Monte Albán Visitor's Guide

Panorama of Monte Albán from South Platform
••• 16:9clue/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Monte Albán is a large archaeological site located near the city of Oaxaca. It was the capital of the Zapotec civilization from 500 BC to 800 AD. The site is located on a flattened mountaintop offering sweeping views of the surrounding valley. In 1987, Monte Albán was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, along with the colonial city of Oaxaca. This is one of the 10 Oaxaca city sights you shouldn't miss.

Capital of Zapotec Civilization

Construction began on this site around 500 BC, making this the earliest of Mesoamerica's great urban centers of the Classic period. It reached its peak at the same time as Teotihuacan, between 200 to 600 A.D. By the year 800 it was in decline.

The center of the site contains a large plaza, with a group of pyramidal structures in the middle, surrounded by other buildings. Building J, sometimes referred to as the Astronomical Observatory, has an unusual pentagonal shape and is aligned at an angle compared to all the other buildings in the zone. Noble families lived around the perimeter of the ceremonial center and remains of some of their homes can be seen. The homes often contain a tomb in the central patio, tombs 104 and 105 have mural paintings but unfortunately, these are closed to the public.

The Zapotec civilization made several important advances in astronomy, writing, and possibly in medicine.

The archaeological site of Atzompa is located on an adjacent hillside and is considered a satellite city of Monte Alban.

The Treasure of Tomb 7

After the Zapotecs abandoned the site, it was used by Mixtecs who recognized it as a sacred place and re-used one of the Zapotec tombs, burying one of their rulers there with an amazing treasure which included many pieces of gold, silver, precious stone and intricately carved bone.

The treasure was found during excavations led by archaeologist Alfonso Caso in 1931. It is known as the Treasure of Tomb 7, and you can see it at the Oaxaca Museum of Cultures in the former convent of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca city.

Highlights

Some not-to-be-missed features of Monte Alban:

  • Ball Court: An I-shaped court that is sunken into the surrounding hillside.
  • Building J, the "Astronomical Observatory": The unusual shape and orientation of the building point to the fact that it was used as an observatory.
  • Los Danzantes: A series of carved stones depicting people in various positions. Their facial features show an Olmec influence.
  • North Platform: The best view of the entire site is from the top of building E, on top of the North Platform.

There is a small site museum which contains a sampling of stelae, funerary urns, and skeletal remains. More impressive items are housed in the Oaxaca Museum of Cultures.

Getting to Monte Alban

Monte Alban is about two and a half miles from the Oaxaca City center. There are tourist buses that depart several times a day from in front of the Hotel Rivera de los Angeles on Mina Street between Diaz Ordaz and Mier y Teran. The tourist bus costs ~55 pesos round-trip, and the departure time is two hours after your arrival.

A taxi from downtown Oaxaca will charge about ~100 pesos each way (agree on a price beforehand). Alternatively, hire a private guide to take you, and you can combine the day trip with a visit to the former convent of Cuilapan and the town of Zaachila

Hours and Admission

The Monte Albán archaeological site is open to the public daily from 8 am to 4:30 pm. The site museum closes a bit earlier.

Admission is ~70 pesos for adults, free for children under 13. If you would like to use a video camera inside the site there is an extra charge. The admission fee includes entrance to the site museum. Prices may vary -- check with your hotel or tour guide.

Monte Alban Tour Guides

There are local tour guides available on site to give you a tour of the ruins. Hire officially licensed tour guides - they wear an identification issued by the Mexican Secretary of Tourism.

You can visit Monte Albán in about two hours though archaeology aficionados may wish to spend more time.

There is little shade on the archaeological site, so it's a good idea to use sunscreen and take a hat.