Day Trips From Merida: Izamal -The Yellow City
If you are looking for day trips from Merida: Izamal – the yellow city – is a great option. It’s one of my personal favourite places to visit because it is a beautiful little town full enough of culture to be interesting, but not so full you feel overwhelmed on a day trip. It’s perfect, trust me! It’s even a perfect place to take the kids too.
Why Take A Day Trip to Izamal?
Izamal is one of Mexico’s ‘magical towns’. The only other one in Yucatan is Valladolid, and personally, I find Izamal far more captivating. To qualify for ‘magical town’ status, a place has to be:
small but rich in historical tradition √
near enough other interesting sites √
interest from locals in developing the city further √
Small But Rich In Historical Tradition
It is said that Izamal is a city of three cultures: Maya, Colonial and Modern Day Mexican. I can see why. Even today you will stroll around a basically colonial city, knowing it was built over one of the biggest Maya settlements, whilst interacting with modern day Mexicans. And as a bonus you’re even likely to hear Maya being spoken by locals.
Izamal is probably the oldest city in the state of Yucatan. It was conquered by the Spaniards very early on and a Franciscan convent was built over an important Mayan pyramid. The infamous monk, Fray Diego de Landa who founded the convent went on to burn all the Mayan scripts he found. He later felt so bad that he tried to rewrite them all from memory. Today, pretty much all we know about Mayan culture and history was written by the dude who tried to eradicate thm by destroying 27 codices and burning over 5,000 idols. Well, at least if you buy his book, you know he’s not making money from his pretty disgusting behaviour!
The city’s other main claim to fame is that Pope John Paul II visited in 1993. This is extremely important to the residents of the city and they’ve even kept the chair he sat on during his visit. You can see it…but do not step over the rope.
(we spent a long time here but mainly because we were arguing about which Pope was linked to the Nazis. We only stopped when our three year old announced she was bored with us bickering).
Whether we like the history or not, we can’t deny Izamal has plenty of it!
Near Enough Other Interesting Sites
Well, it’s just a 45 minute drive from Merida, which is certainly interesting! Valladolid is less than 1h30 away and the whole region is full of archaeological sites and cenotes just crying out to be visited. In fact, Homun, a neighbouring town, is a great base for cenote visiting.
Totally nailed this point, Izamal.
From Merida, as I said, it’s a 45 minute drive along the Cuota road towards Cancun. There are also regular buses (Noreste bus station on calle 67 between 50 and 52) and minibuses making the journey between the two cities. Valladolid is also easy to reach with public transport.
Yes. Accessible, I’d agree. I haven’t commented on how keen locals are to improve the city as I haven’t asked them. Everyone was affable and welcoming though.
What Is There To Do In Izamal
What I haven’t mentioned about Izamal, thus far, is that it’s a yellow city. Yes, yellow. Most of the buildings in the centre are painted yellow. The results are really quite striking and it would be fair to say I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it or looking at my photos since we left.
A little bit of digging has turned up two suggestions as to why Izamal is yellow. The first is that the yellow represents, and reflects, the sun, the god to which the city was originally dedicated. The second is that it was spruced up prior to the Papal visit in the 1990s and some bright spark had the idea of painting everything yellow. I haven’t found anything more definitive than this but I quite like the ambiguity.
Visit the convent
Obviously. If you come to Izamal and miss the convent then something is wrong with you. It’s huge, it’s yellow, and it’s right in the middle of the town! Building work began in 1553 right on top of a pyramid temple to the sun god, Itzam Na. Now, I might not be one for religion but I definitely don’t think this was cool. You do not wander in to another culture’s home and plonk your god building atop another’s god building. It’s just not good manners, even if it is yellow and pretty.
That said, all four of us found the convent grounds a fascinating place to pass a few hours. From the dozens of photos we took of yellow from different angles, to the worship going on there (at one point we had to grab our small girl because she’d escaped and was standing at an open door right behind a priest leading a good hundred or so people in prayer)there was always something to look at, watch and admire.
Just past the entrance to the church itself is an entrance to a beautiful and serene courtyard that leads on to a small museum ($5 pesos per adult, kids free) where you can see the chair the pope sat in when he was in Izamal, see some religious clothing, get a great view of the back of the convent and enjoy a strong breeze. Our kids didn’t enjoy the museum much but they did love the stairs and pretending to be in jail at a large window. It sounds sarcastic when I say you can see the back of the convent but it isn’t. You see, the back isn’t yellow so it’s like checking out a different building entirely.
There’s a small gift shop on site but we didn’t go in since we’re not in to religion or buying stuff we don’t need (don’t remind me of this later on!).
The convent grounds are busy yet remain calm and definitely a place to sit and wonder why the building isn’t symmetrical for a good long while. My best guess, by the way, was that the bell tower is a later addition. See if you can do better! As you stroll around, notice the 16th century frescos on the walls. I believe these were only discovered fairly recently when someone was cleaning the walls.
Personally, I wasn’t sure I cared very much about visiting a convent but I’m really glad we did. It truly is a beautiful site where one can while away a good few hours idly wandering around.
Take a horse and cart ride
If you sensibly entered the convent via the imposing main entrance on Parque 5 de Mayo, then I recommend leaving by the side exit on to Parque Itzimna. Here you can pose at the town name sign, like in every other Mexican city. Seriously, I never get bored with this and nor do my kids. There’s just something so pleasing about these.
Once you’ve got your photo then you could consider taking a horse and cart ride around the town. We were quoted $200 pesos for a ride that lasts between 25-45 minutes depending on whether you get out to explore the pyramids. We opted not to, preferring to take our time and not feel rushed.
The horses here felt pretty well cared for and we had fewer qualms about hiring a ride than we had in Merida. Because the town is so small it also felt much less stressful than a horse and cart ride in Merida where I spent the entire time convinced we were going to be run down by a car. In Izamal, I could sit back and relax.
Note: our guide offered to let one child sit up front with him, which would have been fabulous, had either taken him up on the offer.
Climb a pyramid
There are a three pyramids visible in Izamal, obviously not including the one under the convent. The most easily accessible is Kinich Kakmo, who was believed to be a manifestation of the sun god, Itzam Na. This pyramid is unrestored and wonderfully empty of tourists. It’s right in the middle of town, on calle 28x27x23. It’s free to climb and there’s a jolly nice ice cream shop sensibly located right opposite the entrance. We were most grateful for that ice cream when we’d clambered to the top, admired the view and then scrambled down again.
If you’re wondering how accessible this pyramid is then let me describe it to you: first you climb a monumental stone staircase up the lowest levels of the pyramid to a grassy field, then you cross this field and begin climbing to the top. The first section is fine, another monumental staircase but it quickly descends in to something less concrete (hahah) and many find themselves using their hands and muttering ‘three points of contact’ to themselves. I’d say it is harder than Ek Balam but easier than somewhere like Mayapan for a quick climb. Our kids both managed it with very little assistance, though much to the surprise of some of the Mexican tourists climbing alongside us.
One of the two other pyramids is also climbable, Ppap Hol Chak, our horse and cart guide would have happily waited here for us to have a quick climb had we wanted to.
We didn’t actually have time to stop in here but I have heard good things about it. The Yucatan Today clearly rates it, describing it as something Izamal has needed for some time.
Yeah. I know, I claimed I wasn’t in to shopping a mere few hundred words ago but Izamal actually has some interesting craft stores run by very friendly and knowledgeable people. There are lots of hennequin products for sale and it would be incredibly easy to over purchase. I came out with just a bowl made out of a gourd but I’m still pining for the beautiful lamps and random hennequin turtle mobiles I didn’t buy.
Around the market square there are also a number of small shops but we didn’t get to check these out as they were closed by the time we tried, around 3pm.
Where To Eat In Izamal
Around the square there are plenty of small, local little eateries and the market, to one side of Parque 5 de Mayo, looked as if it had plenty of tasty options. We chose to go to Restaurante Kinich (where, disappointingly they didn’t cook Grinich Spinach) on calle 27 (x28y30), because it looked so beautiful when we’d gone by on the horse and cart ride. It seems we weren’t the only people to think this was a good option. The place is huge, kind of like one of those enormous places tour coaches stop for lunch on the side of the road, only it was far, far nicer and not really that enormous.
It’s clearly the most popular place in town though.
The restaurant is big enough that the kids and I felt the need to go and explore. In the middle of the restaurant is a hut where staff make tortillas by hand (the holy grail of tortillas if you like that sort of thing) and bbq meat for the traditional dishes. Rather than simply take a photo and move on, we had a quick chat with the women. We then continued our exploration and found a play area for the kids. So then I sat and stared at my phone for ten minutes while the kids played.
I’d say this restaurant deserves to be as busy as it is. The food is good enough, it probably wasn’t the absolute best Yucatecan food I’ve ever had, but nor was it a cheapened touristy version of itself. The guacamole was superb, as were the tortillas. What impressed me was how happy they were to try and accommodate my kids who were feeling particularly fussy when we visited as one had been slightly unwell the day before. They were happy to provide a plainer version of meat dishes or to cook an omelette. Actually we ended up getting plain rice and plantain for them both, and giving them some of our meat.
There is only one cash machine in town and it is known to run out of money! We didn’t see a bank anywhere. We also didn’t find anywhere selling regular ice creams (my husband randomly was on a search for a specific ice cream this day), only locally made were available.
Have I Persuaded You?
All in all, Izamal is a perfect option for a day trip from Merida. We actually combined it with a stay in a nearby village of Kantunil, which was great fun but totally unnecessary.
Go on, grab your hat and camera and jump on a bus to Izamal. You’ll have great day out! And if this isn’t enough for you, check out my post all about other awesome day trips from Merida.
If you enjoy visiting ruins, then I have a comprehensive list of everything you’ll need to know to get the most out of your time in Yucatan and an entire article about visiting Uxmal and the chocolate museum opposite.