Izamal, Yucatan, is the kind of place you will love exploring – I only know too well! I got there by chance the first time, and enjoyed it so much that I actually decided to go back the other times I was in the region.
This small city is actually one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos – and that should be enough to make you want to visit. The Ciudad Amarilla (Yellow City, in English), perfectly lives up to its nickname: it is, indeed, completely yellow. And as such, it’s incredibly photogenic.
Lesser visited compared to other nearby cities, the pleasantly quiet Izamal is a lovely maze of cobbled alleys, churches and Mayan ruins. Curious to discover more about it? Continue reading, as I will share what you need to know about it – including some tips to plan your visit.
Where Is Izamal?
Situated 45 miles (72.4 km) east of the Yucatan capital of Merida, the town of Izamal, Mexico, is an easy day trip from the city. It’s packed full of amazing things to see and do. Also boasting a long and fascinating history, the enigmatic “Yellow City” is home to only around 15,000 people and is well worth a visit.
The History Of Izamal, Yucatan
Izamal may look like a colonial-era city, with its yellow fronted buildings and wide boulevards, but it actually has a history that stretches back much further than the 16th century.
In fact, Izamal has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. Founded between 750 and 200 BC, it was once an important center of worship of the creator deity, Itzamna and the sun god, Kinich-kakmo. During its history, Izamal was even a site of pilgrimage that rivalled Chichen Itza.
After the Spanish arrived, the colonial city was built atop the existing Mayan one. However, because of the huge amount of work it would take to dismantle the sizable pyramids and other remains, the Spanish decided to leave them mostly intact, but make their own additions.
They put a Christian temple on top of the great pyramid instead; on top of another site (which was destroyed) they built a Franciscan monastery. Completed in 1561, the monastery sits atop the acropolis to this day. Amazingly, its atrium is second in size only to the Vatican City.
That means that Izamal is an unusual combination of lived-in city and archaeological site. There are five enormous ancient structures still easily visited within the town itself, including the great pyramid dedicated to Kinich-kakmo.
Why Visit Izamal, Yucatan?
Present-day Izamal is still a place of pilgrimage. But instead of Mayan deities, the pilgrims come to worship Catholic saints instead, with some statues here believed to perform miracles.
Nevertheless, the Mayan connection is still strong; the Mayan language is still widespread in Izamal, Yucatan, and local life plays out in its colorful local markets and streets.
The chance to visit Mayan ruins in the middle of a city that’s still very much lived and worked in is somewhat unique in Mexico. Usually, ancient Mayan cities were long abandoned before the Spanish arrived (or not long after they arrived). So instead of finding ruins in a tangle of jungle plants after being rediscovered and excavated, the structures at Izamal were merely repurposed.
Needless to say, visiting Izamal is an eye-opening experience. It’s a super interesting city, and one that you won’t forget visiting anytime soon. It’s well worth the day trip from wherever you happen to be based nearby – in fact, you may want to consider spending a night or two there.
One unmissable feature of Izamal is the fact that it’s completely yellow. This makes for some amazing photo opportunities that will quite literally light up your Instagram!
Why Is Izamal Yellow?
Izamal is known by the epithet “Ciudad Amarilla”, or “Yellow City” in English – and that’s for a good reason. Practically all of its colonial-era buildings are daubed entirely in bright yellow (with details of white). The reason why isn’t entirely clear, but there are a couple of theories.
The most prominent of all the theories dates back to 1993, when Pope John Paul II was visiting Izamal on his tour of Mexico. Visiting such a small city as Izamal was an honor for its citizens, and so they prepared to welcome the Pope by painting all the buildings in yellow. The Vatican City flag is yellow and white, so they wanted to impress the Pope. That’s one theory.
The other theory dates back much further, to the time of the Mayan worship of the sun god. This deity was very important in the region, as the sun is powerful enough to affect people’s lives, crops and cause drought. The city is painted yellow to represent the sun god.
The truth is that nobody really knows. It has been reported that the city was already yellow before the arrival of Pope Paul II, but it’s a contested fact. What we do know is that the city is painted yellow, and it’s a super eye-catching place to wander around.
The Best Things To Do In Izamal, Mexico
Visit the Convento de San Antonio
When the Spanish conquered Izamal, though some Mayan structures were spared, many were not. The Spanish destroyed an important Maya temple, the main one in the city, called Ppapp-Hol-Chac in 1533. From its ruins, they built one of the first monasteries in the western hemisphere: the Convento de San Antonio de Padua.
Finished in 1561, the monastery remains to this day in all its yellow glory. Located close to the main square, its large arcaded courtyard plays host to 16th-century frescoes and an original sundial still remains.
It’s certainly an impressive place to visit, and a focal point at the center of the city. The grassy inner courtyard is shaded, making it particularly pleasant on a warm day.
Browse the Mercado Municipal
To get a real taste of local life and what everyday people in the city get up to, you should head to the local Mercado Municipal. Situated right next to the convent, it’s situated inside an open-air, columned building that is – of course – painted bright yellow.
This is the ideal place to browse if you’re looking for some gifts or souvenirs to take home with you. There’s pretty much everything on sale at the market, so simply dive in and jostle for space among the crowded aisles. Think fresh vegetables, herbs and spices, clothing, textiles, and toys.
And if you’re hungry, don’t worry. There is a collection of local food vendors here selling affordable street food.
Walk up Kinich Kakmoo Pyramid
The archaeological sites at Izamal are scattered both within and on the outskirts of the city. By far the most impressive of these is the Kinich Kakmoo pyramid, located along Calle 27.
Kinich Kakmoo – literally “Sun-eyed Fire Macaw” – was an important deity for the ancient Mayan civilization. The base of the huge pyramid platform remains, and can today be found at the north side of the grand plaza. Built between 400 and 600 AD, the structure measures nearly 600 feet square. It was actually discovered to have been built over the entrance to a cave.
The platform, though obviously not a step pyramid in its entirety, is still impressive. You can climb the steps to the bare platform and get a very good panoramic view of the yellow city and the surrounding jungle from the top. It’s a quiet spot that’s never usually too crowded with other visitors.
Other archaeological sites in Izamal, Yucatan
In the main plaza there is also a temple structure called Kabul. There was once a great sun god mask here. Close by is Habuc: a two-tiered platform with a collection of structures nearby, including a megalithic stairway.
There are various other archaeological sites further from the center of town. These include Connejo, Hun Pix Tok, and the fairly large remains at Chaltun Ha. You can also find the remnants of a sacbeob (ancient raised roads used in the ancient Maya era); one runs for 20 miles west to the site of Ake; another goes on for 12 miles, eventually reaching Kantunil in the south.
Whichever of these archaeological sites you choose to visit, chances are you won’t be sharing them with many other crowds. This makes Izamal quite a tranquil, but surprisingly convenient place, for witnessing some ancient Mayan ruins.
Centro Cultural y Artesanal
Located close to the Convento de San Antonio, this cultural center is a small museum that displays a number of high quality crafts from the local area and further afield. English signage throughout the museum helps further your understanding of the textiles, ceramics and woodwork pieces here.
You’ll also find an excellent shop at this cultural center. The products on sale here are fair trade-certified, and crafted by more than 40 indigenous communities from the region. The purchases made at the museum store means that you are directly adding to the income of rural, indigenous families.
There’s also a cafe if you feel like a refreshing drink or a snack.
Where To Eat Izamal, Yucatan
Speaking of food, there are many places to eat and drink in Izamal. It can be tricky to know which ones are best from looks alone, so we’ve put together a short overview of the best eateries in Izamal.
RESTAURANTE MARISQUERIA LA JAIBA – This local, authentic restaurant is run by a friendly family who serve homemade Mexican classics, as well as a selection of good seafood. The portions here are sizable and the prices are very reasonable. It’s a welcoming place to spend time enjoying a meal.
RESTAURANTE LA CONQUISTA – Close to La Jaiba, Restaurante La Conquista is a different sort of experience. This smart restaurant serves regional, traditional dishes for affordable prices. It’s a popular spot thanks to its delicious food, served up in a beautiful, colonial-style setting. There’s a nice courtyard to sit in too. If you’re staying overnight, dinner here is highly recommended.
KINICH IZAMAL – This incredibly popular place is conveniently located in the center. This much raved-about eatery is the go-to destination in Izamal for lunch. Serving up a selection of local dishes inside a yellow building, the restaurant is a cool spot to relax after a day of exploring the city.
ZAMNA – A lovely place known for fresh food made on the spot, with tortillas practically made to order. Staff are attentive and provide an easygoing atmosphere. Eating on the terrace is a tranquil way to spend an afternoon.
How To Get To Izamal, Mexico
How to get from Merida to Izamal
There are several different ways to get from Merida to Izamal, each one depending on your budget and how much time you have.
Firstly, and always the cheapest option, is to travel by colectivo. These compact minibuses are the backbone of Mexico’s local transport network, and this route is no different. Departing from Calle 65 in Merida, these take one hour to reach Izamal and are in the range of $1 to $1.50 USD. It’s easy to spot where the colectivos leave: just look for the line of minibuses.
Simply walk up to the ticket desk on the sidewalk and ask for a ticket to Izamal. You’ll be given a token, pointed towards a specific minibus, and then the van will wait until enough passengers are on board, then you give your token to the driver.
Although it’s cheap, the ride is usually quite cramped and hot. If you’re not on a shoestring budget, this may not be your best option.
Buses from Merida to Izamal depart every hour from the Noreste Bus Terminal, located between Calle 46, Calle 65 and Calle 67. This service, run by Autobuses Centro, are second-class bus services that take longer than the colectivo, as the bus stops along the way – total traveling time is usually around one and a half hours. Just head to the bus station, check the timetable, and purchase your ticket at the counter when you’re ready.
If you want to go at your own pace, minus the ride in a hot, sticky public transport, you can drive yourself. If you’re used to driving in Mexico already, or you already have a rental vehicle, then you’ll be pleased to know it’s a straightforward hour drive east from Merida to Izamal.
You can check the prices of car rental in Mexico here.
By guided tour
Finally, you also have the option of joining a convenient guided tour that departs from the center of Merida and includes a guided visit of Izamal.
You can book your tour to Izamal from Merida here.
How to get to Izamal from Valladolid
If you’re staying in Valladolid, you can still get to Izamal pretty easily in a few different ways.
The simplest option is to take a second-class Autobuses Centro bus. These leave from near Valladolid’s old ADO terminal near the central plaza on Calle 37. The schedule is not always reliable, so it’s best to check with your accommodation or at the bus station the day before you plan to travel. The bus is rather slow though, and can take up to two and a half hours.
You can also self-drive. Head north out of Valladolid, join Highway 18D and drive west until you reach Kantunil, turning off to the north and following signs to Izamal.
Where To Sleep In Izamal
While Izamal is easy enough to visit on day trips from Merida and Valladolid, you may actually want to spend a night or two there to soak in the quaint atmosphere. If that’s the case, you won’t have an issue finding a good place to stay. I have selected the best options for you.
IZAMAL PLAZA – Who said you have to break the bank for a bit of extra comfort? This small guest house is conveniently located in the center of Izamal and has everything you need for a wonderful stay in the Yellow City, including a pool. You can book it here.
HACIENDA IZAMAL – Slightly outside the center of town, but walking distance from all the attractions, this small hotel has massive rooms around a beautifully kept garden and a pool to cool off after a day of exploring. You can book it here.
Are you planning a trip to Mexico? These posts will come in handy:
- The Best Tips For Visiting Mexico
- The Best Itinerary For A Mexico Road Trip
- The Top Things To Do In Merida
- The Coolest Things To Do In Valladolid
- The Best Things To Do In Yucatan