In the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán, there’s a small town that’s almost golden. A stroll through the streets of Isamar’s yellow houses reveals the region’s pre-Hispanic and post-conquest history, side by side with the laid-back and creative society of today.
The town of Izmael takes its name from the Mayan god Izmael, located in the yellow town an hour east of Merida, the main city of the Yucatan state. The town’s two central squares are lined with a maze of cobbled streets lined with homes, businesses and workshops. The facades of these houses often had doors and windows open to allow passersby a glimpse into the daily lives of the locals. Occasionally a motorcycle divides the otherwise silent streets, while horses in colorful costumes pull tourists and locals on bicycles or tricycles weave through the cobblestones.
On the steps of the central market, merchants and locals chatted and enjoyed the shade of the bazaar on the roof. The Yucatán is hot all year round, with little respite, but locals can feel the small drop in temperature from late October to January.
Once in Isamar, there is often the obvious question: why is the town painted yellow? All sorts of gossip is disguised as fact. The most common claim is that the city was painted yellow to celebrate the visit of Pope John Paul II in August 1993. Although the date the city was painted yellow is very close to the date of the Pope’s visit, locals and guides will quickly tell you that it is a complete myth.
Another explanation is that, in the early 1990s, the town’s locals decided that they needed to tidy up and wanted to create uniformity, so they chose to paint the town centre yellow: a colour that was at odds with any of the country’s main political parties at the time, repelling mosquitoes but also getting rid of any posters and marketing that commercialised the centre.
In the long history of Isamar, all the cultures that have occupied or passed through Isamar have left their mark here. Known as the “City of Three Kingdoms of Culture,” the architecture and culture here blends the sensibilities of the ancient Mayans, colonial Spanish and today’s Mexicans. Like the rest of the Yucatán, the culture here is unique and different from the rest of Mexico, in part because the region was isolated from the rest of the country until the middle of the 20th century.
Partly because of this, Isamar was awarded the title of “Pueblo Magico” or “Magic City” in 2002. The Pueblo Magico program is an initiative of the Mexican Tourism Board that recognizes towns and villages that excel in providing visitors with natural beauty, cultural connotations, traditions, folklore, historical significance, cuisine, arts and crafts, and hospitality. Isamar is one of two such places in the Yucatan, the other being the larger city of Valladolid, located an hour east of Isamar.
Izamal easily fulfilled many of the conditions that Pueblo Magico needed. Archaeological Mayan sites are scattered throughout the city, but the most prominent is the Pyramid of Kinich Kakmó. This pyramid is less famous than the Chichén Itzá Pyramid in Yucatán because it is recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the New World, but unlike the Chichén Itzá Pyramid, you can climb the Kinich Kakmó Pyramid. The pyramid was built in honor of the deity of the same name, whose name means “sun-eyed fire macaw” because historians believe that the god Kinich became a macaw to purify the offerings or sacrifices brought by the Mayans.
Originally there were 12 Mayan pyramids in Ismael, and while some have been restored, others are smaller ruins. In addition to Kinich Kakmó, other historical sites of interest are the archaeological site and pyramids of Habuk, and El Cenejo or Tu’Ul, the base of the Rabbit Pyramid.
Perhaps the city’s most notable symbol is the yellow San Antonio de Padua Convent. This monastery was founded in 1549 by Father Fray Diego de Landa and other Franciscan missionaries, when the Spaniards came to conquer Isamar and found it abandoned by the natives, who had fled before their arrival. The conquistadors then destroyed the Mayan pyramids of Pap-Horchak and built a monastery on top of its ruins, using the stones of the pyramids to build the monastery’s facade.
Today, a small ramp leads visitors to the monastery’s vast courtyard. The nuns strolled on the grass in the direction of the chapel, while the school children and young people lounged in the arches around the convent. You can see a lot of the town from here, as few things are high and mighty in Isamar and Yucatan.
The Centro Cultural y Artesanal de Izamal (Centro Cultural y Artesanal de Izamal), the cultural and craft center of Izamal, is located in one of the main squares of the town. This compact museum showcases traditional crafts from all over Mexico, and each room is filled with artifacts made by traditional crafts that are increasingly rare in modern times. The exhibition is part of a cultural development project that aims to celebrate and resurrect these crafts.
At the museum, you can pick up a local workshop guide, or rather a tall man to show you the way, and set off down the local workshop trail to discover the artisans who are particularly important to Izmir. There are jewelers, embroiderers and herbalists, to name a few.
Combining the history and creativity of the city, the “Mayan Light” sound and light show will depart from the Parque de Los Ca?ones, west of downtown, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Weather permitting, this light show will decorate buildings and door fronts with illustrations depicting the city’s origins, and will be led by a local guide who will tell the history of the city.
The classic town bike is another symbol of Isamar, and visitors to the city can explore the city by renting a bike at the Isamar Bike and Craft Shop (Calle 32 #299). Considering its modest size, it’s a pleasant and convenient way to explore every corner of the town in a few hours. The fact that everything here is yellow, flat, and one-way adds to the difficulty of navigating the city, and while it’s easy for tourists to get lost, locals are often happy to help point the way.
place where one stays
For those who are in no hurry to leave the city and want to explore it at their own pace, there are many hotels in town.The San Miguel Arcangel Hotel (Calle 31-A #310A) is centrally located in the main square of Izamal. This beautiful and welcoming hotel with an intimate courtyard built into the ruins of the ancient pyramids welcomes guests. The rooms at the hotel are air-conditioned to ensure guests are comfortable in the tropical climate of the Yucatan state. The hotel’s convenient location means guests can see the local market and monastery on their doorstep.
Hotel Casa Colonial (Calle 31 #331) offers bed and breakfast style accommodation in a lovely old colonial house near the town centre. The facilities at this hotel ensure that guests can enjoy more of the essentials, including an outdoor pool, relaxing garden space and free bicycles to explore the town.
Just outside the city centre, EcoHotel Spa Boutique Itzamaltun (Calle 31 #251) offers a little luxury. The spa offers a range of massages and aromatherapy, as well as an outdoor pool and garden terrace where you can relax and enjoy a drink. Traditional flavors from the Yucatán and Mexico are on the menu in the hotel’s restaurant, and the rooms are air-conditioned and have private terraces.
Restaurants and cafes
The state of Yucatán is known for its cuisine and Isamar offers many traditional flavors. In one of the town squares, local vendors can be seen selling local street food to pass the time. The most popular dish at these stalls is the sweet and savory marquesita: a crispy crepe covered with a filling of your choice, then rolled into a long cone. The flavor of the popular Nutella and cheese may surprise a bit, but it’s worth a try.
Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Isamar, Kinich (Calle 27 #299) gets its name from its pyramid. So you’ll find a lot of tourists here, but don’t worry it’s not a tourist trap.Kinich has a lot to offer: beautiful dining, attentive service staff, a good atmosphere and of course, the traditional Yucatcan flavor. The dishes are made with local ingredients and are all ready to serve, typically in large portions throughout Mexico.
The café at the San Miguel Arcel Hotel in the center of town (Calle 31-A #310A) serves traditional cuisine from the Yucatán and other parts of Mexico, as well as some European-inspired dishes. In addition to the food, traditional water made with different fruits, herbs or spices (such as chaya or hibiscus) can be enjoyed in the main courtyard-style café.
Local restaurant Cafe Los Arcos (Calle 28 #296) is located in one of the town’s main squares. The restaurant offers indoor seating, an intimate patio/patio and street-level seating for those who want to see life in Isamar.Open all day, Los Arcos offers breakfast, light snacks, a variety of vegetarian and classic dishes to make any time of the day easy to enjoy. Unlike many of the larger restaurants in town, such as Kinich and Zamna, which are crowded with tourists, Los Arcos is more about enjoying the local atmosphere and serving food until 10pm.
Located on the road into Izamal, Zamna (Calle 31 #336) has a traditional vibe that complements the menu.Papadzules, lime soup, cheese toppings, hacienda pizza, and poc chuc are all classics of the state, served with a complimentary crusty tortilla with a spicy dip, dried beans, and salsa.
A little further away from the city center, Restaurante La Conquista (Calle 30 #219) is a comfortable dining option, similar in style to Kinich but with a smaller name, so there are fewer tourists and more locals. The large portions mean that visitors may have a hard time eating something sweet, but both chips and papaya are worth leaving some room for.