Monday, January 14, 2013

The Ruins of Monte Albán, Oaxaca: December 27, 2012

Building IV
Monte Albán is an enormous ruined ceremonial complex perched on a hilltop just outside the city of Oaxaca. It is number 415 on the United Nations' list of World Heritage sites, and I find that when planning a vacation you cannot go wrong with a World Heritage site. The Taj Mahal is number 252. The Grand Canyon is number 75. There's a pretty high standard for making that list, so even knowing nothing about Monte Albán we headed up the mountain to check it out. Some of us took the bus for about $3 round trip. The rest, more ambitious and in better shape, rented bicycles and rode up. The ruin is 1,300 feet above the valley floor, so that was a pretty impressive ride. When our bus passed them on a hairpin turn I closed my eyes and prayed we wouldn't knock them off the edge.
The first Zapotec builders began here around 300 BC, and they flattened the mountaintop to build temples and palaces. If I understand our guide (and I may not have as she spoke rapidly with a thick accent) only a very small portion of the city has been excavated, and it was primarily ceremonial. The rest is still buried on the slopes of the mountain. If you are curious about the ruins, there is a lot more historical information on the World Heritage site, Wikipedia, and Discover Oaxaca.
Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico
 This is your first view of the great Plaza. My daughter and I took one look at the enormous set of stairs scaling the platform at the other and headed straight for it. Big hill! Must climb!
looking over the Main Plaza to the North Platform
 This is the view from the top looking back over the plaza to the North Platform. All the other buildings are fenced off: you can only climb the North and South platforms, and you can't go inside anywhere. Phooey.
looking down from the South Platform
And this is the view looking down from the platform. If you squint, you can see the city sprawling in the blue haze beyond the mound. By the way, you'll notice the site is completely bare, with only a few trees dotted sparsely around the edges. The shade under every one of those trees is staked out by 8am by a local selling replicas of Zapotec masks.
Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico
Go first thing in the morning before it gets hot, and wear a hat with the largest brim you can stand. The really smart people brought umbrellas. If you forget, there's a small army of hat-sellers lining the steps up to the museum. Buy one! Even in December the mountaintop bakes, and by noon any uncovered skin is sunburnt. As an aside, the souvenir-and-trinket sellers are very polite, and some of them had beautiful things for sale. They approach and hold up a sample, but if you say, "Non, gracias," they move on. You do have to say it a lot, unless you are in the market for a Zapotec replica, in which case, boy, are you in luck.

Leucaena leucocephala, Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico

 The guaje tree (Leucaena leucocephala) is also called Huāxcuahuitl in one of the local languages, and Oaxaca's name is derived from it. It grows wild all over the mountain, and the red beans are very striking with the sun shining through them.
Ipomoea murucoides, Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico
 The casahuate trees (Ipomoea pauciflora or Ipomoea murucoides) were in bloom, and they also grew all over the hillsides. According to our guide, the white flowers gave Monte Albán (White Mountain) its Spanish name. On the other hand, one of those websites I listed said the name came from the family who owned the mountain in the 1700s (the Montalbans.) I checked Snopes, but they don't have an entry for this.
Building IV
One other tourist tip - bring lots of water and drink it all. The bathrooms in the visitor center are reasonably clean and accessible, and if you don't drink water the altitude (6,400 ft above sea level), blazing sun, and arid climate are going to do a number on you.
masonry, Zapotec, Mixtec

This is the ball court. It seemed tiny to me, and those tiered areas were originally plastered over and smooth, so the game must have been something like soccer crossed with billiards.
Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico
 These large black raptors swooped over the platforms all morning. They had a three- or four-foot wingspan; not enormous, but big enough to take seriously. Some of them were Black Vultures, but this one might have been a Turkey Vulture. (Thank you to Mary and Chris for the IDs!)
Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico
Heading back down the mountain, you can see how flat the plain is between the high mountains, and how full it is of city. It is best not to look straight down.
Jesus, Virgin Mary, religious icons
At least on the city buses you know you are in good hands. 

P.S. Once again I took far too many photos for the blog, so if you just can't get enough, come on over to the Mexico set on my Flickr site.


  1. I loved this tour again!AriadnefromGreece!

    1. Thank you! There are few more posts still to come about Oaxaca - hope you like them, too.