Visiting Monte Albán from Oaxaca, Mexico

The state of Oaxaca is built on a deep history of indigenous cultures. About 25 minutes outside of the capital city of Oaxaca de Juárez sits the archeological site of Monte Albán, a pre-Hispanic city of religious and political importance that began with the Zapotec people and continued on with the Mixtecs.

The Main Plaza of Monte Albán.

To start your trip here, decide first if you would like to join a guided tour that can explain the ins-and-outs of the plateau and the different ruins that still remain atop or if you would like to just purchase a ride up and explore the area solo. The latter provides more space and time but the signs are few and far between and only offer so much information. We opted for this route anyways.

We found a colectivo offered by a local tour company. As of December 2022, the current rate is $120MXN/person for a round-trip ride with the earliest departure at 8:30am and pickup from the site at 12:00pm.

After a winding, bumpy ride up the mountainside, your driver will drop you off in a dusty parking lot that requires a short walk up the rest of the way to the site entrance. Inside, you’ll find a ticket booth where tickets are currently $85MXN/person. You’ll find a set of bathrooms here; don’t worry, there are a couple more inside the site.

3D model of the grounds.

As you approach turnstiles to scan your ticket and enter, there will be at least a few people offering their last-minute services as a guide. We entered unaccompanied.

The first section loops you on a path around the perimeter, bypassing the foundations of old houses turned tombs. The layout seemed to be consistent with several rooms surrounding an atrium-like terrace in the center. I really like that style.

Continuing on, you pass through some greenery before the path opens into a large flat terrace, called the Main Plaza. It is bordered on the eastern and western sides by smaller platforms and on the north and south by two larger platforms, complete with impressive stone stairs that lead up to them.

Arriving early, we beat the crowds and practically had the entire place to ourselves, save for five other tourists that were in our colectivo and a handful of extremely nice hombres selling souvenirs inside (they are much more unobtrusive than the people selling the loud jaguar toys out by the parking lot.)

Coming early in the morning also allows you to beat most of the day’s heat as there is little, if any, shade available. We came in early December and were wearing shorts, tops with breathable fabric that covered our shoulders, and Rachel stole my hat…

Among the sites on the plaza, among the most impressive is a 5.8m tall stela. Among its suspected uses, the two major ones were to 1) mark midday and 2) to know how close to the summer or winter solstice they were based on the length of the shadows created at certain times. Using this knowledge of astronomy, Monte Albán was able to grow into an agricultural (and therefore economic) powerhouse in the region.

Also of note are the “dancers,” figures sculpted into stones in kinetic positions. These are now thought to be inscriptions of conquered peoples in the area to serve as propaganda for the local population and a warning to outsiders.

Some of the “Dancers.”

We enjoyed walking the grounds with little need to squeeze around other tourists, taking in the view of the gorgeous surrounding valley, and imagining what it was like during the height of its power.

On the way out, we took a look at a small museum inside the building adjacent to the ticket booth that houses some of the small artifacts found around the site. The most famous may be a small tomb that is actually out beside one of the parking lots. Tomba 7 is where the later Mixtec people stored a lot of valuables and buried their generals. Many of these artifacts can be found in the Museum of Cultures of Oaxaca.

If you’re in Oaxaca for a few days, this half-day trip is worth it. I don’t feel like we missed anything by not taking a guided tour and really enjoyed the secluded feeling of arriving before everyone else.

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