This is your complete guide to visiting the yellow town of Izamal on a day trip from Merida.
Izamal in Yucatan is a charming, all-yellow Mexican pueblo magico (magical village) just an hour and a half bus ride from Merida. Izamal also holds a few surprises for an unaware visitor. So if you are in Merida for a few days, I highly recommend a day trip to Izamal.
In this article, I will tell you how to spend a lovely day in Izamal, list all surprising Izamal attractions, I will tell you how to get there, and how to find a Mayan pyramid that is completely free!
Table of Contents
What is so special about Izamal, Mexico and why is Izamal yellow?
Izamal is one of the most unique of all the Pueblos Magicos on the Yucatan Peninsula and extremely photogenic! The all-yellow colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, colourful carriages, street vendors, and traditional flair make Izamal not only a great town to photograph! Walking the streets and exploring the small stores, restaurants, museums, and even Mayan ruins will make for a great day trip from Merida!
But why is Izamal yellow? The stories and versions mix up and blend into one. The most popular version is that the town was painted yellow to prepare the town for the visit of Pope John Paul II who came to express condemnation and apologise for conditions that forced indigenous people into poverty and attempted to wipe out indigenous cultures.
After some digging, however, I found out that when the pope visited Izamal, the city had been yellow already for some time. The yellow symbolises the Mayan deity known as Kinich Kakmó, so many experts claim that Izamal was painted that colour to honour the god of the sun.
Given the pyramid standing in the middle of the town was built to honour this god, it is also a very feasible theory. Whatever the original reason was, Izamal is definitely a unique Pueblo Magico and very much worth visiting.
Izamal is often referred to as a city of three cultures where the pre-Columbian, colonial Spanish and modern Mexican cultures blend into one.
To top it up, Izamal is still a bit of an off-the-beaten-path destination and although I have seen some tourists, it seems to be most popular among locals. So go and see it while it’s still unspoilt and don’t tell anyone!
Is Izamal, Mexico worth visiting?
Izamal is totally walkable, unique and charming yellow Pueblo Magico definitely worth visiting! It s very easy to take a day trip to Izamal from Merida and it offers not only great photo opportunities but also fantastic dining, hidden Mayan ruins and heaps of historical sites to marvel upon. Izamal unquestionably should appear on your list of places to see in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.
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Things to do in Izamal on a day trip from Merida
Get lost along the cobbled streets of Izamal Town
The moment you will arrive in this delightful yellow town, you will fall in love with its colonial architecture and charm. Although there are a few awesome things to do and places to discover, strolling along the streets of Izamal is the best thing to do. You will not be able to stop taking tonnes of pictures.
Izamal is perfectly walkable and hard to get lost in. Allow your feet to take you into hidden corners of the pueblo but don’t miss the Parque de Los Remedios or San Idelfonso chapel, take photos in front of the Izamal sign and browse local artisan shops.
Learn about Convento San Antonio de Padua
You will not be able to miss San Antonio de Padua Convent, as it is a central part of Izamal and the undisputed symbol of the city. This Franciscan monastery was built in 1561 on top of the existing ancient Maya pyramid known as Pop-hol-Chac. The pyramid was destroyed and its stones were used to build this catholic temple.
One of the founders of the monastery was the infamous Fray Diego de Landa, a Spanish Bishop who has been responsible for burning almost all the Maya manuscripts (codices). He was also responsible for initiating Inquisition which involved physical abuse, torture and interrogation. The bishop was eventually sent back to Spain, to stand trial for conducting an illegal Inquisition and his actions were strongly condemned. Yet In 1569, the committee pardoned Landa for his crimes and he was sent back as the second Bishop of Yucatán.
What is interesting here however is how Landa is an author of a ‘Relación de las cosas de Yucatán’ which is known to be the most comprehensive work documenting Mayan religion, language, writing and culture and it is said that it was written as Landa was overcome with remorse for his barbarism.
Nevertheless, as you walk around the convent, you will be wandering around a magnificent church and museum, but also stepping over the remnants of the dramatic history of this land.
The most impressive part of the monastery is undoubtedly its huge rectangular atrium flanked by 75 arches. It is the largest enclosed atrium in America and the second-largest in the world after Vatican St. Peter’s Square. Often a backdrop for professional photo sessions, it also offers fantastic views of the town.
The church interior is equally impressive and boasts a beautiful, gold-plated Baroque altarpiece, mural paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries and many more important religious works of art.
Discover hidden Mayan ruins of Izamal
The Maya people of the Itza established Izamal before settling in Chichen-Itza and, although not as impressive as some other sites in Yucatan, it was one of the great cities of the Yucatan Peninsula in pre-Columbian times.
The Kinich Kakmó pyramid dedicated to the “Sun-Eyed Fire Macaw” god is located just 10 minutes walk from the San Antonio convent, and was one of its most important temples. You can climb the steps and get an excellent panoramic view of the city and the surrounding jungle from the top.
And you can actually climb it. It was the first time during my entire trip to Mexico and Guatemala that I was allowed onto the pyramid. It could be because of a pandemic or recent accidents that it wasn’t allowed in Palenque or Tikal, for example. The views are magnificent and it is a fantastic spot to watch the sunset.
There are various other archaeological sites further from the centre of town. These include Zona Arqueológica Chaltún Há, Kinich Kakmo and El Conejo pyramid. Although outside of the centre, it will take you less than 15 minutes to get there and the chances are you won’t have to share those sites with many other visitors.
Pop in to Centro Cultural y Artesanal Izamal
As you walk around Izamal, make sure to pop in to Centro Cultural y Artesanal Izamal (Cultural Centre of Art and Crafts) located just across the square from the monastery. This small museum displays several high-quality crafts that distinguish the Mayan culture of the peninsula and even other areas of the country. The centre is owned by a cooperative and features a small shop where you can purchase fair trade souvenirs crafted by indigenous communities from the region. Take a coffee in the cafe located in the central courtyard of this 16th-century mansion.
There is English signage throughout the museum giving an excellent summary and will help you understand the origin and history of the textiles, ceramics and woodwork pieces here.
If you are looking to buy some souvenirs you cannot miss Hecho a Mano shop!
Enjoy excellent lunch in Izamal
For a small town, Izamal has plenty of excellent restaurants and few small eateries where you can grab a traditional and delicious lunch. It will be difficult to choose, but here are some of the best restaurants in Izamal Mexico:
- Kinich el Sabor, perhaps the most famous restaurant in Izamal, is an atmospheric restaurant with a beautiful interior serving delicious and nicely presented dishes sprinkled with excellent service. Expect to find quite few tourists here, nevertheless it is a great place for lunch.
- For an equally delicious but more local experience, head over to Restaurante Marisqueria La Jaiba. This authentic local restaurant served very sizable portions of delicious food (also very good seafood dishes) for a more reasonable price than the famous restaurants in the city centre. It is also a truly welcoming place. Give it a try!
- Restaurante Los Arcos is another excellent choice for traditional yucatanesian cuisine and excellent service. They have a lovely patio in the back and, of course, delicious food! Los Arcos is very popular amongst Mexican tourists and for a good reason.
- Another famous restaurant in Izamal, Restaurante Zamna offers traditional regional dishes. Papadzules, lime soup, conchinita pibil, poc chuc, salbutes all the state’s classic dishes are served here. It is, however very popular eatery, so again, expect to find quite few tourists here.
- Fancy sipping a cold drink and snacking on great food while people-watching at Parque Itzamna? Look no further than Muul Restaurant. It has tables outside right at the front – perfect for those hot days.
- For a very affordable meal or snack, there are few local restaurants and food stalls at the Mercado Municipal – just across the monastery. You cannot go wrong with the street food in Mexico! Be sure to grab a snack early enough as the market closes around 2 or 1 pm (from what I noticed).
How to get to Izamal, Mexico
The best way to get to Izamal from Merida is by local bus. I was told that colectivo is a great option too, but after I spent an hour looking for the departure stop in Merida, I gave up and hopped on a local bus. Mind you, during a pandemic nothing is for certain, so it could be that the colectivo stop was moved.
You can take a bus from 2 different bus stations in Merida – Oriente and Noreste Bus Terminal. I went to Izamal from Noreste and returned to Oriente. Be aware when you are in Izamal there are also 2 bus stations, so check the departure at both to calculate how long do you have to explore the town. I suggest leaving no later than 5 pm.
The buses leaving from Noreste are very simple local busses so don’t expect air conditioning. Open windows will do though. The station is on Calle 65 in Merida and the ticket costs around 35MXN.
I didn’t know about the second bus station as I was simply walking around looking for the return colectivo (wasn’t giving up on that one) when I spotted a bigger station and a very decent bus departing towards Merida. I think this line has stopped operating a couple of years ago. That’s why I couldn’t find any information prior to my trip, so do check with your hostel if this is still an option. These buses were much more comfortable and air-conditioned. The journey will take a little over 1.5 hours.
To get to Izamal from Valladolid, take a local bus departing near ADO station near the central plaza on Calle 37. It takes over two hours to get to Izamal from Valladolid, so leave early or opt to take this trip from Merida instead.
You can also take a guided tour from Merida. Check out this highly rated tour here.
How long for visiting Izamal
Izamal can easily be visited on a day trip from Merida or Valladolid. You will need between 4 and 6 hours to see the main points of interest and have a relaxed lunch. I recommend leaving early and taking a bus back no later than 5 pm as it can take over an hour and a half to return to Merida and over two hours to Valladolid.
You can of course spend a night or two in Izamal. It is a charming and tranquil town with many restaurants and beautiful hotels so if you are looking to run away from crowds you can definitely stay in Izamal for longer. Consider Hotel Hacienda Izamal if you are planning to stay overnight. I have only heard good things about this hotel.
Izamal, Mexico is a wonderfully charming town. Still, slightly under the radar of mainstream tourism and rich in history, the Pueblo Magico of Izamal is worth taking a day trip from Merida.
I hope you decide to go! I’m looking forward to hearing your thought so if you went please let me know if you enjoyed it as much as I did!
Until then, happy travelling friends!
Exploring more of Mexico?
For an in-depth guide to San Cristobal de las Casas click here and if you are planning to enter Mexico from Guatemala via land border head over to my guide here!
If you travelling between San Cristobal de las Casas and Cancun, read about all the best stops you could take on this route.
And if you are wondering if Merida is worth visiting, click here to find out! And if you are looking for a complete guide to Valladolid, you will find it here!
Finally, If you are heading towards Palenque don’t miss my comprehensive guide here!
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