A lot of people are under the misconception that Izamal isn’t worth visiting because it’s too small and doesn’t offer enough things to do. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mexico’s stunning yellow city holds Spanish colonial treasures to see, but it’s also the perfect place to position yourself to explore a good portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. Mayan ruins, mysterious cenotes, tropical beaches, colorful colonial cities, rich indigenous culture, and delicious local cuisine can all be found in and around Izamal.
Izamal at a Glance
Nicknamed “Ciudad Amarilla” (Yellow City) because of the dominance of well-preserved ochre-hued structures with bright white trim juxtaposed against the brilliant blue sunny sky, Izamal is a golden oasis in the middle of a dense jungle.
But why is it yellow? My research revealed two possible reasons; first, as far back as 1000 B.C., Izamal was an important Mayan pilgrimage site dedicated to the (yellow) Sun God Kinich Kakmo. Second, in 1993 in preparation for a visit from Pope John Paul II, Izamal painted all its building yellow which represented the sun and corn – the main staple of Mexico. Whatever the reason for making it yellow, it was a brilliant idea – it’s just impossible not to feel happy when surrounded by the joyful egg –yolk color.
- Founded: December 4, 1841
- Language: Mayan and Spanish
- Currency: Peso
- Elevation: 43 ft
- Population: 15,101
- Location: Yucatan
- Coordinates: 20°55′53″N 89°01′04″W
- Festivals: April 3, May 3, August 15, December 8
Note: Try to change money before you get to Izamal if you think you will need it; there is only one cash machine in town has been known to run out of money.
It’s easy to drive around Izamal and it’s also an easy drive to get to Izamal from other places in the Yucatan such as Merida, Progreso, Cancun, and Tulum.
Izamal is one of 35 towns in Mexico that has been awarded the “Pueblo Mágico” title (2002). To be considered a Pueblo Magico, the towns must be small and have a rich history and culture. They must be located near other tourist interests, have good infrastructure, and natural treasures that are considered to be “magical.” It must also be acceptable to the locals who assist in developing it. The only other Yucatan town that has the magical designation is Valladolid.
What makes Izamal magical?
- Colonial yellow buildings
- Cobblestone streets
- Iron lampposts
- Central plaza
- Mayan culture and cuisine
- Ancient pyramids
- Proximity to Merida
The Yellow City is often called “the City of Three Cultures” because of its combined pre-Hispanic, colonial, and contemporary influences. Said to be the oldest city in the Mexican state of Yucatan, Izamal has been continuously inhabited for around two thousand years. Until the 16th century, Izamal was a mighty Mayan city, with six pyramids around a huge ceremonial plaza. It was the largest urban center in northern Yucatan.
Everything changed after the city was conquered by the Spaniards, and especially when infamous monk Fray Diego de Landa arrived at Izamal’s mission in the mid-16th century. A Franciscan convent and colonial buildings were constructed on top of Mayan pyramids, and Mayan scripts were burned.
On a roundabout facing the southern wall of the Convento de San Antonio de Padua is a monument to the controversial Diego de Landa. I’m not picturing it here or writing more about him because, frankly, I consider what he did disgusting, although apparently, he felt remorse after burning the ancient scripts so he tried to rewrite as much as he could remember and those documents exist today.
Here are the 10 best things to do in and around the Yellow City.
1 Plaza de Constitution
Plaza de Constitution abuts the main plaza, Parque Itzamna, where you’ll find the government buildings. It’s surrounded by yellow arched arcades with shops and souvenirs. It’s a bustling place and fun to spend some time and/or people-watch.
2 Convento de San Antonio de Padua
The beautiful Convento de San Antonio, right smack in the middle of town, has the unfortunate distinction of being constructed on top of a Mesoamerican pyramid by the Spaniards in 1553. Dedicated to the god of the heavens, Itzamna, the Pop-Hol-Chac pyramid was the largest of Izamal’s six Mayan platforms. The Franciscan monastery on top was built between 1549 and 1561, using stone from the pre-Hispanic monument.
The most impressive thing about the monastery is the enormous atrio (courtyard), the largest in the Americas, allegedly the second largest in the world behind the Vatican.
We loved viewing the 16th-century frescoes on the interior, exploring the ancient stone hallways and strolling through the arcades that surround the massive property.
Like other holy places in Mexico, from December 1 – 8, you’ll see pilgrims climbing the convent stairs on their knees.
3 Parque Itzamna
Izamal’s main plaza is on the north side of the Convento de San Antonio de Padua. Here you’ll find the famous Izamal Instagram letters as well as the (touristy) hat-wearing horse and carriages. Attractive royal palms line the square which is enclosed by arcades and the ramps to the monastery. Inside the arcades are shops selling food and souvenirs.
4 Kinich Kakmó Pyramid
Built between 400 – 600 A.D. and sitting to the north of the city center (Calle 23 between Calle 27 and 28) are large but less impressive than ruins like Chichen Itza Uxmal, Mayapan, or even Tulum. Kinich Kakmó (“fire parrot”) is dedicated to the sun god Itzam Na. Though an impressive 656 feet high, it’s largely unrestored, not much more than a symmetrical stepped hill today; few tourists visit the ruins. But there’s one very positive thing about Kinich Kakmo; unlike Chichen Itza and Tulum, you can climb the high, uneven stone steps to the top for impressive panoramic views of an endless jungle in all directions.
Apart from Kinich Kakmo, there are a few other pyramids from this once impressive Mayan ceremonial center to visit. In fact, is considered by UNESCO to be a first-rate archaeological site for the whole of Mexico and the only city with so many sites within its urban area.
- El Conejo between Calle 22 and Calle 31 and 33
- Itzamatul between Calle 26 and Calle 31
- Habuk between Calle 28 and Calle 35 and 37
- Kabul between Calle 31 and Calle 30 and 32
5 Centro Cultural y Artesanal
If you’re a museum lover, you’ll find a nice one in a 16th-century mansion in Izamal.
In 2007 the Centro Cultural y Artesanal opened after being converted from a hotel. Exhibits include 11 halls containing works of the most accomplished artists in the city made from wood, ceramics, metal, textiles, jewelry, albrijes (intricately carved fantasy creatures), and ceramic catrina dolls.
6 Telchac Puerto
If you’re needing a beach fix, head north to a small beach town called Telchac Puerto. There’s also a lagoon where you may spot a few pink flamingos. There’s a nice all-inclusive resort on this beach, the Reef Yucatan, where you can get a day pass to access the beach, pool and bar, and lounge chairs under palapas. If you want to stay overnight, it’s also reasonably priced and there are other Mayan ruins and the small town of Progreso nearby.
Valladolid is a delightful Spanish colonial town consisting of narrow cobblestone streets lined with pastel-colored houses. Tucked away from the crowds of tourists, the vibe of Valladolid is reminiscent of “old Mexico.” Whether you spend your days strolling around the central square, admiring the well-preserved architecture, exploring some of the pre-Columbian Mayan ruins, devouring tasty Yucatan food, or swimming in the area cenotes, Valladolid Yucatan will not disappoint.
Find a hotel in Valladolid here.
Cenotes are natural sinkholes formed around 66 million when an asteroid slammed into the seafloor off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Limestone bedrock gave way to reveal more than 6,000 caves and reservoirs of water beneath.
In ancient times, Mayans considered these to be sacred places to perform spiritual rituals. Today, they are sought out by tourists looking for the quintessential Yucatan adventure or a refreshing swimming hole to escape the heat.
Close to Izamal are the spectacular Los Tres Cenotes aka the Cuzama Cenotes.
You get to the cenotes via a bumpy ride on a mule-pulled cart. The first cenote looks like nothing more than a hole in the ground with a ladder to descend. The other two looked similarly unspectacular, but once you descend into the depths, you reach expansive caves enveloping an otherworldly subterranean abyss filled with dark aquamarine water, unique rock formations, and jungle vegetation hanging down. It’s one of the best must-do experiences in the Yucatan.
Just an hour’s drive from Izamal, Mérida, the capital of the Yucatan, is one of Mexico’s greatest cultural cities. This vibrant Mayan city enjoys a rich Mayan heritage and has twice been named “the American Capital of Culture.” One of the city’s highlights is the Plaza de la Independencia. Merida has two colonial churches, Mérida Cathedral and white limestone Iglesia de la Tercera Orden, that were constructed using stones from ancient Mayan temples. Also to see is the Casa de Montejo, a 16th-century mansion, and the Sunday market in the government square.
Find a hotel in Merida here.
10 Chichén Itzá
An hour southeast of Izamal is arguably the best-preserved ancient Maya city and UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichén Itzá. Spanning three phases of Mayan history from the 7th – 13th centuries A.D. Chichén Itzá seamlessly combines architectural styles and embraces diversity.
The iconic Pyramid of Kukulcan is 1200 feet high. I climbed it when I was in my early 20s (decades ago), but after too many injuries and at least one death, that is no longer allowed. I even crawled into one of the serpent’s mouths at the base – also no longer allowed. The serpents are renowned for the natural lighting effect at sunset during the spring and autumn equinox.
Other spectacular structures include the Great Ballcourt, the Temple of the Warriors, the Osario Pyramid and the El Caracol Observatory.
What to Eat
I can highly recommend Kinich El Sabor de Izamal, a very well-known restaurant that has won awards for its Yucatecan cuisine. It’s just a short walk from the city center. Full transparency, because Mexican food tends to be rather mushy, it’s not my favorite cuisine. However, this was not the case at Kinich. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal of cochinita filete a la yucateca – pork fillets marinate in achiote (annatto seeds and chili peppers) and sour orange then wood-grilled and served with pickled onions and avocado. And on top of the tasty food, the cozy décor and ambiance of the restaurant were really special, with waitresses impeccably dressed in traditional hand-embroidered Mayan huipil dresses.
Some other food to try in Izamal:
chile relleno – green chile pepper stuffed with queso cheese, covered in corn masa flour and fried
poc chuc – meat marinaded in citrus and cooked over a grill
salbutes – fried tortillas filled with pulled chicken, pickled red onion, avocado and lettuce
panuchos – fried tortillas stacked with refried beans, pulled chicken, tomato, cabbage and avocado
frijol con puerco – beans with pork
cochinita pibil – slow-cooked suckling pig
What to Drink
Xtabentún – the regional liqueur, distilled from morning glory honey and anise seeds
Izamal also has a distillery that produces mezcal from the hearts of the locally grown agave plants.
Where to Stay
We enjoyed staying at Hotel Macan ché, a rustic, secluded property with lush, tropical gardens weaving around personal casitas. It was like living in our own secret garden. Best of all, the location could not have been more convenient, just a few blocks walking distance to downtown, providing access to all the restaurants, shops and sights but in a quiet setting. Hotel Macan ché has a very unique pool, with the bottom made from a huge slab of rough-hewn stone, making it look more like a natural grotto than a swimming pool.
Izamal, the postcard-perfect and Instagram-worthy Yellow City is a special place that will live long beyond your time spent there.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.