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Izamal, Quintana Roo - The Magical Yellow City

Updated on September 26, 2012

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.

Kinich Kak Mo - Izamal's most impressive Mayan ruin. If you're climbing, be careful! My father's GIANT hat should act as a parachute should he fall.
Kinich Kak Mo - Izamal's most impressive Mayan ruin. If you're climbing, be careful! My father's GIANT hat should act as a parachute should he fall.
Interestingly, this is a pyramid on TOP of a pyramid. The base itself is HUGE!
Interestingly, this is a pyramid on TOP of a pyramid. The base itself is HUGE!
View from the base of the upper pyramid
View from the base of the upper pyramid

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 City

Click thumbnail to view full-size
You'll find lots of delicious street food throughout the city!Heading up to the monastery, which is built atop one of Izamal's Mayan pyramids.The beautiful monastaryDramatic skies are common here!Everywhere you go, it's gold, gold, gold!
You'll find lots of delicious street food throughout the city!
You'll find lots of delicious street food throughout the city!
Heading up to the monastery, which is built atop one of Izamal's Mayan pyramids.
Heading up to the monastery, which is built atop one of Izamal's Mayan pyramids.
The beautiful monastary
The beautiful monastary
Dramatic skies are common here!
Dramatic skies are common here!
Everywhere you go, it's gold, gold, gold!
Everywhere you go, it's gold, gold, gold!
A markerizamal, yucatan, mexico -
Izamal, Yucatán, Mexico
get directions

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.

Horse-drawn carriages

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.


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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Please do keep Izamal in mind, Princesswithapen! I think you'd love it!

      I had never heard of the place either, Ercolano. It's wonderfully off the main tourist route, which adds to the charm.

      You should totally hit the road again Hyphenbird! I bet you're a really fun travel buddy!

      Thanks for the kind words, Glenn Stok! I hope you have a chance to travel through Mexico someday :D

      Izamal shall be around for quite a while, Angie- perhaps you'll have a chance to visit in the future once some extra spending money comes your way!

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Excellent hub, Simone ... well written, full of info and just the right length to whet the travel appetite.

      Sadly, I can't afford to go but at least I know about it now ...

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I know so little about Mexico. I didn't know there were rich towns like this one. You described it so well I almost felt like I was there. Thanks for the extremely informative Hub.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      What a beautiful and interesting place. I want to go and like your father, will climb that thing. I don't have a giant hat though so I will take my chances. You go so many cool places Simone. I love to travel and think I shall take my boy and start traveling again. Izamal, even the name is exotic.

    • Ercolano profile image

      Sam Walker 6 years ago

      Ooooh, so interesting, never heard of this place before, not even when I was out that way. And very catholic, what a statue of Pope John Paul too. Great and interesting stuff - love finding out about these little gems.

    • princesswithapen profile image

      princesswithapen 6 years ago


      'The yellow city' Who would have thought? Any city or a region with a rich history catches my attention and Izamal seems like a good pick. The presence of Mayan ruins make it all the more exotic. The horse carriages definitely add a special touch, don't you think?

      I will keep Izamal in mind when I travel to that side of the world. Thanks for sharing.