Seven pre-Hispanic Zapotec / Mixtec ruins are accessible a short drive from Oaxaca. Learn the main draw of each, and plan touring around a couple of them.
Oaxaca’s central valleys boast innumerable pre-Hispanic ruins which one can visit during a Oaxacan cultural vacation. Seven stand out in terms of their proximity to Oaxaca city, easy of access, degree of excavation, importance within the context of the development of Zapotec / Mixtec civilizations, and providing a cross-section from an aesthetic perspective.
Evaluating ruins pursuant to the foregoing criteria is inevitably subjective. But the exercise can provide a starting point for those interested in seeing ruins while visiting Oaxaca. Consult Marcus Winter’s, Oaxaca The Archaeological Record for a detailed record of Oaxacan pre-history and enumeration of these and other ruins on an individual basis.
Each of these ruins in the central valleys of Oaxaca can be visited in the course of touring other sights, although Monte Albán, the “must see,” is advisable as a short morning trip from Oaxaca, on its own. The other six are accessible while exploring the Tlacolula corridor, when visiting Arrazola, San Bartolo Coyotepec, and Zaachila, and along the Etla route.
Monte Albán – A Must-see Even During a Brief Visit to Oaxaca
Perched atop a mountain only a short bus ride from downtown Oaxaca, while not as majestic Monte Albán does provide a Machu Picchu – esque aura for visitors. The ride from a downtown bus depot provides a sense of anticipation as one ascends the switchbacks.
One arrives at a pre-Hispanic city which was eventually abandoned for reasons still speculative. It’s said that 60 – 70 percent of the site has been reconstructed, but nevertheless it’s impressive for its location and view of present-day Oaxaca below, buildings, carved stone figures (Danzantes, or dancers), tombs, and its historical significance within the context of pre-Hispanic Oaxaca. Consider hiring a federally trained and authorized bilingual guide once at the site.
Mitla – Contrast to Monte Albán; More Impressive in Some Respects
Mitla is located at the end of a highway corridor known as the Tlacolula valley. It is furthest away from Oaxaca, along the same route as the ruins of Yagul, Lambityeco and Dainzu.
Mitla consists of five groupings of buildings. Its most noteworthy points are the precision with which the limestone blocks and mosaics were carved, the (dry-) constructed without mortar, one of the two tombs, a 16th century church which was erected on top of a Zapotec temple using limestone blocks secured by the Spanish through destruction of pre-Hispanic buildings, and the quality of exquisite friezes still adorning two massive lintels.
Yagul, a Zapotec Ruin for Young Children and Adults Alike
Yagul predates Mitla, and is much more rustic in its construction. However, it boasts the second largest ball court in Mesoamerica, a tomb with two extremely well-preserved carved stone figures near the entranceway, a large carved image of a frog, and a series of rooms frequently termed a labyrinth.
Hiking up to a fortress, one passes what archaeologists have termed a “bathtub” carved into the rock. When this writer’s daughter was very young, Yagul proved to be the most exciting ruin of all for her. She was able to hike and climb, play in the bathtub, and get lost for a minute or so in the labyrinth. (Activities in Oaxaca for children are abundant.) The view from the precipice of the fortress is spectacular; but stop at the lookout half way up, from which one can take exquisite photos of the ruin proper, below. Yagul is one of several child-friendly sights in Oaxaca.
Lambityeco: Salt Production, Art
Lambityeco was an important salt producing site in pre-Hispanic times, but since its 1960s excavation its main attractions are the two excavated mounds, one of which contains stucco friezes, and the other two large masks of the Zapotec rain god, Cocijo.
Dainzu: Stone Monuments Illustrate Olmec Influence
.The main building at Dainzu is a platform, the walls of which are decorated with carvings resembling Monte Albán’s Danzantes. There are several viewable large stone images. It’s been written that the carvings suggest that they may be the earliest representations of the ball game, in all Mexico. Like Lambityeco, the site is not often visited, so one can usually walk about without other tourists present, and examine the tombs, ball court and other structures.
Zaachila: Visit While at the Thursday Market
The Zaachila ruin is virtually in the middle of the town of Zaachila, known for its Thursday market. Zaachila is close to San Bartolo Coyotepec (black pottery), and at the end of a highway from which Arrazola (alebrijes) and Cuilapam are accessed.
The site contains several mounds and platforms, as well as two tombs. The gatekeeper is usually pleased to pull out a binder with photos of the artifacts which were removed from the tombs and taken to Mexico City. A dispute between archaeologists and villagers resulted in excavation being suspended, and therefore there is relatively little to see.
San José Mogote: Quaint Old Site near Etla, with Community Museum
. venturing along the Etla route should consider a stop at San José Mogote. Excavation concluded in the early 2000s. The feeling on top of the small hill is serene, and view is 360 degrees. It’s one of the oldest sites. Track down the keeper of the key to the community museum, housed in an old hacienda. His name and directions to his house are usually posted. The museum features a history of the hacienda era, and many exquisite early pre-Hispanic figures, the two most impressive being a large jade figure and an impressive red cinnabar painted man’s head.