Pueblos Mágicos – Izamal

*This is the first in a series I plan on writing about the Pueblos Mágicos of Mexico that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit so far.*

It was hot. A stifling heat that could make one beg for the blessing of a small breeze. We had arrived into the town of Izamal from Mérida at about half past ten, but the early hour didn’t seem to make much of a difference. It was a heat that would immediately sap you of all energy and willingness to do any sort of physical activity.

As we arrived into town our chauffeur and guide extraordinaire Julio, announced that the incredibly large pyramid in front of us would be our first stop of the day. My first thought was “lord help us”.

The pyramid is called Kinich Kak Moo according to the plaque at its base. A formidable structure to say the least; few words could explain its enormity. The group I was with on this journey were the only ones at the archaeological site that morning, which is rare for most sites in the Yucatán. However, even that didn’t seem to be motivation enough for me to want to make the climb. I suppose what got me going was the fact that the children were off in a flash, racing to the top to see who could get there first. Being shown up by children is a great motivator, wouldn’t you agree?

Having been to a number of major archaeological sites in the past, I learned early on not to count steps. The best way to go is to always just put one foot in front of the other and concentrate on what’s at the top. So with that in mind I climbed and climbed and climbed.

It was strange not to know what to expect at the top of Kinich Kak Moo. From street level you could not see the top and even from the half way up point it was difficult to make out. When I finally did arrive to the top I had a couple of thoughts 1) I MADE IT!, 2) What is that gorgeous and refreshing feeling? It quickly dawned on me that only at 34 meters (nearly 112 feet) would one be assured of catching a breeze. Sweet relief! I also realized that after having climbed 34 meters in suffocating heat, I was surprisingly energetic and up beat. I had heard before that many pyramids and pre-Columbian structures were energy focal points and that many people go to charge their personal energy, but I always took that to be some sort of hippie/new age nonsense. Maybe there is something to all that after all?

The kids of the group were playing tag and the adults were left to snap a few photos and take in the view. And what a view it was.

Named one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Mágicos” or “Magic Towns” in 2002; I learned that Izamal has a couple nick names and from the top of Kinich Kak Moo it was easy to see where these names come from. The “Yellow City”, that one was pretty self-explanatory. Someone at some point in the history of the town decided that the majority of the buildings should be painted sunflower yellow. Under the bright sun and with the contrast of the of the azure sky the view was spectacular. Also known as “the City of Hills” it’s believed that the hills in the immediate vicinity of Izamal are the ruins of pyramids not yet excavated.

The kids, having by now worn themselves out a bit playing tag and the adults having filled a considerable amount of space on their memory cards; we made our way back down to the van to continue with the days sightseeing.

The town square was striking in so many ways. The colonial architecture, the cheery colour of the buildings and the feeling I got that this place seemed to be lost in time. Everything was impeccable and nothing was in decay. Thinking about it I suppose what is so impressive about Izamal was the regal sense it had of “you can do the running around, I’ll just sit here and watch”. Like a lion stretched out sunning itself, the town seemed to be waiting for us to discover what it already knew generations ago.

We parked the van just off to the side of the town square. We all got down and looked at each other, unsure of what to do next.

It was decided that the group would split up and go explore on our own. Half the group, a Canadian family, decided they would go off and look for ice cream. (Good idea!) I decided to go off in the direction of the church with Jo and Jack, a mother and son from Australia, whom I had become quite close to and shared more than a few laughs with.

Jo, Jack and I arrived to the Church of the Immaculate Conception and Ex Convent of San Antonio Padua. Built in 1549 by the infamous Friar Diego de Landa and the Franciscan brotherhood, it is a picturesque example of colonial architecture. As with the rest of the city it is painted a bright egg yolk yellow and sits majestically as the town’s seat of spiritual authority. (Surely this was de Landa’s intention all along.) We began to climb our way up the causeway and into the church.

In the centre of the convent grounds is an expansive grassy field. At least the size of a professional football field. Surrounding it are covered passageways with exposed beams on the ceilings and open porticos on the side which let in the rays of Yucatáns famed sunshine. The look was that of an Hacienda, but the feeling I had walking around told me that I was in the presence of something much more important.

After taking the long way around we ended up in the main chapel. Home of the statue of Our Lady of Izamal (Virgin of the Immaculate Conception), patroness of the Yucatán, I was impressed by the humble yet powerful style of the interior. Not ostentatious, yet not lacking in authority, you at once felt inspired and not at all intimidated. It felt accessible. Like Our Lady of Izamal was personally inviting us into her home.

Feeling welcomed inside the church we proceeded to take our photos and admire both the decoration and the peaceful solitude. We strolled around and took it all in. My little buddy, Jack and I, impatient to continue exploring left Jo inside the chapel while we went out a side door and onto an open patio.

Off to the a corner of the patio was a little grotto with a framed picture of Our Lady of Izamal. Candles and pools of melted candle wax were below the framed image of the Virgin and hanging off the frame itself were little silver milagritos. Like prayerful reminders waiting to be answered, spiritual post-it-notes.

Jack asked me what the purpose of the milagritos were and I explained that they were little trinkets, usually in the shape of bodily appendages, that people offered to a saint when asking for healing and miracles. Jack seemed intrigued. He told me about a friend of his back home in Australia, who was going to most likely lose his leg due to an accident. He asked me if praying for a miracle for his friend would work? I was touched by the story and offered to pray with him if his mom agreed to it. We went back inside the chapel and found Jo, and with her permission went to buy a milagrito for his friend.

Milagritos in hand (I bought one for a shoulder injury that my mother was dealing with), we returned to the grotto and began our prayers. Neither of us really practicing catholics our prayers came from a place of genuine concern and want for our loved ones. Jack’s faith in something he could neither see nor hear nor fully understand was touching. We finished and I asked Jack what he was thinking. His response was, “Will it work?”. Time will tell my friend, time will tell.

Jo, Jack and I left the church to catch up with the rest of the group. By this time it was nearly 2 pm and we were starving.

We caught up with the Canadian family and the chauffeur at the van. All were in agreement that lunch was the main priority now. We loaded ourselves into the van and looked back one more time saying our silent goodbyes to this mysterious and sunny town, Izamal.

Note: Before I wrote this post I had sent an e-mail to Jo asking for permission to use hers and Jacks names. She gave me her full permission and filled me in a little on what had happened to Jacks friend who we had prayed for that day in the grotto.

Initially things looked bad. Doctors had been saying that the leg would have to be amputated and he would not be able to walk unassisted ever again.

As fate would have it the parents of Jacks friend went to a dinner party one night where they met a surgeon. The parents explained to the surgeon what they were being told by other doctors and that things were looking hopeless. The surgeon disagreed wholeheartedly and took on Jacks friend as a patient.

According to Jo the surgery went better than expected. One and all are amazed that despite having lost most of his calf muscle, this little boy is walking around without so much as a limp and doing all the things that any normal 8-year-old boy could do.

Some would call it a miracle, others would say it’s like magic. I think it’s the conjunction of those two things…maybe our prayers were heard after all in magical Izamal.

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Pueblos Mágicos – An Introduction

One of my personal goals for this blog, since it’s conception, is the promotion of an image of Mexico that is rarely (if ever) seen by the majority of people who have never been here before.

I see Mexico as so much more than its famed beaches and resorts, drug wars and Frida Kahlo. Don’t get me wrong, anyone could see that these are huge pieces of the mosaic that make up Mexico and it would be ignorant to pretend that they don’t exist.

However, the Mexico I live in, along with the other estimated 112 million habitants is a land of staggering history, cultural diversity, patriotism and heroism, reflection and beauty. It is complex and multi-layered. It has a heart and soul and it is magical! It is precisely this sense of magic that keeps me here.

Alamos, Sonora

The Secretaría de Turismo (Secretariat of Tourism), the government agency in charge of Mexico’s booming tourism industry, has since 2001 been actively promoting some of Mexico’s most magical villages. Working in cooperation with local state authorities as well as other federal agencies, the “Programa Pueblos Mágicos” has sought to promote the cultural heart and soul of this country. To date 41 towns and villages in 28 different states have been dubbed a Pueblo Mágico.

According to the Secretaría de Turismo, or SECTUR as they are known, “a Magical Village is a place with symbolism, legends, history, important events, day-to-day life – in other words “magic” in its social and cultural manifestations, with great opportunities for tourism”.

Malinalco, Estado de México. Capilla de San Pedro

So I had an idea! In keeping with my personal as well as SECTUR’s mission to promote the palpable magic of Mexico; I thought I would write down my experiences in the Pueblos Mágicos that I have been to. 7 towns and village’s in total, thus far. (Only a small percentage of the list, I know! As time and finances allow hopefully that list will grow.)

So soon to come, my perception of just a few of the Magical Towns that I have been to. My wish is that my experiences in these amazing places will inspire in you a desire to explore the magical heart and soul of this great nation.

How many of the Pueblos Mágicos have you visited? Which was your favorite and why?