Headed to Mexico and looking for info on Izamal, Yucatan? Keep on reading for everything you need to know about this sun-drenched yellow city, including how to get from Merida to Izamal, when to visit, and of course the best things to do in Izamal!
Izamal completely took me by surprise. I knew I would love it – it’s practically bathed in yellow (!!!) – but I didn’t realize just how sweet and appealing it’d be. It’s super easy to get around, completely safe, hardly crowded, and you can really see the main highlights in only a few hours.
Since I have a thing with brightly colored towns (some of my recent favorites being Cartagena in Colombia, Chefchaouen in Morocco, and Burano and Villefranche Sur Mer in Italy), I knew I needed to include Izamal on my Yucatan itinerary. The entire town is YELLOW! Such a happy and cheery color, even on an unfortunate gray day like I had.
Izamal is known for its bright yellow buildings, authentic local vibe, and charming narrow streets. This beautiful colonial town is still kinda off the beaten path, and I saw way less tourists than I did in nearby Merida and Valladolid.
And like other small towns in Mexico, it’s considered a Pueblo Magico (Magic Town). The Mexican government gives this special designation to particular towns in Mexico to preserve those with special cultural histories, like the yellow streets of Izamal!
I’ve been lucky to visit quite a few of these magical Mexican towns, including Todos Santos, Teotihuacán, Tulum, Valladolid, Sayulita, Bacalar, and San Miguel de Allende. I’m so glad I was able to check another one off my list – the charming yellow city of Izamal!
Plus, it’s such an easy day trip from both Merida and Valladolid! More on that later. Here’s everything you need to know about the golden yellow city of Izamal!
But first, some important info about Izamal in the Yucatan!
Important Izamal Info
Why is the town yellow?
First things first — why yellow anyways?! Looking at pictures of Izamal, Yucatan, you’ll quickly notice it’s got a distinct aesthetic and monochrome color palette. As the Coldplay song goes “it was all yellow”…, haha. This makes the entire yellow city absolutely spectacular for photo opportunities, so don’t forget your camera!
On my tour of Izamal, I learned that the town was painted a specific shade of yellow over 60 years ago. The color is so sacred to the town, that locals who live in the city center aren’t even allowed to repaint the exterior of their house!
As far as the reason behind all the yellow-ness, there’s a few different theories for this:
- Yellow is a very important color to Mayans since it represents maiz (corn), and they believe corn is a gift from god.
- The city was painted yellow in order to spruce up the town before Pope John Paul II came for a visit in 1993. But since the town has been yellow for over 60 years, this theory doesn’t make all that much sense, haha.
We’ll never really know the real reason, and that’s ok!
Is all of Izamal completely yellow? No! And not many visitors realize this! Before visiting I totally thought the entire town was yellow. The part that people visit — the city center/colonial area — is where you’ll find all the yellow buildings. If you venture past the city center, you’ll find buildings that aren’t even all yellow (gasp!)
Don’t worry — the yellow section is way more than one block though, haha. So yes, still very worth it to visit if you’re coming for all the happy yellow vibes.
Brief History of Izamal
I’m not the biggest history buff, but I found the history of Izamal to be kinda fascinating!
Izamal was founded in the Late Preclassical period (750 to 200 A.C.), almost 2,000 years ago by the Maya. The yellow city was named after the ancient Maya god Itzamná and means “dew that falls from the heavens.” It was occupied almost continuously throughout the last 2,000 years.
I was surprised to learn this, but before the Spanish arrived and essentially took over, Izamal was a huge Maya city, on par with Chichen Itza! I never would’ve guessed; I mean, everyone’s heard of Chichen Itza, yet Izamal remains relatively unknown. You can still see remnants of plenty of its structures even to this day, but many are crumbling and in no condition to fully admire.
Today, Izamal is known as the ‘City of Three Cultures’, since it’s, well, comprised of three different cultures! The ancient Maya people, the Spanish colonial people, and today’s modern/contemporary population!
Where is Izamal
The yellow city of Izamal is located in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico between Merida and Valladolid. It’s a great town to include as a day trip from either, or on a longer Yucatan itinerary or road trip throughout the region.
Being pretty centrally-based in the Yucatan, you can also easily visit from Quintana Roo as well if you’re in Tulum or Cancun.
- From Merida: ~70 km/1 hour drive
- From Valladolid: ~110 km/ 1 ½ hour drive
- From Chichen Itza: ~75 km/ 75 minute drive
- From Tulum: ~200 km/ 3 hour drive
- From Cancun: ~250 / 3 ½ hour drive
- From Playa del Carmen: ~250 km / 3 ½ hour drive
Most people visit Izamal from Merida, one of the largest cities in Yucatan state, as it’s only about an hour away. But if you’re visiting Chichen Itza from Valladolid and looking for something else to do afterwards, an afternoon trip to Izamal is a great idea!
How To Get to Izamal from Merida
Since most people head from Merida to Izamal (it’s the closest major city), I’ll give you directions from there! Getting from Valladolid to Izamal is possible as well, and that’s what I ended up doing.
Public Bus: If you’re on a budget, the cheapest way to get from Merida to Izamal is by public transport. The bus is only about 25-35 pesos each way ($1.30-$1.80), cash only, and takes about an hour and a half to reach the yellow city of Izamal.
To be completely honest, I had a hard time finding information online about a public bus from Merida to Izamal. It doesn’t seem as popular a route as I had thought – even the staff at both my hotels in Merida were unsure of how and where to catch it.
The little preliminary info I did find online said the bus departs from either Terminal Oriente (at Calle 67 y 65, C. 50) or Noreste Bus Station (on Calle 67 and Calle 50).
If you’re planning on taking the public bus, I recommend walking over to the bus stations ahead of time (like the day before or something) to find out the Mérida to Izamal bus schedule and make sure you’ll have a way of actually getting to the yellow city.
Drive: A day trip to Izamal from either Mérida (1 hour drive) or Valladolid (1.5 hour drive) is super easy! It’s a bit further away from Valladolid, but definitely doable. I actually visited Chichen Itza in the morning from Valladolid, had lunch and a swim at a nearby cenote, and then headed over to Izamal for the afternoon. Worked out perfectly!
Ride shares: If you’re with a small group, a ride share (Uber or Cabify — another ride share option in Mexico) from Mérida may be a great option for you. Expect a ride from Mérida to Izamal to cost about $40 each way, taking about an hour or so.
If I was with a friend or two I think I would have chosen this option, but being solo it seemed kinda expensive. Note there’s no Uber or any ride shares in Valladolid.
Guided tour: Since I was traveling solo and thus decided not to rent a car, I chose to take a guided tour to Izamal. At first I was totally planning on taking the bus/colectivo, but ultimately decided on a tour to ensure I’d actually make it there, haha.
As noted, there’s not a ton of recent information online about getting to Izamal on public transport, and I really wanted to go! Even the staff at my (very-popular) hotel and a local on my Mérida cenote-hopping tour weren’t exactly sure how to get to Izamal via public transport.
Here’s a few guided tours to Izamal:
Since Izamal is still relatively unknown and off the typical tourist track, there aren’t a ton of tours that stop in Izamal — yet! I can totally see this charming yellow city gaining popularity in a few short years. Get there now, haha!
With that being said, if you’re planning to visit Izamal on a guided day tour, book ASAP! They fill up fast since there aren’t tons of them.
From Mérida – Chichén Itzá, Izamal, Valladolid, & Cenote Trip: Only have one day to dedicate to this area? This tour goes to oh so much! You’ll discover Chichén Itzá, one of the 7 Wonders of the World, swim at Cenote Chichikan, visit Valladolid and Izamal, and enjoy a cooking demonstration and buffet lunch. Will be a long and tiring day but 100% worth it to see all these spots!
From Mérida – Chichen Itza & Izamal Guided Day Trip: Visit the legendary Chichen Itza on a guided day trip from Merida. Wander through the remains of the ancient civilisation, admire the Temple of the Warriors, swim in a cenote, and then spend the afternoon in the yellow city of Izamal.
From Mérida – Day Trip to Valladolid and Izamal: Wander the yellow streets of Izamal and admire the colonial buildings of Valladolid to explore the history and culture of Yucatan on a day trip from Mérida, with a buffet lunch and dip at a cenote included!
From Valladolid – Guided Day Trip to Chichen Itza, Cenote, and Izamal: This is the EXACT tour I took from Valladolid, and it was such a fun day! The tour took us to the world wonder of Chichen Itza (with a local guided tour included), provided lunch and a swim at a nearby cenote, and then gave us a guided tour and free time at Izamal, the yellow city of Mexico.
So glad I chose this tour and didn’t attempt to go myself – it was seriously so stress free and not rushed at all.
How to Get Around Izamal
Getting around the yellow city of Izamal is super easy – you can make it practically everywhere in town on foot! The city center is only a few blocks, so getting where you wanna go won’t take long.
You’ll also see horse and carriages in Izamal, and while you can use these for transport, they’re mostly used for tourist tours around the city.
When to Visit Izamal
Time of Year: Like other places in the Yucatan Peninsula, November through March (dry season) is the best time to visit Izamal. While it’s by far the busiest months, you’ll get the best weather and least rain. Temps are cool (it was mid 70s when I visited in December) and the humidity isn’t horrible yet. I wore a light sundress and was perfectly comfortable.
Whatever you do, avoid May to September, as this is when temps really heat up (above 100°F) and the humidity is really bad.
Time of Day: If you’re visiting in the sweltering summer months, you’ll wanna visit either in early morning or late afternoon. Avoid mid-day at all costs – it’ll be far too hot and uncomfortable to wander around for too long.
In terms of crowds, honestly, I’m not really sure this matters all that much. Izamal doesn’t have the same recognition as, say, Tulum or Mérida, so it never gets insanely crowded. It’s pretty sleepy compared to its nearby towns/cities, especially in the morning.
I visited on a Saturday afternoon during high season and it was hardly crowded. Of course you’ll see tourists out and about, but I never felt overwhelmed with crowds or anything like that.
How Long to Spend in Izamal
The town isn’t very large, so you really only need half a day or so to thoroughly explore. I wandered around (and took tons of photos), explored a few shops, indulged in some ice cream, and checked out the ruins in a matter of 3-4 hours or so.
Should you stay overnight?
If you’re using Izamal to break up the drive from Valladolid to Mérida, you can certainly stay the night! There’s a super cute hacienda, Hacienda Sacnicte, only 20 minutes or so north of Izamal that I would have totally booked if I was traveling with friends/my husband and doing a road trip.
Right in Izamal, there’s Hotel Rinconada del Convento, that’s right in the center of town, as well as the popular San Miguel Arcangel.
However, I wouldn’t use Izamal as a base to explore other spots like I would Mérida and Valladolid. The town is just too small in my opinion to wanna stay multiple nights. Plus, there’s not as many restaurants here.
Other Important Info and FAQS
- Is English spoken? Not a ton of English is spoken in Izamal, which is typical of small towns in Mexico. Brush up on your Spanish beforehand. If you’re traveling to Izamal on a day tour, your guide can help you out with any language barriers you encounter.
- Carry some cash. Not all places in Izamal take credit cards, including horse and carriage drivers, taxi drivers, smaller shops, and street food vendors.
- Is a trip to Izamal worth it? 1000% Yes! I’d still consider this tiny Mexican town a hidden gem in the area as it’s hardly crowded and a great spot to get away from the tourists in Chichen Itza and Merida. If you like photography and/or aimlessly wandering around photogenic colorful towns, you should go. It makes for the perfect day trip and is super easy to get to on a tour or with a rental car.
- Is Izamal safe? Mexico always gets a bad rep, but don’t believe everything from people who’ve never actually been to the destination! I walked around for a few hours solo and felt completely safe at all times. Use normal precautions like you would anywhere – walk in well-lit, populated areas, be aware of your surroundings, leave your expensive jewelry and electronics at home, and keep an eye on your stuff. Izamal is in Yucatan State – one of the safest states in Mexico.
Things To Do in Izamal, Yucatan
One of the beauties of Izamal is that there isn’t a TON to do here, but enough for a few hours! Honestly, I really loved just wandering around taking photos and relaxing in the courtyard.
Convento de San Antonio de Padua
The Convento de San Antonio de Padua is easily the main thing to do in Izamal. It was built in the mid-16th century by the Spanish, and painted a beautiful yellow color just like the rest of town. Well worth a walk through the courtyard and surrounding area.
The church is absolutely striking, and you can walk around for free. But you can’t visit this place without the reminder of the brutality of colonialism.
The history of how the convent was built is absolutely horrible – the indigenous people were forced to destroy their very own temple in order to build this cathedral right on its foundation. The stones of the demolished Mayan pyramids were used as the foundation of this very convent! Just something to think about as you’re admiring it’s beauty.
Honestly, the architecture is pretty but there’s not really much to do besides admire and learn about the convent. When mass is not in session, you can go inside and check out the interiors.
Climb the Kinich Kak Moo ruins
Another one of the best things to do in Izamal is to climb Piramide de Kinich Kak Moo, dedicated to the Sun God. It’s actually the largest Mayan pyramid remaining in Izamal! Since the yellow city isn’t crazy crowded (yet!), you may have the ruins mostly to yourself.
There’s four other ruins in town, but they’re much smaller and very, very deteriorated. Kinich Kak Moo is the one to visit! I later learned that the Spanish used the stones of the other 4 pyramids as foundations for their buildings – even the Convent! Which is why Kinich Kak Moo is the only one left standing.
While the access is free (unlike most Mayan ruins in the Yucatan), the entrance is kinda hidden between two buildings. Look on Google Maps and you’ll find it no problem – promise!
Since I had just spent ample time at Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, I just checked out Kinich Kak Moo pretty quickly from its base. In all honesty, I was a bit ruined out, haha. My friends decided to climb up all 10 levels, and said the views from the top were absolutely spectacular – 360° views of Izamal and the surrounding jungle!
Note that the steps are pretty uneven and steep, so be extra careful climbing up and then back down. You’ll want proper footwear and lots of drinking water.
Psst – I wouldn’t visit Izamal for its ruins alone (I found them not as impressive as some others), but if you’re already in town, definitely check it out!
Try sweet corn ice cream
Okay, so there’s sweet corn helado (ice cream) all over this part of Mexico, but Izamal is the place to try it! Why? Because it’s yellow and the town is yellow! Maybe it’s a cliche and all, but c’mon, any excuse for ice cream, right?! A scoop of sweet corn (way better than it sounds) was the perfect pick-me-up after exploring for a bit in the hot sun.
I got a scoop from Paleteria y Neveria Gaby, located right in the center of town a few minutes from the convent.
Take a horse and carriage ride
While you can easily walk around the tiny town of Izamal, taking a horse and carriage ride, known as a caleza in Izamal, is way more fun! An activity in and of itself!
Carriage drivers will take you around the main city center, past the ruins, and into the more traditional part of town with small craft shops and local homes. You’ll get a great overview of the town, which could be especially handy if you’re visiting in the heat of summer.
You’ll find these calesas lined up along the square waiting for customers. You don’t need to book a tour in advance, but just know the drivers don’t speak much English. The horses looked well-cared for which I was especially thankful for, and they wore the cutest little hats! The carriages did look a bit worn, but I loved how they were cheerfully decorated with fake flowers.
Photograph the Yellow Buildings
The main reason I wanted to visit Izamal was to photograph the cheery yellow buildings. Any photographer’s ultimate dream! Have you seen the photos?
Every single house, shop, and church – practically all the walls and buildings in town – are painted the happiest shade of golden yellow. While I loved taking photos of the main sites (convent, ruins, and decked-out horse and carriages), I especially loved wandering down the cobblestoned side streets finding hidden corners to photograph!
I recommend wearing a white or yellow dress to really compliment the colors of the town. My white dress was perfect against the picturesque yellow-painted buildings of Izamal!
Shop for some Handicrafts
Like other parts of Mexico, you’ll find a whole bunch of handicrafts in Izamal. Many of the shops have very high-end, handmade items – not the cheapy souvenirs you’ll find all over Tulum and Cancun. I was honestly really impressed with the selection; I was expecting kitschy things that break in a matter of minutes. Not here!
A few spots to find these quality pieces:
- Hecho a Mano: At first glance, this shop looks tiny, but there’s actually a whole bunch of stuff in here! This little shop sells high quality souvenirs at very reasonable prices, and there’s really something for everyone! The owner of Hecho a Mano has a few shops scattered around Mexico, and he collects high quality hand made artifacts from southern Mexico and even Guatemala and then distributes them to his stores.
- Taller Maya Izamal: Taller Maya houses a selection of the best handmade artisanal pieces, including pottery and figurines. Looking for high-quality hammocks? Come here! The hammocks are AMAZING and I totally wish I had room in my house to hang one (or a few) up! If you’re interested and have time, check out the museum in the back of the store – “Los Grandes Maestros” (Master Artisans of Mexico) where you can learn all about how these stunning products are made.
Check out the Izamal Municipal Market
I LOVE Mexican markets, and the Izamal Municipal Market is no exception! It’s a typical small-town Mexican market with a huge mix of street food, clothes, trinkets, and so much more. You can literally buy anything and everything you want or need here! Markets are so exciting to me – you’ll never know what you’ll find.
What you won’t find are tourists, so go on and order a few salbutes and some cochinita pibil and sit amongst the locals. And since it’s located right across the street from the famous Convent of San Antonio, you can easily visit before/after!
Letters of Izamal
Like in all towns in the Yucatan Peninsula (and elsewhere in Mexico), you’ll find a set of large colorful letters depicting the town’s name. Of course, this one will be Izamal! I was surprised to find that the letters were in fact a rainbow of colors, and not simply yellow like I had originally thought.
You can find the letters right in the center of town in the main plaza, 5 de Mayo Park. Great for a photo opp with the side of the convent as the background of the letters!
Have Lunch at Restaurante Kinich Izamal
Taking a day trip from Merida to Izamal? You’re bound to get hungry at some point! Head on over to Restaurante Kinich Izamal for lunch – it’s the most well-known restaurant in town for a reason (and open almost 30 years)!
Expect to find traditional homestyle Yucatan cooking, like super fresh handmade tortillas (the ladies make them right in front of you!), juicy cochinita pibil panuchos and salbutes, and chaya empanadas. Don’t miss the flan de queso de bola! Damn, I’m getting hungry just thinking about all this Yucatecan food. Plus, the atmosphere looks super fun.
Note that not much English is spoken here (Izamal is a small town afterall), so brush up on your Spanish (at least learn a few key phrases). Since I was visiting on a tour and we had already eaten lunch, I didn’t get to try this spot! But my guide said this is the spot to go.
Relax at 5 de Mayo Park
This is the park directly in front of the convent, so you’re bound to be around here anyways! I found the square to be relatively clean and quaint, with some push carts and stalls selling some famous Yucatan specialities (like marquesitas, raspados, and machados – you NEED to try a few). I had not one, not two, not three, but four marquesitas during my time in the Yucatan peninsula – whoops! I regret nothing!
It’s not a huge park by any means but nice to go for a short stroll. This is where you’ll find the horse and carriages surrounding the perimeters of the park.
Hope this helps you plan a great day trip from Merida to Izamal! Are you visiting the yellow city of Mexico in the Yucatan Peninsula anytime soon?!
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