The lantern-lit cobblestone streets of Izamal were quiet and empty, save for the clop clop of the occasional horse-drawn carriage. This was in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of Mérida, the Yucatan capital city I’d left that morning. As I wandered through the picturesque colonial streets, it was easy to see why the Mexican government has designated Izamal a pueblo magico. With all of its buildings painted a uniform hue of yellow (its nickname is La Ciudad Amarilla, or the Yellow City) and its history as a religious center for both the ancient Mayans and the Spanish, Izamal is certainly enchanting.
When I first read that there was an entirely yellow city in Yucatan, I was sold, and onto the (already packed) itinerary it went. Originally we had planned to stop at Izamal on the way from Mérida to Chichen Itza, but because we were running so late we had to backtrack at the end of the day, arriving shortly before sunset. While I was disappointed that we didn’t have much time to explore, being there as dusk set in over the charming town offered photo opps aplenty.
Izamal is on the itinerary of Chichen Itza day trips for several cruise and tour companies, but when we pulled into the main plaza we were clearly the only foreign tourists in town. In fact, a local police officer got so excited when he saw us that he ran over to usher us into a parking spot, moving a bike to make room. After we stepped out of the car, he stopped traffic (keep in mind there were two cars on the street) so we could cross and waved us along enthusiastically. He was so friendly and made us feel immediately welcome, which is nice and not usually a sentiment I feel around police!
This small town vibe was echoed throughout Izamal, as locals watched us with friendly amusement as we wandered through the plaza and began to explore our surroundings. Fortunately we had parked directly across the street from Izamal’s main attraction, the Franciscan convent that was built over a Mayan pyramid and made famous by a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1993.
Izamal is actually one of the oldest cities in Yucatan, and it was also one of the most powerful Mayan cities before the rise of Chichen Itza. There are some Mayan pyramids in the city, but unfortunately, thanks to the fact that we were running so far behind, we didn’t get to explore them before darkness fell. Once the Spanish conquered the region, they began converting the natives to Catholicism and eventually erected the convent.
The convent can be reached by climbing a long set of stairs, and has a spacious courtyard with a statue of Pope John Paul II. Inside you’ll find a church with a restored altar and a shrine to the Virgin Mary, where many people had lit candles and taped photos of loved ones with written prayers. While we were there, a group of children were playing soccer in the church’s yard.
After exploring the convent and Izamal’s center, we were beyond starving and ready for some food. I hesitated to eat at Kinich El Sabor, the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, because reviews mentioned that it was extremely touristy, but honestly I had no idea where else we would go. There didn’t appear to be many restaurants in town aside from a couple pizzerias and food stands of dubious cleanliness. So Kinich El Sabor it was!
The restaurant was definitely a tourist haven, as its elaborate interior and fancy menu were definitely not geared toward Izamal locals. But it was, nonetheless, delicious and served an assortment of authentic Mayan dishes, including my favorite, cochinita pibil. I can’t believe this is my third post about Yucatan and I haven’t mentioned cochinita pibil yet, because I was suffering from a serious addiction throughout my trip. I could have eaten the stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner and still not had enough!
Cochinita pibil is a dish drawing influence from both Mayan and Spanish cultures, consisting of pork marinated in orange juice and wrapped in a banana leaf before being slow-roasted underground for 8 hours (the original crockpot, no?). It’s melt-in-your-mouth good and in my opinion, best served on handmade tortillas like the ones at Kinich El Sabor.
Anyway, my point is that if you’re in Izamal, a dinner at Kinich El Sabor is the way to go. I believe most tour groups stop there during the day for lunch, so you probably won’t need a reservation in the evening.
After dinner we walked back to our car, which the friendly police officer was still standing by. He greeted us and assisted us in pulling out of the space, again stopping traffic. We waved goodbye to our new friend as we drove off, en route to Valladolid.
I wished I’d had a few more hours in Izamal, but if you are a regular reader then you’re probably used to my whirlwind itineraries as I try to see everything in almost no time. Our destination for the next 24 hours was Valladolid, Yucatan’s second pueblo magico and third largest city, a place I was excited to go thanks to so many American expats raving about how wonderful it was. Stay tuned to hear how it went!
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