Izamal. View from the Convent

Izamal: Our Visit of the Magical Yellow City of Yucatan

Izamal, a small town in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula, is a city of three cultures, a true example of the Yucatecan spirit. The cultural blend of ancient Maya, colonial Spanish, and contemporary Yucatecan-Maya synthesis gives it a unique identity.

A Magical City in the Hearth of the Yucatan Peninsula

I am not calling Izamal magical because I feel it is. Although, when it comes to Izamal, I do feel it has something special, something magical about it. However, the city is officially called a “magical city”, and it had to meet requirements to earn the title.

The Mexican government designated 35 cities or towns magical (this was the number in 2028), and this number grows every year (the number was 177 in August of 2023, I’m sure it is even larger now). To be honest, in 2024 I feel the designation is diluted. However, Izamal was part of the original 35, so it probably meant something.

The towns all have to meet certain criteria, and they need to request the status. All of them had to be small, with a rich history, they needed to be near other sites of interest for tourists, and accessible by good highways or roads. The locals also had to develop the program. Considering I saw so many towns I know turn into Pueblo Magico overnight, I don’t know how hard it is to earn the status, but hopefully it comes with some perks, besides overtourism.

Izamal, the Yellow City. Street view.
Izamal, the Yellow City. Street view.

In Izamal’s case, was part of the requirement to color the city yellow, or they had a sale on the same paint, I didn’t know. But one of the first things any visitor notices is that just about everything in the city is yellow. The homes, the colonial buildings, the huge convent, the market, almost every structure. This paint earned the city another nickname, “the yellow city”.

Far from making it boring, the color gives the city character, and a bright, lively ambiance. The cobblestone streets and old-fashioned iron lamp posts add to this feel.

Why Are Most Buildings in Izamal Painted the Same Bright Shade of Yellow?

All joke aside, I assumed that yellow paint being cheap was not the reason, though you never know in Mexico. But my daughter asked the question.

“Why are most of the buildings in the city painted the same shade of yellow? Does this ochre color mean anything?”

There is no better motivation to find out something than trying to answer your child’s questions. So I read up about it.

Izamal. Street in the Yellow City
All the buildings are the same shade of yellow.

Turns out that Izamal being a yellow city is a recent development, since 1993, to be exact. Although yellow is significant as honoring the Sun God, the reason the buildings all match has to do with the visit from the Pope Joan Pablo II.

When he announced that he would visit Izamal and give a mass at the Convent, the city officials wanted to fix up the place. So they decided that painting the Convent and all the surrounding buildings a matching bright yellow would be the right thing to do. Why yellow and not another color?

Izamal. The Convent of San Antonio de Padua and the Statue of Landa
The Convent was first to be painted the same shade of yellow as the surrounding buildings. Diego de Landa’s statue stood in front of it in 2018. Now, in 2024, it is a lively square, zocalo.

In Izamal, many of the houses were already yellow, since the city had been a pilgrimage site to Kinich Kak-Mo, the Sun God. In his honor, many people painted their homes yellow, the color of the sun.

They also considered that yellow was not only the color of the Sun but of the corn and of a part of the Vatican flag. So yellow became the color of the Convent and the surrounding buildings in the center of the town.

You’d expect it to be cheesy, but somehow it works.

Update 2024: The city is still yellow, however, the Zocalo is changed. I no longer saw Landa’s statue, instead, the city center has two zocalos, on two sides of the bright yellow Convent. On my latest visit, I actually enjoyed the city even more.

Our First Visit to the Yellow City of Izamal

Though we visited Yucatan often, Izamal was never one of our destinations. Thinking of it now, I’m not sure why, other than we’ve always had a very busy schedule, with visiting Maya ruins, cenotes, caves, and the beach. I’ve been in Mérida once, but other than that, we avoided cities, unless we drove through them.

Izamal is, in fact, a great destination to stop during a road trip through the Yucatan. During on of our recent trips, we had time on our hand. After visiting the same ruins we’ve known for years, we wanted to see something different. Izamal fit the bill, it was one of the few places in Yucatan we haven’t seen yet.

It even has ancient Maya Ruins we haven’t explored. We always search for ruins on the peninsula, have visited even some of the most remote ones. Until now, I haven’t thought of visiting this city though. But now I know we will return, I need to explore it more.

And we returned, indeed, in January of 2024, when we spent – and enjoyed – two full days in the city.

As we drove towards the center, I couldn’t believe all the hustle-and-bustle surrounding us. Music in the streets, vendors lined up on the sidewalk, families with young children walking around in colorful clothes, and way too many cars.

I didn’t expect this. From the little I knew of Izamal, I imagined it a quieter place. It was impossible to find a decent parking spot, and we settled on squeezing the rental car between two others on a side street.

Izamal. The Back Yard of the Convent/Monastery of San Antonio de Padua
We were in the shadow of the Convent, built on top of and using rocks from an ancient Mayan pyramid. No yellow paint on this side.

Only when I climbed out and looked up, I realized that we were in the shadow of the huge Convent where the infamous bishop Diego de Landa lived.

Landa and the Spanish Inquisition in Izamal

As we walked to the front of the building, we found ourselves in front of a statue.

Izamal. Statue of Diego de Landa
The Statue of Diego de Landa, the infamous bishop who burned the Mayan codices.

“Who is this ugly guy?” asked my daughter.

“Landa, the bishop who burned the Mayan codices,” I answered.

She knew the story, I didn’t have to repeat it. Bishop Diego de Landa, sent to the Yucatan to “save the souls of the natives” was overzealous in his job. When he realized that the “savages” had books written in undecipherable glyphs, he decided that getting rid of the books was the best way to “help” them.

“If he was a bad guy, why do they have a statue of him?”, continued my daughter.

“Good question. I have no clue.”

It makes little sense to see his statue here where most of the population is still Maya. But he lived here, in the convent we were entering.

“Maybe they appreciate something else he did,” I added.

“What? He did something good?”

“Indirectly, I guess. He studied the Maya he tried to convert, and he wrote a book about them, their lives, customs, religion, and glyphs. It was a good resource for Mayanists.”

“Who cares? If he didn’t burn their books, no one would need him as a resource.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

Yet, here was his statue, and no one burned it or broke it. This seemed a mystery to both of us.

A Deeply Religious City

It didn’t take much to solve the mystery. For the Maya today, Izamal is a center for religious pilgrimage. Catholic religious, that it. What Landa started, the Catholicism in Yucatan and Izamal, succeeded eventually.

But it wasn’t because of Landa and the way he tried to introduce the new religion. The Maya converted because their own religion was similar. The ancient Maya religion and the new Catholicism had enough similarities to transition. Both had written and oral traditions, they were both based on religious texts, the Popol Vuh for the Maya and the Bible for the Catholics, and they even had a few similar stories. Both religions included elaborate ceremonies, both believed in an afterlife, and had rules to live by in this one.

The Maya developed their own version of Catholicism though, incorporating some of their old traditions.

Izamal. In the Courtyard of the Convent
In the Courtyard of the Convent, where “Our Lady of Izamal” aka “The Immaculate Conception” inspires pilgrimages.

They believe statues of the saints in Izamal can perform miracles, hence the pilgrimages to them. The most important of them is the statue of “Our Lady of Izamal”, the Immaculate Conception, who is the patron Saint of Yucatan. They have a big fiesta in her honor on December 8th each year. The archbishop of Yucatan visits Izamal yearly, and they even had a visit from the Pope. How many cities in Yucatan can say that?

Izamal is the greatest religious center in Yucatan for the Catholic Maya. For them, Landa might be a not-so-bad guy, since he started it all.

But the local religion is not pure Catholic. The pilgrims visit the Immaculate Conception in the Convent, but they also climb Kinich Kak Moo, a great example of the duality of their religion.

Izamal. Kinich Kak Moo pyramid
People climb Kinich Kak Moo pyramid.

We Visit the Convent

Izamal displays the same ambiguity as the character of Landa. A modern city built on the site of ancient pyramids and a Catholic convent seems controversial. But centuries later they coexist and even complement each other. The Maya are masters in incorporating new elements into their lives.

Since we parked by the Convent, we went inside. We didn’t linger much though. I refused to enjoy this place where Catholic priests tortured indigenous people during the Inquisition while attempting to “save their souls”. Still, I couldn’t help but admire its stark beauty and the view from its courtyard.
Though filled with visitors, the enormous courtyard was still peaceful.

Izamal. The Courtyard of the Monastery of San Antonio de Padua
Visitors walk around the Courtyard of the Monastery of San Antonio de Padua

I glanced down into the Zocalo where all was colorful and lively, far removed from the once oppressive atmosphere of the Convent. Tourists and locals sat in outdoor cafes for a quick lunch, horse carriages drove families around town. The horses wore hats or flowers on their head, color-coordinated with the carriages they pulled.

 Izamal. View from the Convent
View from the Convent

On the other side, the ancient pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo looks down onto the Convent. Even after losing many of its stones to the newer building, it remains the more dominant building, centuries later.

Lunch in the Yellow City

We were getting hungry and the small cafes looked inviting from the balcony of the Convent. But when we walked by them we realized we needed more than a snack for lunch. So we set out to find a more sit-down-get-a-real-meal sort of place.

We found a more upscale restaurant after walking a few blocks. The waitresses wore huipils, the waiting area had comfortable chairs and showcased arts and crafts, some for sale. A popular place, we had to wait for a table, which, hungry as we were, almost made us leave. But we were glad we didn’t.

The tables looked elegant, set up in a courtyard. And the menu didn’t have an English version. None of the waitresses spoke our language either. Our Spanish is not great, but we considered this a good sign. Though high-end, this place didn’t cater to tourists.

Dining in Izamal
Dining in Izamal

This was all great, but, used to English translations of almost every menu in Mexico we encountered before, we were stumped. Though we recognized a few Yucatecan meals, we already had those the previous days. We wanted to experience something different.

Middle-school Spanish class helped. My daughter just took a field trip with her Spanish class to a restaurant in Phoenix. She impressed us by ordering herself. But when the waitress asked her a question, she didn’t know how to answer. None of us did. Turns out, they had a choice to make their chicken dishes with or without the skin. After a few attempts of trying to tell us, the waitress decided for us, telling me she’d order it without. That’s when I understood what she was asking.

“Yes, definitely no skin,” I smiled. She understood kids and their eating habits.
Speaking of kids, the restaurant set up a small playground for them, in direct view from most of the tables. I remember how hard it was to eat a quiet meal with young kids. Here, they could play while waiting for their meal and after, if they finish before their parents.

Our meals didn’t disappoint. We are used to having great food in Mexico, and we had some of the best here. After a good lunch, we felt much better and set out to explore the rest of the city.

Ancient Pyramids Remind Us of the More Distant Past

Of the 80 pre-Hispanic structures in Izamal, only five are visible today. Still, their existence proves that ancient Izamal was the largest city on the plains of northern Yucatan. Built between 600-800 AC, it was an important political and economic power.

Kinich Kak Moo

We walked over to the biggest and best-known pyramid in town, Kinich Kak Moo. Sitting on a base of 195×173 meters, and 35 meters high, it is the largest one not only in town but on the whole peninsula, dedicated to a solar deity. Its name means “macaw of fire – face of the sun”. The ancients worshiped this deity as a source of life. They believed that he came down in the form of a fiery macaw to collect offerings left for him on the top of the pyramid.

Pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo, Izamal. On the platform
On the platform of the pyramid Kinich Kak Moo.

After walking up the first flight of stairs we were on a large platform. Local families sat around in the shade of large trees or climbed to the top of the ruined steps. Some women and young girls wore embroidered blouses, reminiscent of huipils, the traditional Maya dresses.

We lingered on the platform for a while, enjoying the breeze and the shade the mature trees offered. When a cloud finally covered the bright hot sun, we climbed to the top of the pyramid. The stairs are worn, but no rope stopped us from climbing. We spent a good amount of time there, overlooking the city, and the convent across the street.

Izamal. View of the Convent from the top of the pyramid Kinich Kak Moo.
View of the Convent from the top of the pyramid Kinich Kak Moo.

If there was a contest between the two buildings, the pyramid would still win, even though it is rubble. Looking down onto the convent, filled with Maya speaking the same language the ancients did, I imagine it saying, “you took my stones, you burned my people’s books, but you still didn’t defeat me.”

To be fair, the Spanish had a huge influence on the city and its people. But the Maya don’t seem to have been conquered. The two cultures are mixed now, coexisting, each taking the best from the other.

Other Ancient Structures in Town

After descending the stairs of the ancient building, we continued our quest to visit the rest of theancient Maya pyramids scattered through the city.

As we walked away from the main plaza, things became quieter. Fewer cars were on the road, fewer people in the streets.

We stopped at the pyramid of Izamatulfirst, deserted, on a side street. It offered solitude and an easy climb.

Izamatul Pyramid in Izamal
The Izamatul pyramid was an easy climb.

We reached Hun Pik Tokafter walking through a few residential streets. We were alone at this site, too, only a few iguanas kept us company while we explored the structures.

Izamal. View from the pyramid of Hun Pic Tok
View from the pyramid of Hun Pic Tok

The Spaniards destroyed the ancient pyramid of Ppap Hol Chakwhen they built the Convent on top of it, so we had nothing to see there. This practice was nothing new, the ancient Maya built pyramids on top of older ones, in conquered cities. But, while the Maya encased the older ones, intact, preserving them, the Spaniards demolished them.

We missed the temple of Kabul where Stephens and Catherwood, who visited Izamal in 1842, found a huge stucco mask of the God Itzamna. The mask disappeared soon after they recorded it. By 1886, when another explorer, Charnay, searched for it, he found no trace of it.

I Learned to Appreciate the City of Three Cultures

As we walked on narrow city streets, I felt like part of this town, of its people. I felt like I understood them, the way they are connected to their history.

I was happy to see women wearing traditional huipils, the white traditional Maya dresses embroidered with colorful flowers. Younger women wore them, too, not only the older ones, as I saw in other parts of the peninsula. I noticed their differences from those in other towns. The embroideries seem to reflect the town they are from.

I heard Maya spoken as much as Spanish. No one seemed to rush, people were stopping to chat in the streets.

Everything was quieter now, later in the day, even in the center. Fewer visitors at the Convent, fewer cars parked on the premises. A teenager was practicing dance moves in its back courtyard.

After spending a whole day in this city, walking its streets, visiting its historical buildings, I fell in love with it. The friendliness of people, the great architecture of its buildings almost made me forgive them for setting a statue of Landa in its center. Today no one cares about him. His statue is just another landmark, to help direct traffic in the center of the “Yellow City of Yucatan”.

Izamal, the Magical Yellow City of Yucatan

14 thoughts on “Izamal: Our Visit of the Magical Yellow City of Yucatan”

  1. What a fascinating reason to paint the whole town yellow! It certainly adds some charm to it! I love it! It’s so bright, sunny and happy! Would love to visit one day! Pinned for later! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

  2. As you daughter is learning, human history is messy. The native peoples of the Americas all took a hit when the Spanish arrived. We are lucky that anything remains to honor their lives and culture so many hundreds of years later. This town looks quite interesting. I will have the chicken without the skin too. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. You are absolutely right, Deborah. I think it’s important for us to learn about history, even the messy side of it, or especially the messy side, so hopefully we won’t repeat it. When cultures clash, one of them always suffers, or at least they did in the past. But somehow in this town, they overcame it all and in the end, they mixed the two cultures in a way that really works. Thanks for reading.

  3. I didn’t have a chance to visit this town when we stayed in Yucatan. We stayed in Valladolid in order to arrive early to Chcichen Itza. Anyway, I want to plan a trip centered in Merida. That will give me the opportunity to visit towns and Mayan ruins. I love Mexico! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Hi, Ruth, if you start a trip from Merida, this town is very close. And you’ll have many ruins relatively close. Valladolid makes sense when you want to visit a lot of ruins, it is a central location. It took us twenty years to get to Izamal but stopped in Valladolid every trip. Have fun when you go back.

  4. What an interesting place. I think the yellow really works for it. Your daughter is very curious, seems like she keeps you on your toes. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    1. Hi, Anisa. Yes, the yellow works in this town. made it pleasant to walk around. Kids question everything and want to understand everything, I love it. I think we all do, but they are more vocal about their questions. Thanks for reading.

  5. I love the yellow theme – it certainly brings vibrancy to the city, in its own way. The courtyard of the convent looks massive! Izamal sounds like an interesting destination to visit with a little heritage and culture thrown in – a short break from exploring ruins and cenotes 🙂 #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Hi, Kat. Yes, Izamal is interesting, and its yellow theme adds a certain charm to it. It is a great destination in Yucatan. Thank you for your comment, and thank you for reading.

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