Savoring Monte Alban: Extraordinary Archeology

Just 10 minutes outside the city of Oaxaca lies Monte Alban, the mountain-top pre-Columbian city of the Zapotecs. The road to get there is a switchback and as one makes the climb into the clouds, it is easy to see why this site was chosen.

It offered a superior 360 degree vantage point from which to scope the entire Oaxaca valley. Much has been written about Monte Alban (white mountain), named by the Spanish for the white flowering trees that cover the area each spring. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago cites the Zapotec civilization as being one of the most important in Mesoamerica., Zapotecs developed a political, social, and cultural organization that was very advanced, building a communitarian way of life of mutual support and decision making through a tribunal leadership structure. Today the vestiges of this system continue as committees of leaders govern Zapotec village life, where everyone meets, discusses, then votes on important issues. It is a way of life based upon cooperation, not competition. It is notable that Zapotecs developed the concept of zero which is represented by the “eye” symbol. The eye for them connoted infinity and from that vantage point at the top of Monte Alban and the ability to see earth and sky as seamless, it is easy to understand how they

could arrive at this conclusion. In Europe, through the Middle Ages, if you were a mathematician thinking about the meaning of Zero you would be burned at the stake as a heretic. At Monte Alban you will see the Observatory from which Zapotecs created a calendar based upon lunar and solar calculations. Jared Diamond, author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” comments that the Zapotecs had a more perfect calendar system that did not require a leap year.

Burial Tomb

The structures at Monte Alban are as impressive to me as those built by the Mayans at Chichen Itza. There is an observatory, temple, ball court, and huge expanse of what were public buildings and open gathering places. Perhaps 20,000 people would have lived in its surrounding terraced villages. Only 1.5 square miles of the 35 square miles of the site have been excavated and archeologists are working to uncover and discover more. If you are coming to Oaxaca, you don’t want to miss a visit to this impressive archeological site.

I recommend that you hire a guide (guia) when you get there. There are many on site who speak fluent English (and other languages) who will give you a much more personal and in-depth perspective of the Zapotec civilization. The cost is $25 USD for about 2 hours for up to 6 people. We hired Clemente Rodriguez Perez, who is very knowledgeable and personable. His cell phone number is 9515693006. Let him know I recommended you to him.

Monte Alban is to be savored. Plan to spend at least 3 hours there. It’s a lot of climbing up and down steep rock stairs, so you need plenty of time. To get there, take a tourist bus for 38 pesos per person round trip. The bus departs for Monte Alban at 10 a.m. and then not again until 12:30 p.m. It returns every hour on the hour starting at 1 pm. The station is located on Calle Mina. Go 3 blocks south of the Zocalo, turn right on Calle Mina, then continue for 3 blocks heading toward Abastos. It is on your left.

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