Monte Alban ruins, Oaxaca
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  Posted August 2nd, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | 2 comments

Traveling Mexico

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Off the beaten path in Oaxaca, Mexico
There are numerous attractions within a few miles of the city of Oaxaca. There are villages known for their pottery, weaving, embroidery, and wood carvings, there are breathtaking natural areas, and archeological sites that provide a glimpse of Oaxaca’s past civilizations.  Since we couldn’t possible visit all of them in two days we were here, we picked two biggest archeological sites to visit: Monte Alban and Mitla.

Map of Monte Alban Ruins ~ Oaxaca, Mexico 

Yesterday’s traffic experience was not so encouraging, so today we were looking at alternative ways to visit archeological sites around the city. In the tourist office they told us where to get on the bus that will take us directly to Monte Alban. The Autobuses Turísticos leaves from the corner of Calle Diaz & Mina in front of house #501, which is across from hotel Mesón del Angel. Autobuses Turísticos makes seven runs daily, at 8:30, 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30am and 12:30, 1:30, and 3:30pm.  Return service leaves the ruins at 11am, noon, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5:30pm. The round-trip fare is $40 pesos per person. The two of us were the only gringos in the bus, on its first morning ride, but I felt good. It was fun… I didn’t have to drive thru the traffic. If you’re driving from Oaxaca, take Calle Trujano out of town. It becomes the road to Monte Albán, about 10km (6 miles) away.

The Autobuses Turísticos leaves from the corner of Calle Diaz & Mina

Our bus arrived at Monte Alban

The bus takes about a half-hour, mostly climbing the hill south of the city. Road was narrow, but it was clearly marked for Monte Alban, so even if I decided to drive, I wouldn’t have problems getting there. Scheduled return time is 2 hours after arrival. It’s possible to take a later return for an additional $1 (though you won’t be guaranteed a seat); inform the driver of your intent. We didn’t have to do this, as clearly we were there out of the season, and there were very few tourists. During the high season there are usually additional buses.

The admission fee was $40 pesos per person, and soon we were surrounded by people trying to sell souvenirs… too bad we said no to all of them, but we could of bought a sculpture made of green jade at very good price ($200 pesos or only $20 CAD).

As you enter the site, you’ll see a museum, a shop with guidebooks to the ruins, a cafe, and a craft shop. I recommend purchasing a guidebook. Video camera permits cost $5, but cameras are allowed everywhere. The site is open daily from 8am to 6pm. Licensed guides charge $15 per person for a walking tour… we didn’t hire a guide.

Monte Alban
Had I been the priest-king of a large Indian nation in search of the perfect site on which to build a ceremonial center, this would have been it.  Monte Albán sits on a mountain that rises from the middle of the valley floor – or, rather, divides two valleys.  From here you can see all that lies between you and the distant mountains.

Monte Albano ruins

Monte Albano ruins

Vera still regret’s not buying this mask made of jade

Starting around 2000 B.C., village-dwelling peoples of unknown origin inhabited the Oaxaca valleys.  Between 800 and 500 B.C., a new ceramic style appeared, indicating an influx of new peoples, now called Zapotec.  Around 500 B.C., these peoples began the monumental exercise of leveling the top of a mountain, where they would build Monte Albán (mohn-teh ahl-bahn).

Very little of the original structures remain; they’ve either been obscured beneath newer construction or had their stones reused for other buildings.  The Danzantes friezes date from this period.

A center of Zapotec culture, Monte Albán was also influenced by contemporary cultures outside the valley of Mexico.  You can see Olmec influence in the early sculptures; more recent masks and sculptures reflect contact with the MayaWhen Monte Albán was at its zenith in A.D. 300, it borrowed architectural ideas from Teotihuacán.  By around A.D. 800, the significance of Monte Albán in Zapotec society began to wane.  Although most likely never completely abandoned, it became a shadow of its former grandeur.  At the beginning of the 13th century, the Mixtec appropriated Monte Albán.  The Mixtec, who had long coexisted in the area with the Zapotec, began expanding their territory.  At Monte Albán, they added little to the existing architecture; however, they seem to have considered it an appropriate burial ground for their royalty.  They left many tombs, including Tomb 7, with its famous treasure.

Enjoying the early morning sun at the ruins

Monte Albano ruins

Ruins in Mexico are very impressive

Monte Albán centers on the Great Plaza, a man-made area created by flattening the mountaintop. From this plaza, aligned north to south, you can survey the Oaxacan valley. The excavations at Monte Albán have revealed more than 170 tombs, numerous ceremonial altars, stelae, pyramids, and palaces.

Begin your tour of the ruins on the eastern side of the Great Plaza at the I-shaped ball court. This ball court differs slightly from Maya and Toltec ball courts in that there are no goal rings, and the sides of the court slope. Also on the east side of the plaza are several altars and pyramids that were once covered with stucco.  Note the sloping walls, wide stairs, and ramps; all are typical of Zapotec architecture and reminiscent of the architecture of Teotihuacán. The building, slightly out of line with the plaza (not on the north-south axis), is thought by some to have been an observatory; it was probably aligned with the heavenly bodies rather than with the points of the compass.

Monte Albano ruins and the view of the Oaxacan valley.

Monte Albano ruins

Monte Albano: one of the pyramids

The south side of the plaza has a large platform that bore several stelae, most of which are now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.  There’s a good view of the surrounding area from the top of this platform.

The west side has more ceremonial platforms and pyramids.  On top of the pyramid substructure are four columns that probably supported the roof of the temple at one time.

The famous Building of the Dancers (Danzantes), on the west side of the plaza, is the earliest known structure at Monte Albán.  This building is covered with large stone slabs that have distorted naked figures carved into them (the ones you see are copies; the originals are protected in the site museum).  There is speculation about who carved these figures and what they represent, although there is a distinct resemblance to the Olmec baby faces at La Venta, in Tabasco state.  The distorted bodies and pained expressions might connote disease.  Clear examples of figures representing childbirth, dwarfism, and infantilism are visible.  Because of the fluid movement represented in the figures, they became known as the Danzantes – merely a modern label for these ancient and mysterious carvings.

Pyramids of the Monte Albano

Vera showing Zapotec architecture used to build the structures at Monte Albano

The Northern Platform is a maze of temples and palaces interwoven with subterranean tunnels and sanctuaries.  Take time to wander here, for there are numerous reliefs, glyphs, paintings, and friezes along the lintels and jambs as well as the walls.  In this section of the ruins, you are likely to see vendors discreetly selling “original” artifacts found at the site.  These guys come from the nearby town of Arrazola, where the fabrication of “antiquities” is a long-standing cottage industry.  I like to buy a piece from them occasionally and pretend I’m getting the real thing just to get an opportunity to talk with them.

Pyramids of the Monte Albano

Monte Albano ruins and the view of the Oaxacan valley.

Leaving the Great Plaza, head north to the cemetery and tombs.  If you have a day to spend at Monte Albán, be sure to visit some of the tombs, which contain magnificent glyphs, paintings, and stone carvings of gods, goddesses, birds, and serpents.  Lately, the tombs have been closed to the public, but check anyway.  Of the tombs so far excavated, the most famous is Tomb 7, next to the parking lot.  It yielded some 500 pieces of gold, amber, and turquoise jewelry, as well as silver, alabaster, and bone art objects.  This amazing collection is on display at the Regional Museum of Oaxaca.

On our way back down to Oaxaca, I snapped few pictures from the bus, as the driver was going slowly over numerous “topas”, driving thru the villages where only poor people live.

Mountain village – suburbs of Oaxaca 

Mountain village – suburbs of Oaxaca

Hope you have a good year!

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2 comments to “Monte Alban ruins, Oaxaca”

  1. Comment by Karoline Lyalls:

    My first love is towards villages… I would like to stay in villages rather than urban areas. Very good pictures of mountain villages in Mexico. I would like to visit there.

  2. Comment by chad:

    Great commentary! You should work for the Mexican tourism bureau! This makes me very excited to visit Oaxaca this summer!

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