Izamal is a small city in the Mexican state of Yucatán, 72 km east of state capital Mérida, in southern Mexico.
Izamal is the city of the Three Cultures, since this is where the vestiges of its Pre-Hispanic origin coexist harmoniously with the mark of its Colonial past, and the force of its presence as the only inhabited ceremonial center.
Izamal is known in Yucatán as the Yellow City (most of its buildings are painted yellow) and the City of Hills (that actually are the remains of ancient temple pyramids).
Izamal remains a place of pilgrimage within the Yucatán state, now for the veneration of Roman Catholic saints. An early colonial era statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (“Our Lady of Izamal”) is particularly venerated and is the Yucatan state’s patron saint.
Izamal is the home of a distillery that produces an eponymous mezcal from the hearts of the locally grown agave plants.
Izamal was named a “Magic Village” (“Pueblo Mágico”) in 2002.
In 2010, the city’s estimated population was 16,000 people.
The Maya language is still heard at least as much as Spanish in Izamal. It is the first language in the homes of the majority of the people. Most signs are in both languages.
Izamal is an important archaeological site of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is probably the biggest city of the Northern Yucatec Plains, covering a minimal urban extension of 53 square kilometers.
Izamal was continuously occupied throughout most of Mesoamerican chronology. Until the 16th century, Izamal was a mighty Mayan city, with six pyramids around a huge ceremonial plaza at the largest urban center in the North Yucatec Plains.
Its monumental buildings exceed 1,000,000 cubic meters of constructive volume and at least two raised causeways, known by their Mayan term sacbeob, connect it with other important centers, Ruins of Ake, located 29 kilometers to the west and Kantunil, 18 kilometers to the south, evidencing the religious, political and economic power of this political unit over a territory of more than 5,000 square kilometers in extension.
Izamal developed a particular construction technique involving the use of megalithic carved blocks, with defined architectonical characteristics like rounded corners, projected moldings, and thatched roofs at superstructures, which also appeared in other important urban centers within its hitherland, such as Ake, Uci, and Dzilam.
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 Chichen Itza in the Terminal Classic (800–1000 A.D.) until the end of the Precolumbian era, when Izamal was considered a site of pilgrimages in the region, rivaled only by Chichen Itza.
Its principal temples were sacred to the creator deity Itzamna and to the Sun god Kinich Ahau.
Five huge Pre-Columbian structures are still easily visible at Izamal (and two from some distance away in all directions).
The first is a great pyramid to the Maya Sun god, Kinich Kak Moo (makaw of the solar fire face) with a base covering over 8,000 m² of the ground and a volume of some 700,000 cubic meters. Atop this grand base is a pyramid of ten levels.
To the south-east lies another great temple, called Itzamatul, and placed at the south of what was the main plaza, another huge building, called Ppap Hol Chak, was partially destroyed with the construction of a Franciscan temple during the 16th century.
The south-west side of the plaza is partially limited by another pyramid, the Hun Pik Tok, and in the west lie the remains of the temple known as Kabul, where a great stucco mask still existed on one side as recently as the 1840s, and a drawing of it by Frederick Catherwood was published by John Lloyd Stephens.
All these large man-made mounds probably were built up over several centuries and originally supported city palaces and temples.
Other important residential buildings that have been restored and can be visited are Xtul (The Rabbit), Habuc, and Chaltun Ha.
After more than a decade of archaeological work done by Mexican archaeologists at Izamal, over 163 archaeologically important structures have been found there, and thousands of residential structures at surrounding communities have been located.
Spanish Colonial era
After Bishop Diego de Landa arrived at Izamal’s mission in the mid-16th century the city would never be the same again, and colonial buildings were placed right on top of Mayan monuments.
After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century, a Spanish colonial city was founded atop the existing Maya one; however, it was decided that it would take a prohibitively large amount of work to level these two huge structures and so the Spanish contented themselves with placing a small Christian temple atop the great pyramid and building a large Franciscan Monastery atop the acropolis. It was named after San Antonio de Padua.
Completed in 1561, the open atrium of the Monastery is still today second in size only to that at the Vatican. Most of the cut stone from the Pre-Columbian city was reused to build the Spanish churches, monastery, and surrounding buildings.
Izamal was the first chair of the Bishops of Yucatán before they were moved to Mérida. The fourth Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa lived here.
The town of Izamal was first granted the status of a city by the government of Yucatán on 4 December 1841. On 13 August 1923 it was demoted to town status. It was again officially ranked as a city on 1 December 1981.
Pope John Paul II visited Izamal in August 1993, where he performed a mass and presented the statue of the Virgin with a silver crown.
While the center of Izamal isn’t bursting with sights, you’ll fall in love with its colorful colonial architecture going back to the 16th century.
Izamal is often called the “Ciudad Amarilla” (Yellow City) and almost every building is painted in a yellow ochre, while cornices, door frames, and window frames are a bright white.
Amateur photographers will get some eye-popping shots, and the houses are equally beautiful when their yellow facades show a patina of age.
On the south side of the plaza, Parque 5 de Mayo, is the shop Hecho a Mano, selling folk arts and crafts (wood-carvings, embroidered textiles) from around Yucatán.
Convento de San Antonio de Padua
The Convento de San Antonio de Padua is a prime example of how the Izamal’s 16th-century Spanish settlers repurposed the city’s Mayan architecture.
This Baroque monastery is on top of the Pop-Hol-Chac pyramid used to stand here.
Dedicated to the god of the heavens, Itzamna, the Pop-Hol-Chac pyramid was the largest of Izamal’s six Mayan platforms and is still the highest part of the city today.
The Franciscan monastery on top was raised between 1549 and 1561, using stone from the pre-Hispanic monument.
Tallying with the enormous proportions of the pyramid, the courtyard (atrio) is said to be the second largest in the Christian world behind the Vatican.
The church interior has frescoes from the 16th and 17th centuries and a Baroque altar with opulent gilt-wood decoration and painted scenes from the life of Jesus.
Atrio del Convento de San Antonio de Padua
The most impressive thing about the monastery is certainly its sweeping rectangular courtyard (atrio). At more than 7,800 square meters, it’s definitely the largest in the Americas and, as we mentioned, possibly the second largest in the world. You can negotiate the arcades that trace this massive space and survey the “Yellow City”, thrilled by the thought that you’re standing on a Mayan pyramid.
In the middle of the courtyard near the entrance to the church is a statue of John Paul II erected to commemorate his visit in 1993.
Kinich Kakmó Pyramid
An inescapable presence to the north of the city center is an immense Mayan pyramid and the best remaining remnant of Izamal’s pre-Hispanic history.
The Kinich Kakmó Pyramid was dedicated to the solar god of the same name.
Kinich Kakmó means “fire parrot” and this god, with the head of a macaw, was believed to descend to the ground when the sun was at its zenith to accept offerings.
The pyramid is unadorned but is one of the largest in Mexico at 700,000 cubic meters.
You’re allowed to climb to the top, and while it isn’t an easy hike in the midday sun, the view from the top is the best in the city.
Centro Cultural y Artesanal
On the north frontage of Parque 5 de Mayo is a museum in a 16th-century mansion.
This opened in 2007 after being converted from a hotel and presents the work of the most accomplished craftsmen and women in the city.
The museum has 11 halls and its exhibits are divided into five categories: wood, ceramics, metal, textiles and items woven from plant fibers like henequen.
There’s creative jewelry fashioned from palm seeds and cattle horns, alebrijes (wacky papier-mâché monsters), and Calavera Catrinas, skeleton figures made for Día de Muertos.
There’s also a small exhibition about hacienda architecture in the region, and a shop where you can buy pieces by the artisans in the galleries.
One of the largest monuments on Izamal’s lost Mayan plaza, Itzamatul was a monument built over three phases.
The earliest work was done around 400-600 AD and consisted of a base with a light gradient and stairways.
This was covered by a more vertical “slope and panel” construction about 300 years later, which has been restored and can be scaled.
Look north and you can see the Kinich Kakmó Pyramid and get a sense of the layout of the lost Mayan Plaza.
The final phase between the 10th and 12th centuries would have been a gigantic pyramid, of which only the 100-meter-long base and a short stairway remains.
Like Pop-Hol-Chac, Itzamatul was dedicated to the god of the heavens, Itzamna, and would have drawn pilgrims from across the region.
Temple of Kabul
On the west side of the Parque Itzamna plaza are the vestiges of a temple that is only now being excavated.
The name “Kabul” is Mayan for “Miraculous Hand”, and when it was complete this monument would have measured more than 60 meters in length and nine meters high.
Its sides were once coated with stucco decorations, and when the English explorer Frederick Catherwood came to Izamal in 1843 he drew a sketch of an imposing stucco mask as high as the wall itself.
Sadly this decoration has since disappeared.
Monumento a Fray Diego de Landa
On a roundabout facing the southern wall of the Convento de San Antonio de Padua is a monument to Izamal’s colonial founder Diego de Landa.
Drop by for a photo as he’s one of the reasons Izamal looks the way it does today.
He arrived in Yucatán in 1549, three years after the Spanish had established control of the region, and was in charge of spreading Catholicism to the Mayans.
His methods were extreme, to say the least, and involved burning invaluable codices and wholesale destruction of Mayan sites, sometimes transforming them into Catholic monuments, as we see at Izamal.
As a paradox, during this campaign, Diego de Landa also became the earliest and one of the most reliable documenters of the Mayan civilization.
Izamal’s main plaza is on the north side of the Convento de San Antonio de Padua, and in the Mexican style, there’s a colorful sign spelling out the city’s name.
The square is planted with royal palms, tamarinds, and elephant-ear trees and is bounded by arcades and the ramps to the monastery.
In the arcades are cafes, ice cream shops, and taquerias, while if you take a seat and look over the western facade you can see the top of the Temple of Kabul.
Habuk Archaeological Site
On the east side of Izamal are more Mayan ruins dating from the Early Classic Period, as early as the 3rd century AD. Habuk consists of a platform, 90 meters long at a height of just under four meters.
On top is a roughly square plaza, bordered by the remnants of four buildings.
The oldest architecture at this site dates to around the 11th century.
Like Izamal’s other archaeological sites you’re free to poke around and see what you can find.
El Conejo Archaeological Site
The last of the ruins to track down in Izamal is El Conejo, a couple of blocks from Itzamatul and Habuk.
This is one of the smaller sites, with a single platform measuring 40 x 50 meters and standing 4 meters in height.
But archaeologically it has proved one of the most fruitful, as flint spearheads, obsidian cutting tools, ceramic vessels, a copper bell, hatchets, and textile spindles have been found in excavations.
This structure would have been too small for a pyramid but may have been the pedestal for a dwelling belonging to an important Mayan official of the city.
It goes without saying that Yucatecan food has ancient Mayan roots and there’s a big spread of preparations to sample during your time in Izamal.
Made at panucherias and normally enjoyed as an evening snack, salbutes are fried tortillas laden with pulled chicken, pickled red onion, avocado, and lettuce, although they’re mostly made to order.
Along the same lines, panuchos, are fried tortillas stacked with refried beans, pulled chicken, tomato, cabbage and avocado.
A hearty breakfast dish is chaya, made from “tree spinach” leaves (chaya) that are boiled and then fried with onion and chopped tomato and then served with eggs.
For a hearty meal, you could dry queso relleno (stuffed cheese) or frijol con puerco (beans with pork), both of which come in spicy and filling broths.
The regional liqueur is Xtabentún, distilled from morning glory honey and anise seeds, and descended from Mayan alcohol that was consumed via enemas!
Major Fiestas are held in Izamal on April 3, May 3, August 15, and December 8.
In 1975 the official in charge of land redistribution was repeatedly accused of political corruption; letters of complaint were sent from citizens of Izamal to Mérida and Mexico City with no response.
The official was found stoned to death under a large pile of rocks in the town’s main square.
A Mexican Army unit occupied the town for some days after the incident, but investigators failed to find anyone in town who knew anything about what happened.
Buses from Merida to Izamal $1-$4 (1:20 hours) run hourly.
Taxi from Merida to Izamal $11-$15 (1:05 hours).
Buses from Valladolid to Izamal $1-$4 (1:30 hours) run every 30 min.
Taxi from Valladolid to Izamal $19-$24 (1:20 hours).
You can dial 078 from any phone, where you can find free information about tourist attractions, airports, travel agencies, car rental companies, embassies and consulates, fairs and exhibitions, hotels, hospitals, financial services, migratory and other issues.
Or dial the toll-free (in Mexico) number 01-800-006-8839.
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