To get a feel for the deep religious devotion of Yucatán’s people, you must visit Izamal, a colonial town with a famous shrine to the Virgin of Izamal as well as several Mayan pyramids jutting up right from the city’s streets.
If you time your visit to include a Sunday Mass at the Convent of San Antonio de Padua, you will see why this shrine is considered one of the holiest places in Mexico. Completed in 1562 under the direction of Fray Diego de Landa, the convent was built on top of an immense Maya temple called Pop Hol Chac.
So the site has been a nexus of religious devotion in the Yucatán since the earliest Maya era, and after receiving a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1993, it became even more prominent. A statue of the “Traveling Pope” outside the church greets visitors with a welcome message directed to all the indigenous people of the Americas.
The front of the church bears a striking stained glass portrait of the Virgin, who looks down upon a grassy 84,000-square-foot atrium enclosed by 75 arches. Regarded as the world’s second largest church atrium after St. Peter’s Square in Rome, this green space is impressive and inviting.
After visiting San Antonio de Padua, you should just wander the surrounding streets lined with colonial porticos whose facades are all painted the same mustard yellow as the church. Find the Maya pyramids scattered around town, take a tour of the city aboard a horse-drawn carriage, explore the small market and maybe shop for crafts.
Izamal is located about 44 miles (72 kilometers) east of Mérida north of the main highway (Rte. 180) that runs to Valladolid and on to Cancun. To get to Izamal, you can take an air-conditioned bus from Mérida’s Noreste Terminal at Calle 50 between Calles 65 and 67. The trip costs $27 pesos (about $2.30) each way and takes an hour and a half.
You can also find “combi” vans that run from downtown Mérida to Izamal and charge $28 pesos one way. Or you can join a tour organized by one of several agencies in Mérida, or rent a car and explore on your own.
There’s enough to do to make an overnight stay worthwhile. There are a few small hotels in Izamal, including the centrally located Hotel San Miguel Arcangel right on the park in front of the convent grounds.
Text and photos by Robert Adams
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