Mexico’s Yellow Town: Izamal, the Pueblo Magico

How one Mexican town got a sunny makeover and joined the ranks of Pueblos Magicos
Izamal street

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Gabriel, the young waiter, was leaning over me,, beaming with pride as he described each item on the menu. Morning sunlight cast long shadows on the sturdy wooden table that sat a few inches from a lush garden.

He spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. To call my grasp of the language mediocre would be a generous overstatement but somehow I understood and soon our table was heavy with sizzling sopes, panuchos, salbutes, and empanadas.

Later that day, Gabriel would lead us to a cave hiding an unexplored cenote.

If you had to decide between a million dollars for giving up tacos and unlimited tacos, which would you choose – Corn or flour?

I’m Hungry!

An hour earlier, I was on a quest to find out which Lupita taqueria was the Lupita taqueria that everyone (on the internet) was talking about. There is a dozen of them with the same name in Merida. I finally figured it out and we hopped into the car (check out my story on Renting a Car in Merida, Mexico). The place was closed. So we set off towards Izamal and kept our eyes peeled and nostrils flared for off-the-beaten-path culinary delights.

Our lucky find was Tzalam Kimbila, an outdoor restaurant with a cute garden and a clothing shop next door, 40 minutes by car from Merida. Our tongues were delighted by the contrast of roasted meats and pickled onion slivers, our wallets were happy about the prices (15-20 pesos per item) and our hearts were full with the appreciation for the kind people who made this feast happen.

Paul the history buff friend and Mark the hubby sipped on their cups of instant coffee (that managed to outperform the grossly overpriced (and gross) brew we endured the night before at the famed El Apapacho in Merida. But, let’s give credit where credit is due, their mole sauce was fantastic).

I hopped on the swing in the lush garden. A teenage girl whizzed past on a bicycle, cupping a cold Coke bottle against her cheek to beat the morning Yucatecan sun. Not sure where she was headed, but we had 20 minutes to go before reaching the Yellow City.

Izamal’s Sunshine Makeover

You will know you have arrived in Izamal when you’re surrounded by sunflower-yellow walls on every building on every street.

Half of the town claims the color is a tribute to the Mayan sun god, the other half remembers the Pope John Paul the II’s visit in 1993 as the reason for this beautification project. Either way, it’s a draw for the steady stream of tourists on their way to and from the Chichen Itza Mayan pyramids.

Izamal, having been continuously inhabited for over 2000 years, has its own well-preserved Mayan pyramid, Kinich Kakmó, dedicated to the Mayan Sun God. It’s 35 meters (115-feet) tall, with 10 levels of uneven, steep, rocky stairs. You can climb it (just watch your step) for a 360 degree view of the town and the jungle beyond. I sat on top and lingered in silence. Someone brought a bouquet of red gladiolus and laid them on the highest rock.

500 years ago, the Spaniards built a church and a convent on top of one of sacred worship sites of the Maya, to convert them to Catholicism. The church and the pyramid stand side by side to this day.

Izamal is included in the Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) list, a distinction afforded by the Mexican secretary of Tourism to (so far) 177 of the most unique and historically significant rural villages in Mexico.

On our way back, we swung by Tzalam Kimbila for a repeat of our morning feast. While munching on our goodies, Paul spotted something intriguing: stone steps disappearing into the ground. Naturally, we had to investigate. Gabriel, the waiter, grabbed a flashlight and we followed him down the slippery stairs. The cool, humid air hit us like a wave, a welcome relief from the warm afternoon sun above.

There, bathed in the beam of Gabriel’s flashlight, lay a hidden cenote, a water-filled cave. This wasn’t just nature’s bathtub, Gabriel explained. It was part of a vast network of interconnected caves, a subterranean labyrinth waiting to be explored. “No one’s been brave enough to dive into these tunnels yet, we have no idea where they lead or what’s in them.”

In my head, as I often do, I immediately started plotting a grand expedition. With a fascinating bunch of divers hungry for adventure, armed with state-of-the-art cameras and sonars (or whatever tech is needed for such a thing), we would finally uncover the secrets of the mysterious Mayan civilization. National Geographic, here we come!

Have a look at our trip to the Ancient Mayan city called Chichen Itza and the magical town of Valladolid, where we learned about other sacred water caves, gruesome ancient rituals and ate more delicious food.

But let’s rewind. The reason for our morning voraciousness was the epic road trip, 5 ancient cities deep, that we took the day before.

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a delightful monthly email with tips, tricks and stories on wellness, affordable travel and everything else I get excited about 

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