One of the awesome things about Mexico is that there really isn’t a shortage of pyramids. While backpacking solo through the central-ish part of the country, I saw some in Mexico City, Cholula, and in Oaxaca. They’re all remarkable for different reasons – I liked Monte Albán of Oaxaca because it was pretty much fully excavated (compared to the one in Cholula) but not overwhelming huge (compared to the one near Mexico City). Between these three sites, Monte Albán was pretty much my Goldilocks moment.
Monte Albán (which means White Mountain) can be visited as a morning or afternoon day trip as it is only 9km outside of Oaxaca City, the state capital of Oaxaca. Considered to be the most important archaeological site in Oaxaca, Monte Albán is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was founded about 500 BC by the Zapotec people, making it one of the earliest Mesoamerica cities. To put into perspective, this was around the time when the Roman Empire ditched the monarchy became a Republic, Buddha was probably doing his teaching, and the area now known as Uganda became populated.
Monte Albán had a long history, being a political stronghold until about 750 A.D., which is about when it was pretty much abandoned. It had been a fairly large city, holding up to about 30,000 inhabitants. What life in Monte Albán would have been takes a little bit of imagination as you wander around but some things you can figure out. For example, the temples and ceremonial structures demonstrate how religion was foremost in people’s lives and ball courts indicate that sport was important. There are also a number of carved stones scattered throughout the site called Danzantes (which means dancers). These dancers show naked figures “dancing” – at least that’s what you think until you’re disabused of that notion by your guide or guidebook. They’re actually depicting prisoners of war sacrifices. Joy.
Wandering the grounds and climbing the pyramids also gives you an opportunity to admire the Oaxaca Valley. The city is located on top of a mountain so the views can be expansive and spectacular. You can see the plains, the hills and mountains, and the sprawling Oaxaca City below.
While Monte Albán is not really a flashy place to visit, those who appreciate history, architecture, and/or vistas will definitely enjoy a visit to this place. Though if you are a true history buff, I suggest not visiting the site with a group as tours don’t tend to allow for enough time to visit the little onsite museum. However, some of the discoveries are showcased at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City so if you miss the Monte Albán museum, all is not lost.