Izamal, the Yellow City of Hills and Three Cultures

The Magical Town of Izamal is known in Yucatán as the City of Hills. That’s because, it’s said, for a very long time, the city’s many Maya constructions were abandoned to the point that they looked like mounds. Not too long ago, Izamaleños still called the pyramids “Cerros” (hills). 


On the other hand, these Maya remains’ coexistence with impressive colonial buildings (such as the San Antonio de Padua convent) and, of course, modern life in México, have given the city a second nickname: the City of Three Cultures. 


Izamal’s third moniker is the Yellow City, and it’s easy to see where that comes from: every building in the city is painted in this cheery color. There are countless legends aiming to explain why that is; the truth of the matter is that, in Izamal, buildings have been yellow since the 1960s, and the specific hue was standardized in 1993, to coincide with pope John Paul II’s visit to the city.


A look at the history of Izamal

Izamal tells a story spanning over 2500 years of occupation. As a Maya city, its heyday began in the Proto Classic period (150 - 250 CE), and its decline in the early Post Classic (1000 - 1200 CE), when Chichén Itzá surpassed it in importance. From its main square, four Sacbés (pre-Hispanic walkways) connected the city in each cardinal direction; of those, only two remain: the one that leads to the Aké archaeological site (32 km or 20 mi west) and the one that leads to Kantunil (22 km or 14 mi south). From the original site, the structures that remain have become part of the city, and as such, they’re free to explore every day from 8 am to 5 pm. 


 It was precisely the site’s evident relevance and the monumentality of its structures led the Spanish settlers to establish the San Antonio de Padua convent in Izamal, designating it as an "Indian village" (unlike cities such as Mérida and Motul, which were considered "Spanish towns").



What to see and do in Izamal

Zamná (also known as Itzamná) Square

When you visit Izamal, your tour is likely to begin at the city’s main square, which is known as Zamná, Itzamná, and even Izamal. Whichever name you choose to call it, you’re bound to be taken over by its relaxing atmosphere while you take in the intensity of this Magical Village’s yellowness. 


In addition to taking all the photos you want in front of the colorful letters spelling out "Izamal" or enjoying life and the view from the benches in the square (accompanied by some local snacks or ice cream), take some time to explore the stores around it. For example, at Hecho a Mano (a boutique within the San Miguel Arcángel hotel), stocking up on crafts for yourself or your loved ones will be a breeze; you'll find hats, jewelry, traditional clothing, hammocks, items knitted in crochet cotton, and embroidered hair accessories, among many other things. Also inside the hotel you’ll see a café; if you can spare the time, take a moment to check out what looks like a stone wall next to it. Upon closer inspection,  you’ll find that it’s actually a section of the Hun Pic Tok pyramid. 


You’ll also see the Centro Cultural y Artesanal (Artisanal and Cultural Center), a Mexican folk art museum and spa that’s an excellent stop for art lovers. 


Convento de San Antonio de Padua (St. Anthony of Padua Monastery)

Izamal’s Convento de San Antonio de Padua was founded in 1549 by Friar Diego de Landa, who is perhaps best known for the Maní Auto da Fe in which a significant portion of the pre-Hispanic Maya knowledge was destroyed. The monastery was built on top of a Maya temple called Pap Hol Chac; the added elevation makes the Convento one of Yucatán’s most picturesque lookout points. Finished in 1561, the massive closed atrium is surrounded by 75 arches; at almost two acres, this impressive atrium is the largest one in the Americas, and the second largest in the world, only after St. Peter’s Square in Rome. In 1993, Izamal’s Convento de San Antonio de Padua was one of the sites visited by Pope John Paul II; you’ll see a statue commemorating the event, as well as his denouncement of colonialism against indigenous people throughout the continent, from Alaska to Argentina.


Inside the church itself, you will see the beautifully restored altarpiece, the stained-glass window of St. Francis of Assisi, and many examples of religious art along the walls. The star of the baroque altarpiece is Our Lady of Izamal, Queen and Patron Saint of Yucatán. Nuestra Señora de Izamal is celebrated every December 8, as she is a representation of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. You can also visit her dressing room, an ample and elegant space where the Virgin’s elaborate dresses and accessories are kept for exhibition.



La Virgen de Izamal (Our Lady of Izamal)

In short: Izamal celebrates “Mamá Linda,” Our Lady of Izamal, in August (between the 15 and 22) and December (through December 8). In May there is a third grand, purely religious event: the Yucatán Archidiocese’s Annual Pilgrimage.

Izamal was an important religious destination well before Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1993. That’s because Our Lady of Izamal was already well known for her miracles, and proclaimed Queen and Patron of Yucatán back in 1730.


In 1558, Friar Diego de Landa commissioned two twin images of St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception, one meant for Izamal and the other for Mérida. Our Lady of Izamal became known for multiple miracles; these include becoming impossibly heavy when people tried (and, consequently, failed) to move the image to Valladolid, but especially, delivering Mérida from epidemics and locust plagues when she was brought to the city. 


On April 16, 1829, a terrible fire destroyed Our Lady of Izamal. The Izamal faithful asked for Mérida to donate her twin back to the Yellow City. The Mérida guardians of the effigy acquiesced, and the second image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception was taken from Mérida to Izamal in a solemn procession. This image still resides in her Camarín (dressing room), a small chapel behind the church, and which is open to visitors. 


Our Lady of Izamal is celebrated twice a year; on December 8, the Day of the Immaculate Conception, with a 10-day celebration and fair, and in August. While her Patron Saint day is August 15, her celebration goes well past August 22 (the anniversary of her papal coronation, authorized by Pope Pius XII in 1949). A third celebration is held on the weekend closest to May 31, when Izamal welcomes the Yucatán Archdiocese’s annual pilgrimage, which is headed by the Archbishop and other clergymen. 



Archaeological sites

As mentioned above, Izamal was an important city back in the 2nd century BCE, and many of its pre-Hispanic buildings survive to this day. Most of them are open to the public and free to visit every day from 8 am to 5 pm.


Kinich Kakmó Pyramid in Izamal

The most important (and impressive) of the pyramids in Izamal is Kinich Kakmó, the largest in Yucatán, and the third highest in México. It’s its massive size that makes researchers think that Izamal was one of the most important pre-Hispanic cities in Yucatán. The pyramid is devoted to an advocation of the Maya sun god, Kinich Ajaw, named Kinich Kakmó, whose name translates to “fire macaw with the face of the sun.” Kinich Ajaw was also associated with the god Zamná or Itzamná, who gives the city its name. When he lived as a man, he’s said to have lived there for a while, and died.


Habuk Pyramid in Izamal

Located a short distance from downtown Izamal is the archaeological site of Habuk. While information about this place is scarce, its mystery beckons you to unleash your imagination, contemplating over a thousand possibilities: what could have happened there? Why was it built and for whom? Imagine how it might have looked before the effects of time took hold.


Despite this, visiting the site poses no problem, as it is public and free. Moreover, being uncrowded and peaceful, it is ideal for clearing your mind. The area is well kept, and without any issues, you can climb to the top (not that it's extremely high) of the structure. The visit won't take much time or physical effort, so you can fully enjoy it.


And if you're hungry when you leave, right across the street, you can buy something refreshing to drink or a snack.


El Conejo (T’u’ul) Pyramid in Izamal

If you don't have much time and want to make a quick visit, T’u’ul is what your itinerary needs. The archaeological site popularly known as "El Conejo" (The Rabbit) is located four blocks from the convent of San Antonio de Padua, a distance you can easily walk.


The pyramid, with a base of about 164 ft in front, 131 ft deep, and 13 ft high, welcomes you with a small yellow fence, a wide black gate, and the charming engraving of a rabbit taking care of a straw house. You can enter freely and climb up and down it quite easily. Make sure to keep an eye out for dry branches on your way. 


Compared to other structures in the area, El Conejo pyramid might seem small, but it’s no less interesting. Perhaps you didn't know, but during excavation works, ancient objects of everyday life have been found, such as flint points, pottery shards, and ancient hoists (spindle counterweights) used for spinning thread.


So far, there isn't much precise information about the function of the Rabbit Pyramid; however, it is believed that it could have served as the base of a room for an important Maya dignitary.


Itzamatul Pyramid in Izamal

Just a few steps from Izamal’s Centro, on Calle 26, stands the impressive archaeological site of Itzamatul: the second-largest pyramid in the city, only after Kinich Kakmó.


Upon arrival, a black gate will lead you to the main entrance, all while giving you a good look at what awaits you: a construction dedicated to the Maya god Zamná, composed of three stages, each covered by vegetation.


The first stage, built between 400 and 600 CE, consists of a stepped base on each side and a slight inclination, called Talud; it was in the construction of the second stage that rounded corners appeared, and vertical walls were erected, or at least that's how the informative plaque at the site explains it. Meanwhile, only the large base of over 328 ft on each side and the staircase on its side are preserved from the third stage, dating from 950 to 1150 CE.


Chaltun Ha

Do you want to visit a place that makes you feel like you have it all to yourself? This is it! Almost on the outskirts of the city you’ll find Chaltun Ha (which in the Maya language means "water slabs" or "slabs with water") an archaeological site about which not much information is available. It comprises a pyramid in which three construction periods or phases can be identified.


"Almost on the outskirts of the city" is not an exaggeration. It's a 20-minute walk from downtown Izamal and just five minutes by car. The place doesn't have a designated parking lot, but there's enough space to comfortably park your vehicle.


On another note, it's worth mentioning: wear comfortable and preferably closed shoes. The entrance to the site is a dirt and stone path bordered by vegetation that freely claims its territory. 


Paths of Light Video Mapping

The “Senderos de Luz (Paths of Light)” video mapping show is a promenade down some key sights in the city, departing from Parque de los Cañones Thursdays through Mondays at 8 pm. For Mexican citizens, the show costs $104 pesos; for foreigners, $149 pesos. Remember to wear comfortable shoes and insect repellent, plus, depending on the season, a jacket to protect yourself from “Heladez (humidity)” or a hand fan. 


More activities in Izamal

In addition to the Senderos de Luz video mapping show, you’ll find options for ATV tours of the city or its surroundings. For a different experience, visit Hermano Maya’s sanctuary, where you can participate in a steam bath or Temazcal, a spiritual ceremony of your choosing, or even have a “cleanse” done to do away with bad luck.



Where to eat in Izamal

Izamal offers plenty of regional cuisine restaurants, such as the renowned Kinich, at the foot of the Kinich Kakmó pyramid, or restaurant Zamná, on Calle Real. You can also try delicious Panuchos at the traditional market booths; just across, on the square, you’ll find carts offering Marquesitas, Esquites (street corn), fresh seasonal fruits, and frozen treats. At night, you can visit El Rinconcito del Vate (El Vate’s corner), a restaurant honoring famous Izamal-born poet Ricardo López Méndez. El Vate authored a very famous poem called “El Credo (México, creo en ti),” in addition to global hit “Amor,” made popular in Spanish by Julio Iglesias and Luis Miguel, and in English by Bing Crosby and Ben E. King.



Where to stay in Izamal

Check out lodging and accommodation options on our hotel directory.



Distances to and from Izamal

Distance between Izamal and Tekal de Venegas:  12 km (16 minutes by car) 

Distance between Izamal and Kimbilá:  14 km (21 minutes by car) 

Distance between Izamal and Mérida: 70 km (1:10 hours by car)

Distance between Izamal and Chichén Itzá: 78 km taking the federal or the toll highway (1:10 hours by car)

Distance between Izamal and Espita: 80 km  (1:15 hours by car)

Distance between Izamal and  Valladolid: 96 km taking the federal or the toll highway (1:30 hours by car)

Distance between Izamal and Uxmal: 147 km (1:55 hours by car)

Distance between Izamal and Tekax: 170 km by secondary roads (2:10 hours by car)

Distance between Izamal and Tulum: 215 km by highway (3 hours by car)

Distance between Izamal and Playa del Carmen: 244 km taking the toll road (3:05  hours by car)

Distance between Izamal and Cancún: 263 km taking the federal of the toll highway (3:46 hours by car)