A Day in Izamal: The Magic Town & Its Massive Pyramid

Last Updated on: 14th May 2023, 11:15 pm

Mexico is full of fascinating archaeological sites, while the country is home to dozens of charming towns designated by the government as Pueblo Mágicos (Magic Towns). But there’s no place quite like Izamal, where you’ll find massive ancient pyramids right in the middle of a bustling town established during the colonial era. In the following Izamal guide, we’ll be covering the ‘Yellow City’s main attractions along with its lesser-known archaeological sites.

About 70 km east of Mérida, Izamal makes for an easy and exciting day trip. While the main landmarks can be seen within several hours, some people like to stay for a night or two and take things slow. 

If you choose to do so, it’s best to visit Izamal in between Mérida and Valladolid, which lies further east. Learn more about transport options at the very end of this guide.

The Convent of San Antonio

The Convent of San Antonio lies right at the heart of modern-day Izamal. And it’s a good place to start your explorations, as the large yellow construction links the present with the area’s pre-Hispanic past.

The convent was founded in 1549 by Franciscan friars, though construction began several years later under the supervision of Diego de Landa, who we’ll be covering more in-depth shortly.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

As you’ll notice, the whole thing sits atop an elevated platform, as the convent was erected atop a Mayan pyramid known as Pap Hol Chac. What’s more, the main church was built using the stones of the destroyed temple.

The convent, which utilizes a mixture of various styles that were popular in 16th-century Mexico, was completed in 1562. It features a large atrium and main church, along with four additional chapels.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Archaeological excavations into what lies beneath the convent’s surface have yet to take place, though the space was likely home to shrines dedicated to the creator god Itzamna and the premier Mayan goddess, Ixchel.

And we shouldn’t expect excavations here any time soon, as the church is still considered a highly sacred place among local Catholics. Upon the convent’s completion, Diego de Landa brought over an important image of the Immaculate Conception from Guatemala, which people still come to pray to today.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

What’s more, is that Pope John Paul II himself made a visit here in 1993, and a statue of him still stands in the main courtyard to commemorate the event. 

At the time of my visit, access to the inner church was unfortunately forbidden. Nevertheless, walking around the courtyard, one can see some original 16th-century frescoes that were only discovered fairly recently.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

From the convent, one can get a clear view of Izamal’s main pyramid that the Franciscans never built over: Kinich Kak Moo. 

While one can read about cities like Mérida or Valladolid once having been thriving Mayan settlements, very little evidence remains of their pre-Hispanic past. In Yucatán, it’s only at Izamal where ancient pyramids coexist with a modern town. (Elsewhere in Mexico, similar towns include Cholula and Mexico City’s Tlatelolco.)

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

At some point during your visit, also be sure to walk behind the large convent, from where you can clearly see the usurped Mayan stones used in its construction. 

And on one side of the convent is a statue dedicated to Diego de Landa himself.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Who was Diego de Landa?

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Calling Diego de Landa a controversial figure would be a massive understatement. Paradoxically, the man responsible for so much destruction of Mayan cultural heritage is still our main source for many aspects of Mayan culture, religion and language.

Born in Spain in 1524, he was sent to the Yucatán Peninsula in 1549 to become one of the region’s first Franciscan friars. His mission was to convert as much of the Mayan population to Catholicism as possible.

But despite many Mayans converting (they didn’t have much of a choice), many of them still practiced the traditional religion in private. Landa was so enraged when learning of this that he destroyed thousands of Mayan statues and dozens of codices. What’s more, is that he was also known to torture those suspected of heresy.

He traveled the region on foot, visiting remote villages to spread his teachings. And he also sought to learn much about Mayan culture, though largely as a means to achieve his goal of stamping it out for good. But even his superiors in Spain felt he was taking things too far, and Landa himself would feel guilty about his actions later in life. 

In an effort to right some of his wrongs, he wrote Relación de las cosas de Yucatán in 1566, from which we derive much of our knowledge about Mayan traditions. Interestingly, this text has also largely contributed to modern scholars’ decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics.

Despite the controversy, a statue of Diego de Landa stands tall in present-day Izamal, as there’s no denying his historical importance to the city and the region as a whole.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Exploring Central Izamal

As with many ‘Magical Towns’ of Mexico, one of the top things to do in Izamal is simply wander around town and admire the architecture. But first, just nearby the Convent of San Antonio is a small museum that art lovers shouldn’t miss.

Museo de Artesanias

For a modest entry fee, visitors to Izamal can explore the Museo de Artesanias, a small yet densely packed museum with high-quality and original folk art. Many of the pieces on display were made by artists from throughout the Yucatán Peninsula over the past few decades.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Especially noteworthy are the modern renditions of classical Mayan art. While they look identical to something you’d come across in an archaeological museum, the statues, pottery and even carved stele were all created in the 21st century.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

The Yellow Town

Mysteriously, it’s unclear exactly why or when most of Izamal’s buildings were painted yellow. Considering how the Convent of San Antonio is yellow, the tradition may date back to colonial times.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

One theory is that the style is an homage to the ancient Mayan era when Izamal was a major center of sun worship. The yellow color of the buildings, therefore, may symbolize the light of the sun.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

On the other hand, some people say that the stylistic makeover happened as recently as 1993 in preparation for the Pope’s visit!

While the Yellow Town is indeed attractive, it’s a bit strange that Izamal is best known today for its yellow buildings, while not many realize that it’s also home to the largest Mayan structure in the entire Yucatán Peninsula.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Kinich Kak Moo

Izamal was first developed by the Mayans in the Late Preclassic period (300 BC–250 AD), though the city would mostly thrive throughout the Classic period (600-900 AD). 

In its heyday, Izamal was likely one of the largest and most significant Mayan cities in the northern Yucatán – at least until the rise of nearby Chichén-Itzá. The city possibly grew to prominence thanks to its control over the regional salt trade.

And there’s no better evidence of Izamal’s former prominence than Kinich Kak Moo, which remains intact despite Diego de Landa and his Inquisition.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

The pyramid is open daily from 8:00-17:00, while access is free. You can find the entrance just a few blocks north of the Convent of San Antonio.

The official entrance is located right in between two modern buildings. And while it may seem like you’re simply walking up a hill, it’s important to keep in mind that this entire raised platform is part of the original pre-Hispanic structure.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Reaching the top of the massive plateau, you’ll see a pyramid in the distance. But this was only a later construction built atop the massive base. Many visitors overlook the fact that the entirety of the flat surface beneath the uppermost pyramid is completely manmade as well.

The entire construction takes up no less than 700,000 square meters in volume, making it the largest pyramid of the Yucatán! What’s more, is that it’s the third-largest construction in all of Mesoamerica, after Cholula and Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

The massive base of the pyramid was likely built sometime between 400-600 AD. But it likely covered an even older structure, which in turn was built over a natural cave.

The pyramid at the top, which visitors are still free to climb, was likely added during a later century. At its highest point, Kinich Kak Moo stands at 34 m tall, making it slightly taller than Chichén-Itzá’s El Castillo.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

The pyramid was dedicated to the Mayan sun god Kinich Ahau, one aspect of the creator god Itzamna. Kinich Ahai was symbolized by the macaw, and a real macaw was said to have come down daily to eat the offerings presented to it.

Standing at the top, one can enjoy great views of the surrounding town, along with the Convent of San Antonio straight ahead in the distance.

But while many simply walk back down and leave the area, do yourself a favor and take a walk around the entire base.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide
The convent as seen from the top of the pyramid

Only by walking around the entire pyramid can one get a true sense of its gigantic size. And after visiting so many pyramids located in isolated rural areas, it’s rather surreal to see regular homes, shops and people going about their daily lives just across the street!

As you’ll notice, some parts of the pyramid utilize unusually large stones by Mayan standards. And while Kinich Kak Moo is void of decoration today, there used to be a large stucco face protruding from its side, now lost.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

In one area, you’ll spot an opening which appears to be some kind of small cave entrance. Like many cultures around the world, the Mayans revered caves as links to the underworld.

And even today, some locals bring offerings and candles to this little opening. Despite Diego de Landa’s best efforts, many Mayan traditions still persist centuries later.

Izamal's Other Mayan Ruins

While Kinich Kak Moo is easily the largest Mayan pyramid in Izamal, there are no less than four other archaeological sites to check out around town. This Izamal guide covers them all.

At the time of writing, most of them are closed and can only be seen from outside the gate. Nevertheless, it’s fun to seek them all out while admiring Izamal’s yellow colonial buildings along the way. 

Visiting all the sites below is easy to do on foot as long as you can stand the heat. Otherwise, you might want to hire a local horse carriage and guide to take you around.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
The pyramid of Itzamatul
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Close to the center is the large Itzamatul pyramid, located a few blocks southeast of Kinich Kak Moo. The huge pyramid was dedicated to the Mayan god of creation and agriculture, Itzamna. 

The first stage of construction dates to 400-600 AD, though it was completely covered over by a new phase sometime between 700-850 AD. A third addition was later added between 950-1150.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
El Conejo
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

A few blocks further southeast is the site known as El Conejo, or ‘The Rabbit.’ While the main structure is relatively small, a multitude of pre-Hispanic utensils were discovered here, including obsidian tools, pots for plants, and spindles for spinning. 

While we don’t know for sure, it’s possible that a prominent local official once lived here in Mayan times.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide
Habuk
Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Back several blocks southwest of El Conejo is another sizable pyramid known as Habuk, which is much wider than it is tall. It’s  too bad that such an interesting-looking site is not normally accessible.

The view from outside the gates doesn’t do it justice, though one can get glimpses of the other sections when walking past the surrounding houses.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Finally, continue southwest for a while to reach the site of Chaltún Ha. For whatever reason, this site is open despite most of the others being closed. It lies at the southern outskirts of town, and you should find an open gate at the end of a wide dirt road (see map above).

Chaltún Ha was only discovered fairly recently. As such, not much is known about it yet and archaeological excavations are only beginning. That means there’s not much to see, and most of the pyramid is obscured beneath thick overgrowth.

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

But its location outside the center means there should be more possibilities for thorough excavations compared to the other sites.

We know this pyramid was relatively important, as, like Kinich Kak Moo, it was situated along a sacbe (elevated stone road) linking it with the city of Aké further west. Let’s hope that future excavations at Chaltún Ha can tell us even more about Izamal’s history as a whole. 

Note: While there’s also supposed to be something called the ‘Kabul Pyramid’ situated near the city’s central park, I walked all around the area and didn’t spot it. 

Things to Do in Izamal Guide

Additional Info

Most people visiting Izamal are either coming from Valladolid or Mérida. The ride from Valladolid takes around 2.5 hours one-way, which makes it a bit too far for a day trip (though still possible if you hurry). As mentioned above, Izamal would make a great place to stay for a night in between Valladolid and Mérida.

From Valladolid, you can take a bus run by the Centro company. The small terminal is located just a block north from the main ADO terminal, with several buses running each day. It’s best to visit the terminal in advance to confirm the schedule.

Getting from Mérida to Izamal takes just over an hour. And this time you have the choice between three different bus companies whose terminals are all located in the vicinity of one another.

The Centro bus company can also take you from Mérida to Izamal, as well as the Oriental and Noreste bus companies. All three terminals are located in the southeast portion of Mérida’s historical district.

I went to Izamal with Oriente, and buses were departing at 9:00 at the time of my visit. The other companies likely have similar departure times, though the schedules seem to change frequently. These companies all seem to lack official websites but occasionally post updates on their official Facebook pages. 

On my way back to Mérida, I took a 14:30 bus with the Centro company, though the bus arrived about 30 minutes late.

If you don’t feel like navigating the local public transport system, a number of tours are available from Mérida as well.

This highly-rated tour takes you to both Izamal and a Mayan Handcraft Workshop, while this tour combines Izamal with a couple of nearby cenotes.

As mentioned in the Izamal guide above, the town can easily be explored as a day trip. But the Pueblo Mágico is becoming an increasingly popular place to stay. You can check out some of the top-rated accommodations here.

As discussed, Izamal can easily be visited as a day trip from Mérida.

In Mérida, I highly recommend people stay as central as possible. Some popular mid-range hotels in the center include Casona 61 and Kuka y Naranjo. Those on a tighter budget should also enjoy the highly-rated Hotel Santa Maria and Hotel Real Toledo.

As Mérida is so spread out, things may be much farther apart in reality than they appear on a map. Before making any booking, it’s best to confirm the precise walking distance from your accommodation to the city’s main square, Plaza Grande. From there, you can easily get around to most of the major sites and bus terminals.



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