THE YELLOW CITY OF IZAMAL, MEXICO
Known as “ciudad amarillo”, or the yellow city, this picturesque Yucatecan village is full of more yellow buildings than you’re ever likely to see anywhere else. Izamal makes the perfect day trip from both Merida and Valladolid. You shouldn’t need much more time than that either. There’s not a bunch to see, but it’s a photogenic place that’s more genuine than it is touristy. Another one of Mexico’s 122 pueblo mágicos (magic towns) to add on a road trip through the Yucatán.
Maya originally inhabited the area between 750-200 BC. Once a significant pilgrimage site, it’s believed to be one of the biggest Maya settlements anywhere, with around 80 pre-Hispanic structures existing throughout the city. However, most of them were dismantled during the time of the Spanish conquest.
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To understand Izamal you should first understand Diego de Landa
Diego de Landa was a bishop sent by the Spanish Crown after the conquest of the Yucatán in the 16th century. Landa was responsible for the conversion of the Maya people to Roman Catholicism. An expert in the Mayan language, he learned as much as he could about the culture, mainly so that he could later destroy it.
He’s infamous for burning the Maya codices (ancient folding books containing hieroglyphics) and effectively wiping out a large portion of what could have potentially been learned about the Maya civilization. To put it lightly, the guy was cruel and overbearing, torturing the local population during his own version of the Spanish Inquisition. He claimed he did this after finding some human remains inside a cave that he believed to be related to human sacrifice.
Landa was asked to return to Spain to stand trial, but he was ultimately exonerated. He was later reappointed a bishop of the Yucatán until his death in Merida in 1579. In a strange turn of events, he is now best remembered for a book he wrote during his trial back in Spain called Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán (Report of the Affairs of the Yucatán) that stands until today as one of the most detailed accounts of Maya heritage. If you’re curious, you can read more about him here.
So, what’s with all the yellow?
There are a few different stories. The most common and verifiable one is that the town was painted yellow to spruce up the town for a visit by Pope John Paul II, who came here in 1993. According to another version of the story, it was painted to honor an aspect of the Maya sun god known as Kinich Kakmó.
Izamal is 72km (44 miles) from Merida. By car, it’s only a 45-minute drive. Buses leave the Noreste terminal in downtown Merida on Calle 67, between Calle 50 and 52. Timetable: 7am, 8am, 10am, 10:45am, 12pm and every hour after until 7pm, takes 1.5 hours, and it costs 38 pesos ($2). You can find Colectivos on the other side of the street that leave once they’re full.
Izamal is 110km (68 miles) from Valladolid. By car, it takes about 1.5 hours. Buses leave from the second class (Centro) bus station in Valladolid on Calle 37 at Calle 44. You’ll have to check with the station for exact departure times, it takes about 2.5 hours.
HOW TO SPEND A MAGICAL DAY IN THE YELLOW CITY
Izamal is small and concentrated with most of the attractions found within a few blocks of the main plaza. There’s the option to take a horse and buggy tour, but that’s not really our thing, which is why we’ve organized this post as a self-guided walking tour. Keep in mind that in the summer months it gets really hot. Be sure to pack an umbrella, some sunscreen, and water to stay hydrated.
Begin the day visiting the Convent of San Antonio de Padua
The controversial Franciscan priest, Friar Diego de Landa, built Convento de San Antonio de Padua between 1549 and 1561. It may seem as though it’s located on a hill, but in true Spanish colonial fashion, the convent was erected on top of a Maya pyramid. Stones from the Pop-Hol-Chac pyramid were used as the material for the new convent, symbolically and physically replacing the location and form of worship. So ironically, what was once a pilgrimage site for the Maya has now become a pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics.
Three cobblestone ramps lead to the grassy atrium surrounded by 75 white trimmed arches. What makes this convent so famous is that its large enclosed rectangular atrium is the second largest in the world after St. Peter’s Square in front of the Vatican.
Exiting through the main entrance leads you to Cinco de Mayo Park, a little square where you can buy local snacks and watch teenagers practice their dance skills. If you feel like doing a little shopping, Hecho a Mano is a cute little shop carrying crafts from all over Mexico. Most of the proceeds go to the local artists. You can find it on your left side, next door to the San Miguel hotel. On your right-hand side (Calle 31) you can find Centro Cultural y Artesanal located in a beautiful, and (you guessed it) yellow, 16th-century building.
Check out some Mexican art and support a fair trade shop
Centro Cultural y Artesanal features a small, yet stunning exhibition of Mexican folk art. From pottery to paper mache, jewelry, and furniture, the exhibit shows a wide range of Mexican and Maya heritage. For only 20 pesos you can see all of these amazing pieces of work, many of which sadly represent practices and techniques that are in danger of dying out. There’s a gift shop at the end of the museum where you can support the fair trade Taller Maya project, which is a platform of economic development for rural communities in the Yucatán Peninsula. Shop for a unique gift for that special someone back home.
Wander the yellow streets
A trip to Izamal wouldn’t be complete without getting lost in the ochre alleyways. House after house is painted in yellow with white trim, it almost has a psychedelic effect. While wandering, be sure to make your way to the corner of Calle 34 and 27 where you’ll find the cutest little yellow church, Iglesia de los Remedios. From there take a right onto Calle 27 and walk a couple of blocks until you reach Kinich.
Have lunch at Kinich and sample some Maya cuisine
This outdoor thatched-roof restaurant is the perfect place to fuel up. The menu features all the foods and drinks famous to the region. We recommend trying sopa de lima, a traditional sour lime soup from the Yucatán and the poc chuc, pork prepared in a citrus marinade and cooked on a grill, served with their warm, seriously delicious, homemade tortillas. Wash it all down with a refreshing jugo de chaya, juice made from tree spinach indigenous to the area.
Once you’ve had some time to digest, take a left out of the restaurant and continue down Calle 27 until you run into a giant pyramid!
Climb Kinich Kakmó for magnificent views over Izamal
Kinich Kakmó is an ancient 34m (111 ft) high limestone Maya pyramid. It’s named after the deity of the same name whose name translates to “the fire macaw with the solar face”. This fiery parrot god was said to bring about scorching heat and drought. The legend goes that the god would descend in the heat of the midday sun to collect offerings from the people.
The pyramid is free to climb and the top offers the best views over the city. Stairs lead to the first grassy layer, however, the steps up to the top platform can be pretty steep and uneven. We wouldn’t recommend bringing grandma up here!
There are five pre-Columbian structures that are still visible in Izamal! So, if you’re in the mood for more archeology and exercise, here are the names of the others: Itzamatul, El Conejo, Habuk, and Kabul. Check the map at the end of the post for the locations!
At this point, we were sweating profusely and ready to jump in some water! Izamal is not a place full of must-see attractions, but instead, a place to take it easy and enjoy some downtime. For us, that meant lounging by a pool and drinking some Tecate at our hotel as the Mexican sun slowly melted away.
Eat dinner at Zamna
For dinner, we suggest making your way over to Zamna for another chance to eat in the open air under a thatched roof. There’s just something about a warm breeze while eating fresh hand made tortillas, ya know? They offer all the gastronomy of the Yucatán, but they also have a few special items, like rabbit or deer.
When you’re done, you can head next door to Cañones Park and hang out while waiting for the light show to start. Cañones Park is famous for being the location where the Spanish defended the city against Maya rebels during the Caste War.
Enjoy the nightly video mapping presentation
Almost every night (Monday – Saturday) at 8:30pm there is a video mapping show. It starts on Calle 31 right next to Cañones Park. The show honors local history and traditions and is projected onto building walls at five different spots in town. The video is in Spanish, but even if you’re not fluent, you’ll still get the idea.
The tour ends in Parque Cinco de Mayo. You’ll notice more families out and about now that the sun is down and the pavement has cooled off. After the show, we took the opportunity to sit on a bench in Parque Itzamna and munch on some churros.
Stop by the market for breakfast
A visit to any Mexican pueblo isn’t complete without a stop at the mercado. You can find cheap eats here on your way out. If you don’t mind eating tacos early, this is your opportunity to enjoy some authentic cochinita pibil (slow-roasted citrus marinated pork) or tacos de venado (venison) among the hustle and bustle of a real Mexican market.
And with that, we were on our way out of Izamal and headed back to Valladolid.
WHERE TO STAY
Budget: Posada Ya’ax Ich
A cute yellow villa with spacious, clean rooms. Just a few blocks from the main square on the same street as the video mapping show mentioned above. There’s a quiet little garden and pool in the backyard that gives you all the vibes of a Mexican pueblo.
Mid range: Hotel Rinconada del Convento
This hotel is located just one block from the city square, with views of the convent right outside your window. There’s a beautiful green terraced garden and sparkling swimming pool too. Sparkly clean and cozy!
Luxury: Hacienda Sacnicte
This is the place to be if you’re in the mood for some peace and tranquility. The hacienda itself is an elegant 17th-century building with each room tastefully decorated. Cool down by the pool after wandering around Izamal, and afterward enjoy a glass of wine in the outdoor lounge area.
Thinking about going? 5 helpful tips for visiting the yellow city of Izamal
- Bring cash, there doesn’t seem to be many working ATMs in town.
- Wi-Fi isn’t very reliable in these parts.
- This town can get HOT don’t forget to bring sunscreen, an umbrella, and water!
- This is a quiet town of roughly 20,000 people, don’t come expecting a party.
- If you’re headed onto Mérida, be sure to make a quick stop at the colorful cemetery in Hoctún.
Has this convinced you to visit “The Yellow City”? Have you been to any pueblo mágicos?