If you like to go somewhere different each time you visit the Mexican Caribbean, how about a trip to Izamal, the Yucatan’s very own “city of gold?” This peaceful little town famous for its bright yellow buildings is often called the “city of three cultures,” a reference to its pre-Hispanic and Spanish heritage and the traditions of today’s Mayan inhabitants. On August 15, it honors its patron saint Our Lady of Izamal with processions, masses, dances, a fair and the traditional vaquería.
Izamal is one of Yucatan’s two Pueblo Mágicos, a distinction it shares with Valladolid. The Mexico Tourism Board launched Pueblos Mágicos to promote communities with their own brand of magic and colorful traditions.
Izamal has been inhabited since the days of the ancient Maya, in fact the earliest traces of human occupation date back to the third century B.C., making the site older than Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. Izamal later became a sacred place, attracting Mayan pilgrims from all over the Yucatán, who worshipped Itzamná or Zamna, the chief god, inventor of writing, medicine and agriculture.
Over 20 major Mayan buildings have been found in and around Izamal, along with a network of sacbes or roads, house mounds and tombs. The Mayan sun god, Kinich Kakmo was also venerated here and the pyramid erected in his honor still dominates the skyline. Standing 35 meters high, it is the third largest building in Mesoamerica in terms of volume.
After the Conquest, Spanish friars took advantage of Izamal’s religious importance by building a huge Franciscan mission on top of the Pap-Hol-Chac temple. The San Antonio de Padua mission was founded in 1549 and completed in 1618. Home to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the patron saint of the Yucatán since 1648, it is one of Mexico’s ten most important shrines. The fortress-like building is also said to have the largest closed atrium in Mexico and one of the largest in the world, with no fewer than 75 arches!
Just outside the convent walls is a statue of Friar Diego de Landa, the Spanish missionary who oversaw its construction. He also undertook a dangerous journey to Guatemala to bring back a statue of Our Lady of Izamal. He is more famous, however, for the auto de fe in Maní in 1562 in which he ordered thousands of Mayan codices or books to be burned. In a later act of remorse he wrote an account of Mayan life at the time of the Conquest.
Wherever you turn in Izamal you’ll see cheerful yellow paint and a white trim, this tradition dates from the Colonial Period and started with the convent. Nowadays most of the historic houses, arches, churches and civic buildings sport the Izamal colors.
Explore the streets and squares surrounding the convent on foot or hire a horse-drawn carriage or victoria. Apart from the convent and the Mayan pyramids, other local landmarks include the Town Hall, the Community Museum in Calle 31, the colonial churches of San Ildefonso, Los Remedios, Carmen and Santa Cruz and a number of restored houses that now operate as restaurants or hotels.
If you are feeling hungry, the Kinch Kakmo restaurant in the shadow of the pyramid of the same name, is famous for its Yucatecan cuisine.
You may be lucky enough to visit a craft workshop during your visit. Local artisans produce embroidered cotton dresses, hammocks, wood carvings, silver, henequen and seed jewelry and colorful papier mâché butterflies. There are several walking tours that will take you past workshops in different neighborhoods; ask for a map in the Tourist information booth in Izamal Town Hall on the square.
Folk art can also be purchased in the plaza, at several craft shops and galleries and at the Izamal Cultural Center. Funded by the Banamex Foundation and managed by a cooperative of enterprising young Izamaleños, the Cultural Center also has an exhibition of fine handicrafts from all over the country, an informative display on the history of henequen, a café and a mini spa.
As the sun goes down, spend some time people watching in the peaceful main square and stay on after dark for the La Luz de los Mayas Light & Sound Show staged at the Convent at 8:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday.
The landscape around Izamal is dotted with henequen haciendas and the fields of the sage-green plant that played such an important role in the Yucatecan economy in the late 19th century. Most are abandoned but small-scale cultivation still continues at Chichihú. Haciendas Tzalancab and San José Tecoh are open to the public from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and offer bird watching trails. Guides are available at the Tourist Information booth.
Getting to Izamal
If you would like to visit Izamal, why not ask your Concierge to arrange a private excursion for you? If you decide to rent a car and explore at your own pace, Izamal is 158 miles from Cancún and 43 miles from Mérida, take the turnoffs signposted on the toll road or Highway 180.