Having this week off school has allowed me to play tourist and visit some of the attractions and villages surrounding Oaxaca de Juarez (wa-HA- ka de WHA-rez).
One of the most well-known of Oaxaca’s ancient ruins is Monte Albán, (MonTE al BAHn) – an ancient Zapotec capital and partially excavated archaeological site located on top of a mountain (1948m above sea level) and approx. 9km west of the city of Oaxaca.
In 1987 both Monte Albán and Oaxaca de Juarez were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Monte Albán traces its history to about 500 BC when Zapotec builders began levelling the mountaintop to construct pyramids, temples, plazas, canals and other residential structures which all centre on the Great Plaza, a large open area on the flattened mountain top, offering 360-degree views of the city and valleys 400m below.
What is mind boggling is that not only did they manage to literally flatten a mountaintop, there was not a lot of raw material available on site to build from, and so they also hauled great boulders up this mountain, which was also many many hours walk from the nearest water supply. Furthermore, all structures are perfectly aligned on a north-south axis, directed by the constellations above.
Monte Albán was inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs. The original Zapotec name of the site was Dani Biaa (‘sacred mountain’). Zapotec culture flourished during the Classic Period (300-750 AD), in which Monte Albán established trading and political relationships with other powerful cities, namely Teotihuacán (north of present day Mexico City) and Tikal in Guatemala.
The city’s construction was done in phases, with Phase I stretching from the city’s beginnings to about 1 AD when Building J, believed to be an observatory, was built. The second phase spanned two centuries from 1 AD to 200 AD.
The Zapotec capital prospered for thirteen centuries, from the year 500 B.C to 850 A.D. when the Zapotec people abandoned the city for reasons unknown. Later, the Mixtec people arrived in the Valley of Oaxaca in 1200 AD and used the Monte Albán site to bury their elite.
The best time to visit Monte Albán (in my opinion) is the morning, as the tour buses are not arriving in full swing at that time, and so you can wander the site with only a handful of others and imagine how the city was around 450-700 AD with more than 25,000 people living there.
You can hire local guides on-site to guide you around, or you can just wander and read the educational boards at the foot of many of the ruins. There is also a small museum near the entrance to the ruins displaying some of the pots, jewellery, clay figures, inscribed stones and skeletons found on site.
Luckily for me, the day I went was cloudy and overcast, although I still ended up getting a little burnt with the combination of sun, cloud and altitude. As there is not a lot of shade, going in summer would be an exercise in commitment (or heatstroke), however Monte Alban is definitely a must-see when you come to Oaxaca.