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Izamal, Quintana Roo - The Magical Yellow City
Izamal is an enchanting colonial town 45 minutes east of Merida. It may be one of the oldest towns in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and is known for its gorgeous yellow buildings, charming cobblestone streets, and interesting history.
In ancient Mayan times, Izamal was a significant and large city (possibly the biggest of the Northern Yucatac Plains). Two raised roads (known as sacbeob) connected it to Ake and Kanutil, two nearby ruin sites. Architecture in Mayan Izamal was distinguished by the use of megalithic carved blocks, rounded corners, projected moldings, and thatched roofs covering superstructures.
Sometimes, Izamal is known as the “city of three cultures” because it offers a fascinating blend of three different cultures: Mayan, Spanish colonial, and modern Mexican. One is just as likely to hear people speaking the Mayan language as they are to hear Spanish, and Mayan is the first language of many Izamal locals.
Izmal is also sometimes called “the magical city” (because of its special designation by the Mexican government), “the city of hills” (because its Mayan ruins are about as big as hills!) and “the yellow city” because of the distinctive color given to most of its buildings.
Izamal's Rich History
Some believe the city was founded by Izamna, the Mayan creator deity, but at least general consensus has it that Izamal was established around the Late Formative Period (between 750 and 200 B.C.).
During the Precolumbian era, Izamal came to be seen as a pilgrimage site (and was second as such only to Chichen Itza). Its largest temples were dedicated to the creator deity and the sun god, Itzamna and Kinich Kak Mo respectively. That said, the population of Izamal sagged a bit with the rise of Chichen Itza during the Terminal Classic period, which spanned from 600-800 AD.
Izamal was conquered by the Spaniards in the 1500s and once settled, Spanish monks devoted significant efforts to converting the local Mayan population to Catholicism. Perhaps this work paid off, because the people of Izamal are still quite devoted to the Immaculate Virgin.
Izamal’s convent was established by a Spanish monk named Fray Diego de Landa. Just as the Fray Diego de Landa and his kinfolk worked to deconstruct the local religion, they also deconstructed local buildings and temples to use the stone to build the monastary. Once it was completed in 1561, the atrium of the building was second only in size to that of the Vatican.
Upon his arrival in Izamal, Fray Diego de Landa burned all of the Mayan scripts (something that was commonly done to many ancient Mayan texts, which is one reason why we know so little about Mayan religion, language, and culture). Interestingly, the friar felt bad about his censorship and later attempted to re-write what he could remember of Mayan culture and religion.
In 1993, Pope John Paul visited Izamal, and to commemorate the event, a statue of the pope was erected in the convent courtyard.
Interestingly, in recent years, Izamal has once again become a pilgrimage site, but this time for Catholics seeking to venerate Roman Catholic saints. Our Lady of Izamal (the city’s patron saint) is one of the most venerated colonial-era statues of the city (several of which are said to perform miracles) that people come to see.
In 2002, Izamal was officially named a magical town by the Mexican government. This is part of the Programa Pueblos Magicos (or Magical VIllages Program) established in 2001 and headed up by Mexico’s tourism sector that gives special designations to towns that harbor interesting history and legends, important events, and cool symbolism.
The Yellow CityClick thumbnail to view full-size
Notable Sights in Izamal
The yellow buildings
Almost all of the colonial buildings in Izamal are painted a beautiful butter yellow.
The Franciscan convent
Built right over a Mayan pyramid (known as Chak) that existed before it. Look out for the statue of Pope John Paul, the beautiful stained glass window inside the church (featuring Saint Francis of Asissi), and the statue of Our Lady of Izamal on the second floor.
The most significant nearby ruins can be found at the archaeological sight of Kinich Kakmo. The base of this pyramid covers over 2 acres and the structure rises 10 stories into the sky. Its pyramid is, for the most part, un-restored, but you can climb to the top and enjoy a gorgeous view. Other nearby ruins include the Conejo, Kabul, and Itzamatul.
Museum of the Community
Near the convent in front of Cinco de Mayo Park, this museum (which is all in Spanish) is a nice stop if you’d like to have a look at some interesting exhibits.
These picturesque conveyances take tourists in several different routes around the city, and are so pretty!!
Light of the Mayas
At 8:30pm from Mondays to Saturdays, this light and sound show (which lasts 30 minutes) features exciting lights, sights, and music in the convent’s atrium. It’s 89 pesos for foreigners and 59 pesos for locals.
El Centro Cultural and Artesinal
This recently-opened (2007, which is relatively recent when one considers when the convent was established) center features many of the artisanal crafts practiced in the town.
Life Music and Arts
On Sundays (Izamal en Domingo), visitors can enjoy music, food, and art in the Parque Zamna.