The Magic of Izamal, Mexico’s Yellow City
When we planned our trip to Mexico’s Yucatan region, we knew that we wanted to go to Mérida. We also planned to explore important Mayan sites and then find some hang time at the beaches. Finding we had an extra day, we added the town of Izamal to the list. We had read about this fascinating Yellow City and decided to explore.
Our first big question was “why did they paint so many buildings yellow?”. Not all of them, but most of them in the core of town, extending down entire streets are bright egg yolk yellow, often trimmed in white. How did that happen?
The Yellow City is a stunning sight, vaguely unreal. It’s like a fever dream to peer down long streets where every house exactly the same bright color. While many websites commented on the color, none of them seemed to know how it got that way.
They Cleaned Up The Town For Pope Juan Pablo II
We found the answer to our yellow city question that first night. We were watching the sound and light show projected on the inside of the convent walls. Next to us, was a guide who spoke a little English (which is far more than our non-existent Spanish).
He told us that previously, the town’s houses were painted a variety of pastel hues. Some were already yellow because since 1000 BC, Izamal has been a pilgrimage site where Mayans offer respect to Kinich Kakmo, a sun god. So, if you’re going to choose a color for your house, it might make sense to honor the town’s deity. You can never have too much good fortune.
In 1993, they announced that Pope John Paul II would visit Izamal that August. He would perform a mass as part of his tour of Mexico. The town knew it had to spruce up the place.
Someone had the brilliant marketing idea to paint all the houses, including the convent, the same color. Why yellow? The sun, the corn, and then of course the Vatican flag – it has a big band of bright yellow on the left side.
We wondered whether there was a program to subsidize the cost of the paint. Or did everyone just do it on their own peso?
What’s There To See In Izamal?
The most obvious sight is the large convent, the Convento de San Antonio de Padua in the center of town. This was one of the first convents to be built in the western hemisphere, completed in 1561. The open atrium is second in size only to that of the Vatican.
Like many churches in Yucatan, the convent was built on top of, and using the very stones of the Mayan temple, in this case the Popul-Chac pyramid.
We know that by the time the convent was built, the temple was no longer in use, so the stones provided handy building materials. But still…. This was after all a Mayan pilgrimage city. Imagine having the remnants of your church dismantled to be used to build another faith’s temple. Hmmm.
Mayan Temples Everywhere
Within Izamal, there are 12 pyramids and over 160 traces of various Mayan temples and buildings. You can be walking down a small residential side street and suddenly come upon what was once a Mayan building. You’d often see houses on one side of the street, a temple ruin on the other.
But, if you’re hoping to see them restored like Chichen Itza or Uxmal, you’ll be disappointed.
The two biggest sites are rough pyramids, where you can climb up the stairs and get a good view over the county side. Some still have the remnants of rooms on the top, where the priests would have lived.
The largest (and third largest in Yucatan) is the Kinich Kakmo Pyramid, dedicated to the sun god. As usual, watch the steps because they’re uneven and there are no hand rails or any safety measures.
You can’t help but wish to be able to see these pyramids and temples as they were in their time, brightly painted, adorned with sculpture and idols. Imagine pilgrims making the journey from vast distances to pray and make offerings.
You Have To Mention Friar Diego De Landa
When you speak of Izamal, you can’t avoid Friar Diego De Landa. The Friar arrived here in 1561 from Spain to convert the Mayans to Catholicism.
To put it mildly, some of the conversions were “rough”. You can read about the exact procedures elsewhere. It’s not pretty.
What Landa is best remembered for is his burning of at least 27 manuscripts (codices) and over 5,000 idols in the Mayan town of Mani. These were the sole written records of Mayan history. Only three Maya codices are still in existence because they had been sent back to Europe prior to the fire. Why the burning? Many of the newly converted Catholics still practiced their own religion, melding it with Catholicism to suit themselves. He wouldn’t stand for it.
Landa’s Account Is The Foundation Of Mayan History
When word of Landa’s conversion practices reached Spain, even the Spanish, masters of the inquisition, were shocked and recalled him. Although some say that he was contrite and wished to make up for his behaviour, and that he wrote Yucatan Before And After The Conquest (also known as An Account of Things in Yucatan) in penance, others believe he was ordered to do so.
At any rate, much of the ancient history of the Maya will never be recovered. Landa’s book forms the basis of our understanding of the Maya, their language and their calendar system.
So Much Is Still Undiscovered
Wherever you travel in Yucatan, you’ll see evidence of old Mayan civilizations. It’s obvious at the big archeological sites, or small Mayan villages in the countryside. But most times when you’re standing in front of a cathedral, remember it was likely built on a Mayan temple. Often you can see that the blocks came from temples.
There is still so much Mayan history covered up. We learned this most emphatically years ago in Coba which is near Tulum. We were standing on top of the big pyramid. Looking around, we could see a series of very pointy hills. They were obviously unexcavated pyramids. Why haven’t they been restored?
Two key reasons. The first is money. It takes years, teams of professional archaeologists and thousands of man-hours to restore even a section of a site. That makes it expensive.
Lately, there has also been a change in thinking. Let the past rest. We don’t need to turn everything into an attraction. And as much as we enjoy learning about these civilizations by visiting the sites, perhaps it’s best to leave some of it alone.
The Perfect Hotel in Izamal
In the yellow city, we stayed at the Hotel Rinconada del Convento, right along side the convent. It was quiet, clean and very convenient. Our room overlooked the pool, which made it even better.
If you’re looking to get off the beaten path in Yucatan, Izamal is a great town for a day or two. Don’t miss it. Check out the latest hotel prices here.
Going to The Yellow City? 10 Things To Know
- Izamal is not an international tourist town. Most shops are for locals and Mexican visitors. No McD’s or Starbucks, which is nice.
- The Yellow City is still the site for religious pilgrimages. This time it’s Catholic, and the destination is the convent, especially since you can walk in the footsteps of the Pope.
- There are no banks, and only one ATM near the main square which apparently often runs out of money. Many shops and restaurants don’t accept credit cards, so bring pesos.
- Go inside the big building in the main square in front of the convent. It’s the local “mall”. Inside you’ll find little restaurants, grocery stores and dry goods.
- If you want to take a ride in a horse-drawn calesas, go early in the morning. It’s cooler, and the drivers are hungry for business, offering rides for 100 pesos. Later in the day, it’s 300 pesos. They’ll take you for a one hour ride to the pyramids and other sights in town.
- There’s a gas station on Calle 31 on the west side of town. Good to know.
- If you’re staying overnight, get a hotel with a pool likethe Hotel Rinconada del Convento. It gets hot, and you’ll enjoy a refreshing dip.
- Later in the day, after siesta time, go for a walk looking for the galleries and craft workshops. There are many artisans in Izamal and you can buy directly from them.
- Izamal is still a center of Mayan culture, where locals speak Mayan as much as Spanish.
- The yellow is mind-blowing. Everywhere yellow in the center of town. What a great marketing idea!
Planning Your Road Trip to Mexico?
With all of the information on the Internet, we still like to have a guide book as reference. Our favorites are the Lonely Planet books. Have a look at the Lonely Planet Mexico books here. They’re available both hardcover and digital.
If you’re planning on staying Airbnb for the first time, click here to take advantage of our special discount which gives you the equivalent of $50 CDN off your first visit.
If you’re planning to stay in a hotel, look here for up to date best prices for hotels in Izamal.
Want To Learn More? Start Here.
by David Freidel and Linda Schele
Only recently have scholars decoded Mayan hieroglyphs so that they could tell a more accurate history of the Maya. A Forest of Kings, hailed as “a Rosetta stone of Maya civilization” makes this history available in detail. This is the story of Maya kingship, from the first great pyramid builders two thousand years ago to the decline of Maya civilization and its final destruction by the Spanish.
by Ronald Wright
Wright journeys through Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan, exploring both the deep roots of the Maya and their current challenges. A true raconteur, this is also about Wright, fleabag hotels and riding rickety buses that wait while the driver has “lunch” with his girlfriend. The New Yorker nails it: “Wright’s unpretentious narrative blends anthropology, archaeology, history, and politics with his own entertaining excursions and encounters.”
This edition of Landa’s book, translated in 1937 by William Gates, also provides background on Landa, some history of the Maya, and much of what is known about Maya culture. Although Landa’s notions about the Maya alphabet proved to be inaccurate, it was enough to give future linguists direction for deciphering the language. Imagine how useful those other codices would be in gaining a more complete understanding of the Maya.
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