TRAVEL GUIDE TO IZAMAL, MEXICO
Home to grand man-made temples and ancient Mayan pyramids, the Yellow City displays the cultural significance and unique architecture of rural indigenous communities. From learning about the history of the picturesque City of Hills to tips on what to do in this part of the Yucatán, this is our travel guide to Izamal, México
Words: Aleksandra Georgieva
Photography: Jose Pablo Dominguez
04 January 2022
The Izamal of today is a quiet provincial town, nicknamed La Ciudad Amarilla (the Yellow City) for the traditional golden-yellow buildings that spiral out from the center like a budding daisy. It’s easily explored on foot, and spiffy horse-drawn carriages add to the city’s charm. This unique destination is located in the state of Yucatán in southern Mexico. Travellers seek to immerse themselves in the traditional city's picturesque architecture and the well preserved culture of the City of Hills rooted in actual remains of ancient temple pyramids.
In ancient times Izamal was a center for the worship of the supreme Maya god, Itzamná, and the sun god, Kinich-Kakmó. A dozen temple pyramids were devoted to them and other gods. No doubt these bold expressions of Maya religiosity are why the Spanish colonists chose Izamal as the site for an enormous and impressive Franciscan monastery, which still stands at the heart of this town, about 70km east of the state capital Mérida.
Izamal was founded during the Late Formative Period (750–200 BC) and was continuously occupied until the Spanish Conquest. The city became an incredibly important archaeological site of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization. The development of particular constructive techniques made the city stand out with its defined architectonical characteristics involving use of thatched roofs at superstructures, megalithic carved blocks and rounded corners. After the end of the Pre-Columbian era, Izamal became a site of pilgrimages in the region where its principal temples were sacred to the Sun god Kinich Ahau and the creator deity Itzamn.
The Grand Structures of The Yellow City:
Today huge Pre-Columbian structures are still part of the city's charm. A great pyramid of ten levels is built atop a grand base covering over two acres (8,000 m2) of land dedicated to the Maya Sun god, Kinich Kak Moo. During the 16th century the huge building Ppap Hol Chak was partially destroyed, but the great temple Itzamatul still rises amid the city south of what was once a main plaza.
In the west part of the plaza lie the remains of the temple known as Kabul, while the south-west side is occupied by the pyramid of the Hun Pik Tok. Mexican archaeologists have worked for over a decade in Izamal, uncovering thousands of residential structures and over 163 archaeologically important structures. Xtul (The Rabbit), Chaltun Ha and Habuc are some of the restored residential buildings in this city. The grand man-made constructions in Yucatán's Yellow City were likely built up over several centuries to support the local temples and palaces.
A Spanish colonial city was founded on top of the existing Maya one after the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century. Instead of leveling the two huge structures, the Spanish built a large Franciscan Monastery atop the acropolis and a small Christian temple atop the great pyramid. The open atrium of the Monastery was named after San Antonio de Padua. It's construction was completed in 1561 and to this day is second in size only to the one at the Vatican. The surrounding Spanish buildings, monasteries and curches in Izamal were built using the cut stone from the Pre-Columbian city.
Scenic with its yellow-painted buildings and remains of ancient temples, Izamal remains a highly desired destination to visit by the lovers of well preserved culture and unique architecture. In 2002 the city was named a "Pueblo Mágico". Several local saints statues are said to perform miracles including one of the Yucatán state's patron saint and an early colonial era statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception ("Our Lady of Izamal"). The Maya language is still the first language spoken in the majority of local people's homes, but Spanish is also widely used in the city. Izamal is home to agave plants which are used to produce an eponymous mezcal in the local distillery. The city holds major Fiestas on April 3rd, May 3rd, August 15th, and December 8th.
Did you know:
Izamal is known in Yucatán as the City of Hills - there lay actual remains of ancient temple pyramids.
In 2000, the city's estimated population was 15,000 people.
Izamal is also known as the Yellow City due to its picturesque buildings painted yellow.
Things to do in Izamal:
1. Taste the city
One of the best ways to explore a destination is to try the local food. Kinich is a unique restaurant where the staff wears traditional huipiles (long, sleeveless tunics) and serves fresh, handmade Yucatecan cuisine at its finest. From the starter menu make sure to order the house specialty papadzules kinich – rolled tortillas stuffed with diced egg, then topped with pumpkin-seed sauce and smoky sausage. Other dishes Kinich is famous for include a shredded venison dish called dzic de venado and its mouthwatering empanadas.
2. Experience Izamal like a local
One of the best places to visit in Izamal is Restaurante-Cafe Los Arcos. It may not look like much but this venue is the go-to place for locals. Situated in the heart of the plaza, the café is ideal for travellers on a budget who enjoy people-watching. It is also one of the few places in town, which stays open late and a great spot to grab an evening plate or a midday drink.
3.Visit Convento de San Antonio de Padua
After the Spaniards conquered Izamal, they built one of the first monasteries in the western hemisphere with stones from the destroyed Maya temple and Ppapp-Hol-Chac pyramid. The monastery of Convento de San Antonio de Padua was completed in 1561 with unmistakable mazelike design breathing in the location's compelling historical and cultural significance through the use of the Mayan temple stones. Travellers can reach the monastery’s principal church, the Santuario de la Virgen de Izamal, by a ramp from the main square, which leads into a huge arcaded courtyard, known as the Atrium where the fiesta of the Virgin of Izamal takes place each August 15. Original sundial projecting are seen at the roof’s edge when one stands at the courtyard to the left of the church and looks up towards the Atrium. At the back lays a small museum commemorating Pope John Paul II’s 1993 visit to the monastery.
4. Take a detour
If you have time to spare in this part of México, consider taking a detour to Kinich-Kakmó. The third largest in Yucatán is the 34m-high Kinich-Kakmó, where three of three of the town’s original 12 Maya pyramids have been partially restored. Its located north of the monastery and according to the local legend a deity in the form of a blazing macaw swoops down from the heavens to collect the offerings left at the site.
5. Admire the city's art
Popular art from around México is on display at the cultural centre and museum just across the square from the monastery in Izamal. There are cards in English that give excellent summary of the exhibits, while the shop sells fair-trade-certified crafts, which are made by artisans from nearly 40 indigenous communities. Any purchases made there are a direct source of income for rural indigenous families.