The blend of the Maya ruins in the middle of the town and Spanish colonial buildings and haciendas is as good as it gets. An extraordinary bundle.
No wonder it was awarded the title of a 'magic city' (Pueblo Mágico) by the Mexico Tourism Board. Known as the Yellow City, the City of Hills and the City of Three Cultures, it is a photographer's delight. A feast for your eyes.
I came to Izamal with my husband in December 2017, as we wanted to experience this blend of cultures. And indeed, the remains of one pyramid are right next to the convent and the rest of the ruins are scattered all over the town. This is the only town I've been to where the pyramids are simply part of virtually every neighbourhood.
Izamal is considered the oldest city on the Peninsula as it was founded by the Maya groups of Itzaes between 750–200 BC. Today the city centre boasts seven Mayan pyramids and it remains a city of pilgrimage for the Maya, who believe Izamal promotes good luck for health. At the same time, Izamal's people are very devoted to the Immaculate Virgin (this worship was introduced by the conquering Spaniards). Their place of worship is the Franciscan convent, built over the former Maya monuments and using stones from their pyramids. This was standard practice of the conquering Spaniards; to replace the old Mayan power with their new power: the main seat of new governors or the convents were always built on the site of the Maya sacred pyramids.
The city owes its name to Itzamná, or Zamná, a tribal leader and a teacher of the Maya people. In translation Itz means 'dew' or 'clouds' in the Quechua Mayan language; and 'divination' or 'witchcraft' in colonial Yucatec. The legendary founding father certainly seemed to have magic in his hands and he was later deified. Itzamná was the God of Sky and Creation and husband to the goddess Ix Chel (Goddess of Moon and Fertility) and together they were the parents of all the other gods. In the past, a large number of pilgrims came from far away to make their petitions to the god Zamná.
Today, one of Izamal’s main attractions is the majestic Franciscan Convent. The arrival of Catholicism started with the arrival of the friars in 1549. Izamal was the first seat of the Bishops of Yucatán before they were moved to Mérida. The fourth Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, lived here. He became bishop of Yucatán in 1572 and died in Mérida seven years later. Landa believed that the indigenous Maya practised witchcraft and that it was his duty to suppress the evil. He used physical abuse upon the indigenous Maya; the nobles were jailed and interrogated through 'hoisting'. The victim's hands were bound and looped over an extended line that was then raised until the victim's entire body was suspended in the air. He further ordered a ceremony called auto de fé in the nearby Maya city called Maní, which was the dominant city in Yucatán at the time of the Spanish arrival. In this ceremony he burnt 5,000 'devil's' books (the ancient scripts of the Maya), despite the fact that the ruling dynasty of the Xiu were helping the Spaniards with the conquest. Only four of these books, called codices, have survived till today. Needless to say, a historical treasure was lost this way. Later on, Landa wrote the Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, in which he catalogued the Mayan religion and writing. This later became the basis for the scholars' attempts to decipher the Mayan hieroglyphs.
An image of the Virgin painted in Guatemala was brought to Izamal by Landa and the town became an official Catholic pilgrimage site of Our Lady of Izamal, which played an important role in the Christianisation of the peninsula. In modern times, the Virgin of Izamal was somewhat displaced by the cult of Guadalupe, but she remains the Yucatán's official patroness. On the day of the fiesta of the Virgin (8 December), the locals traditionally visit her at the convent and then walk up the Kinich Kak Moo pyramid, an example of 'syncretic' religion, keeping both religions in harmony.
We happened to visit the town during the week of the fiesta; there was a large fairground on the main plaza, where they sold a lot of Catholic artefacts. The fairground around the convent certainly added to the pilgrim-like atmosphere. We loved just strolling around and watching the local children enjoying the rides. It was also a great place for souvenir shopping although there are also plenty of souvenirs in the local market in the arcades (Las Portales) on the square. We loved the experience of wandering through the aisles and browsing the stalls!
The convent's atrium is the largest in Latin America, and second only to the Vatican's St Peter's Square. It looks very peaceful today but you can still contemplate the changes that the Spaniards brought to the locals. The Convent of San Antonio of Padua continues to be dedicated to the service of the Immaculate Virgin. It is here where Pope John Paul visited in 1993 and the convent and the city were painted yellow in honour of his visit (the town's claim to fame ever since).
Inside the convent church itself, there is the beautifully restored altarpiece, and many statues along the walls. The main feature is the stained glass window of Saint Francis of Assisi (often remembered as the patron saint of animals), which glows into the street behind the convent at night. We stayed in the Hotel Rinconada del Convento on the side of the convent and we could see the original stone walls of the convent from there, with this lit window. Pretty magic! Underneath there is a grass park, obviously open to the public as the local children played football there at night, right under the saint.
The first floor is a small museum of Our Lady of Izamal, Queen and Patron Saint of Yucatán. The local guard will ask you for a small donation entry fee (5 pesos). Her lavish clothes are on display here as are the photographs of the Pope's visit. On the second floor there is a hall with an altarpiece and a rail that is used to bring the Virgin out to public view on special occasions (we did not see her). Note all the gold leaf paint, crystal chandeliers, flowers and elegantly painted walls.
The Museum of the Community, that used to be located under the convent, is no longer there. The visit to the convent is a pleasant half-hour stroll and is a great place to cool down particularly during a hot day.
Zócalo, the main square, has buildings with arcades, a typical feature of colonial architecture. Izamal is a jewel of a colonial city, with almost all the buildings in the centre painted an egg-yolk yellow. Cobbled stoned streets and colonial lampposts complete the scene. Clean, peaceful and quaint, this is a great town to stroll through. There are several haciendas where you can stay for the night: Hacienda Izamal, Hacienda Sac Nicté, Hacienda Santo Domingo, Casa de Los Santos, all of them jewels of colonial Spanish architecture. These haciendas are now all turned into luxury hotels and provide a glimpse into former colonial times. It is not possible to have lunch at haciendas (and have a peep) as the haciendas only serve their guests. Haciendas are Mexico’s equivalent to southern American plantations. In Yucatán the Spanish captains received land for their military achievements in the 16th century and they established many cattle ranches. Later, in the 18th century these ranches turned to haciendas producing sisal fibre from the henequén (cactus) and exported it to the world. They called it 'green gold' as it made many hacienda owners millionaires. Needless to say the indigenous Maya worked at these haciendas and were treated like slaves.
What else to do in Izamal? There are three tourist routes in Izamal. The Zamná route takes you around six Mayan ruins (the seventh, the round structure, is not marked on the map and is right by the hotel Rinconada, on the side wall of the convent). The Friars' route includes the convent and six chapels.
The artisans' route will take you to eight artisans' workshops, such as papier-mâché, miniatures, tinplate and brass, wood carvings, hammocks, machine embroidery and herbal medicine, cross-stitch embroidery and henequén bijouterie workshops.
So let's look at these recommended routes for the tourists.
Before you set off on the Zamná route, first try the Government Palace, where you can see a large model of the town in the outdoor corridor. It shows the entire town and the Mayan pyramids that are scattered around it. To the north are the Mayan ruins of K'inich Kak Moo, the largest and most important. This is a largely unrestored pyramid that looks like a very symmetrical hill. A climb to the top part (a smaller pyramid on top of the large base pyramid) is a bit tricky, as the steps are not fully restored and therefore they are pretty narrow and uneven. Proper shoes are a must. But you will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the convent and town.
Right next to the entrance to this pyramid is the only respectable restaurant in town that we found. It is called Kinich, after the pyramid. We had our meal here, I tried the Yucatec specialty negro relleno (black turkey stew), certainly unusual. The entire meal is black, which is from the charred chillis. My husband had queso relleno (stuffed cheese with mince meat). The waitresses are all dressed in traditional Mayan huipil dresses. The interior is pleasant and there is an open-air courtyard with jungle plants, while a palapa palm-leaf roof covers the dining area. Round the corner from the restaurant you can see the long walls of the K'inich pyramid base along the road.
We also visited Itzamatul and the Conejo (Rabbit) ruins; both can be climbed. There was nobody around so we had them to ourselves. Habuk ruins are not open to the public but we were able to observe them from the street. K'abúl ruins can be seen only from inside the Art museum on the main square. Chultún Há ruins are too far from the city centre; unless you have a car, you can skip them. Look out for my detailed description of the ruins in a separate post Izamal ruins.
Another way, if you don't want to walk or climb, is to take a horse carriage ride (200 pesos for two people and a half-hour ride) and they will take you around these ruins to see them from street level; they will also make a stop at the old railway station.
The rail served all the haciendas for the transport of their sisal to the port of Sisal. The railway station is now closed but the visit is a nostalgic reminder of the rich times of the city. At the time of our visit there was circus equipment just sitting around, also looking out of use. Very fitting!
For art lovers there is the Artisans' route. I would recommend starting with the small but elegant Art Museum and Cultural Centre, just across the square from the convent. This cultural centre and museum showcases popular art from around Mexico. Its shop sells fair-trade-certified crafts made by artisans from 12 indigenous communities. Any purchase you make is a direct source of income for rural indigenous families. Watch out for my separate post Izamal Art Museum.
What I liked most about the museum was the display of old photos from the haciendas. There is a small café in the lovely yard of the museum. If you walk past the little pond (with some artistic plastic water-lilies), you will see a small metal-grill gate and you can peep at the ruins of the Kabul temple through the gate. Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens visited Izamal in 1842; it had a huge stucco mask on one side but it was since damaged, possibly in the Caste War of Yucatán. Kabul can't be visited now so peeping from the museum is the only way to see it. The museum has a room dedicated to archaeologist Désiré Charnay who investigated the Kabul site but the room is currently not open to the public (it seemed to be used as a storage room at the time of our visit).
Finally, there are artisans' workshops scattered across the town, which maintain local arts and crafts traditions. However, we tried to visit two of them and we were disappointed. The miniature workshop was closed. It seems they are not open to the public any more. The papier-mâché workshop was open but not located where the local map showed. We found it in the end. It turned out be a shop only, no workshop so we could not observe how this work is done. The lady was selling mainly papier-mâché butterflies but we bought the only other item – a mobile of figures of Mayan dancers. If you decide to venture along this route, use a town map (from any hotel) that shows all the workshops, but don't expect them to be exactly where the map says.
Izamal has two small and beautiful tree-filled parks and plazas, which are adjacent to each other in the centre of town: Parque Itzamná and Parque 5 de Mayo. People gather in the parks, chat and laugh; that is a common feature everywhere in Mexico. The Maya simply love parks; they are their social places. There are plenty of street food vendors offering traditional Mexican snack foods like tacos, churros, ice cream, and fresh juices. If you do come here, try to join this lovely relaxed atmosphere and become Mexican for a moment.
Town map and locations of the pyarmids
Kinich Kak Moo: Calle 27 between Calles 28 and 26-B
Itzamatul: Calle 26 at Calle 31
El Conejo: Calle 22 between Calles 31 and 33
Habuk: Calle 28 between Calles 35 and 37
Kabul: Calle 31 between Calles 30 and 32
The entry fee to the Art museum is 25 pesos. There is no fee at the convent or the pyramids. The night light show costs 100 pesos if you want to walk the illuminated route along the town street (you need to buy the tickets at the convent). If you want to watch the last five minutes of the show at the main square, then the show is free.
We stayed in hotel Rinconada del Convento. It is pretty central, by the convent (in calle 33) and there is a great pool and an outdoor restaurant for breakfast and lunch. I am going to return to Izamal in February with a group of friends, and on that occasion we will be staying in Hotel San Miguel Arcángel on the main square. If you want to splash out, try Hacienda Santo Domingo (Calle 18 at the corner of Calle 33). I made a special deal with the hacienda owner to come here with my group of friends for a splash in the pool and lunch.
How to get there:
If you are going by car from Cancún or Playa del Carmen, take the Cuota (toll) Highway and turn off 180D at Kantunil village. The journey takes 2.5 hours.
From Mérida take the Cuota road toward Cancún, and exit at km 48 towards Izamal. The trip takes 45 minutes. Or go by bus, the station is at Calle 67 between 50 and 52, with departures every hour. The cost of the ticket is $27 pesos one way, $54 pesos roundtrip. Also you can take a minibus on Calle 65 between 52 and 54.
Mix & Match:
If you want other adventures nearby, try the village of Hoctún (photo on the left), about 15 minutes from Izamal, and visit the cemetery, probably the most colourful in Yucatán.
The village of Kimbilá is the place to buy huipiles, the traditional Mayan dresses, at reasonable prices. It is about 20-minute drive from Izamal.
Hacienda Ticum (40 minute drive from Izamal) could be a lovely place to go for lunch.