Deep in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is the large pre-Columbian site, the Monte Alban ruins.
Monte Alban is the most significant archeological site in the Oaxaca valley. It is also one of the most important archaeological zones in Mesoamerica.
However, apart from the ancient city being a must-see place for archeologists and history lovers, there are also plenty of things to see and do in Oaxaca.
The Zapotec Civilization Explained
- The Zapotec Civilization Explained
- Why is Monte Alban Historically Important?
- How to Get to Monte Alban, Oaxaca
- The Famous Landmarks of Monte Alban, Mexico
- The Best Time to Visit the Monte Alban Ruins
- Final Thoughts on the Monte Alban Ruins
The Zapotecs were maize farmers and made distinctive pottery vessels which they traded with other civilizations in Mesoamerica.
They had a market system for the distribution of goods into the cities.
However, the Zapotecs decided to build their capital city as a defensive move to stop raidings of their goods.
They settled on the top of a tall mountain far above and in the middle of three populous valley arms. Monte Alban was born.
Monte Alban was located so far from the major population it was distributing to, it was known as the “disembedded capital.”
It’s one of the very few disembedded capitals known in the ancient world.
The decision to move to the top of the hill may have included defense but perhaps also had a focus on public relations. Its structures can be seen in many places from the valley arms.
Why is Monte Alban Historically Important?
The city of Oaxaca is well-known for the Zapotec culture. The Zapotec civilization was responsible for constructing Monte Alban.
Monte Alban has been occupied by a number of ancient civilizations besides the Zapotec.
Over a period of 1,500 years, the ancient civilization within Monte Alban was influenced by various other peoples, including the Teotihuacan, Aztecs, and the Maya.
The evidence of these civilizations crossing paths is seen in the hieroglyphics within the Monte Alban pyramids and tombs.
The Oaxaca, Monte Alban site is known for its unique dimensions and chronology. It has been a focus of archeological study for years. It was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
The city reached its peak between 200 – 600 AD when almost 35,000 people lived there. But by 800 AD, the city had lost its power and was abandoned.
Years later, the Mixtec people rediscovered the city and have since used it as a sacred burial site.
How to Get to Monte Alban, Oaxaca
The Monte Alban location lies on a towering hill, 1312 ft (400 meters) above Oaxaca, 10 kilometers from Mexico City. So, there is no shortage of options to get to the Zapotec ruins.
Here are all the ways of transport you can choose from.
For those of you who enjoy a comfortable mode of transportation, renting a car is by far the best option.
The distance is about 6 miles (10 km), and depending on the time of Day and traffic, the drive can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes.
Uber or Taxi
Many visitors get to Monte Alban from Oaxaca using an Uber or taxi. It is, however, one of the most expensive, but also one of the most comfortable ways to get there.
If you plan on staying at the site for most of the Day, you won’t have any problem getting a taxi or Uber when you are ready to leave. The drivers tend to huddle at the main entrance awaiting requests back into the city.
The cost to travel this way is up to 160 Mexican Pesos (8.00 USD) each way.
Before you splurge on comfortability, why not take public transport? This is the cheapest way at only 6 Mexican Pesos (0.30 USD).
But, wear your most comfortable shoes because the last stop is an uphill walk to Monte Alban. The trip takes approximately 40 minutes.
Several travel agencies in Oaxaca run regular shuttle buses from the city center to Monte Alban.
One of the best places to get a shuttle bus to Monte Alban is Hotel Rivera del Angel. There is a shuttle that leaves the hotel every hour.
The return tickets cost 70 – 80 Mexican Pesos (3.50 USD – 4 USD). The driver will then tell you what time to wait in the parking lot to get back.
If you prefer to be picked up in your hotel and want to learn more about the ruins, you can take a guided Monte Alban Tour from Oaxaca. This is the easiest and most interesting (but expensive) way to get to Monte Alban.
There are numerous tour operators that run day trips to Monte Alban from Oaxaca. There are also some half-day tours available. Ask your hotel front desk to recommend a tour for you.
The Famous Landmarks of Monte Alban, Mexico
There is plenty to see and do at the Monte Alban ruins. The site is full of history and Oaxaca traditions, and you’ll be sure to learn some interesting Zapotec facts.
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia
The museum is a good starting point for your visit if you would like information about the history of Monte Alban. It has a small collection of artifacts from the site, including pottery, relics, and small sculptures.
You will also find a bookstore and a café with a terrace from where you can enjoy incredible views of Monte Alban and the surrounding valley.
This site is considered the highlight of Monte Alban. Inside the archeological site are 300 stone slabs called danzantes (dancers). The group of stone structures is meant to depict an event that happened frequently among the people of the Oaxaca valley.
What was the event? Well, the accepted theory is that these slabs were prisoners or sacrificial victims, and their position implies where they were tortured and mutilated.
The Pyramids of Oaxaca
No visit to Monte Alban would be complete without taking in the view from the top of the pyramids.
The hike up will be hot and long, though. However, the breathtaking view at the top makes it all worth it, encompassing the surrounding countryside with its lush vegetation and colorful trees.
An interesting fact about these pyramids is how they differ from each other across civilizations. Egypt’s Great pyramids were used to bury their rulers and other prominent citizens inside.
While the Zapotec used the pyramids as palaces and temples.
The tombs at Monte Alban are believed to be the origin of the Day of the Dead festival. The wealthy citizens of the city were buried alongside their belongings here, with objects made from gold, silver, jade, and stone.
The tombs were built extremely well and sealed to prevent deterioration. When scientists initially found them, the tombs were completely intact.
The Day of the Dead (Cinco de Mayo) is believed to have originated from what was found in the tombs of Monte Alban. The celebration includes dancing, drinking, eating, and parades.
Today, Cinco de Mayo happens every year at the very end of October.
The VG Complex
This complex started as a ceremonial site, but it is now believed by experts to be a topographical measuring point.
The buildings located to the north, south, and east were all temples. At the south temple, there is a slab placed by the Zapotecs that documents the history of Monte Alban.
This building is unique because the carved stones are specifically placed in the shape of an arrow. Inside the building are over 40 large slabs with carvings and writings that depict the people that once lived there.
However, many of these slabs are also believed to be ‘conquest slabs’ that mark as trophies of victory in battle.
Much like the Maya, Zapotecs were great at astronomy. They used their knowledge, especially for agriculture and for predicting the seasons, as it was crucial for them to know when the rainy and dry seasons began.
This structure was used for those studies.
The Best Time to Visit the Monte Alban Ruins
The best time to begin your visit to the Monte Alban site is early in the morning. It will be a lot cooler than later in the Day. You’ll also enjoy some quiet time before the crowds pour in.
The site is especially popular with locals on the weekends (it’s free to visit for locals on Sundays), so a weekday visit would be your best bet.
Final Thoughts on the Monte Alban Ruins
You are sure to be amazed by the ancient city’s pyramids, temples, plazas, and museums.
However, for a deeper understanding of the city, book a tour guide to give you the city’s smart yet dark history.
It’s a shame that the people of Oaxaca valley in Mexico have perished. But thanks to their methods of preservation, you’ll leave with a heightened sense of appreciation for their culture and its traditions.