Did you know that Yucatán has its very own city of gold? Visit Izamal, Yucatán’s very own pueblo mágico, literally “magical community,” a title it earned as a result of its rich heritage. It is a blend of pre-Hispanic and Spanish architecture painted in bright yellow with a white trim, and the traditions of the Yucatán.
The earliest traces of human occupation in the Izamal area date back to the third century B.C., making it older than Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, and as the birthplace of the legendary Zamná or Itzamná, the head god in the Mayan pantheon, it became an an important shrine in the pre-Hispanic period
Over 20 major Mayan buildings have been found in and around Izamal, along with a network of sacbes or roads, house mounds, burials and other traces of human settlement. Five Mayan pyramids on the outskirts of the town have give Izamal its nickname Ciudad de Cerros, “City of the Hills.” Standing 35 meters high, the largest structure is the Kinich Kakmo pyramid, the third largest building in Mesoamerica in terms of volume.
After the Spanish Conquest, Franciscan friars capitalized on Izamal’s role as a holy place by building a huge mission on top of the Pap-Hol-Chac temple. Work began on the fortress-like San Antonio de Padua convent in 1553 and the atrium was completed by 1618. It is reputed to be the second largest atrium in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome, and has 75 arches!
As you stroll through the convent, look out for the golden altarpiece, a series of 16th and 17th-century frescos, revealed when a thick layer of plaster was removed during restoration work and the statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the patron saint of the Yucatán. A small museum documents the history of the convent, the legends associated with the Virgin and the 1993 visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Izamal. It is possible to visit the chapel, the cloisters and see some of the cells. To the east of the convent you can see the remains of the noria or well and the monastery garden.
A Light & Sound Show takes place in the convent atrium on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
A statue of controversial cleric, Diego de Landa, stands outside the convent. Guardian of the mission from 1552, Friar Diego de Landa oversaw most of the convent’s construction and installed the statue of our Lady of Izamal. He is famous for an auto da fe in the town of Maní in 1562 when he burnt 27 Mayan bark paper books called codices and hundreds of clay idols, thus consigning Mayan history and scientific knowledge to the flames. He later wrote Relación de Cosas de Yucatán, an account of the Maya and the Yucatan at the time of the Conquest.
The tradition of painting the convent yellow began in the Colonial period and gradually caught on in the town. Most of the houses, arches, churches, schools and other buildings including the 18th-century Town Hall, which faces the Convent across the central square, sport the Izamal colors, cheerful yellow with a white trim.
You can explore the town by foot or hire one of the horse-drawn carriages or victorias that wait patiently beside the convent wall. Visit the tiny Community Museum in Calle 31, the colonial churches of San Ildefonso, Los Remedios, Carmen and Santa Cruz and sit in one of the town’s parks or squares and watch the Izamaleños go about their business.
Izamal is a town of craftsmen and several workshops in different neighborhoods are open to the public. You can watch women embroider traditional cotton dresses called hipiles, see how wood carvers and jewelers use native woods, henequen and cocoyol seeds, and find out how a hammock is made. There are also miniatures, papier mache, tinwork and herbal medicine workshops. Ask about the Folk Art Route in the Tourism Office. You can purchase crafts in the town square, at the Izamal Cultural Center and at the Hecho a Mano handicraft store.
Getting to Izamal
Izamal is 268 km/167 miles from Cancún; take the toll road or Highway 180 and turn off where indicated.