Visiting the Yellow Town of Izamal in Mexico

Horse-drawn carriage in Izamal, Mexico

Izamal is a magical town on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It’s known as la Ciudad Amarilla de Yucatán, meaning “the yellow city of Yucatan.”

From the market to the colonial convent, the entire city is painted yellow with white trim with ancient Maya ruin sites scattered throughout. It’s a sight not to be missed!

If you’re looking for an authentic small town on the Yucatan Peninsula that’s off the beaten path, head on over to Izamal, Mexico.

Exploring the ruins in Izamal

CONTENTS

  1. Is Izamal worth visiting?
  2. Why is Izamal Yellow?
  3. Things to Do in Izamal
  4. What to See Near Izamal
  5. Where to Eat in Izamal
  6. Planning a Trip to Izamal
  7. Where to Stay
  8. Other Things to Do in Yucatan, Mexico

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Is Izamal Worth visiting?

According to the Mexican government it is and we agree 100%! Izamal holds the prestigious title of Pueblo Magico, or Magical Town.

Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism reserves this designation for places that offer tourists a magical experience due to their natural beauty, cultural heritage, historical significance, unique cuisine, and traditional arts and crafts.

Apparently, Izamal has multiple nicknames and another one is la ciudad de las tres culturas, meaning “the city of three cultures,” because it’s an interesting mix of pre-hispanic, colonial, and modern architecture and cultures.

Izamal is even listed on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites because of its rich Mayan history.

Why is Izamal Yellow?

Calle del arco in Izamal, Mexico

For some reason, no one knows for sure why Izamal is yellow. Some say the town was painted yellow in 1993 in honor of the pope’s visit.

Others claim it has been yellow since pre-hispanic times in honor of the Maya deity of the sun. Another popular explanation for the yellow and white colors is that they help keep mosquitoes away.

Fun Fact: Izamal means “dew from the sky” in Yucatec Maya.

Things to Do in Izamal

It may be small, but there are still many things to do in Izamal, Mexico!

Walk Around Mexico’s Yellow Town

White arch in the yellow city of Izamal, Mexico

In my opinion, the best thing to do in Izamal is simply to wander around the cobblestone streets and get lost in the maze of yellow. There are little shops, like Hecho a Mano, to buy local arts and crafts, cafes, and tons of mustard yellow walls and arches to photograph.

There are also small museums – like the Centro Cultural y Artesanal Izamal (Cultural and Artisanal Center of Izamal) which costs 20 pesos to visit and has a small shop selling local crafts – and artisan workshops where you can stop to observe how things are made.

And in between its yellow grid lie several cerros, or hills, made of stone – ancient Maya ruins – which give it its other nickname, The Town of Hills, in a land of flat limestone terrain.

Climb the Ancient Ruins

Kinich Ka Moo ruins in Izamal, Mexico

Ancient Maya archeological sites from as early as 750 BC are scattered throughout Izamal. It’s a truly amazing experience to walk by a row of colonial homes and then pass by a massive pyramid.

It goes something like this: yellow house, yellow house, yellow house, yellow house,
and then…oh, just the largest pyramid in the state of Yucatan. Pretty crazy, right?!

Even though it hasn’t been as restored like other sites nearby, Kinich Kak Moo is still an impressive sight to behold because it was one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in Yucatan. The temple has an enormous base with another 10-level pyramid on top.

Kinich Kak Moo is also the name of the sun deity that the pyramid was built for. The name means “fire macaw with the sun face.”

The other ancient Maya sites to explore in town are Izamatul, El Conejo (The Rabbit), Habuc, Chaltun Ha, and Kabul.

All the ruins are within walking distance, public and free to enter (yay!) except for Kabul. You can see the top of Kabul from the town’s main square, but access is restricted. If anyone knows why please let us know in the comments below.

See the San Antonio de Padua Convent

The Atrium at the Convent San Antonio de Padua

As was customary during the colonization of Mexico, the Spanish took over the Maya’s religious sites and repurposed the stone to construct their own buildings. The more important the site was for the Maya, the larger the size of the building the Spanish built on top of it.

The former Franciscan convent of San Antonio de Padua is a perfect example of this conquistador technique. After its construction in 1561 on top of a Maya temple called Ppap Hol Chak, the town went from an important Maya pilgrimage site to an important Catholic pilgrimage site.

If you look closely, you can actually see Maya glyphs on some of the stones used on the steps leading up to the convent.

Inside the convent, there’s a small museum with artifacts from the pope’s visit in 1993. Up a small staircase is another area you can pay about 10 pesos to access which contains the statue of Nuestra Señora de Izamal (the patron of the state of Yucatan).

If you’re interested, there’s a light and sound show on the front of the convent every Monday through Saturday night at 8:30 pm.

Experience a Mexican Market

Municipal Market in Izamal, Yucatan, Mexico

Although it’s no Oaxaca market, you shouldn’t leave town without paying a visit to the Mercado Municipal de Izamal (Municipal Market of Izamal). It’s across the street from the Parque Cinco de Mayo. Wander through the stalls to see the local produce stands, listen to people conversing in Yucatec Maya, and observe the women wearing their colorful traditional dress, known as hipiles or huipiles.

While there make sure to try some of the Yucatan specialties like panuchos or salbutes, or at least grab a refreshing agua fresca (a typical Mexican drink made of fresh fruit blended with water and served ice cold) to cool off.

Ride a Horse-Drawn Carriage

View from the top of Kunich Ka Moo in Izamal

Step back in time by taking a ride in a carriage (known as calesas) pulled by a horse in a tiny hat. Yes, a horse in a tiny hat taking you on a carriage tour of a completely yellow town. Need I say more? They’re parked along the northern side of the convent.

Relax Like A Local at the Parque

Izamal sign in the Yellow Town of Yucatan, Mexico

The parque (park) or plaza principal is Mexico’s version of a main square. Most towns have one and Valladolid is no exception.  Parque 5 de Mayo and Parque Itzamna are where the locals come to hangout, chit chat, grab a snack or dessert (churros or marquesitas, anyone?) from a food cart, or simply sit on a bench and watch the world go by.

What to See Near Izamal

There are tons of things to see and do near Izamal. Here are just some of our suggestions:

Valladolid

fountain in Valladolid's main square

Valladolid, Yucatan is a colonial city that also has the Pueblo Magico designation. The historical center is filled with pastel-colored buildings and the city has more tourist services than Izamal. It’s a great place to base yourself when exploring the Yucatan Peninsula.

Chichen Itza Ruins

The most well-known archeological site in Mexico is also the most-visited due in part to its recent status as one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. To avoid the crowds, stay overnight in Izamal and get to Chichen Itza right when it opens at 8 am. It’s only about 1 hour away by car.

Cenotes Cuzama

Kristina from Off Path Travels hanging out on the rope at Chelentun in Cenotes Chunkanán

Don’t leave Mexico without swimming in the cenotes at Cuzama. They’re located about 1 hour and 20 minutes by car from Izamal. Once you arrive in town, you’ll ride a horse-drawn cart to three cenotes, each different from the next and uniquely beautiful. A truly memorable experience!

Merida

Merida is one of our favorite cities in Mexico. A visit to the big city makes the perfect day trip from Izamal. We liked it so much that we extended our stay there to over 3 weeks and wrote a post on 50+ Things to Do in Merida.

Celestun

A flamingo taking flight on the boat tour in Yucatan Mexico

Visit the beach and see thousands of wild flamingos at Celestun on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Yucatan.

Uxmal and Ruta Puuc

A drive along the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route) is a fantastic way to spend a day ruin-hopping at some of Yucatan’s lesser known and most unique archeological sites. The ruins at Uxmal are some of the most impressive in Mexico.

Where to Eat in Izamal

Popular foods in Yucatan are panuchos, salbutes, chile habanero salsa (our favorite!), papadzules, lomitos, relleno negro, coconut ice cream, longaniza with eggs, pan de cazón, queso relleno, candied papaya, chicken escabeche, marquesitas, and cochinita pibil (Yucatan’s most famous dish).

For drinks, try a sip of the Yucatec liquor, Xtabentun, made from anise and honey from Mayan bees, or a refreshing agua fresca, made from local fruits.Restaurants in Izamal

Mercado Municipal

For cheap and authentic antojitos (little cravings), look no further than the food stalls at the Mercado Municipal (Municipal Market) across from the convent and park. We had some delicious agua frescas, panuchos and salbutes there with delicious salsas on top.

Kinich Restaurant

This restaurant seems to be the tourist hotspot in Izamal. They serve Yucatecan specialties and fresh hand-made tortillas. A good place to visit if you’ve never tried them! You can also see the ladies preparing hand-made tortillas in the back patio area.

Muul Restaurant

The perfect place for drinking a cold beer and enjoying some appetizers while people watching. The best spots are the tables outside. Located across the street from Parque Itzamna.

Elote and Marquesitas at the Parque Cinco de Mayo and Itzamna

Try some local street food from one of the vendors at the parks in the town center.

Elotes (also called esquites) are the quintessential Mexican street food: corn. Try some with all the toppings (mayo, aged cheese, lime juice, and the hot sauce of your choice, but ask for poco picante (a bit spicy) or sin picante (without spicy) if you can’t handle hot sauce.

Marquesitas are a popular dessert in this part of Mexico. They’re kind of like crispy crepes, rolled up and stuffed with queso de bola (Edam cheese) and the filling of your choice. We like ours with Nutella. Yes, it sounds weird, but just try it. It’s delicious!

Planning a Trip to Izamal

Off Path Travels in Izamal on the Yucatan Peninsula

Where is Izamal?

Izamal is located between Chichen Itza and Merida on the Cancun-Merida Highway 180 on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Transportation options are listed further down below.

Best Time to Visit

Plan your trip from November to March for the coolest and least muggy weather. That means it’s also high season, so if you’d rather avoid the crowds and don’t mind the sweltering heat and humidity (Trust me. I’m not exaggerating.) go in the summer/low-season.

Getting Around in Izamal

Everything is walking distance in Izamal and easy to get to. There are bicycles for rent at some of the hotels and you can take a horse-drawn carriage for a tour around town.

Is Izamal Safe?

Izamal is safe to travel to and walk around in. The locals are very friendly and willing to help in case you get lost wandering the streets for hours (one of my favorite hobbies). The biggest danger here is not wanting to leave this tranquil town.

What to Pack

As you can tell from all of our gray-sky photos, we ended up visiting Izamal during a rainstorm, but it’s usually sunny and hot so pack accordingly.

Where to Stay

Inside the Convent San Antonio de Padua

We use and recommend Booking.com for hotel reservations because they have a rewards program that gives you 10% off, they price match and they usually offer free cancellations.

Hotels in Izamal, Yucatan

If you’re planning to stay overnight in this charming yellow town, then make sure to book ahead for the best selection. Even though there are several hotels in Izamal, it’s no Cancun, and the hotels do sell out during peak travel times.

Search all hotels in Izamal, Yucatan here.


Budget:
Nicol-Haa
For travelers looking for a no frills, clean enough, and cheap, kinda place. It’s currently about $20 a night, has AC, a small pool, and it’s a short walk from the center of town.

Check availability for Nicol-Haa here.


Mid-Range:
Hotel Rinconada del Convento
This hotel is in the heart of Izamal with a pool and a rooftop seating area for sunset views of the convent right across the street. Some rooms even have balconies with their own views of the convent. Breakfast is included and the rooms have mini fridges in case you want to store that fresh fruit you bought at the market for later.

Check availability for Hotel Rinconada del Convento here.


Luxe:
Hotel Coqui Coqui Casa de los Santos
Looking for an absolutely stunning boutique hotel in a restored colonial building with a pool, free parking, and breakfast included? This is it! Oh, and did I mention it’s right in the center of town? Take a look at their photos for some serious interior design inspiration!

Check availability for Hotel Coqui Coqui here. 

A beautiful yet less expensive luxe option is the Hacienda Sacnicte. It’s set in a charming restored hacienda, but it’s on the outskirts of town (about a 15 minute drive to the center).

Vacation Rentals

Even though Izamal is on the smaller side, it still has multiple Airbnbs to choose from like this colonial casa with hammocks hanging over the pool. Get $40 off  your first stay with our Airbnb coupon code.

VRBO (for entire home rentals) also has some beautiful haciendas and villas in town.

How to Get to Izamal

Convent San Antonio de Padua in Izamal, Mexico

The closest international airports to Izamal are in Merida (MID) and Cancun (CUN). It’s usually cheaper to fly into Cancun, but Merida is closer to Izamal by car. We use Skyscanner to get the best airfare deals to cities around the world.

TIP: The Yucatan Peninsula is the ideal road trip destination. We highly recommend renting a car to explore its natural gems like cenotes and flamingo nesting areas and spending the night in off-the-beaten path towns or any of the beautiful restored haciendas along the way. Don’t forget to stop at the roadside fruit stalls for some mango con limon y chile (my favorite Mexican snack).

By Car

The best way to get to Izamal is by car. When we last visited, we rented a car in Merida and drove to Izamal after an amazing morning at Cenotes Cuzama.

Merida to Izamal
Distance: 42 miles (67.6 km)
Time: 57 min

Check rental car prices for Merida here.

Valladolid to Izamal
Distance: 68.6 miles (110.4 km)
Time: 1 hour 23 minutes

Cancun to Izamal
Distance: 157.8 miles (253.9 km)
Time: 2 hr 52 min

Check rental car prices for Cancun here.

By Colectivo

Colectivos are shared taxis or vans and a common (and very inexpensive!) form of transportation in Mexico. You can take a colectivo from Merida or Valladolid to Izamal.

By Bus

First class ADO buses don’t stop in Izamal, but second-class Noreste and Centro buses do and they’re usually more comfortable than colectivos. They depart from Merida and Valladolid.

By Tour


Day Trips

Check out the tour options below for a fun day trip to Izamal.

Izamal: Discover Yucatan’s Magical Town. A tour of Izamal with pickup from Merida.

Magical Towns: Valladolid, Cenote Swim, and Izamal. A tour of Valladolid (another Pueblo Magico), a dip in a cenote and a visit to Izamal with pickup from Merida.

Izamal City Tour with Carriage Ride. A tour of Izamal with a horse-drawn carriage ride with pickup from Merida.

Multiple-Day Tours
If prefer traveling with a group tour and would like to visit Izamal, consider taking the Best of Mexico tour by Intrepid Travel. They focus on sustainable travel and small group tours with local guides.

Other Things to Do Near Izamal, Mexico

Vintage sign in a shop in Mexico

Looking for more places of interest on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico?

Check out our other posts:

Plan Your Trip

Find a Cheap Flight
We use Skyscanner to consistently get the best fares online. Check out our guide to finding cheap flights for more tips.

Book Your Stay
We enjoy living like locals by staying at Airbnb rentals (get $40 off Airbnb here), but we also use Booking.com for hotel reservations.

Pack Your Bags
Wondering what to pack? Read our Ultimate Guide to Packing Light for a list of travel essentials.

Get Covered
World Nomads is travel insurance designed by travelers. They cover medical and dental emergencies, trip cancellation, delayed bags, and more.

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Discover the Yellow Town of Izamal in Mexico. Everything you need to know to visit this hidden gem on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The entire town of Izamal is yellow! Everything you need to know to visit this hidden gem in Mexico.

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