Izamal: The Yellow Jewel of Yucatan

Izamal Mexico
6 June 2022

Izamal Mexico: The Yellow Jewel of Yucatan

Jun 6, 2022 | Mexico | 1 comment

The colourful town of Izamal, one of Mexico’s 132 Pueblos Mágicos (Magical Towns), is just an hour’s drive from Yucatan State’s capital city, Mérida. 

Originally a Mayan city dating back 2,000 years, its name translates as “dew that falls from the heavens”. Presumably, that would be an especially ochre-tinged dew as the whole town is literally carpeted in a riot of yellow. And we mean EVERY building. No wonder then that its nickname is La Ciudad Amarilla (“The Yellow City”).

Yet, although it’s by no means a secret anymore, it remains a little off the main tourism radar. So, on a day trip from our base in Mérida, we drove there to see it for ourselves. Here’s what we found.

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Why is Izamal painted yellow?

This appears to be a bit of a mystery. The popular story goes that the first pots of yellow paint made their appearance in honour of a visit by the Pope in 1993. Another has it that it was actually in honour of Kinich Kak Moo, the Mayan sun god. Both seem plausible. Except that it’s very doubtful either is true.

Our preferred choice is the story that the yellow colour acts as a large-scale mosquito repellent. One of those strange-but-true stories we’d love to be genuine!

A street scene in Izamal showing its iconic yellow buildings on either side

A street in Izamal with its iconic yellow buildings

The Convento de San Antonio de Padua

Apart from its very distinct colour scheme, Izamal’s undisputed star is the Convento de San Antonio de Padua.

One of the oldest monasteries in the Americas, it was built in 1561. And, as we found with many of the Catholic buildings in Mérida, it turns out it was constructed on the original foundations of a Mayan temple. The Pope’s 1993 visit, during which he blessed a statue of the Virgin Mary, has helped to cement its importance as a popular pilgrimage site.

It’s a sprawling complex that includes an atrium second only in size to that in The Vatican. But the first thing that struck us as we approached the entrance was the sharp contrast of the monastery’s bright yellow walls against a backdrop of a blue sky interspersed with cotton-wool clouds.

Steps leading up to Convento de San Antonio de Padua

The magnificent Convento de San Antonio de Padua

Along the perimeter of the atrium, 75 arches converge on the façade of the main building. It’s quite a sight and one that’s worth lingering over.

Unfortunately, the monastery itself was closed during our visit. And, without a local guide, there was no information available to gather some background on what we were seeing. So the real joy for us was simply wandering around the grounds and eyeing the complex from various viewpoints.

Inside the atrium at Convento de San Antonio de Padua,

Inside the atrium

Inside the atrium at Convento de San Antonio de Padua,

Just a few of the 75 arches that enclose the atrium

Kinich Kak Moo Pyramid

The town’s Mayan roots are still evident in the form of a number of structures that are dotted around the area. None more so than Kinich Kak Moo Pyramid, which is a short stroll from the monastery.

Named after the Mayan sun god, it’s actually one of the largest pyramids in Mexico. And it’s free to visit.

Perhaps due to the relative lack of visitors (compared to the more famous Mayan sites, such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal) it’s still OK to climb the steps to the top for a panoramic view of the town and surrounding area.

Although this being Yucatan, the view of a totally flat landscape might be a little underwhelming for most people.

Izamal’s archaeological zone also includes other pyramids at Itzamatul, el Conejo and Chaltun Ha.

the stepped pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo

The stepped pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo

Strolling around town

Izamal’s size means that strolling around town is very doable over the course of a couple of hours or so. Even though temperatures can get scorchingly hot during the afternoon. 

In addition to its striking yellowness, the city is very much a mixture of modern, colonial and pre-Columbian cultures. Indeed, many people who live there still speak Mayan as their first language. And, as you stroll around, you’ll notice that many of the street signs are in both Spanish and Mayan.

Of course, the novelty of seeing streets full of yellow buildings might wear off after a while. But there’s no doubting the charm of the place. Especially if you drop into some of the churches and artisan craft shops, where you can buy products handmade from sisal – a tropical fibre from the agave plant.

An alternative is to jump on a horse and carriage (caleza). They’re normally waiting around on the main plaza. Although we’re not convinced the horses looked all that comfortable having to stand around in 40 degrees heat waiting for the next ride to come along.

A horse-drawe carriage in front of a yellow church

A cazela pauses next to Capilla de los Remedios

Lunch at Restaurante Los Arcos

We’re not going to lie. Trying the local food is one of our main motivations for visiting a new place. Especially in Mexico. And so, having got to grips with the Yucatecan food on offer in Mérida, we figured we’d see what Izamal could throw at us.

Most guide books will tout Kinich El Sabor de Izamal as the best place for lunch. And they may well be right. But we chose Restaurant Los Arcos, beside the monastery on Plaza Itzamna. Like Kinich, it’s set in a beautiful colonial building with seating in a courtyard at the rear.

A glimpse at the menu reveals the usual Yucatecan specialties. But Ian chose the cochinita pibil (pulled suckling pig topped with pickled red onion and chilli, served with tortillas). And it was excellent.

Conchinita Pibil

Conchinita Pibil at Los Arcos

How to get to Izamal

By car, Izamal is an hour-or-so from Merida and just under two hours from Vallodolid. So, as part of a Yucatan road trip, we’d recommend at least an overnight stay.

But it can easily be done as a day trip from either city. Including by bus. ADO bus are the most reliable but, frustratingly, their website only accepts Mexican credit cards. So you’ll need to either buy your tickets at the relative bus station or book them through an online service such as BusBud.

Final thoughts on Izamal Mexico

A visit to Izamal is about appreciating a small slice of Mexico that often gets overlooked (for now) by most foreign tourists.

Its relatively remote location means that it may stay that way for a while. But as tourist numbers to Mexico continue to increase, we wouldn’t bet against it becoming part of major organised tourist route around Yucatan that also includes Chichen Itza, Merida and some of the state’s major cenotes.

So our advice would be to go and visit soon. And you might just find that yellow becomes your new favourite colour.

Convento de San Antonio de Padua

What did you think?  Do you have any recommendations on what to do in Izamal Mexico? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting the town in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.

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The town of Izamal in Mexico is a perfect mix of modern, colonial and pre-Columbian cultures. All tied together in a yellow-obsessed colour theme. Here's our mini-guide


Ian and Nicky New Zealand

Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.

1 Comment

  1. John and Susan

    Goodness, that is a lot of mustard yellow! We love these out-of-the-way gems in Mexico. I always feel sorry for the horses, though 🙁 Thanks for introducing us to yet another place we need to visit.


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