lived here and passed.
A lot of tourists were taking pictures and something about that just didn’t sit quite right with me. Maybe that’s just me?
Graveyards are a place of peace, not tourist attractions.
However, it was interesting to see how they differed from the ones I was used to.
They were extremely colorful and the tombs were built not into the ground, but on top of the ground and sealed.
This is because of the limestone in the area prevents people from digging down.
If you’re sensitive to this sort of thing I should warn you that you will see some bones!
It is part of the Mayan tradition to wash down some of the relatives before preparing for the celebration. We didn’t see any washing, but we did see bones!
And last but not least my favorite part – the altars!
They were simply stunning adorned with flowers, food, candy, photographs, you could tell just by looking at them how much thought and time goes into building them.
The families were even so kind as to let us into their garden to admire while they explained the meaning of the 3 layers and the significance of the things on display for them.
7. The Welcoming Ceremony Performed By A Shaman
Before heading down into the cave/cenote for the main event our group took part in a welcoming ceremony which was pretty freakin epic’!
The Shaman of the town of Tres Reyes wanted to welcome us into the area and bless us all with good health and safe transportation.
We stood round in a circle as the smell of copal diffused through the air.
He chanted many things and we all raised our hand at the end of the ceremony.
It’s hard to explain what went on here but I can only encourage you to go experience it for yourself, it was amazing!
I am fascinated by Shamans and their rituals and practices.
8. The Musical Performance
As we headed down into the cave for the main event it was a very picturesque walk, however, I should warn you that there are a lot of steps.
Our tour guide was 60 years old and I could tell he was struggling a little but was putting on a brave face.
At this point, things were starting to go dark but the pathway was lit well with candles and burning fires under the cave shelters.
It was somewhat magical I’ve got to say!
When we reached the bottom it was truly fairytale-esque! We were handled candles to hold during the ceremony and took our seat on a ledge that was carved out of the stone.
While we waited for the ceremony to begin we watched an incredible musical performance by a young woman and a guitarist.
Located above eye level the woman looked almost angel-like.
They were singing traditional songs from the region.
She had a beautiful voice that echoed marvelously on the cave walls. The experience felt like something out of a movie, I got goosebumps from the ambiance.
When they were finished everyone applauded and they disappeared back off into the wilderness.
9. The Ceremony
The cave was a-glow with the candles of everyone who had come to witness this incredible ceremony.
In total, I’d estimate there being around 100 tourists.
We all sat around as the fire roared in front of us.
As the Shaman and his men joined us they were seated in a hut high above everyone else and began to chant their rituals. It was mesmerizing.
Mayas say that it ALWAYS rains during Hanal Pixan, this is the god’s way of cleaning earth and paving the way for the souls to return to their families.
Well, during our visit they were right! The heavens OPENED, and when I say opened I mean opened.
Usually, in the Riviera Maya, it pours heavy for 15 mins and stops, not this time, it was coming down HEAVY and was not stopping.
The tour providers handed out emergency ponchos to everyone but I think by this point everyone was pretty wet.
I know I was.
I feel like the ceremony finished way earlier than it was supposed to because of this as and everyone disappeared back up to the main area to seek shelter.
All I can say is that the ceremony was great…while it lasted.
10. The Traditional Mayan Dinner
Luckily, thanks to the humidity in Mexico no one was cold!
However, being soggy isn’t comfortable or desireable and me being the idiot I am (I should know better) didn’t bring any spare clothes to change into.
This works out well for you because I can advise you in this review to definitely TO BRING SPARE CLOTHES, SOCKS, AND SHOES. If it rains, you are going to thank me for it.
It had been a long afternoon and I was SO ready for some food.
We enjoyed a 3-course traditional Mayan meal of soup, Tomales, and cochinita tacos (pork).
We made a vegetarian friend on the tour who sat next to us and she was sad to discover that the main meal wasn’t suitable for her and they didn’t have anything else prepared.
To make up for it they just inundated her with more Tomales which were a little heavy on the stomach in my opinion.
However, the local juices were nice and refreshing.
With full tummies, we were given some time to explore the shop to buy any souvenirs but I didn’t see anything I wanted so instead mooched back over to the Shaman who blessed me (hopefully) one more time and let me take a picture with him.
It was cool.
We headed back to the bus for the drive back and we arrived in Playa around 10 pm.
Did the day go to plan? No.
Did I enjoy myself a lot? Yes.
Would I do it again? Definitely!
If you enjoy tours that are genuine, raw, fascinating then you’ve got to do this at least once.
It’s very different so be prepared… you’re already 3 quarters of the way there just reading this blog.
No surprises for you.
I’d say this kind of thing is more geared to the intrepid travelers. If you are just used to 5* hotels and super commercial tours you’re probably going to wonder why the hell you came (I saw that look on a few peoples face in my group).
But I loved it! It was a real eye-opening experience I truly will remember forever.
Book This Tour In Advance
As I mentioned earlier this tour only happens once a year, save your seat early!
Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org to book.
If you love traveling, you don’t want to miss this!
Jumbo Tik (thank you in Maya) for reading! Don’t forget to SHARE this post with family and friends on Facebook.
If you have any questions whatsoever be sure to let me know in the comments section below and I will get back to you ASAP. 🙂
Hanal Pixan Traditional Tour (Mexico) Review
A raw and rare insight into Mayan culture and their traditions. Geared towards intrepid travelers this is an experience I will never forget.