What to see in Mexico
Tourist attractions Monte Alban
Situated in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, Monte Alban is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. A living memory of the ingenious architecture of the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures, visiting Monte Alban is the chance to delve deeper into Mesoamerican history and admire some pretty incredible ancient ruins.
Construction on the site is thought to have begun around the 8th century BCE and for almost 1,000 years Monte Alban was a centre of Zapotec politics, society and culture. The location was most probably selected due to its easily-defensible position, at almost 2,000 metres above sea level. At its peak, Monte Alban was the centre of a Mesoamerican civilisation which dominated much of the Oaxacan highlands, interacting with other communities far and wide across the country. Most notably, the architectural styles evident at Monte Alban suggest they were in close contact with the Teotihuacan community. At its peak, the city would have housed around 35,000 people before it was abandoned around 800 CE. Later, the Mixtec people rediscovered the city and used it as a sacred burial site, further adding to the intrigue if you travel to Monte Alban.
A trip to Monte Alban is a highlight for anyone with an interest in the cultures and civilisations that shaped early Mesoamerica. The architecture here includes stone pyramids, staircases and temples, and the layout of the site reveals much about Zapotec society. The existence of a large number of high walls indicates that the city may have been divided into different areas, suggesting a social-stratification system. Furthermore, the remote location points to the idea that the society that once inhabited this city was keen to protect their community from outsiders.
Visiting Monte Alban from Oaxaca is a popular day trip option. Only 10-kilometres from the state capital, Monte Alban is easily reached by guided tour, public transport or shuttle bus.
Things to see at Monte Alban
A good starting point for a tour of Monte Alban is the on-site museum. If you’re a newbie to Mesoamerican culture, this is a good chance to gain an overview of the period and learn the basics of Zapotec civilisation before exploring the ruins for yourself. Once you’ve paid a visit to the museum, leave at least a couple of hours to fully explore the incredible structures and architecture of Monte Alban.
At the heart of the city is the Main Plaza, one of the best things to see in Monte Alban. Measuring approximately 300 metres by 200 metres, this central square would have been one of the most important places in the city. Around its edges are structures thought to be the houses of elite residents, whilst the square itself is home to a large number of carved stone monuments. This would have been the location where civic events, celebrations and ceremonies took place.
Of course, like any great Mesoamerican city, Monte Alban is home to a ballcourt. The specifics of this traditional game are largely unknown, but the ballcourt at Monte Alban is much narrower than those found at other ancient sites. Nevertheless, it is a sight not to be missed if you visit Monte Alban.
One of the more unusual things to see at Monte Alban is its carved monuments. Known as ‘Danzantes’, more than 300 of these were discovered within the site. The stone slabs, carved with figures of contorted men, are thought to represent sacrificial victims, highlighting the importance of the Zapotec rituals of sacrifice during this period.
Finally, to learn more about the belief systems of early Mesoamerica, be sure to pay a visit to the ruins of the Observatory. Just like the Maya, the Zapotecs were interested in astronomy, a useful tool for predicting the seasons and rainfall. Standing in the centre of the Main Plaza, it goes to highlight the importance and high status of astronomy in the daily lives of the Zapotecs.