Tag Archives: Monte Alban

Oaxaca’s Monte Alban Archeological Site Key to Zapotec Civilization

The UNESCO World Heritage archeological site of Monte Alban never ceases to capture and hold my attention. I go there every time I host visitors to Oaxaca and each time there is something new that I notice or an area that is recently restored. MonteAlban

The Spanish conquerors named Monte Alban, or white mountain, because the hill was in bloom with white flowering trees when they arrived.  This week, the sky was nearly flawless blue with outstanding big, white cloud formations. I don’t remember a more beautiful, breathtaking day here.

MonteAlban-8The best way to enter the site is to begin on the north platform, the highest place. After you go through the ticket turn-style make a right turn and continue up the hill.  The path isn’t well-marked, but the trail is well-traveled, so you will figure it out.  Even though it looks daunting, be sure to climb the pyramids.

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Otherwise, you will miss the most stunning views.  On the main level of the platform you will see carved stones depicting men captured in war. Called Los Danzantes, or dancers, these are replicas. The originals are in the museum on site and in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.


Summer in Oaxaca is very temperate and GREEN.  Now,  the rainy season that brings torrents of water is almost over, and so we may get a late afternoon or evening shower, which is lovely, and tends to cools things off — a perfect temperature for sleeping.


By the time we arrived at Monte Alban, it was almost ten-thirty in the morning, and the sun was already strong. Our guide extraordinaire, Rene Cabrera Arroyo, was prepared and had plenty of bottled water for us.

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It took about two hours to walk the site and get a complete explanation of Zapotec history, conquests, relationships with the Aztecs and Mixtecs, and the political and religious structure at the time they were at the height of their power.

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Of course, we had to stop to look at the clay replicas of the found objects in the Monte Alban tombs made by local craftsmen from Arrazola. The figures are all hand formed and the sellers — who are the artisans — are licensed by Monte Alban to create and sell their wares.  Prices are reasonable and there’s room for a little bargaining to make it more fun — if you must!  (Remember, the dollar to peso value is in favor of the visitor so don’t drive a hard bargain.)

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It’s Guelaguetza time and Monte Alban crawling with visitors who come to Oaxaca from throughout Mexico and many foreign countries. I am hearing a cacophony of languages: German, British English, Australian English, Dutch, French, Japanese and Chinese, as well as Spanish and American English.


Oaxaca is a wonderful place to visit and bring the family for summer vacation. It’s safe, educational, fun and affordable. Entry fees are 59 pesos per person.  That translates to about $4.25 each. We’d love to see you here!


After Monte Alban, we went off to Atzompa, the nearby village of potters who supplied the priests and nobles with utilitarian and ceremonial clay vessels.

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My advice: wear sturdy shoes for rock climbing, use a sun hat, sun screen, and pack a water bottle — as important as your camera! And, consider hiring a licensed guide who knows the in-depth history of the place.  It will enrich your visit.


Monte Alban: Closer to the Gods

Atop the Zapotec world and about 15 minutes from the historic center of Oaxaca is the great Meso-american archeological site of Monte Alban, named by the Spaniards after siting the mountaintop covered with the blooms of the white morning-glory tree (left photo below).


The Spanish Conquistadores named Oaxaca for the  plant, called in Nahuatl huaxyacac, which they could not pronounce (pictured above right).  The pods contain edible green seeds used to flavor soups and stews.  Today, we see them nondescriptly bundled and sold in local and regional markets rarely remembering the important origins of this humble pod.

The Zapotecs of Monte Alban believed that the higher they built, the closer they would be to their gods to whom they prayed for rain and corn, for protection from earthquakes, for sun to yield more crops, and for other essentials of daily life.  Here, the sun, moon and stars determined life and its future.  The observatory, the geometry of the buildings, the size of the plaza were all determined by the solar calendar. The record of conquests were carved in the ancient rock — named swimmers and dancers by archeologists.


You can read much more about Monte Alban in archeological and history books or visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where Monte Alban is cited among the great civilizations for its advanced organizational and government structure.


Sacred elements are carved into the stone.  The tiny steps were designed to hold the colored plaster that covered the temples, observatory and ball court.  Here is where the elite lived, closer to god, their ears pierced with plugs and their foreheads sloped as infants to signify their stature.  There were no human sacrifices at Monte Alban, according to our knowledgeable guide Pablo Gutierrez Marsh, only the offering of animals.

According to the Zapotec calendar, each day begins at noon.  The writing system is pictographic and has not yet been deciphered.  The plaza, which could hold 13,000 people, is flanked by two tall pyramids that visitors are allowed to climb.  They each lead to a high plaza where you can get a 360 degree view of the Oaxaca valley below.


During the Monte Alban I and Monte Alban II periods, farmers lived below and provided food for the ruling class who lived on the high terraces.  Ornamented pottery vessels were crafted in the village of Atzompa at the foot of Monte Alban.  Ceramics are still made there today.

I managed to climb the steep steps to the top of both temples flanking each end of the plaza.  At the top, humans appeared as if in miniature and the magnificence of place was astounding.  At the time when Monte Alban was first inhabited and construction began, around 700 A.D., there were no wheels or draught animals here. Only human labor carried huge slabs of stone up the mountain from the valley below.  Our group spent over two hours here capturing a sense of place.  The day was clear, sunny and brisk.  Perfect for climbing and walking.  I was on top of the world and so were our workshop participants!

Pablo, Deanna, Carey, June and Carole at Monte Alban

Oaxaca and Family Travel

A reader just wrote to me with the following questions: Is Oaxaca safe for families? and What do we do once we get there?

I think you will find Oaxaca a very welcoming place for families.  A friend, her husband and two pre-teens lived in Oaxaca for a year “on sabbatical” to have a different cultural experience and learn the language.  A colleague of mine at UNC Chapel Hill who is a cancer researcher returned from Oaxaca over the winter holidays where she went for two weeks with her husband and high school-aged daughter.  Another reader just spent several weeks in Mexico with his family, starting in Mexico City, visiting Puebla and Oaxaca, and staying in Teotitlan del Valle.  We see families in Oaxaca all the time.  Of course, the caveat is that it is important to be mindful of your surroundings where ever one travels; the same precautions you take for Europe apply to Oaxaca.

Off the top of my head, there are many things for children to do and enjoy in Oaxaca:

  1. The Ethnobotanical Gardens
  2. The archeological sites of Monte Alban and Mitla — climbing the pyramids
  3. The Museo Textil de Oaxaca (the textile museum)
  4. A stay in the family-friendly village of Teotitlan del Valle to hike, learn about weaving and take a cooking class with Reyna Mendoza Ruiz
  5. The hubbub of market days; nothing beats popping a crispy chapuline in your mouth!  Fried, spicy grasshoppers never tasted so good.
  6. Cooking classes for kids with Pilar Cabrera at Casa de los Sabores Cooking School and Bed & Breakfast
  7. Francisco Toledo kites at IAGO and a visit to the paper-making studio in San Augustin Etla
  8. The sights and sounds of street vendors and musicians
  9. A steaming, frothy cup of Oaxacan hot chocolate at a sidewalk cafe on the Zocalo

Plus lots more.  A feature was written in the last year or two about the most family-friend places to visit and Oaxaca came to the top of the list.  I don’t have the link but you could research that.  I wrote about it on my website.

The textile museum offers regular workshops for children and for parents and children together.  You could take a weaving workshop together in Teotitlan del Valle and learn about natural dyes.  There is also an English speaking Spanish tutor in Teotitlan that I can refer you to, if you wanted to spent a few days out there at Las Granadas in the tranquility of the Oaxaca countryside.  Las Granadas is a family owned and operated bed and breakfast, with two pre-teen boys!

All in all, I think you and your family would love it.


Readers:  Do you have any other suggestions for family travel and fun in Oaxaca?


Byron Howes’ Oaxaca Day of the Dead Photos 2010

I’m giving you a link to some fantastic photos shot by Byron Howes who participated in our Oaxaca Day of the Photography Expedition 2010.  You’ll see that we covered a huge amount of territory in a very short (6 day) period.  We kept on our toes as we traveled the city by foot, went to the Abastos Market, Monte Alban, then the Xoxocotlan Cemetery (viejo y nuevo) all in one day, and ate really well!  Byron asks that you credit him if you use his photos.  Saludos, Norma


Oaxaca Community Museums Are Source of Pride, Attempt to Stem Tide of Outmigration

My friend Bruce lives in Baja, California (Mexico).  We are carrying on a correspondence about safety, Oaxaca sights and sounds, and life as gringos in Mexico.  He recently sent me the article written below and asked me to comment on it.  Here is what I wrote back to him: “Thank you for sending me the article about Santiago Matatlan and the Field Museum of Natural History excavations there in 2004.  I began going to Teotitlan del Valle in 2005 and was not aware of the archeological program in Matatlan, although I have been to that village several times to see the ancient tradition of handmade mescal harvesting and fermentation.  The church there is very beautiful.  Teotitlan has a community museum and archeologists worked there in the 70’s and 80’s to excavate the base of the church to discover orginal Zapotec stone carvings.  (American and European archaeologists and cultural anthropologists have been in the region for a long time.) There is a movement to create community museums throughout Oaxaca, since there is so much history there. ”  The community museum in Teotitlan is operated and staffed by a committee of volunteers.  Since this is a communitarium endeavor, the group decides what is exhibited and what related activities deserve investment.  I imagine it is the same for Matatlan.  I have been the the Field Museum in Chicago where there is an extensive permanent exhibit on the Zapotec civilization at Monte Alban.  It is considered one of the finest examples of mesoamerican political organizational structure.  The article below is well worth a read, an important review of how small villages in the Oaxaca valley depend upon tourism to bolster their agrarian economy.  The difficulty for most villages in the Tlacolula valley is that people rarely venture into the villages, and only stop along the convenient highway shops where tour buses can easily enter and exit.  This cuts off the majority of people from benefiting from the tourist dollar.  And, this article was written pre-2006, when Oaxaca erupted in protest against a restrictive local government.  I will see if Matatlan was able to complete its museum and generate tourist interest on my next visit.  Saludos, Norma

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****Now for the article:

Artifacts are a field of dreams for a remote Mexican village

Residents have the support of a Field Museum Team to put them on the beaten path for tourism cash by exhibiting 6th Century relics

By Hugh Dellios

Tribune foreign correspondent

Published October 3, 2004

SANTIAGO MATATLAN, Mexico – The ancestors on the hill left no written record. Until a team of Chicago archaeologists came, nobody really thought much about them. And, strangely, some of the urns they left behind showed supernatural figures with two left hands. Nevertheless, this small village hopes a connection with the 6th Century Zapotec community on the nearby hilltop will help preserve their 21st Century future, or at least keep some of the teenagers from leaving for Los Angeles.

With the help of a Field Museum team, a group of energetic young men is trying to set up a small community museum to exhibit the ancient Zapotec artifacts dug up by the archaeologists. The main objective is to honor and preserve the area’s history. But the group also wants to put the village back on the tourism map so more jobs are created and fewer young people are forced to look for a life elsewhere.

Known locally as “The World Capital of Mescal,” a tequila-like beverage, this village faces the same stagnant fate as other rural pueblos across Mexico and the situation could get worse when a new highway, diverting the few visitors the town gets now, is completed

The site’s promoters faced tough questioning last spring about the archaeologists’ permits and intentions. Although eventually approved, the approval process gave the Field Museum team a fascinating window into how decisions are made in a traditional Mexican village.

Monument to the future

“This museum is so people don’t forget us,” said Abel Lopez, a mescal factory owner working on the project. “It will be an attractive place for people to visit before they disappear down the road.”

Whereas Santiago Matatlán has an official population of 4,000 residents only about 2,500 people actually live in the village. The rest of them are working in the United States.

“Those who have been to the states start talking about Sunset Boulevard and Venice Beach, and the young people start getting antsy. They say, `I’ve got to see it!'” said Ambrosio Escobar, head of the museum committee, who once worked illegally on a fishing boat in Alaska.

For many years, the village survived by harvesting agave to make mescal, which was shipped to nearby Oaxaca or sold to visitors along the highway. But now others have stolen much of that market, and only about 10 small, horse-powered mescal factories remain.

Oaxaca, 45 minutes away by car, is rich with tourists. And guidebooks already promote a tourist circuit that passes near Santiago Matatlán, including the well-known Zapotec ruins at Mitla, the carpet-making village of Teotitlán, a giant, 2,000-year-old tree at Tule and sulfur springs at Hierve de Agua.

“The museum is for the people who don’t want to leave,” said Mario Santiago Nolasco, 24, one of the young men who call themselves the village’s “culture promoters.” “People are bombarded with so much from outside these days. This is to preserve what is ours.”

The archaeologists, led by Gary Feinman, chairman of the Field Museum’s anthropology department, have been excavating at El Palmillo hill since 1997. The team is researching the terraced homes of Zapotec commoners for clues to the structure and demise of the empire that dominated the Oaxaca Valley 1,300 to 1,500 years ago.

Among their finds are skeletons, pots and beads from a tomb, urns showing the Zapotec deity-like figure Cocijo and a hollowed-out rabbit bone that may have served as a beverage straw or snuff tube. All of it is stored in cardboard boxes at the village hall.

“I think the best pieces are display quality,” said Feinman who said the museum also could show the excavating techniques and the long history of agave use. “Even though it would be undoubtedly small, we can do something you don’t normally see in museums.”

Asked about the two left hands on depictions of Cocijo, Feinman said the answer to the mystery might not be so dramatic. “They just lost the mold for the right hand?” he said. “I could be wrong.”

Part of a national effort

The young men promoting the museum plan say their interest also stems from stories their grandparents told them about the hill and the ancient people who lived there. In one myth, the hill was a temple above a great emptiness where a giant snake lived.

The Mexican National Institute of Archaeology and History seeks the establishment of local museums. It has supported Santiago Matatlán’s project, which would be among at least 15 similar programs in Oaxaca state.

Feinman and his wife, Linda Nicholas, an adjunct curator at the Field Museum, helped present the museum proposal at two town hall-like hearings last spring. They were met with suspicions about outsiders and a grilling over what they might be up to on the hill.

The “culture promoters” and community leaders helped lay those suspicions to rest. Ultimately, the project was approved by a show of hands among the several hundred in attendance. The promoters were given a 19-page permit, which some of those assembled “signed” with thumbprints.

“The former village leaders never told his people that [Feinman] was up there excavating. They didn’t know what he was doing,” Escobar said. “The community is totally in agreement now.” Still, the project hasn’t cleared its last hurdle. The museum committee was told it could use a municipal storehouse for the exhibition, but committee members say they will need about $10,000 to repair the leaky roof and the walls.

The village administrator was recently replaced; his successor is not as interested in the museum project. And yet to be known is the opinion of a new mayor who should be elected in December to fill a seat that has been empty because of a decade-long spat among the village’s principal families and factions.

“Matatlán has a lot of history,” said Gregorio Hernandez, 33, another promoter, “and we’re going to rescue it.”

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune