Izamal, Yucatan, Mexico – So much culture embedded in such a small town, and such a pretty place.
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 two towns in Yucatan (the other one is Valladolid) to have been included in the list of Pueblos Magicos 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 clarification here is due about the designation Magic Towns, which is, in fact, the name given to towns of particular interest for geographical, historical or cultural reasons – a program organized by the secretary of tourism in co-operation with the municipalities and states of Mexico.
A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
Izamal 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 civilisation, 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.
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 center 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 1993, Juan Pablo II celebrated mass here, a very important event when he gathered all the leader of the American religions and ask for forgiveness for the inquisition. He chose Izamal because it was considered the sacred city for the Mayan civilization.
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
Another very important fact worth mentioning is the historical period of the so-called “Green Gold” 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 restaurants.
Or if you wish to check out a luxury hacienda where to stay, you can check out this post.
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) and a very elegant Art and craft shop ”hecho a mano” by the Museum.
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 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 marketplace 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 has just put 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 have now implemented a translation system and it’s now more organized every day from Monday through Friday at 8.30 pm in the Atrium of the convent. It is very interesting and evocative of times past. Cost: 102 pesos foreigners, 72 pesos Mexicans. Translation headphones 39 pesos. (Source: Yucatan Today)
Enjoy your visit! and let me know your thoughts if you wish, in the comments below. Also if you think some it was useful you can click on the shares bottom on the pictures and spread the love on your favorite social media.
SUGGESTED HOTELS IN IZAMAL
HACIENDA SANTO DOMINGO – if you decide to stay in town, in order to enjoy it fully and not worrying about driving this is the place to be. Located at a walking distance from the main plaza, you still feel you are in the middle of the jungle as the beautiful cottages are scattered around a flowery lush garden and connected with the main house though white gravel sac-be’ like path. The rooms are artistically decorated with love and attention to details to guarantee you a comfortable stay in a laid-back luxury ambiance.
HACIENDA SAN FRANCISCO DE TZACALHA is situated at about 30 minutes driving from Izamal. A stunning property and a perfect example on how an old hacienda has been turned in a beautiful hotel conserving the layout of the property, the very essence of each building, merging culture with nature. It offers different kinds of rooms, from the more simple (ripios) recalling the Mayan simple architecture, to the more sophisticated suites which reproduce the old patron houses, with original tiles and ornamental objects and air conditioning (This amazing property not advisable if you are in a rush, like in such express tour, because you will want to enjoy the hacienda itself and the surroundings that have a lot to offer. I would suggest at least 2 nights here)
This is where I have stayed every time I went to Izamal. It’s a cute little hotel right on the main plaza. It’s really cozy and comfortable in a historical colonial house, with high ceilings, tiled floor and peculiar pieces of furniture. It has a lovely internal garden where you will enjoy your breakfast. It’s a very good option if you don’t want to spend too much on accommodation and still be comfortable.
If you wish to stay in your own colonial villa this is the perfect option for you. It can hold up to 12 people and has 4 rooms, a beautiful internal patio with swimming pool. It is decorated in a colonial modern style. The perfect way to live the colonial Yucatan.