Magical Town of Izamál

When I first arrived in Merida 7 weeks ago my Spanish teacher told me about a little town where all the buildings are pained yellow.  Izamál is called la ciudad amarillo (yellow city) but also called la ciudad mago, a magical city.  Curious, right?  In 2002, the Mexican government gave Izamál the designation of being a magical town (there are many more magical towns in Mexico, including San Luis Potosí, Taxco, San Miguel de Allende, Tequila, San Cristóbal de las Casas, etc).  To receive this honor, according to a local publication called Yucatan Today, “the town or city must be small with rich historical tradition.  It must be near other touristically interesting sites or large cities, be accessible with good highways and roads, and there must be willingness by the locals to develop the project.”  Izamál is indeed small, is home to one of the largest Mayan pyramids in the country, put itself on the religious map with Pope John Paul’s visit in 1993, and is just a short drive away from Merida.  And with the residents of Izamál working hard to keep the town special (each year every single building in this little colonial town gets a fresh coat of yellow paint), it definitely fits the magical town criteria set by the Mexican government.  It certainly had me intrigued and eager to make a visit last Saturday.

Izamál was one of the most important Mayan pilgrimage sites and when the Spanish came they recognized the significance of Izamál enough to construct a large cathedral right on top of a Mayan temple and pyramids.  They even used the stones from the pyramids for the convent and the church, as they did with so many other religious buildings in the surrounding areas including those in Merida.  For this day trip I was once again fortunate to be accompanied by the Bennett family, who met me at Terminal Noreste in Merida.  Based on my research I knew there were buses from this terminal to Izamál but without a departure schedule we weren’t really sure about anything.  Everything I read said there was a bus every hour so we decided to just go and hoped we wouldn’t have to wait too long.  We agreed to meet at 10:45 but all arrived at the terminal around 10:35 to see that there was a bus leaving at 10:45 (the next bus was at noon).  We quickly bought our tickets (44 pesos roundtrip ~$3.50) and got on the bus for the 1.5 hour trip- I think if you drive straight over it doesn’t take more than 45 minutes but our bus made a few stops along the way to pick up/drop off passengers.

Atrium and arches at Convento San Antonio de Padua

We knew we’d arrived in Izamál when we started to notice all the yellow houses.  It was just as everyone told me.  The entire town was a deep shade of mustard yellow.  As soon as we got off the bus we immediately spotted the Franciscan convent built by the Spanish in 1561, Convento de San Antonio de Padua.  It’s not a building you can miss in this little town, with a Mayan pyramid as its base, 75 yellow arches, and a large grassy atrium (some say it’s the second largest in the world after Saint Peter’s in Rome).  We were hoping to see some of the Cristo Negro festivities which started on October 18 but it was rather quiet when we arrived.  We did see the famous Virgin Mary, the patroness of the Yucatán on the beautifully restored alter as well as the Cristo Negro statue in the church.  The church was modest except for the ornate gold alterpiece and the two gorgeous stain glass windows.  There were two museums upstairs weren’t very interesting- one was to commemorate Pope John Paul II’s visit and the other one in honor of Nuestra Señora de Izamal, but we did spend a few minutes walking through them.

Yellow city of Izamál

I’d already picked out where I wanted to have lunch in Izamál (no surprise there) and had the whole gang at Restaurant Kinich within a few minutes.  It definitely catered to visitors rather than locals, but the food was very good and the service was excellent.  I had yet to have any proper panuchos and I knew their tortillas were freshly made so that’s what I ordered, along with sopa de lima and horchata to drink.  Others at the table tried salbutes, empanadas de chaya (empanandas here look more like baked quesadillas, not like fried calzone looking empanadas I know), relleno negro, pollo asado, and venano.  Salbutes, relleno negro, and the empanandas got enthusiastic thumbs up, the chicken and the deer, not so much.  I loved both of my picks.  Sopa de lima, clear soup with lime juice, shredded chicken, and crispy tortilla strips, and the panuchos.  Panuchos are a local Yucatecan dish made with tortillas stuffed with black beans and topped with shredded chicken, pickled onions, tomatoes, and avocado.  The house habanero salsa provided the perfect amount of spicy punch to make the dish absolutely delightful.

Ladies making tortillas at Restaurant Kinich

With our tummies full and feeling happy, we walked over half a block to Kinich-Kakmó.  It is a LARGE pyramid that is said to be either the third or the fifth largest in Mexico, depending on how one measures pyramids.  We made our ascent from its side not having seen the main access point in the center.  When we reached what we thought was the top and started to walk around the overgrown bushes of tall grass and weeds, we realized we’d only climbed the base of the pyramid.  The main pyramid was actually built on top of this large base and we still had more climbing to do.  We headed up the narrow stone stairs to reach the top and there we had a panoramic view of Izamál with all of its yellow buildings and miles of green trees beyond.  There was nothing as tall as this pyramid as far as my eyes could see- no buildings, no hills, no mountains.

There are many more smaller pyramids all around Izamál and the villages nearby, but we decided to spend some more time in the town of Izamál itself.  I headed to a museum to see Mexican folk art and the Bennett women set off on a horse drawn carriage ride through Izamál.  A little while later we ran into each other as we watched a small procession make its way through the cobblestone streets of this little town.  There were banners, musicians, women carrying flowers, young girls in huipiles, boys in white, all marching towards the convent.  I followed them and watched as they went into the main church for afternoon service.

Worshippers waiting to enter the church

We didn’t stay to watch the lively Cristo Negro dance or the night time festivities; they say after the service some men take turns dancing with a pig’s head in the atrium of the convent and at night the whole town celebrates with music, food, beer, and carnival rides.  It’s fascinating to see how Catholic teachings have seamlessly mixed with Mayan traditions and festivals like this can continue to thrive.  As we boarded the bus to return to Merida I couldn’t help but look back to see the town glow brightly in the late afternoon sun.  I’d say it was pretty magical.

Convento de San Antonio de Padua

Restaurant Kinich: Calle 27 No. 299 between Calle 28 and 30, Izamál, Yucatán  Phone: 988.954.0489

Terminal Noreste: Calle 67 between 50 and 52, with departures just about every hour.  22 pesos one way, 44 pesos roundtrip to Izamál

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