The countryside around Oaxaca is dotted with small archaeological sites and villages, and the most important are easy to reach. The landmark ruins in the region are Monte Albán (30 min.) and Mitla (1 hr.). If you're heading toward Mitla, you can make some interesting stops. A number of interesting villages in other directions make good day trips from Oaxaca. The Tourism Office will give you a map that shows nearby villages where beautiful handicrafts are made. The visits are fun excursions by car or bus. If you would like a guided tour of archaeological ruins or crafts villages, contact Juan Montes Lara. He is the thinking person's guide to this area, as well as to most of southern Mexico. He speaks English and conducts tours for small groups throughout Oaxaca and Chiapas. He stays pretty busy, so contact him well in advance -- the best way is by e-mail (tel. 951/515-7731; email@example.com).
Many villages have fine small municipal museums. San José El Mogote, site of one of the earliest pre-Hispanic village-dweller groups, has a display of carvings and statues found in and around the town, and a display model of an old hacienda. Teotitlán del Valle also has a municipal museum; it features displays on the weaving process. Ask at the State Tourism Office for more information.
Had I been the priest-king of a large Indian nation in search of the perfect site on which to build a ceremonial center, this would have been it. Monte Albán sits on a mountain that rises from the middle of the valley floor -- or, rather, divides two valleys. From here you can see all that lies between you and the distant mountains.
Starting around 2000 B.C., village-dwelling peoples of unknown origin inhabited the Oaxaca valleys. Between 800 and 500 B.C., a new ceramic style appeared, indicating an influx of new peoples, now called Zapotec. Around 500 B.C., these peoples began the monumental exercise of leveling the top of a mountain, where they would build Monte Albán (Mohn-teh Ahl-bahn).
As you enter the site, you'll see a museum, a shop with guidebooks to the ruins, a cafe, and a craft shop. Video camera permits cost 50 pesos. The site is open daily from 8am to 6pm. Admission to the ruins is 51 pesos. Licensed guides charge 200 pesos per person for a walking tour.
Very little of the original structures remain; they've either been obscured beneath newer construction or had their stones reused for other buildings. A center of Zapotec culture, Monte Albán was also influenced by contemporary cultures outside the valley of Mexico. You can see Olmec influence in the early sculptures; more recent masks and sculptures reflect contact with the Maya. When Monte Albán was at its zenith in A.D. 300, it borrowed architectural ideas from Teotihuacán. By around A.D. 800, the significance of Monte Albán in Zapotec society began to wane. Although most likely never completely abandoned, it became a shadow of its former grandeur. At the beginning of the 13th century, the Mixtec appropriated Monte Albán. The Mixtec, who had long coexisted in the area with the Zapotec, began expanding their territory. At Monte Albán, they added little to the existing architecture; however, they seem to have considered it an appropriate burial ground for their royalty. They left many tombs, including Tomb 7, with its famous treasure.
Monte Albán centers on the Gran Plaza, a man-made area created by flattening the mountaintop. From this plaza, aligned north to south, you can survey the Oaxacan valley. The excavations at Monte Albán have revealed more than 170 tombs, numerous ceremonial altars, stelae, pyramids, and palaces.
Begin your tour of the ruins on the eastern side of the Great Plaza at the I-shaped ball court. This ball court differs slightly from Maya and Toltec ball courts, in that there are no goal rings, and the sides of the court slope. Also on the east side of the plaza are several altars and pyramids that were once covered with stucco. Note the sloping walls, wide stairs, and ramps; all are typical of Zapotec architecture and reminiscent of the architecture of Teotihuacán. The building, slightly out of line with the plaza (not on the north-south axis), is thought by some to have been an observatory; it was probably aligned with heavenly bodies rather than with points of the compass.
The south side of the plaza has a large platform that bore several stelae, most of which are now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. A good view of the surrounding area can be had from the top of this platform.
The west side has more ceremonial platforms and pyramids. Atop the pyramid substructure are four columns that likely supported the roof of the temple at one time.
The famous building of Los Danzantes (The Dancers), on the west side of the plaza, is the earliest known structure at Monte Albán. This building is covered with large stone slabs that have distorted naked figures carved into them (the ones you see are copies; the originals are protected in the site museum). There is speculation about who carved these figures and what they represent, although there is a distinct resemblance to the Olmec baby faces at La Venta, in Tabasco state. The distorted bodies and pained expressions might connote disease. Clear examples of figures representing childbirth, dwarfism, and infantilism are visible. Because of the fluid movement represented in the figures, they became known as Los Danzantes -- merely a modern label for these ancient and mysterious carvings.
The Northern Platform is a maze of temples and palaces interwoven with subterranean tunnels and sanctuaries. Take time to wander among the reliefs, glyphs, paintings, and friezes along the lintels and jambs, as well as the walls. In this section of the ruins, you are likely to see vendors discreetly selling "original" artifacts found at the site. These guys come from the nearby town of Arrazola, where the fabrication of "antiquities" is a long-standing cottage industry. I like to buy a piece occasionally and pretend I'm getting the real thing just to get an opportunity to talk with them.
Leaving the Great Plaza, head north to the cemetery and tombs. If you have a day to spend at Monte Albán, be sure to visit some of the tombs, which contain magnificent glyphs, paintings, and stone carvings of gods, goddesses, birds, and serpents. Lately, the tombs have been closed to the public, but check anyway. Of the excavated tombs, the most famous is Tomb 7, next to the parking lot. It yielded some 500 pieces of gold, amber, and turquoise jewelry, as well as silver, alabaster, and bone art objects. This amazing collection is on display at the Museo Regional de Oaxaca.
To get to Monte Albán, take a bus from the Hotel Rivera del Angel, at Mina 518 between Mier y Terán and Díaz Ordaz. Transportadora Turística, Arqueología e Historia (tel. 951/516-0666) makes hourly runs to the ruins. A round-trip ticket costs 40 pesos. Additional buses usually run during high season. If this company isn't running vans, you can buy a ticket with the competition, Autobuses Turisticos (tel. 951/516-5327), at Mina 505, just down the block. They use buses and charge the same for a round-trip ticket. If you're driving from Oaxaca, take Calle Trujano out of town. It becomes the road to Monte Albán, which is about 10km (6 1/4 miles) away.
The Road to Mitla: Ruins & Rug Weavers
East of Oaxaca, the Pan American Highway (Hwy. 190) leads to Mitla and passes several important archaeological sites, markets, and craft villages.
Many little stops dot this route, and some are a bit off the highway, so I recommend hiring a taxi, renting a car, or signing up with a small tour rather than using local bus transportation. If you take a tour, ask which sites it includes. To get to the highway, go north from downtown to Calzada Niños Héroes and turn right. This feeds directly on to the highway. All the sites are listed in order, from west (Oaxaca) to east (Mitla).
Santa María Del Tule's 2,000-Year-Old Tree -- Santa María del Tule is a small town 8km (5 miles) outside Oaxaca. It's famous for the immense El Tule Tree, an ahuehuete (Montezuma cypress, akin to the bald cypress) standing in a churchyard just off the main road. Now over 2,000 years old, it looks every bit its age, the way large cypresses do. However, this one is the most impressive tree I've ever seen for the sheer width of its trunk and canopy. It is said to have the broadest trunk of any tree in the world. When the tree was younger, the entire region around Santa María del Tule was marshland; in fact, the word tule means "reed." Now the water table has dropped, so to protect the tree, a private foundation waters and takes care of it. The admission fee of 5 pesos goes toward these efforts.
Iglesia De San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya -- Six kilometers (3 3/4 miles) farther along, you'll see a sign pointing right; go less than another kilometer (about a half-mile) into town. This church is the next stop. Inside the church are an elaborately carved altar and a crucifix fashioned out of a ground paste made from the corn plant. The murals decorating the walls were the work of local artists of the 18th century and are a sweet mix of Spanish and Indian aesthetics. Make a point of seeing the beautifully painted baroque organ in the choir loft. The church is usually open daily from 10am to 2pm and 4 to 8pm.
Dainzú's Zapotec Ruins -- Three kilometers (1 3/4 miles) farther, visible from the highway (26km/16 miles from Oaxaca), you'll see a sign pointing to the right. It's less than 1km (2/3 mile) to the ruins, which were first excavated in the 1960s. Dainzú is a pre-Classic site that dates from between 700 and 600 B.C. Increasingly sophisticated building continued until about A.D. 300. The site occupies the western face of a hill, presumably for defense. The main building is a platform structure, its walls decorated with carvings resembling Monte Albán's Danzantes. These carvings are now in a protective shed; a caretaker will unlock it for interested parties. These figures show Olmec influence but differ from the Danzantes because they wear the trappings of the "ballgame," which likely make them the earliest representations of the ballgame in Mexico. A partially reconstructed ball court sits below the main structure. The site provides an outstanding view of the valley. Admission is 31 pesos.
Teotitlán Del Valle's Beautiful Rugs -- The next major turnoff you come to is 2km (1 1/4 miles) farther along, 3km (1 3/4 miles) from the highway. This is Teotitlán, famous for weaving and now an obviously prosperous town, to judge by all the current development. This is where you'll want to go for rugs, and you'll find no shortage of weavers and stores. Most weavers sell out of their homes and give demonstrations. The prices are considerably lower than in Oaxaca City.
The church in town is well worth a visit. The early friars used pre-Hispanic stones to build the church and then covered them with adobe. When the townspeople renovated the church, they rediscovered these stones with carved figures and now proudly display them. You'll see them in odd places in the walls of the church and sacristy. Teotitlán also has a small community museum, opposite the artisans' market and adjacent to the church. The museum has an interesting exhibit on natural dye-making, using herbs, plants, and cochineal (a red dye derived from insects).
For a bite to eat, consider the Restaurant Tlamanalli, Av. Juárez 39 (tel. 951/524-4006), run by three Zapotec sisters who serve Oaxacan cuisine. Its reputation attracts lots of foreigners. It's on the right on the main street as you approach the main part of town, in a red brick building with black wrought-iron window covers. It's open Monday through Friday from 1 to 4pm. A bit farther on, there's another nice restaurant on the left where the main street intersects with the town center.
Lambityeco's Rain God -- Getting back to the highway and continuing eastward, in 3km (1 3/4 miles), you'll see a turnoff on the right for the small archaeological site of Lambityeco. Of particular interest are the two beautifully executed and preserved stucco masks of the rain god Cocijo. At Lambityeco, a major product was salt, distilled from saline groundwater nearby. Admission is 31 pesos.
Tlacolula's Fine Market & Unique Chapel -- Located 30km (19 miles) from Oaxaca (1.5km/1 mile past Lambityeco), Tlacolula is in mezcal country, and along the road from here to Mitla, you'll see a couple of small distilleries and distillery outlets advertising their product. Stop by any one to taste their wares. Mezcal is distilled from a species of agave different from that of tequila. Most mezcal has a very strong smell and may or may not come with a worm in the bottle. Many of these small distilleries flavor their mezcal in much the same way that Russians flavor vodka.
Sunday is market day in Tlacolula, with rows of textiles fluttering in the breeze and aisle after aisle of pottery and baskets. If you don't go on market day, you won't have to compete with crowds. The Capilla del Mártir of the parochial church is a stunning display of virtuosity in wrought iron. The doorway, choir screen, and pulpit, with their baroque convolutions, have no equals in Mexico's religious architecture. Also eye-catching (to say the least) are the graphic, almost life-size sculptures of the Twelve Apostles in their various manners of martyrdom. A few years ago, a secret passage was found in the church, leading to a room that contained valuable silver religious pieces. The silver was hidden during the Mexican Revolution in 1910; the articles are now back in the church.
Yagul's Zapotec Fortress -- Yagul, a fortress city on a hill overlooking the valley, is 2km (about 1 1/2 miles) farther on down the highway. You'll see the turnoff to the left; it's less than 1km (about 2/3 mile) off the road. The setting is spectacular, and, because the ruins are not as fully reconstructed as those at Monte Albán, you're likely to have the place to yourself. Bring a picnic.
The city was divided into two sections: the fortress at the top of the hill and the palaces lower down. The center of the palace complex is the plaza, surrounded by four temples. In the center is a ceremonial platform, under which is the Triple Tomb. The door of the tomb is a large stone slab decorated on both sides with beautiful hieroglyphs. The tomb may be open for viewing; if there are two guards, one can leave the entrance to escort visitors.
Look for the beautifully restored, typically Zapotec ball court. North of the plaza is the palace structure built for the chiefs of the city. It's a maze of rooms and patios decorated with painted stucco and stone mosaics. Visible here and there are ceremonial mounds and tombs decorated in the same geometric patterns found in Mitla. The panoramic view of the valley from the fortress is worth the rather exhausting climb.
Admission is 31 pesos. Still cameras are free, but use of a video camera costs 35 pesos. The site is open daily from 8am to 5:30pm. It's just a few kilometers farther southeast to Mitla. The turnoff comes at a very obvious fork in the road.
Mitla's Large Zapotec & Mixtec Site -- Mitla is 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the highway; the turnoff terminates at the ruins by the church. If you've come here by bus, it's less than 1km (about 2/3 mile) up the road from the dusty town square to the ruins; if you want to hire a cab, there are some in the square.
The Zapotec settled Mitla around 600 B.C., and it became a Mixtec bastion in the late 10th century. This city was still flourishing at the time of the Spanish Conquest, and many of the buildings were used through the 16th century.
Tour groups often bypass the town of Mitla, but it is worth a visit. The University of the Americas maintains the Museum of Zapotec Art (previously known as the Frissell collection). It contains some outstanding Zapotec and Mixtec relics. Admission is 35 pesos and includes admission to the ruins. Be sure to look at the Leigh collection, which contains some real treasures. The museum is in a beautiful old hacienda.
You can easily see the most important buildings in an hour. Mixtec architecture is based on a quadrangle surrounded on three or four sides by patios and chambers, usually rectangular. The chambers are under a low roof, which is excellent for defense but makes the rooms dark and close. The stone buildings are inlaid with small cut stones to form geometric patterns.
There are five groups of buildings, divided by the Mitla River. The most important buildings are on the east side of the ravine. The Group of the Columns consists of two quadrangles, connected at the corners with palaces. The building to the north has a long chamber with six columns and many rooms decorated with geometric designs. The most common motif is the zigzag pattern, the same one seen repeatedly on Mitla blankets. Human and animal images are rare in Mixtec art. In fact, only one frieze has been found (in the Group of the Church, on the north patio). Here you'll see a series of figures painted with their name glyphs.
Admission to the site is 37 pesos. Use of a video camera costs 35 pesos. Entrance to the museum is included in the price. It's open daily from 8am to 5pm.
Outside the ruins, vendors will hound you. The moment you step out of a car, every able-bodied woman and child for miles around will come charging over with shrill cries and a basket full of bargains -- heavily embroidered belts, small pieces of pottery, fake archaeological relics, and cheap earrings. Offer to pay half the price the vendors ask. A modern handicrafts market is near the ruins, but prices are lower in town.
South of Monte Albán: Arrazola, Cuilapan & Zaachila
Though the two roads to these towns are unnumbered, they are clearly signposted along the way.
Arrazola: Woodcarving Capital -- Arrazola lies in the foothills of Monte Albán, about 24km (15 miles) southwest of Oaxaca. The tiny town's most famous resident is Manuel Jiménez, the septuagenarian grandfather of the resurgence in woodcarving as folk art. Jiménez's polar bears, anteaters, and rabbits carved from copal wood are shown in galleries throughout the world; his home is a magnet for folk-art collectors. Now the town is full of other carvers, all making fanciful creatures painted in bright, festive colors. Little boys will greet you at the outskirts offering to guide you to individual homes for a small tip. Following them is a good way to get to know the town, and after a bit you can take your leave of them.
If you're driving to Arrazola, take the road out of Oaxaca City that goes to Monte Albán, then take the left fork after crossing the Atoyac River and follow the signs for Zaachila. Turn right after the town of Xoxo and you will soon reach Arrazola. You can also take a bus from the second-class station near the Abastos Market.
Cuilapan's Dominican Monastery -- Cuilapan (Kwi-lah-pan) is about 15km (9 1/4 miles) southwest of Oaxaca. The Dominican friars inaugurated their second monastery here in 1550. Parts of the convent and church were never completed due to political complications in the late 16th century. The roof of the monastery has fallen in, but the cloister and the church remain. The church, which is still in use, is being restored. There are three naves with lofty arches, large stone columns, and many frescoes. It is open daily from 10am to 6pm; entry is 31 pesos, with an additional cost of 35 pesos for use of a video camera. The monastery is visible on the right a short distance from the main road to Zaachila, and there's a sign as well. The bus from the second-class station stops within a few hundred feet of the church.
Zaachila: Market Towns With Mixtec Tombs -- Farther on from Cuilapan, 24km (15 miles) southwest of Oaxaca, Zaachila (Sah-chee-lah) has a Thursday market; baskets and pottery are sold for local household use, and the produce market is always full. Also take note of the interesting livestock section and a mercado de madera (wood market) just as you enter town.
Behind the church is the entrance to a small archaeological site containing several mounds and platforms and two interesting tombs. The artifacts found here now reside in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, but Tomb 1 contains carvings that are worth checking out.
At the time of the Spanish Conquest, Zaachila was the last surviving city of the Zapotec rulers. When Cortez marched on the city, the Zapotec offered no resistance, and he formed an alliance with them. This outraged the Mixtec, who invaded Zaachila shortly afterward. The site and tombs are open daily from 9am till 4pm, and the entrance fee is 31 pesos.
In Zaachila is a great outdoor restaurant called La Capilla (tel. 951/528-6115). It's large and set up to handle lots of people, but often there will be only a few tables occupied. It's a peaceful, attractive setting, and the cooking is delicious. You can enjoy all manner of regional specialties, including moles, tlayudas, special roasted chicken, and barbacoa on Sundays. You also get handmade tortillas and fresh fruit drinks (made with filtered water and ice). La Capilla is open daily 10am to 7pm. It's located just off the highway at Km 14.5.
To return to Oaxaca, your best option is to line up with locals to take one of the colectivos on the main street across from the market. If you're driving, see the directions for Arrazola, above.
South Along Highway 175
San Bartolo Coyotepec's Pottery -- San Bartolo is the home of the famous black pottery sold all over Oaxaca. It's also one of several little villages named Coyotepec in the area. Buses frequently operate between Oaxaca and this village, about 15km (9 1/4 miles) south on Hwy. 175. In 1953, a native woman named Doña Rosa invented the technique of smoking the pottery during firing to make it black and rubbing the fired pieces with a piece of quartz to produce a sheen. Doña Rosa died in 1979, and her son, Valente Nieto Real, carries on the tradition. Watching Valente change a lump of coarse clay into a work of art with only two crude plates (used as a potter's wheel) is an almost magical experience. The family's home and factory is a few blocks off the main road; you'll see the sign as you enter town. It's open daily from 9am to 5:30pm.
You can buy black pottery at many shops on the little plaza or in the artists' homes. Villagers who make pottery often place a piece of their work near their front door, by the gate, or on the street. It's their way of inviting prospective buyers to come in.
San Martín Tilcajete: Woodcarving Village -- San Martín Tilcajete, about 15km (9 1/4 miles) past San Bartolo, is home to woodcarvers who produce alebrijes -- fantastical, brightly painted animals and imaginary beasts -- much like those produced in Arrazola. You can wander from house to house viewing the amazing collections of hot-pink rabbits, bright-blue twisting snakes, and two-headed Dalmatians.
Santo Thomás Jalietza -- About 2km (1 1/4 miles) beyond San Martín, you'll see a sign on the left for this village of weavers who use backstrap looms. The village cooperative runs a market in the middle of town. Prices are fixed; you'll find the greatest variety of goods on Friday.
Ocotlán -- Twenty minutes farther on Hwy. 175 brings you to this fairly large market town. This city is notable for a few reasons: One is the Aguilar sisters (Josefina, Guillermina, Irene, and Concepción) and their families, who produce red clay pottery figures that are colorful, sometimes humorous, and prized by collectors. You'll see their row of home-workshops on the right as you enter, with pottery figures on the fence and roof. (Don't go around town asking for the Aguilar family. Most of the town's inhabitants are named Aguilar.)
Ocotlán is also the home of Rodolfo Morales, a painter who, upon becoming rich and famous, took an active role in aiding his hometown with renovation projects. Two projects worth visiting are the parish church and former convent. Inside the convent, you can see some of the original decorations of the Dominicans. The noticeable sheen of the stucco walls is produced using the viscous innards of the nopal cactus. The convent is now a community museum.
Friday is market day in Ocotlán, and the town fills with people and goods. It's a very good market where you can find a variety of things at reasonable prices.
North of Oaxaca
Guelatao: Birthplace Of Benito Juárez -- High in the mountains north of Oaxaca, this lovely town has become a living monument to its favorite son, Benito Juárez. Although usually peaceful, the town comes to life on Juárez's birthday (Mar 21). The museum, statues, and plaza all attest to the town's obvious devotion to the patriot. A second-class bus departs from Oaxaca's first-class station six times daily. There are also several departures from the second-class station. The trip takes at least 2 hours, through gorgeous mountain scenery. Buses return to Oaxaca every 2 hours until 8pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.