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Monastery of St. Antony's of Padua, Izamal built in 1561 (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Izamal: Sacred City

Like Mexican cooking, Mexican culture is based on mixing two contrasting flavors: Lime and chili, Maya and Catholic. Nowhere is that blend more evident than the golden city of Izamal, in northern Yucatán.

I drove through Izamal on my way to Chichén Itzá but ended up parking my car and spending the rest of the day exploring the brightly-painted streets of this “colonial” town, as it’s often touted to tourists.

Part of Izamal’s visual charm is the uniform color throughout the town. Every house, church and shop is painted the exact same sunny, golden-yellow tint, matching the central citadel of the monastery of St. Antony’s of Padua, as seen here:

St. Antony’s was built in 1561 and stands as one of the earliest Catholic monasteries in the Americas. It is a beautiful structure and boasts the second largest monastic court in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome). The bright surface color and careful Spanish architecture is part of the tourist allure, but it is also the rich meaning of this place that drew me into it.

Not three golden-yellow city blocks from St. Antony’s Monastery lies another holy site, the pyramid to the Maya Sun God, Kinich Kak Mo, a pyramid of the early Classic age, most likely built between A.D. 400-600.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Izamal was a huge Maya city, on par with Chichen Itza. Instead of dismantling the pagan pyramids, the Franciscan monks merely repurposed them as foundations for Christian edifices. For example, their great yellow monastery is built on top of the original Maya acropolis. The Franciscans recycled the stones from so many Maya sites into building material for the churches. Today it’s safe to assume that most of Izamal’s 16th-century buildings were built from Maya ruins.

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Kinich Kak Mo is the largest Maya ruin remaining in Izamal (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Despite all the negative connotations of the Spanish takeover in Mexico, Izamal’s extreme Franciscan makeover was not such a severe switch from Maya architectural history. Nearly every major Maya temple (e.g. Kukulcan, Temple of Inscriptions, House of the Magician) is built on top of other smaller structures underneath. The Maya frequently tore down and rebuilt old temples, or built on top of older structures. The Maya even had a ritual for “killing” a room, where a sacred space  that was no longer to be used would have its murals painted over with mud and the room filled in with rocks.

The brilliance of visiting Izamal is witnessing how that process happened first hand. Spending a day in Izamal filled the gap in my mind between ancient Maya Mexico and the very Catholic Mexico of today. That one faith “won” over another might be the case in the history books, but in Izamal, you can literally “scratch beneath the surface” (or simply scratch a wall in a church) and find Maya ruins.

In the ochre light of dusk, Izamal shines like no other place on earth. For me, here was the real Mexico I had longed to see: Maya gods sleeping beneath Spanish churches, children coming home from their bilingual schools, clutching Spanish textbooks but greeting their parents in Maya. As on the holy church grounds of St. Antony’s Monastery? Men and boys with Maya blood in their veins, all running back and forth in a frenzy, practicing the newest religion in Mexico: soccer.