What makes this site special?
Scattered ruins in the middle of the town.
There are two delights in Izamal: the city itself (the oldest in Yucatán) and the ruins. The city itself is a photographer's delight. It is known today as the Yellow City because the Franciscan convent and most of its colonial buildings are painted yellow, in honour of Pope John Paul II's visit in 1993.
The city is also known as The Hill City, because the hillsides conceal many Mayan ruins. You will not find ancient ruins being literally a part of each of the city's neighbourhoods anywhere else. I visited this ruin with my husband Rhod in December 2017 and here is my take on it.
I found a few explanations for the name of the Maya city, but no way of telling which one is correct. According to Maya history, the original name of Izamal was Itzamatúl, where the Mayan god Itzamná was worshipped as the mythical founder of the ancient city. This seems logical to me.
Eric S. Thompson originally interpreted the name Itzamná as 'lizard house' but this translation has been now abandoned. Ná means 'house' and Itz means 'dew' or 'clouds' in the Quechua Mayan language; and 'divination' or 'witchcraft' (sorcery) in colonial Yucatec. Itzam could therefore mean 'sorcerer' but scholars have not agreed on the final version yet as the glyph for this god actually reads Itzamnaaj.
Some online sources say that Landa described Itzamná as the 'first priest' (priests and rulers often took the names of gods as their noble titles) and it means 'he who receives and possesses the grace or dew or substance from the sky'. From the Mayan word Zamná, it could therefore translate as 'The House of Dew'. So Izamal could be understood as 'Heavenly Dew'. However, I found no scholarly article confirming this version. It is generally believed though that Itzamná arrived from the East and founded Itzá civilisation.
Itzamná was the legendary founding father of the city and 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 Mayan pantheon. As the bringer of culture he became the state-god of the Mayan empire. He bears the title of 'lord of knowledge' and is known for his red-hot healing hands. In the past, a large number of pilgrims came from far away to make their petitions to the god Zamná.
The city was founded during the Late Formative Period (750–200 BC) and was continuously occupied until the Spanish Conquest.
The most important constructive activity stage spans between Protoclassic (200 BC–200 AD) and Late Classic (600–800 AD). It was partially abandoned with the rise of Chichén Itzá between 800–1000 AD until the end of the Precolumbian era, when Izamal was considered a site of pilgrimages in the region, rivalled only by Chichén Itzá.
The Spanish Franciscan monks had founded the colonial town here by the second half of the 16th century, during their evangelisation of Yucatán. They established a small Christian temple atop the great pyramid (built with the Mayan pyramid stones) and built a large Franciscan monastery atop the acropolis (former Maya Papp-Hol-Chac ceremonial centre). It was named after San Antonio de Padua, known for his devotion to the poor and the sick.
So who were the ancient Maya that lived here? Were they lords of the jungle? Hunters? Farmers? Warriors? Astronomers? Mathematicians? Pyramid builders? Scribes? High priests and shamans? In short, all of them.
Like all indigenous American peoples, the Maya’s predecessors were nomadic hunters who followed large game animals across the Bering Land Bridge in migratory waves. As hunter-gatherers they populated the Yucatán Peninsula and the southern highlands from 11,000 BC. It’s guessed their origins lay with the Olmec. In the classic era they epitomised the best of civilisation. They had organised cities, a complex religious system, an advanced calendar, trade routes, dynastic leadership and a writing system. They began farming 3,000 years ago and the cycle of maize became a metaphor for Maya life.
The milpa (cornfield) was an integral cultivation system that consisted of growing maize, squash and beans. The jungle had to be cut, cleared, and then set on fire in the dry season and sowed during the wet season (autumn). In Maya thought, the wild parts of the jungle had 'owners' and it was necessary to show them due respect by making offerings and ceremonies to ensure a good harvest. I found lovely models of the ancient Maya life of farmers and hunters in the Mayan World Museum of Mérida. Here they are as a visual support of that life style.
Honey production was also important for the Maya as they did not have sugar. Two stingless bee varieties, Melipona and Trigona, existed in the region. The swarms captured in the hills were kept in hollowed-out trunks. Cotton was one of the greatest of Yucatán's riches.
Men participated in cultivating the plant and the treatment of dried pods (see the model of cotton production below right). Women spun the cotton, winding the thread on the spindle. They wove the thread using a backstrap loom.
Cloth was a highly valued tribute paid by native people. They had to pay the tribute if they were a vassal town, conquered by a neighbouring city and at a later stage, they had to pay cotton and beeswax to the Spaniards.
The Maya always built their town around a water source. In Yucatán it would be around a cenote. The presence of a cave or sascabera was found at K'inich K'ak Moo ruin and I also saw what looked like a remnant of a chultún, a bottle-shaped underground storage chamber for water and food, with plastered aprons which guided rainwater into them during the rainy seasons. After the Spanish conquest they would have used wells as we know them today.
In the Classic period, Izamal had two raised causeways, in Mayan sacbeob (plural of sacbé, meaning white roads, because they were made of white limestone and covered with white stucco). These connected all Mayan cities together, for trade. Contrary to popular belief, there was no Mayan empire, but individual city kingdoms. Izamal had two main sacbeob, which connected Izamal with its allies: Aké, located 29km to the west and Kantunil, 18km to the south. This shows us the religious, political and economic power of this political unit over a territory of more than 5,000km2. The alliance with Aké was subsequently broken for unknown reasons. Trade was very important. For example, all Mayan towns needed to trade in salt and obsidian for their tools. The salt production was concentrated in the coastal centres where they evaporated seawater. Controlling the zones of sea production was so important that it led to wars between inland groups and coastal centres.
Bit Izamal was also a city of priests and astrologers. In fact, the recent research points out that this pilgrim site was considered sacred, because its plan was secret and sacred. The city was built by the priests that watched the stars, as a celestial city: each building is sitting in a place of a certain star constellation, making together a Maya zodiac.
The priests themselves dwelt in Papp Hol Chac building, where they declared oracles such as counting of grains of maize. Here they also celebrated the The ‘New Fire’ festival, held every 52 years across the whole Maya lands. During the June solstice, the priest looked up to the sky and held a bowl with water, to catch the sun eye of the Sun God (K’inich Ahau). The divine essence of life was sent to earth by light shining into the waters. In September they celebrated the rites of the goddess Ix Chel (goddess of moon, fertility, medicine and weaving). Last but not least, they also had four festivals for the four signs governing the seasons of the year.
By the time of the arrival of the Spanish, Izamal was politically less significant. At that time, Yucatán was divided into 19 chiefdoms and Izamal was the seat of one of them, called Akinchel. However, it remained an important pilgrimage centre. Indigenous town councils, known as republicas de indos, were organised, with the former caciques as the leaders. In addition, there were alguaciles (constables), scribes, mayordomos (chief stewards) and sometimes alcaldes (municipal officers) with legal functions. In the mid-18th century the elite were displaced by commoners loyal to the Spaniards. The royal houses served the Maya town council as an administrative centre, a place of records, granary, jail and hostel for travellers.
Following the capture of Izamal by the Spanish, the local population was enslaved and forced to dismantle the top of an enormous pyramid in the centre of the city. The stones were used for the Catholic church and the 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. 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 has been somewhat displaced by the cult of Guadalupe, but she remains the Yucatán's official patron. On the day of the fiesta of the Virgin (8 December), the locals traditionally visit her at the monastery and then walk up the K'inich K'ak Moo pyramid, an example of 'syncretic' religion, keeping both religions in harmony.
The Friar Diego de Landa Calderón deserves a special note here. He believed that a huge network of indigenous priests were jealous of the power the Church and intended to reclaim it for themselves. He also believed that they practised witchcraft. He used a level of physical abuse upon the indigenous Maya that many viewed as excessive. The Maya nobles were jailed and interrogated through 'hoisting', when a 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 Mayan city called Maní.
In this ceremony he burnt 5,000 'devil's books' 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, survive till today (the books were made of wild fig tree bark). Needless to say, a historical treasure was lost this way. Later on, he wrote the Relación de las cosas de Yucatán in which he catalogues the Mayan religion and writing. His notes became the basis for scholars' attempts to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs. By the way, well into the 20th century, Landa's 'alphabet' was dismissed as a fiction, through a crazy combination of academic arrogance. Above is Landa's Maya alphabet from his book (source: latinamericanstudies.org).
Izamal was first granted the status of city by the government of Yucatán on 4 December 1841. In 1923 it was demoted to town status and in 1981 back again to city status. In 1975 the official in charge of land redistribution was repeatedly accused of political corruption and he was found stoned to death under a large pile of rocks in the town's main square. The Ministry of Tourism named this city as Pueblo Mágico ('Magic Town') in 2002. Today, the city is a blend Mayan and Western cultures.
The Focus: K'inich K'ak Moo pyramid
Three large pyramid temples, Ppap Hol Chak, K'inich K'ak Moo and Itzamatúl, together shaped a large plaza when they were built. Today the new city sits on top of most of the ancient city. K'inich K'ak Moo is the largest pyramid left to us. This is a large pyramid of ten levels, dedicated to K'inich K'ak Moo (Macaw of the Solar Fire Face) with a base covering over 2 acres. It is the largest and oldest pre-Hispanic building in the Yucatán. It is quite a job to walk around this large base, which is situated in the middle of the city. There is a separate entrance by the restaurant K'inich, for those who want to climb the top level pyramid.
The pyramid is on top of the large pyramid base (not seen in this photo).
A word of warning here, as the steps to the final level are not well restored and they are narrow and uneven, so good sturdy shoes are a must. We climb all pyramids with my husband but this one felt a bit harder. We were rewarded by a view of the whole town and the nearby convent so it was certainly worth it.
To understand the size of K'inich pyramid, you need to do two things: climb the top level pyramid and also walk around it at street level, along its base. If you don't have time or strength for climbing, you can take a horse ride in town (200 pesos for two people) and they take you around all the pyramids in town, to see them from street level. It is fun!
Ancient Izamal was a very important place of pilgrimage and was considered by the Mayans to be the home of K'inich K'ak Moo, who was both the sun god and the god Itzamná. It means worship was rendered to this deity as a source of life. The pyramid is on the north side of the plaza because north was associated with the sun god. The best way to imagine this confusion of K'inich K'ak Moo is to think of him as an avatar of the god Itzamná, as an aspect of the sun god or subsidiary solar deity. He appears in the Dresden Codex with a macaw head and human body carrying a burning torch in each hand.
The Izamal legend says that this god descended at midday to burn the sacrifice, flying like a macaw. You can imagine that the Mayan Solar Priests placed a lot of offerings here for the god. K'inich K'ak Moo was also probably an avatar of the K'inich Ajaw (K'inich Ajaw), the Yucatec name of the Maya sun god, particularly as the sun is also known as K'ak (fire).
Itzamná was the god of healing and resurrection, the creator of arts and writing, and the giver of many important agricultural items. It is likely that sun worship was fostered here by the noble hierarchy.
According to one legend, K'inich K'ak Moo is the burial place of the head of Itzamná, while his right hand was buried in the K'abúl (Kauil) pyramid and his heart in Itzamatúl.
The Mystery: Healing powers
The enslaved Indians were forced, in 1553, to erect a monastery and church. This should discourage the Indians from their 'devil worship'. 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. Soon after the consecration of the church and the installation of the Immaculate Virgin Mary statue, miracles of healing began to occur. These miracles were explained by the Christian authorities during the 16th century as resulting from the grace of the Virgin. Yet, were the miracles really caused by the Immaculate Virgin inside the church or might they be better explained by reference to the Mayan's beliefs about the power of Itzamná?
The Mayans had built their pilgrimage shrine to Itzamná, as a god of healing, at this precise location, and, if we have no records of healing miracles in Mayan times (other than those encoded in the myths), it is only because the Christians burned all the Mayan writings and libraries during their conquest of Yucatán. After all, Itzamná had greater powers than any other Mexican god to tap into and manipulate mystical and cosmic energies. He was exceptionally long-lived, immune to all earthly diseases and resistant to conventional injury.
Perhaps the miracles of healing at Izamal are caused by a combination of factors including the specific energies of the earth at the site (the reason the Mayans originally chose the place), the prayers of the pilgrims, whether they be to Mayan gods or the Christian Mary.
Don't Miss: The scattered ruins
In his writings, Diego de Landa indicates that there were 12 pyramids in the old city of Izamal. Today, seven can still be seen but you will need to make an effort as they are pretty scattered around the town. Here is the complete list of the locations of the ruins:
K'inich K'ak Moo: Calle 27 between Calles 28 and 26-B
Itzamatúl: Calle 26 at Calle 31
El Conejo: Calle 22 between Calles 31 and 33
Habuk: Calle 28 between Calles 35 and 37
K'abúl: Calle 31 between Calles 30 and 32
Chaltún Ha: Calle 38 and 45, on the outskirts
Round structure: Calle 33 (not listed on any city maps), next to Hotel Rinconada
Ancient well: Calle 24, next to Chapel San Idelfonso
Itzamatúl ruin is a delight. It is easier to climb than K'inich K'ak Moo, preserved in a reasonable state and there is a nice shaded seating area at the base of the pyramid. The pyramid name is yet again a reference to the god Itzamná. Around it are labelled stones, perhaps waiting for reconstruction one day, although there is not sufficient money in Mexico to rebuild all the ruins (there are too many). Here we also found round columns, just lying around, and a few stone water containers, called haltún. It is an artificial container, rather like a trough, carved in the rock, different from chultún, an underground storage dug in the earth. Clearly the Maya used them both as water in Yucatán was scarce, given the porous limestone.
El Conejo is Spanish for the Rabbit. The original Mayan name of this ruin is Xtul. It was named so after a frieze in the shape of a rabbit that was found at the column pedestal of this structure. Not much is left of this ruin but you can walk about and take the shade under some old trees around the ruin. It was explored in 1994, when it was determined that it consisted of three construction stages, like so many Mayan structures. The corners are rounded.
The column pedestal is of modest size but a variety of utensils of everyday life were found here during the excavations, such as flint points, plant pots, spindles for spinning, cutting tools made of obsidian, small hatchets and even a copper bell. The exact function of the structure remains unknown but it is believed that it could have been the column pedestal of the room of an important Mayan official.
Habuk (also Habuc) has an interesting name. Buk means 'dress' or 'clothing'. Ha Means water. Water dress? It was first built between 260-600 AD and the second constructive stage was determined as 800-1000 AD. Today it is covered by weeds and at the time of our visit the gate was closed so we could see it only from the street.
K'abúl (or Kauil) ruins were visited by the famous explorers Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens in 1842. At that time it had a huge stucco mask. The mask represents the Maya sun god, K'inich Ajaw, designated as God G in the Mayan codices. Alternatively, it could have been a portrait of a ruler, with the noble title of K'inich Ajaw (kings often took gods' name as their titles). Désiré Charnay, a French traveller and archaeologist notable for his explorations of Mexico and for his pioneering use of photography, came to Izamal in the 1860s, looking for that stucco mask, but found it had already been destroyed (in the Caste War of Yucatán or by looters?). What a pity. There are nearly identical stucco masks of the sun god K'inich Ajaw (or rulers?) at the ruin site of Kohunlich, so you can still see them if desired.
In the highest levels of the west side, the representation of a captive was found and in its south cover it had the decoration of the moan bird (owl), considered a messenger of Xibalbá (underworld).
K'abúl can't be visited now but it can be partially seen from the Art Museum on the main square. You have to go to the end of the museum yard and peep through the metal-grill gate. Its dimensions could have been 61m long by just over 9m high but you will be able to see only a little bit.
Chaltún Ha is the furthest ruin, on the outskirts of the city. Also set in a lot of weeds, which makes it romantic, but deserves better care, in my view. The Mayan name means 'slab water' in translation. In other words, water from man-made containers called chultún. They must have found a few of them here, to give the site that name.
A few other ancient ruins and objects are scattered around the town.
In the yard of the Hotel San Miguel Arcángel there is a tiny wall remnant, called Hun Pik Tok'. Originally Hun Pik Tok was the ruler of Ek’ Balam city but later the name became a military title adopted by other cities. So it was the House of the Chief Warrior. In translation in means Eight Thousand Lances. It is believed that the captain was holding the weapons for his warriors, here, eight thousand of lances and arrows.
An ancient well at street 24 (next to Chapel San Idelfonso), there is a round structure with a staircase leading to it (next to Hotel Rinconada) and a few slabs with relief in the garden of the hotel Rinconada, if you happen to stay there. From the hotel terrace we observed workers clearing the staircase leading to the round structure and we also noticed a wall at the hotel's back garden, looking ancient. Could it be that Izamal was a walled city?
The site map
All ruin sites are open 8am-5pm and access is free.
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 (colectivo) on Calle 65 between 52 and 54.
Mix & Match
First of all, explore the yellow city of Izamal; visit the convent and the Art Museum. If you want other adventures nearby, try the village of Hoctún (see below), about 15 minutes from Izamal, and visit the cemetery, probably the most colourful in Yucatán. Hacienda Ticum (40 minutes drive from Izamal) could be a lovely place to go for lunch and step into colonial times.