The exceptionally scenic town of Izamal, 72km east of Mérida, is a beautiful, tranquil place to spend a night or two, or longer, as a more rural alternative to the big city. It was formerly an important religious centre for the Maya, where they worshipped Itzamná, mythical founder of the ancient city and one of the gods of creation, at a series of huge pyramid-temples. Most of these are now no more than low mounds in the surrounding country, but several survive in the town itself, and are fascinating to see right in the middle of the residential grid. The largest, Kinich Kakmó (daily 8am–8pm; free), dedicated to the sun god, has been partly restored. It’s just a couple of blocks north of the two adjacent central plazas – ask for directions from the roving brown-clad tourist police.
In 1552 Fray Diego de Landa (later responsible for a vicious Inquisition and auto-da-fé in Maní) lopped the top off a neighbouring pyramid and began building the grand Convento de San Antonio de Padua, which now anchors the main squares. The porticoed atrium is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon. Inside the complex is a statue of Nuestra Señora de Izamal (usually in a small chapel behind the main altar, reached through a side hall and stairs), the patroness of the Yucatán. The statue inspires pilgrims from all over the peninsula, especially during the fiesta dedicated to her in August and again in December, when penitents climb the convent’s broad stairway on their knees. A few evenings a week, a sound-and-light show is projected on the facade of the main church.
Izamal is also renowned as a refined crafts centre. A free map, available from most hotels and businesses, identifies workshops of wood-carvers, papier-mâché artists and other artisans; be sure to visit Don Esteban, on Calle 26 at Calle 45, whose jewellery made from henequen spines is striking and modern, and whose effusive character is memorable. To get around, you can rent a bicycle (M$40 for 2hr) from the Centro Cultural y Artesanal on the plaza. Its museum showcases choice pieces of craftwork from all over Mexico; there’s also a small café and a quiet back room where you can get a foot massage. On the south side of the convent plaza, Hecho a Mano, a particularly good craft and folk-art shop, is stocked with everything from Mexican wrestling masks to Huichol yarn paintings from Nayarit, as well as excellent photography by one of the owners; note that the hours can be erratic.