Since Jerome was little he has been obsessed with trains and when I did my research for this trip to Merida, I had discovered that there is a train museum near the old train station. Originally, we had wanted to visit the museum the day before but it is closed on Sundays.
Our plan for the day ahead was to visit the yellow town of Izamal but before we drove that way we visited the train museum. We were there for 10:00, just at opening time and therefore we were the first visitors that day. To call this train museum, a museum in our opinion is a bit of an exaggeration, as it looked more like a train graveyard! The closer we got to the trains the more you could see how old and decaying they were. There were plenty of them, mostly diesel engines but also a few old-fashioned steam trains. Some had their history inside on a plaque but most sat rusting on the sidings in the long grass.
Jerome liked to climb up the sides of the trains to have a look into the driver’s cabin. We walked through, what once must have been a luxury passenger trailer, the leather seats in bad condition and too dirty, to even consider sitting down. The air in the trailer was hot and sticky, we were barely able to breath and therefore did not linger much longer. Back outside we walked between other trains engines, some so rusty that we thought they would most likely collapse in the near future. It was such a shame to see the trains in such bad condition, but Jerome enjoyed seeing them anyway, as they were very different to the trains he had seen before in Europe and Japan, plus the chance to climb over them at will undisturbed is unusual in a museum. We do hope that a train lover with a lot of money might turn up and pour some funds into the upkeep of the museum one day before the rust gets much worse.
Back in our car we made our way east, towards Izamal. The first bit outside Merida we drove on the dual carriage but we left the main road at Hoctun and drove through many little villages. One of the villages, Kimbila, is famous for its traditional embroidery. There were plenty of shops with huipiles (traditional dresses) in the shop windows but they did not look very attractive to me. I had already bought a few huipiles for myself and decided that I preferred to buy them off a street or market stall, rather than a formal shop.
Once we reached the outskirts of Izamal we immediately understood why the town is called “La Ciuada Amarilla (The yellow city). The houses were all painted in a sunflower yellow hue. They made a great contrast against the blue sky and were a pleasure to look at and take photos. Izamal used to be the centre of worship for a Mayan sun god, in ancient times.
We parked our car on the side of the main road shortly before we got to the town centre. We walked the last few blocks into Izamal. When we reached the plaza, we realised that there must have been a fiesta later on that day. There were food stalls, carousels and other fairground rides, plus the colourful bunting we had seen as part of celebrations in Valladolid, hung over the main plaza. The stalls and rides were all still closed but we could see some of the owners relaxing on the benches or chairs next to them.
We walked on to the most dominant building of Izamal, the convent de San Antonio de Padua. The Mayan temple on which the convent was built was destroyed when the Spaniards conquered Izamal. The convent’s buildings were built with stone from a major Mayan temple that once stood on its site. Even nowadays if you look closely enough you can spot stone’s under the arcades with a maze like design. When we walked up the steps to the middle of the entrance of the convent, we could see the beautiful arches that surround the monastery on three sides.
Inside the grounds we found a large grass area and on the opposite side of the main entrance a church and other smaller buildings belonging to the convent. The church unfortunately was closed when we visited due to renovations. We did have a look into the little courtyard behind though, where we found an interesting sundial to one side of the roof. Back outside in the large courtyard we saw some nuns in their black tunic and veils walking by.
We strolled down the northern side exit and through the maze of closed fairground stalls and rides, although one enterprising stall owner demonstrated his Mexican tombola to Jerome for a few pesos. We walked along Calle 30, where we stopped now and again to pop into one of the many craft shops here in Izamal. We had lunch at Restaurant Kimich Izamal where we ate a variety of Yucatecan cuisines. The food tasted good but we felt it was overpriced with a definite big group tourist feel.
After lunch we went to see Kinich-Kakmo, one of the five remaining pyramids that used to dominate the town. There used to be twelve in total, but the other seven pyramids were all destroyed by the Spaniards. Kinich-Kakmo was dedicated to the sun and fire god and is the most impressive of the remaining pyramids. At 34 meters in height, it is the third highest pyramid on the Yucatan peninsular. The best thing about the Kinich-Kakmo pyramid was that we were able to climb it for free, all the way to the top. Be careful though the steps are irregular, as many stones are missing or damaged. Also bring some water to quench your thirst once you have reached the top in the Mexican heat. On the lower level of the pyramid some trees have grown between the stones though and they provide a welcoming shade and make a great place for a picnic.
From the top of Kinich-Kakmo pyramid we had an amazing panoramic view. We could see the yellow houses below, the convent on the hill ahead and lush green jungle surrounding the town with the odd water tower popping up in between.
Back down on the cobbled streets we walked towards the convent and turned left in front of it, past the colourful waiting horse carts. If you walk along Calle 26 you will find another pyramid, the Pyramide de Itzamul. We skipped this one and walked around the back of the monastery, where we realised that the building was not completely painted in the yellow hue as the rest of the town. Shortly after we got to the archaeological site of Habuk Izamal, which as Jerome put it, was just another pile of old stones and in this case we had to agree. Still Chris and I walked around the site but it was rather small. We could feel that Jerome was bored and exhausted by the heat. We had thought there might be a cenote to cool off but there was none in town.
Jerome would have loved to stay on in Izamal to go to the festival, which was part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. We did not want to wait for hours though as the festival would not start until the early evening and therefore drove back towards Merida.
For the route back to Merida we chose the slower route along the 180 through the villages of Cacalchen and Tixcokob. In the centre of Cacalchen, the next big village outside Izamal we spotted a tiny sign with CENOTE hand written on it. We made the quick decision to follow the sign and go for a swim. The road turned into a dirt track and we wondered if we were going the right way. Sure enough, we came to a stone with the name of the Cenote, San Fancisco. It felt like driving down someone’s backyard. At the end we found a little hut and a small group of locals. We paid 20 pesos each and descended a wire staircase into a whole in the ground. At the bottom we found a surprisingly large underground lake, which was lit up by light bulbs. Jerome was very excited about getting into the water as it felt a bit like a secret discovery. It was not easy to get into the lake though as there was only one slippery step, but once we were in it felt very refreshing and the light in the cave and under water was beautiful. Jerome stayed in the longest, I felt cold almost immediately. Back upstairs the guard asked us if we had enjoyed our swim and where we come from. We think that not many tourists visit this hidden gem of a cenote, as it is not marked on any map or in any of the guidebooks as far as we know.
When we returned to the centre of town we saw some children flying their kites on the village green. Children flying their kites was common sight here in Yucatan we had noticed, we even saw a boy in Valladolid who sat on the rooftop of a house with the kite so high up in the sky that it was literally the tiniest of red dot.
Izamal is one of the 111 villages that have been promoted by the Mexican government to offer visitors a magical experience. We definitely agree that it was one of the most beautiful places we had visited on our trip through the peninsular and is worth the detour from Merida.