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Among the most beautiful Pueblos Magicos, Izamal holds a special place in my heart. Besides its beauty and uniqueness, there is so much culture vibrating in such a small town. In this post, I will tell you the things to do in Izamal and the best way to enjoy the beautiful yellow town.
The name Izmal (in Mayan), means Rocio del cielo (=dew drops from the sky), which was the name of the patron-priest of the original settlement in around 750 B.C., lasting until around the XII century.
A beautiful and quaint colonial town located 68km from Merida and 254km from Cancun, it is one of the first towns to have been included in the list of Pueblos Magicos (Magic Towns) of Mexico, due to its interesting history and culture, and its peculiar location, surrounded by Mayan archeological sites and cenotes.
In fact, the picturesque town was also given the name, “the town of the hills,” because of the numerous Mayan settlements which have been discovered in the surrounding area.
Izamal Yellow town history
Before digging into the things to do in Izamal let’s talk about Izamal’s history
Itzamal went through a complicated and controversial history of rising and falling; I won’t linger too long over historical details, except to say that was a very important religious, economic, and political center for the Mayan civilization, testified by the numerous archaeological sites, huge temples and buildings, and a network of sacbe’ (white pathways built during the Mayan civilization).
Izamal has also been called the “city of the three cultures,” as its current splendor dates back to a mixed heritage of Pre-Hispanic culture, colonial influences, and modern Mexican culture.
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Things to do in Izamal, Yucatan
Monasterio of San Antonio de Padua
The monastery of San Antonio de Padua is what best represents this cultural mix.
Situated right in the center of the town, between Calle 30 and 31, and accessible from 3 sides, (north, east, and west), its arched cloister includes an atrium of 8000m², seemingly the largest of its kind in Latin America.
The main entrance is on the east side and its stairs lead you up to the statue of the Virgin Mary, which is, unsurprisingly, one of the most photographed angles.
The monastery of San Antonio de Padua was built by the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century, finished in 1561, and as seems to be the case with many other new cities rebuilt from Mayan sites, reuses the same kind of white stone which is now a prestigious and scarce resource for modern, eco-trendy architecture.
The yellow monastery is located in the heart of Izamal dominating the main square and getting all the attention. You can walk around the cluster and get inside the church if open.
Another very important fact worth mentioning is the historical period of the so-called “Green Gold era” from 1880 to 1915 when the huge fields and the prosperous soil around the town favored the cultivation of the Henequen plant (Agave), endemic of Yucatan and much like a gold mine at that time.
The processing of this beautiful and blessed plant as a textile allowed the creation of numerous products for different commercial, agricultural and industrial usage, becoming the main activity at the time and providing a boost to the local economy, hence the name, “green gold”.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last long due to the creation of synthetic fibers, which were more economical and easier to produce.
The henequen industry also used to produce a certain liquor, similar to tequila, favored the birth of the popular ‘’haciendas’’, where all the cultivation and processing took place, and which are now either left to personal use or have been transformed into museums or beautiful high-end hotels and spas.
Visit the Piramid of Kinich Kakmó
If you have time I would suggest visiting the pyramid of Kinich Kakmó, just a short walk from the main square (here is the location on the map). It is one of the 5 Mayan temples that can easily be seen within the city of Izamal but the only one that has been brought to light although still surrounded by swarming vegetation.
It’s located a few steps from the monastery and you can get in for a few pesos.
Walk around the yellow town
Although in summer it can be quite hot, you can walk around town and enjoy the beautiful architecture and yellow walls and arches all across the historical center.
But why the walls of this town are painted yellow?
In 1992, Juan Pablo II celebrated mass here, and it was in honor of this very visit that the town was painted in the colors of the Vatican flag: yellow and white, which have thereon remained. (or so they say)
They probably didn’t realize at the time that this choice would have such a positive outcome from a touristic perspective.
As a matter of fact, we tend to be far more attracted at first by the allure of the atypical color, than by the abundance of historical facts and revelations about the already mysterious Mayan culture.
Stay in one of the beautiful nearby Haciendas
Hacienda Sac Nicte
Owned by an Italian lady this stunning hacienda is a real gem embedding the charm of the colonial feel and the comfort of the modern amenities and luxuries.
The old structure of the hacienda has been maintained although restructured, including the old chimney towering over the property. The rooms are exquisitely decorated with precious pieces of furniture and objects from all over the world, being the owner a passionate traveler.
There are two modern rooms as well but the best ones, in my opinion, are the suites attached to the main building which conserves the old colonial feel.
A small pool is located in the center of the property a few steps from the restaurant for guest enjoyment.
The restaurant is open for the public as well (not the pool)
The hacienda is located at only 5 minutes drive from Izamal and it’s the perfect place to stay if you want to relax from your Yucatan road trip after visiting Izamal.
Check rates and availability on Booking.com
Hacienda San Francisco de Tzacalha
As a matter of fact, once you are in Izamal I would suggest you pay a visit to a henequen factory which is still functioning in a small town called Suma, a short distance from Izamal.
Further away, you can visit the beautiful Hacienda of San Francisco de Tzacalha, where you will probably want to spend a couple of nights and experience the hacienda lifestyle at your own pace. The hacienda is located a 1-hour drive from Izamal.
In Izamal and Valladolid particularly, you will find a lot of gadgets and utensils made out of Henequen, such as hats, bags, purses, and original craftworks, which make very original souvenirs. There is also an interesting museum (Museo de Artesanias) on one side of the main square in Izamal – (address: Calle 31)
Practical tips about visiting Izamal
Walk around, armed with a bottle of water, look up at the blue sky, look right, look left; everything around you is a piece of history, from the local cuisine, which you will find in numerous local restaurants and bars, to the art and craft shops, where they showcase local traditional craftworks.
Enjoy the very noisy chirping of birds hiding in the huge trees in the squares especially at sunset.
My favorite part of the day is at dawn when the amazing soft light is perfect for getting some great shots and the atmosphere turns surreal.
Where to eat in Izamal
There are several great restaurants in Izamal but you shouldn’t miss the iconic Kinich and its delicious (and heavy) Yucatecan cuisine.
The service is unbeatable and the food is really delicious especially if you love to try local dishes.
Where to stay in Izamal
Besides the two haciendas suggested in the previous section, there are other few more affordable options in the heart of Izamal
Hacienda Santo Domingo
If you decide to stay in town and wish to fully enjoy it without worrying about driving, this is the place to be. Located within walking distance of the main square, you feel like you are still in the middle of the jungle, as the beautiful cottages are scattered around a flowery garden and connected with the main house via a white gravel sacbé-like path. The rooms are artistically decorated with love and attention to detail, guaranteeing you a comfortable stay in a laid-back luxury ambiance.
Hotel San Miguel Arcangel
Very simple but stylish property right in the main square, it’s a great value for money. A colonial building with internal patios and vintage interiors makes it a great choice for those who want to travel on a budget but love charming places.