Imagine a city within a city. Imagine walking amid the ruins of the Maya civilization, covered in lush vegetation, then you stop for a moment and have to catch your breath. You marvel at wall after wall painted with a golden warmth that reaches your retina, the color of egg yolk, sunlight washing over the roofs of shops and schools, over the main town square. This is Izamal.
Located 72 kilometers east of state capital Mérida, Izamal means “dew that falls from the heavens” and is known as the Yellow City because all of the buildings in the historic old town are painted in bright yellow. Some speculate that they were painted right before the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1993 but no official record explainig the reason has been found.
Izamal is an important archaeological site of the Maya civilization. It is probably the biggest city of the Northern Yucatan Plains with an urban extension of 53 square kilometers. The city was founded during the Late Formative Period (750–200 BC) — roughly 2,000 years ago — and was continuously occupied until the Spanish Conquest. Mexican archaeologists have found more than 160 archaeologically important Maya structures.
The Spanish city was founded in the 1550s. It used to be a very important religious site for the Maya and thus, the Spaniards decided to use that in their efforts to convert the locals to Catholicism. They placed a small Christian temple atop the great pyramid and building a large Franciscan Monastery atop the acropolis. It was named after San Antonio de Padua. Completed in 1561, the open atrium of the Monastery is still today second in size only to that at the Vatican.
The convent was founded by the Franciscans, headed by Fray Diego de Landa and built in place of the Pop-hol-Chac pyramid, whose stones were used as material for the new building. The Pop-hol-Chac pyramid was the highest of the six pre-Hispanic platforms found in Izamal, which to this day allows the convent to be visible from afar. At the time, it made it easier for the Franciscans to control the site, as it dominated a large part of the landscape.
The construction was directed by a renowned architect and master of the time, Father Fray Juan de Mérida, who was in charge of many religious buildings in the Yucatán peninsula. The convent of San Antonio de Padua was one of his greatest works, which was fundamental for the development of Mesoamerica because of the great size of its proportions and for being in a town that had great importance in pre-Columbian times.
The church of San Antonio de Padua is still active and is one of the oldest Catholic churches in America.
Maya is still widely spoken in Izamal and surrounding areas. It is the first language in the homes of the majority of the people. Most signs in the city are in both Spanish and Maya.
In 2002, Izamal was declared a Pueblo Mágico or Magical Town by Mexican authorities. Pueblos Mágicos is a program run by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism with the aim to promote towns that offer visitors special experiences because of their natural beauty, cultural richness, traditions, folklore, historical relevance, cuisine, art crafts, and great hospitality. It is intended to increase tourism to more localities, especially smaller towns in rural areas.