Guest post with Cultures Traveled
The Pyramids of Monte Alban have been mysterious for generations. Highly visible on top a man-made plateau, this archeological site near Oaxaca City was continuously inhabited for more than 13 centuries.
The Zapotec considered Monte Alban a sacred site since 500 BC when they began leveling the mountain. It was not only sacred for the original Zapotec, but for the Mixtecs as well. After the Zapotec abandoned Monte Alban, the Mixtec also buried their elites with offerings for the afterlife at this site.
Visiting Monte Alban ruins in Oaxaca
Why is Monte Alban historically important?
At its zenith, the Zapotec amassed a population of 25,000 but it’s abandonment has baffled historians. Monte Alban is one of only a few sites in the world where the rise of the State as the government is well preserved. It’s believed that this was a powerful government ruling over multiple cities as they merged together. It’s also the first culture from Mexico to use written language and a calendar. Though the original calendar only had a cycle of 260 days.
A lot of what has been learned about Monte Alban has been through studying the hieroglyphs and Danzantes – a group of reliefs carved into stone slabs that were discovered at this ruin. The Danzantes were originally thought to depict dancers, but it is now believed that they depict victims of sacrifice, slaves, or slain rival rulers . There are over 300 stone Danzantes showing figures in duress, although there does not appear to be signs of human sacrifice at Monte Alban.
Visiting Monte Alban
As you enter the archeological site of Monte Alban, follow the path to climb up the backside of the North Platform. When you reach the top you’ll be rewarded with open views of the Main Plaza, the ceremonial center of the city.
All of the buildings on the Main Plaza are in a grid pattern except one – The Observatory. It’s in the shape of an arrowhead, unlike any other archeological ruin in Mexico. It is believed to be the first observatory in Mesoamerica. On the south wall of the Observatory, you will find 40 hieroglyphs featuring upside-down heads, which are thought to portray the Zapotec’s conquests.It’s widely believed that the Observatory was one of the first buildings built by the Zapotec, long before the artificial leveling of the mountain. This takes away the notion that Monte Alban was built quickly for defense. Though with a 360-degree view of the surrounding valleys, the location does make it strategically viable for defense.After exploring the Main Plaza, climb the steps to the South Platform for a bird’s-eye view of Oaxaca City. It’s an amazing view of the city itself and the surrounding pueblos tucked into the valleys. As you descend and explore the remainder of the site, make sure you stop to see the Ball Court in the northeast corner of the Main Plaza.
The Five Phases of Growth
-Phase I (500-200 BC)The leveling of the mountain starts, founded by rulers from nearby Etla and San Jose Mogote. The population of the first phase of Monte Alban reaches over 15,000. This is the first sign of human settlement in the area.-Phase II (200 BC-300 AD)
Tunnels were discovered that are presumed to have only been used during phase II. These tunnels allowed priests to move between buildings in Monte Alban. The population declines a little during this time, but is still considered healthy.
-Phase III (300-750 AD)
Most of the buildings that can be viewed today came from phase III. The population grew to 25,000 people and smaller groups started to expand to neighboring hills. This is the same era that Teotihuacan, an archeological site near Mexico City, emerged. Ceramics originating from Teotihuacan were found during the excavation of Monte Alban. There was also a ‘neighborhood’ at Teotihuacan that housed many Oaxacan natives.
-Phase IV and V (750-1520 AD)Not much is known of the decline of Monte Alban. There are varied studies as to why the site was abandoned, but no two scholars seem to agree. The theories range from societies uprising from their royal leaders, disease, and famine. Many other societies in Mexico started to see a decline or abandonment around 1000 AD.
Wildfires and recent earthquakes have had an impact on the UNESCO World Heritage site, but the World Heritage Fund working with American Express and other donors has dedicated more than 1 million dollars to restore the damage that was done. 15 structures were affected by the earthquake, and five required a quick response to shore up the walls. There were a lot of masons working while we visited, so it’s clear that the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and the World Heritage funds are being put to use.
How to Get to Monte Alban from Oaxaca
Getting to Monte Alban is easy since it’s located just 20 minutes outside of the city of Oaxaca. You have three options to arrive to the ruins. Monte Alban hours are 8 am – 5 pm everyday with weekend and holidays being the most busy.
The bus (55 pesos round trip) departs from 20 de Noviembre and Aldama Streets in front of the Benito Juarez Market every hour beginning at 8:30 am. You can also book a tour to Monte Alban from one of the numerous companies that advertise in the main square. Or a taxi from Centro Oaxaca costs about 150 pesos each way.
Tip: Look for others to share the return taxi. We did this to get back to Oaxaca and got to meet fellow travelers!
We decided to take a taxi since we like to take more of a DIY approach to visiting sites like Monte Alban. You will beat the crowds and vendors if you arrive at the time they open. Also, the pictures are more stunning when you have the place to yourself.
We almost opted to take the bus to Monte Alban because the departure times were close to our desired time. But the 8:30 bus does not head back into town until 12:00 pm and we had more exploring in Oaxaca City that we wanted to do that day.
Tip: Ask around as people are entering to see if they would like to share the cost of hiring a guide. We have used the same strategy at numerous other sites and everyone, including the guides, have always been on board with this cost-saving trick. The tour is the same price whether there’s 2 people or 10.
And do hire a tour guide, I say this even as having had a bad experience with ours that particular day. We were only 20 minutes into our tour and he cut it short. There was a little bit of a misunderstanding, but ultimately we believe it was to do a more exclusive private tour for a couple. It’s the only time that we’ve ever had anything like that happen.
Typically hiring a guide at the ruin sites in Mexico has been a positive experience. They’re knowledgeable about the area, the flora, and of course the ruins which are typically a part of their own heritage.
JT and Julien are traveling the roads of Mexico. They’re in love with the rich culture, ancient ruins, and of course the food. Not seeing an end for their love of travel, Cultures Traveled was created to share stories and insights with anyone that will listen.
Their website: Cultures Traveled