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Among the most beautiful pueblos magicos, Izamal holds a special place in my heart. Besides its beauty and uniqueness there so much culture embedded in such a small 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.
A LITTLE BIT OF 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 centre for the Mayan civilization, testified by the numerous archaeological sites, huge pyramids and buildings, and a network of sacbe’ (white pathways built during the Mayan civilization). 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), and if you are obsessed, like me, you will find a map here indicating other ones around the city.
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.
The monastery of San Antonio de Padua takes a prime seat in its representation of this cultural mix.
Situated right in the centre 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.
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.
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.
THE GREEN GOLD ERA OF IZAMAL
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.
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.
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)
So now that you know a little about the history and culture, let the overwhelming yellowness mesmerize you, don’t be shy…and most of all don’t let the heat stop you, because it is extremely hot! 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. And no worries about being alone, a very noisy chirping of birds hiding in the huge trees in the squares will accompany you along with your visit.
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.
I will come back to you with more info on where to eat, but in the meantime, do not miss a couple of historical, local places, not so fancy but certainly authentic: one is the market place on the right corner in between the two squares, where you will find true Yucatecan food, local-style. Also on the square which is beside the monastery, is a very popular café, Los Arcos, the perfect spot to watch local life passing by while sipping your café, or eating tacos.
Be aware that WIFI tends not to be working (it wasn’t when I was there).
The tourist office is now putting together a beautiful night-time itinerary around the historical points of the town, with videos on the history of Izamal projected on the walls. At the time of writing this, it is so far only in Spanish, but they are working on the English version. It is very interesting and evocative of times past. I suggest you ask at the reception of your hotel, for more detailed information.
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.
HACIENDA SAN FRANCISCO DE TZACALHA is situated about a 30-minute drive away from Izamal. A stunning property and a perfect example of how an old hacienda has been turned in a stunning hotel while managing to conserve the layout of the property; the very essence of each building merges culture with nature. It offers different kinds of rooms, from the most basic (ripios), recalling the simple Mayan architecture, to the more sophisticated suites, which reproduce the old patron houses, with original tiles and ornamental objects. This amazing property is not advisable if you are in a rush, or on an express tour, as you will want to enjoy the hacienda itself and the surroundings it has to offer. I would suggest at least 2 nights here.
HOTEL SAN MIGUEL ARCHANGEL
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 make it a great choice for those who want to travel on a budget but love charming places.