The Ancient City of Monte Alban in Oaxaca Mexico
Atop the Rich Culture and Natural Beauty of Oaxaca: Monte Alban
Monte Alban is an ancient city located in the state of Oaxaca, in the southeast of Mexico, considered to be one of the state´s and Mexico´s best preserved archeological sites pertaining to the Zapotec culture.
Even though the Zapotec indigenous people of Mexico aren't as famous as the Mayas or the Aztecs throughout the world, the Zapotec civilization was one of the highly developed cultures of Mesoamerica (region extending from central Mexico to the northern part of Costa Rica) in pre-Columbian times.
Monte Alban is also one of the earliest cities in all Mesoamerica and was erected as the Zapotec capital. Its name, Monte Alban, means “White Mountain”.
Monte Alban stands on a flattened hilltop 400 m above the valley floor, just a few kilometers west of Oaxaca City. Strategic position was doubtless one of the reasons why the ancient Zapotecs chose this particular location for their capital. Thanks to their good vision, Monte Alban is today one of the most impressive archeological compounds in Mexico, not just because of its great architecture, but also because of its spectacular 360 degrees view.
Map of Mexico
Spectacular Views of the Valley and Mountains Surrounding Oaxaca
Monte Alban Grand Plaza
History of Monte Alban
Monte Alban was first occupied around 500 BC, most probably by Zapotecs from the start.
Archeologists divide the history of Monte Alban into five phases:
- The years up to about 200 BC (phase Monte Alban I) saw the leveling of the hilltop, the building of temples and palaces, and the growth of a town of 10,000 or more people on the hillsides. Hieroglyphs and dates in a dot and bar system carved during this era mean that the elite of Monte Alban were the first people to use writing, as well as a written calendar, in Mexico.
- Between 200 BC and AD 300 (Monte Alban II) the city came to dominate more and more of Oaxaca and it grew accordingly.
- The ancient city was at its peak from about 300 to 700 AD (Monte Alban III), when the main and surrounding hills were terraced for dwellings, and the population reached about 25,000 inhabitants. Most of what we see now in Monte Alban dates from this time.
- Between about 700 and 950 AD (Monte Alban IV), the place was abandoned and fell into ruin.
- Phase Monte Alban V (950-1521) saw minimal activity, except that Mixtecs arriving from northwestern Oaxaca reused old Zapotec tombs in Monte Alban to bury their own dignitaries.
Building Blocks of Monte Alban
Details of Monte Alban
Other Cultural Facts of Monte Alban
The ancient city of Monte Alban was the center of a highly organized, priest dominated society, controlling the extensively irrigated central valleys, which held at least 200 other settlements and ceremonial centers.
Many Monte Alban buildings were plastered and painted red. However, no trace of the painting can be seen today. The “talud-tablero “ architecture of its buildings (a stepped building style with alternating vertical and sloping sections) indicates influence from Teotihuacan, the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population of 125,000 inhabitants or more, who´s origin is still debated between the Nahua, Otomi and Totonac ethnic groups.
Nearly 170 underground tombs have been found in Monte Alban, some of them quite elaborate and decorated with frescoes.
The Gran Plaza, about 300m long and 200m wide, was and is the center of Monte Alban. Some of the structures that surround it were temples and others were elite residential quarters. Many of the currently standing structures are now cordoned off to prevent damage by too many visitors.
Big Extension of the Grand Plaza in Monte Alban
Ancient City of Monte Alban Entrance Fee $57 Mexican Pesos (about 4.4 USD).
How to Get From Oaxaca City to Monte Alban
The Hotel Riviera del Angel (Address: Calle Mina #518, between General Díaz Ordaz and Mier y Teran, six blocks southwest of the Zócalo or Central Square ) has a Travel Agency “Autobuses Turísticos” that runs minibuses from the Hotel to Monte Alban, a 20 minute ride that costs $50 Mexican Pesos (round trip).
The minibuses leave from Hotel Riviera del Angel in Oaxaca City to Monte Alban every hour and a half, and go back from Monte Alban to Oaxaca every hour.
Oaxaca´s Unique Atmosphere
Pros & Cons of The Ancient City of Monte Alban, Oaxaca
lovely, green sceneries
not much information about the ancient city is offered
avoid rainy season
to really learn about Monte Alban you have to hire a guide / buy a book
windy (take something to cover up even when it is warm)
expensive and unappealing cafeteria (entrance)
protect yourself from the sun!
clean air and environment
filthy toilets (entrance)
close by to Oaxaca City
easy to get there
special light, great for photography
not crowded at all (week days)
My Rating for Monte Alban is 5 Stars, What´s Yours?
Monte Alban´s Contrasting Vegetation
Visit Mexico Bibliography
Book to read before you travel to Oaxaca, Mexico.
"Mexico", one of the bestselling books by renowned writer James Michener (fiction).
Your travel guide to the ancient city of Monte Alban, Oaxaca and many other places in Mexico (2012 edition).
A regional guide to Oaxaca State, including Oaxaca City and the ancient city of Monte Alban.
The state of Oaxaca has a unique and very authentic atmosphere, highlighted by a well preserved folkloric culture. It is a region that has been relatively isolated from the rest of the country by a set of mountainous barriers that seclude it from its neighboring states. Thanks to its difficult access, communication has been restricted and, as a result, Oaxaca preserves its local traditions and indigenous culture. Furthermore, Oaxaca retains a clean natural environment, clean air and low levels of traffic.
Today, Oaxaca State has an outstanding folk art and crafts scene, very interesting and entertaining traditional festivities, and a local cuisine. Furthermore, Oaxaca has a vibrant artistic community that is currently at the vanguard of Mexican contemporary art.
The capital and cultural/political hub of the state is Oaxaca City, a charming, tranquil and still small colonial conurbation. The city has many things to offer, including world class museums, numerous commercial galleries, markets, some very nice restaurants, free open air Mexican music concerts, surrounding villages, beautiful natural and geographical phenomena (for example Hierve el Agua, a natural set of rock formations that resemble a waterfall) and archeological sites, among which the ancient city of Monte Alban stands out and is a real beauty (a must see if you are visiting the area).
On the other hand, Oaxaca State has an extensive coast line that offers sandy Pacific beaches of many different kinds, from the trendy, more developed beaches like Puerto Escondido with its world class surf scene, to more tranquil, almost empty beaches where it is possible to go camping (for example Chacahua). Zipolite and Mazunte are examples of laid back, bungalow style beach life. The water in Oaxaca´s beaches is fortunately still full of turtles, dolphins and a reasonable fish diversity.