Along the Pan American Highway from Oaxaca City to Mitla and Hierve El Agua, two popular tourist destinations, lies the seldom visited Yagul archeological site. We know that as the taxis, cars, and vans pass, a guide might point to a faint cave painting on the cliff wall as testimony to an ancient Zapotec group that lived here. Don’t blink. You might miss it.
You can see the restoration of this site from the highway. Tucked into the hillside is the outline of a once proud city-state fortress guarding the trade route between Central America and what is now the southwest USA. The ochre colors of the plastered stone walls stand out against the desert landscape and hills beyond. This is not a large site, and it does not have the attraction of neighboring Mitla that boasts extraordinary carvings in ancient stone. It is not as impressive at Monte Alban, the vast city atop the hill outside Oaxaca city, center of Zapotec power noted by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, as the most important city-state in Mesoamerica.
We take the Esprit Travel + Tours group there with special guide Eric Ramirez from Zapotrek. We drive on a dirt road to detour the main entrance and arrive at the foot of the cliffs to get a closer view of the glyphs painted on the face of a stone wall. A few years ago, during an earthquake, the wall face sheered off, exposing a painting in what was once inside a cave.
Eric, who grew up in nearby Tlacolula, and whose ancestors have been farming the land for centuries, tells us that the agricultural crop of agave to make mezcal is changing the landscape and the environment. So many growers are now using herbicides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers. This is changing the quality of the soil and prohibits anything else from growing. It is even having an impact on locally grown non-GMO corn. The explosion of the mezcal culture in Oaxaca is having a negative impact on traditional crops — the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash. It used to be that the bean and squash plants would wrap their tendrils around the agave leaves and replenishes the soil with nitrogen.
This is a key reason why so many of us take issue with mezcal tourism, which promotes drinking and overall does not educate visitors about the related environmental impact. I am now meeting the party generation in Oaxaca who fly in for four or five days with little interest in cultural history, archeology or artisan craft. How can we influence this for the better?
An important fact to note: Yagul is the mother source for the hybridization of corn, beans and squash. A World Heritage Site, geneticists have tested seeds found in the caves and determined they are at least 10,000 years old. This site is key to the development and distribution of this essential protein-carbohydrate source of food energy around the world.
This is a photo essay of our experience at Yagul. I hope you will consider making a stop there. I know you will not be disappointed.
Yagul Archeological Site: Oaxaca’s Hidden Treasure
Yagul is one of those magical places in Oaxaca that not many people visit. When I first went there in 2005, it was mostly rubble, secreted away up a hill beyond Tlacolula, on the way to Mitla. Access was (and still is) a narrow, cracked, pot-holed macadam pavement.
Stunning view of the Tlacolula valley and beyond
In those intervening years, there has been progressive archeological restoration, with good signage, uncovered tombs, and vistas of the Tlacolula valley that are unparalleled.
Over the rock wall, the valley below
I guess I love this site most because of the caves where the remnants of early corn (maize) was carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago. It tells the story of human kind in Mesoamerica, the resourceful people who developed the edible kernel from teosintle.
Yagul has a ball court, too. About the same size as Monte Alban.
There are cave paintings here, but they are not open to the public. One can only enter by arrangement with INAH and go accompanied with an archeologist.
How old is this cactus? Others, the size of trees, dot hillsides.
I also love it because of the peace, tranquility, the wind on the mountain top, the open spaces with extraordinary views, the ability to walk and climb unfettered by masses of visitors piling out of tour vans, unbothered by vendors selling replicates and fake jewelry.
Judy and Gail descend from the highest platform
Climb to the top of the mountain to discover another tomb. Imagine that you are standing sentry, guarding the trade route between north and south, protecting your Zapotec territory. Once a foot path, the road is now called the Pan-American Highway.
A recently uncovered passageway beneath a mound
Yagul is only about seven miles from where I live. I take friends there who come and visit. In June, Judy and Gail went with me. As I roamed the land, I realized that there has been more unearthed there in recent months: Two entry ways at the top of one of the mounds.
Where recent dig uncovered an entrance
There are lots of mounds in this valley. Most of them are said to be archeological sites waiting to be unearthed. They have been covered for centuries by dirt, rocks, weeds. The Mexican federal government does not have the resources to uncover them all.
Original limestone plaster walls of Yagul
There are a handful of small sites under restoration along this route from Oaxaca to Mitla. Near Macquixochitl is Dainzu, a significant site undergoing restoration.
Wild flowers in rock outcroppings, rainy season
Close to Tlacolula is Lambiteyco with a small museum. When I drive along the road, I see foundations of platforms that could once have been temples.
Courtyard of one of the ancient residences, Yagul
Few stop at these sites. Why? Perhaps because they are not as fully developed as Mitla or Monte Alban. Perhaps because they are not as famous or promoted as heavily. They offer tourists an opportunity to explore and imagine what lies below.
Frog sculpture near the tomb, where you can climb down and enter
Yagul is a great destination for families where most of the area is accessible to walking, hiking and climbing. If you are so inclined, bring a picnic or a snack. Sit under the shade and think about life here centuries ago.
Cactus trunk, woody, strong enough for shelter
It’s worth it to come out here and stay a few days to explore the region — a nice contrast to the city. Stay in Teotitlan del Valle, at either Casa Elena or Las Granadas B&B. Both offer posada-style hospitality at reasonable cost. Hosts can arrange local taxi drivers to take you around to visit the archeological sites.
Taking a break under the shade
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Photography, Teotitlan del Valle, Travel & Tourism
Tagged archeology, Mexico, Oaxaca, Yagul, Zapotecs