Caves of Yagul and Mitla
The Prehistoric caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca are archaeological sites associated with the Zapotec civilization and much earlier primitive farmers.
The area was the "birthplace" of the domestication of plants in North America.
The designated area includes Guilá Naquitz, a small cave which was occupied at least six times between 8000 and 6500 BC, by hunters and gatherers. A wide range of plant food was recovered within the cave deposits, including acorn, pinyon, cactus fruits, hackberries, and most importantly, the wild forms of bottle gourd, squash and beans.
Map of Caves of Yagul and MitlaLoad map
I visited this WHS in December 2021. Getting there and back to Oaxaca is quite straightforward, unless there are some of the recurring demonstrations blocking off the roads to and from Oaxaca. There are a couple of pueblo magicos famous mostly for pottery on the way to Yagul.
Two main "panels" of the Yagul Caves are visible from the highway (just a few metres away from a huge stone sign welcoming you to the Yagul Archaeological Site which is about 500 meters further up a side street with mezcal fields in a lovely hilly landscape also declared as a national natural monument. These panels were most probably once cave walls above a cliff but the rest of these caves collapsed being made up of brittle sandstone and earthquakes being a frequent phenomenon here (felt a minor one when we visited!). Access to the cliff with these panels and other caves is blocked off by a rotten wooden gate which would be opened by a registered guide if you really want to head closer to the prehistoric caves (at your own risk since everything seems to be crumbling down!). There is also a raised platform to view the two panels but you would only be seeing what is already visible from the road from a little bit closer. Bring binoculars or a good zoom lens with you and you will still manage to get the gist of this rather poor WHS. Further left to the panel with a white stick figure, you might (depending on the sunlight) be able to spot another panel with what look like cattle and primitive crops like the ones found as deposits on the cave floors, which is supposed to be the basis of this WHS's OUV, namely the "birthplace" (recently retracted as earlier sites have been found elsewhere!) of the domestication of plants in North America by primitive farmers and hunter gatherings.
Strangely (or luckily), the Yagul Archaeological Site associated with the later Zapotec civilization is also included in this WHS. The juego de pelota court is in good unlike the yellow labyrinth of walls (with a few red linear stucco decorations left towards the heart of the labyrinth) which once was the Palace of Six Patios. There is a huge animal head statue near the sealed off entrance to some underground tombs. There's also a small structure with what looks like the Puuc style. The best place to appreciate the Yagul archaeological site, the caves and panels in the distance, and the surrounding natural scenery is surely from the El Fortaleza lookout point which is well worth the short climb.
Time of visit: November 2021
Duration of visit: 2 hours
Mode of transportation: by rental car, from Oaxaca
Review and experience
I'm really conflicted on how to actually review this site. For context, I visited the Yagul Archaeology Site. As several have noted below, I appreciated visiting a minor site and being one of the only visitors during my time there. As an archaeology enthusiast, I always love sites where visitors can get up close and personal without the disturbance of a large crowd. However, if Yagul were a standalone site, I would've felt that it is rather insignificant, because while the particular site has been occupied from 500 BC, majority of the structure visible was built in the Late Postclassical era (right before European contact) - so for its recency and the abundance of archaeological sites in Mexico, it's not particularly unique or impressive.
Logistically, the site was very easy to access. It's clearly labeled on Google Maps with easy to read road signs. There is a paved straight road from the main highway to access the site itself. However, the naming of this WHS is confusing, as I at first confused the more visited Mitla Archaeology Site! Oops...
Now the conflict, and why I'm giving it a higher rating. I think the caves are hugely important from a world heritage perspective. They provide evidence for the earliest known domestication of corn (maize), along with other several crops. Agriculture is the foundation of city-states, so arguably this evidence is the foundation of all the impressive pyramids that are around Central America. Likewise, corn is so important to the indigenous people here (historically and today), and so important to humanity all around the world today. I really wish the caves could be more accessible! That said, I don't understand why the Yagul Archaeology Site is part of this WHS, as it's completely separate from the caves and doesn't really add to Criterion (iii) - the only qualifying criterion for this WHS. Perhaps it's included as the "to more settled communities..." part of the phrase, but that feels like a weak and forced link, and many other archaeology sites nearby would suffice.
This WHS is already well reviewed by the first three reviewers and my visit was quite similar to that of Carlo and Nan. I will try to provide complementary information from my visit.
Like Carlo, me and my friend only visited the archeological zone of Yagul, and we were about the only visitors there. We started with La Fortaleza and enjoyed the nice view over the ruins, the surrounding mountains and agricultural fields around. You can see the little tableland-ish mountain where most caves are located. We then visited the ruins themselves. Many sings are within the site with plenty of information and make visiting by yourself quite easy. You can get into some old tombs, which is quite cool. El palacio de los seis patios and el juego de pelota remain the most impressive constructions there.
Getting there was not as straight forward and easy as stated by Nan in his review. Our plan for that day was to visit most sites in the Central Valley from Oaxaca, starting with El Tule and then moving to Yagul, Mitla and maybe Hierve el Agua. When we arrived where we've been told to take the collectivo for El Tule, most streets were closed and policemen where everywhere. We've heard that "pacific" protest happened the day before and that people died. So they were trying to control the traffic as much as possible and avoid other events. With the help of other tourists and policemen, we finally found the only street where cars, buses and collectivos were passing. But they were all full. We finally found a bus to the city of Yagul and from there took an overpriced cab to the ruins. Walking to the main road and finding a cab to Mitla was much more easy. I don't know either why Lonely Planet have a warning for this road. From there we spotted the rock art on the cliff (picture). The rest of the day went more smoothly with Mitla (way better than I expected!) and Hierve el Agua (really cool as well). We did El Tule on another day as it is really close to Oaxaca. I recommend visiting all these sites if you can manage that long day of uncomfortable buses and shared cabs.
I really share Carlo's feeling about having a great time at a minor site. The ruins are interesting, the landscape is beautiful, we were almost alone, the weather was perfect. Yagul is a nice site among other prehispanic WHS of Mexico.
Have you ever had that feeling when you didn't expect much from a "minor" site but for some reason, your experience visiting it was fun and satisfying? I would count visiting Zona Arqueologica de Yagul--which is part of the core zone of this WHS--as such.
Date of Visit: April 2019
As indicated in its Executive Summary, the site contains pre-historic caves and rock shelters and a couple of pre-Hispanic archeological complexes, one of which is the archeological site of Yagul, commonly associated with the Zapotec civilization. The nomination text adds that this cultural landscape represents the interaction between "man and nature that gave origin to the domestication of plants...allowing the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations." This kinda reminds me of one of the justifications/aspects of Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Valley WHS.
Indeed, if you haven't checked the map or the nomination file, you could probably make a mistake of thinking that you've ticked this one off by visiting the more popular archeological site of Mitla (which people said was excellent!).
My buddy and I drove to this site as a half-day trip from the city of Oaxaca on Holy Thursday, chancing that it would be open during this important Catholic holiday. Getting there from Oaxaca is pretty straightforward, and the 40-minute drive through Hwy 190 is smooth despite the occasional pesky topes. For those taking public transportation, Lonely Planet says that there are buses that ply between Oaxaca and the town of Mitla, passing by the turnoff that leads to this site.
Sources indicate that the site opens at 8am and closes at 5pm. We left our hotel at 7.40am. Halfway through the journey I thought that I'd be very disappointed if the site was closed. Indeed, I got a little bit worried when we saw a closed gate as we approached the site. Right at the moment however, an old lady emerged out of a tricycle to open the gate. We were the first to visit the site and indeed the only people! I couldn't be any happier!
The lady who opened the gate happened to be the ticket seller as well. Her initial snobby countenance made me feel that she dreaded working on a holiday, but she turned out to be a sweet lady happy to sell us the first tickets of the day.
We checked the map and thought that the site was really compact and manageable to visit. We went straight to Patio 4, a quadrangle with a low square platform at the centre, which was considered a shrine. I went on to check the ball court (Juegos de Pelota). I spent some time here taking photos as I was not able to do so when I was in Xochicalco. After some time I went up to Palacios de los 6 patios, which was probably the highlight of this Zapotec site. Looking from atop of a mound right next to it, the Palacios delos 6 patios looked like a maze, with narrow passageways and several rooms of different sizes. The structure was thought to have dual function--as a residential area and as an administrative center.
My buddy and I then went up a hill that led to La Fortaleza. Experts thought that it was used as a refuge during military attacks. The tourist in me thought that it was a good vantage point for picnics while enjoying the surrounding landscape.
After dozens of photos, my buddy and I went down to the parking lot and realized that no other visitor had arrived. You guys have no idea how we thoroughly enjoyed being the only visitors there. No crowd + small site + early morning breeze = fun and satisfying visit!
The ICOMOS evaluation indicates that its basis for inscription (criterion 3) focuses primarily on the prehistoric caves (eg Guila Naquitz, Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih), which could be hard to visit unless you are on a specialty tour. However, I would say that visiting the Zona Arcqueologica de Yagul alone would satisfy this justification, although it is obviously not as grand or as impressive as the other pre-Hispanic sites in Mexico. Anyway, I am just happy to have a fun experience visiting this site, and having the caves inaccessible to most travellers is definitely ok with me.
All information about the site was retrieved from the site's UNESCO page, ICOMOS evaluation and the nomination file written by Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (2009).
This was a near miss for me. Given the title (... Mitla ...) and a wikipedia entry which at the time also listed Mitla as part of the WHS I decided to go to Mitla. Only after I had visited the site I decided to read the review on this site by Anthony. He pretty clearly states, that Mitla is not part of the site. I crosschecked with Unesco and found he was right... Luckily, Yagul is on the road between Oaxaca and Mitla and I was able to correct my error by going there.
The key feature that made this a WHS is the continuous settlement since very early times and the early cultivation of crops. There are several caves, which show this best. As I had little time, I only visited Yagul. It's a small sight with a distinct feel. I enjoyed climbing the hills around Yagul and the overall view of the valley and the mountains.
To go to Yagul, you best take a colectivo from Oaxaca. Near Periferico, ask around and they will point you to a shared cab (less than 50 pesos). The cab will drop you off at the intersection for Yagul and you have a 15min walk ahead of you. Please note, that Lonely Planet has a travel warning for this side road. Not sure why though.
To get back, head back to the highway and make wild signals, till a cab picks you up.
The plaque is found near the entry to Yagul.
While You Are There
Other sights when in the area (i.e. along the highway from Oaxaca):
This site is certainly confusing. When you look at Yagul and Mitla either in the guidebooks or on line, the descriptions are that these are two pre-hispanic sites occupied first by the Zapotecs and later by the Mixtecs from as early as 500BC and declined after Monte Alban and abandoned after the Spanish arrival. Both sites are in the Tlacolula Valley south of Oaxaca.
There is little to see in Yagul but Mitla claims some really nice mosaic works on the walls of the palace. Some of the frieze are made up of over 100,000 separate pieces of cut stones. In fact, the church that was built on the site uses a lot of the Mitla mosaic works and the walls are the original walls from Mitla. The picture on this page comes from the palace walls in Mitla.
The problem is that the description of this site on the UNESCO web page hardly mentions these two pre-hispanic archaeological sites other than in passing. The criteria for this site are the caves in which a lot of work has been done to establish that these caves had evidence of the first domestication of corn and other crops on the continent and therefore the beginning of transformation from nomads to building cities in MesoAmerica.
It could also be that Mexico had a lot of pre-Hispanic sites already and to get this site they emphasized the pre-historic part of it.
The problem is now to determine what are the boundaries of this site. If you go to the UNESCO site and downloaded the map, you will find that the core and buffer zone lies south of the town of Tlacolula and north of Mitla on the east of the highway 190. The archaeological site of Yagul is in the core zone but the archaeological site of Mitla is neither in the core or buffer zone as it is in the middle of Mitla town center. So if you visited just Mitla, you missed this one.
The next problem is how to visit any of the caves. There are no information available on line and it is a challenge to get any relevant information at all. After asking around, I located a guide from the town of Tlacolula who specializes in the cave tours who spoke excellent English and so we set off. We decided to concentrate on the Cabalito Blanca Mesa as it seems to have the best concentration of caves. The first stop was to view prehistoric art of a candelabra cactus 3m high 20m up the cliff side. Very nice and this can be seen from the highway if you know where to look.
Then we climbed the mesa and walked among the agave plants and saw the remains of a Zapotec observatory similar to the one at Monte Alban pointing towards the sunset in the valley. After climbing back down to the valley, we started approaching the caves. The caves are in a row half way up from the valley. The valley used to be a lake and so it makes sense for the shelter to be on higher ground. The problem is that there are no paths up to the caves and they are about 20m up. The vegetation is shoulder high of cactus, thorny shrubs and dried grass. We had to just push our way through and it was not long before my arms were bleeding from the cuts and the cactus thorns were all over your legs and clothes.
The caves are interesting in that they are deep overhangs on the cliff side and the roofs are black from soot from fires in the past. The floors are sandy and I believe that is where they found the evidence of crops from pre-history. The view from the caves to the valley floor is spectacular.
However after the third cave, I said enough as the going was much tougher than expected, so we came down. None of the caves are fenced and I assume that the vegetation is a natural protection. You can also only do this doing the dry season as it gets very muddy in the wet season.
After we got back to our hotel, my wife and I spent the next hour pulling thorns from our hands and legs.
- Ceezmad :
- Randi Thomsen David Aaronson & Melanie Stowell Dftgm Thomas Kunz :
- Alberto Rodriguez Gutierrez Alessandro Votta Nan Larry F :
- Francky D'Hoop Alexander Barabanov Carlos Sotelo Carlo Sarion Frédéric M :
- Shandos Cleaver Stanislaw Warwas Zoë Sheng Caspar Dechmann :
- Els Slots Clyde Alexander Lehmann :
- Wojciech Fedoruk :
- Janis :
2010 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS advised Referral to "Define a much smaller area etc"
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