Around an hour’s drive west out of Mérida lies the impossibly beautiful town of Izamal, a designated Pueblo Mágico (a place with great national symbolism and historical importance) or, as it’s colloquially known, “La Ciudad Amarilla”, the Yellow City – and yes, the whole town is painted yellow! That’s every single house painted in various yellow hues from intense golds to buttercup, dandelion, canary, banana and butterscotch, even Tuscan Harvest – all under a blazing cerulean sky.
The town has two dominant features, one of which is the massive 16th Century Convento San Antonio de Padua – and yes, it’s all yellow – the other being one of the largest, and oldest pyramids in all of Mexico, located smack in the middle of town and accessible to climb straight off the street.
Izamal is a maze of small cobbled streets, lined with low-rise (um… yellow) casas and casitas, charming cool shaded garden restaurants and row upon row of small shops (all painted… yes, yellow) selling fair-trade crafts from around 40 indigenous local communities.
There’s a grand zócolo in the centre of town surrounded on all sides by elegant colonnaded buildings (all painted… pink of course – kidding) and a mercado jammed full of local produce, handicrafts and shoes… where we bought a second pair of huaraches – sandals – each, this time a tad more sturdy, not plaited, but good quality leather, for $A15 a pair.
Artesanal goods aside, the main attraction in Izamal today, Palm Sunday, was of course the convento, which had drawn crowds from all over the Yucatan. The narrow cobbled streets were ringing to the sound of painted pony traps transporting Palm Sunday day-trippers and locals around town. There are dozens of them, all rigged out in their gaudy finery – buttercup yellow and hot vibrant pinks – frilled canopies, sun-flower bedecked hoods and even straw hats for our pony pals. Now, I’m not a huge fan of this trade, particularly when you realise these poor things are regularly enduring, in full sunshine, 38-degree heat with just a silly jaunty hat for shade, and blinkers to restrict their field of vision. In recent weeks there have been reports (and distressing photos) in the local papers about them collapsing from exhaustion, rightly igniting the debate about animal welfare in the Yucatan.
Izamal also has another name “La Ciudad de los Cerros” or the City of the Hills, because here in ancient Izamal lie the ruins of at least 5 Mayan pyramids and temple complexes, right within the city walls. You can be walking down a narrow laneway lined with impossibly cute – can you guess… yes, yellow – painted buildings and walk right up to an imposing stone block ziggurat pyramid – some of them have been incorporated into homes, whilst the largest pyramid of all, K’inich K’áak ’Mo’, at 35 metres, towers over the town and the dead-flat Yucatan jungle scrub. It’s said that the early Spanish colonists of Izamal didn’t even realise there were Mayan pyramids here as they were largely hidden by the all-encompassing jungle, so the large, conveniently carved stone blocks they found just lying around were of course used to build their own massive temple, the Convento San Antonio de Padua. If you look carefully at the convento walls you can still see, if shown, original Mayan carvings and hieroglyphics.