Oaxaca and Monte Alban
The Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán are a 16th century colonial town and a nearby pre-Columbian ceremonial centre.
Oaxaca is a typical Spanish colonial town: with a zocalo (central square), a cathedral and a strict building pattern. It was founded in 1529 and flourished mainly in the 18th century.
Nine kilometers west of Oaxaca lies the old Zapotec site of Monte Alban, dating from BC. Most of what remains now was made from 300-900, during the time about 25.000 people lived here. Tombs, a field for ballgames and several buildings are still in good shape.
Map of Oaxaca and Monte AlbanLoad map
I visited this WHS in December 2021 before and after a very long drive full of hairpins to Oaxaca's far-away beaches. This WHS is practically 2 WHS in 1, yet another colonial town packed with beautiful churches with intricately decorated interiors and another pre-Columbian archaeological site.
Both sites are very enjoyable and we were glad we had allowed some 3-4 days in total even though if pressed for time both can be easily covered in one full day with the Yagul WHS in the late afternoon. Monte Alban is best visited early in the morning not only because of the lighting for photography but also because there is no shade anywhere apart from under a couple of trees and it can get very hot here. We were there quite early, mostly because entrance was limited to a low number of visitors which was monitored already going uphill with a makeshift traffic light. By using public transport, you get to jump all the queing vehicles uphill, at least during COVID restriction times. Another important reason to wake up early was to beat any protestors blocking all the main roads and literally trapping anyone inside the city, which seems to be quite a recurring problem here.
Practically we were among the very first visitors and having printed a small map beforehand, we headed straight towards the Main Plaza to enjoy the panoramic views from the North and South Platforms void of people. The most striking building was the "pyramid-like" structure of the West Platform. Then we focused on the stelae (most of which are replicas apart from some of the "dancers"; although we had already seen plenty of originals in the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City), as well as the scattered stone carvings. Monte Alban's OUV lies in its importance for nearly one thousand years as the main Zapotec socio-political and economic center.
In Oaxaca City, definitely do not miss the over-the-top interior of the Santo Domingo de Guzman Church at the Alameda de Leon plaza and the adjacent large Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. Other churches worth mentioning are the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, the Oaxaca Cathedral, and the Compania de Jesus Church. Two interesting monasteries or former convents actually are the Santa Catalina de Siena monastery and the former Convent of Cuilapam de Guerrero. I'm not usually a big fan, but the several handicraft shops and boutiques here had some very unique stuff so we stocked up our souvenirs mostly from here. There are two UNESCO plaques, one in the Alameda de Leon plaza in Oaxaca City and the other just a few steps after the Monte Alban entrance or exit.
All in all I really enjoyed both locations and I'm glad I had skipped visiting during my first trip to Mexico as it would have probably paled after Calakmul, Palenque and Tikal. By the way, another useful tip to keep in mind if you're not an insectivore is that "chapulines" means grasshoppers as they're considered as a delicacy here more than in other places around Mexico!
Oaxaca, the capital and largest city of the eponymous state, has a remarkable colonial centre. I spent six days in this region in March 2019, often using the city as a base camp for excursions to the surrounding area.
The colonial centre is noteworthy for its rectilinear urban plan and massive cantera stone architecture. The Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución), one of the few tree-lined areas in the centre, is particularly lively and very pleasant. It is bordered to the north by the gigantic Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca. The current building, dating from 1733, has a stunning Baroque façade, but a rather banal interior. A little to the north on the pedestrian Calle Macedonio Alcalá, lies the breathtaking Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, one of the most beautiful churches I have visited in Mexico (photo). Exuberant bas-reliefs cover the walls and ceilings, notably illustrating the Dominican family tree. It is a true Baroque masterpiece. The last remarkable church, located west of the Zócalo on Avenida de la Independencia, is worth a visit. The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, completed in 1690, is also in Baroque style.
I used the next four days to visit the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley and the Prehistoric caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca. I opted for an ecotourism company based in Oaxaca for the first one, whereas the Central Valley is easy to visit on your own. We not only strolled through Yagul, but also visited Mitla and Hierve el Agua. A diversion to the Árbol del Tule occupied our last afternoon, after an early morning visit to Monte Albán.
This important Zapotec archaeological site is the centrepiece of this WHS. It is located just a few minutes from the centre of Oaxaca, on the top of a flattened hill. The Mesoamerican peoples demonstrated their mastery of urban planning, civil engineering and military engineering on many of their ruins, but few evoke their greatness as much as Monte Albán. The fact that the mountain on which the city is situated was artificially levelled to allow its construction is very impressive. All the more so as this location offered a 360-degree view of the surrounding valleys, making its defence easy and its capture by the enemy unlikely. The site features a ball game and countless pyramids and platforms (although they are smaller in size than those of other sites). The condition and state of conservation of most of the structures appeared to me to be excellent, notably by the presence of decorative elements and bas-reliefs. The Plataformas Norte and Sur, on both sides of the Gran Plaza, offer the best perspectives on the extent of these ruins.
Logistically, Oaxaca is a practical stopover between Mexico City and San Christobal de las Casas and Chiapas. Connections also exist from Puebla, where I came from. Although there is no WHS there, the city is also the gateway to the state's coast, its mountains and natural parks and the seaside resorts on the Pacific. Autobuses Turísticos (Mina 501) provides frequent service for Monte Albán from Oaxaca.
After living in Oaxaca's city center for six months, I can without a doubt recommend the food, culture, and history of this region to any traveler heading to the region. Oaxaca itself has a long history, but is once again reinventing itself as the center of Mexico's most exciting culinary foodie scene. It was already considered the birthplace of some of Mexico's most iconic dishes (seven different types of mole being among them), and now this Spanish colonial town has fascinating fusion dishes, alongside a mezcal tourism industry that makes it a hit with those who not only love history, but food tourism as well.
Outside of the tightly packed downtown, where I loved the sheer number of boutiques and restaurants, is Monte Alban. It's incredibly convenient to the city (a mere 20 minutes by bus that leaves near the Zocolo), and offers sweeping views of the region.
As a site of ruins, Monte Alban is nice, but not my favorite Mexican ruins. I have extensively traveled Mexico, from the Yucatan to the Baja Peninsula, and I've seen many ruins. These ones are not quite as impressive as others, but they are the finest example of Zapotec ruins. From the Maya ruins of the Yucatan to the Aztec ruins near Mexico City, Monte Alban represents a very different culture and history, and that alone (plus the views) makes it worth a visit. The museum on site was a pass for me, but if you are very into ancient civilizations, then it does passing good job at presenting recovered ceramics and relics from the Zapotecs, Olmecs, and Mixtecs that have inhabited the region for centuries.
Read more from Shannon O'Donnell here.
Oaxaca mermerize me because of its great churches. The catedral, with the tipical sismic key, the square facade and its baroche ornamentation. The Santo Domingo church is an amazing building because of its size and exquisite decoration. It does not have a great "chapel of the holly rosary" as many Dominican's churches. and of course the culture made the town a great experience. What surprise me, was how close is from Monte Alban, wich is another Unesco site.
The Valley of Oaxaca is full of fantastic sites. The open roof church and convent (Dominicans) and Mitla, another Zapotecas site, plus the cementeries made the area an Unesco destination.
The linkage of the apparently disparate sites of Oaxaca and Monte Alban in a single inscription is unusual. Each place certainly has its merits compared with others on the List; Oaxaca is as good as many other colonial towns and Monte Alban as good as many other pre-Hispanic sites. Neither is perhaps is the very “best of the best” but each should surely have been able to “hold its own” in a single inscription, given the ICOMOS/ UNESCO record for interpreting “Universal Value”? So what is the significance of Mexico linking the 2 sites in this way? 1987 was, by the way, a “great year” for Mexico in that it got 6 sites inscribed (this can’t happen again now that yearly nomination limits have been imposed). Interestingly it also proposed another linked “colonial/pre-Hispanic site” – Puebla and Cholula but, on this occasion, Cholula was rejected as not being “significant” enough in its own right.
One possibility for the dual nomination was as a device to get more sites inscribed! But I think it is more than this. Every country’s Inscribed (and Tentative) List says quite a lot about how it sees itself and wants to present itself to the outside world (Think Netherlands and its “fight against the waters”, think UK and its industrial/trading history etc). Mexico is proud of its “fusion culture” and a number of its WHS emphasise this aspect. Queretario’s (see my review) nomination documentation describes it as “an exceptional example of a Spanish town whose layout symbolizes its multi ethnic population” and as “foreshadowing the bicultural Mexico of today and the emergence of an ideal form of coexistence in the new world”! In the shorter Nominations of earlier years that of Oaxaca/Monte Alban isn’t quite so “up front” but contains the phrase “This nomination is deliberately diachronic, playing on the historical complementarity of these properties”.
But Monte Alban is totally pre-Hispanic. It doesn’t even have the “church built on a pyramid” of Cholula and many other sites across Mexico. The site was a major ceremonial center for the Zapotecs (mainly 9th/10th centuries) and Mixtecs (11th century onwards). 9kms down the hill (and still separated by some open countryside) is Oaxaca. The valley in which it stands was full of Zapotec villages at the time of the Conquest but, although the city was built on the site of a small outreach Aztec garrison (the Aztecs never conquered the Zapotecs) it is, in design and physical content, totally Spanish (unlike Queretaro which claims a partial pre-Hispanic layout). It is however significantly Zapotec etc in population and culture and it is THAT linkage which the Mexican government has tried to emphasise by this dual inscription. Whether it is justified/works is another matter.
We found it interesting to note that the expanatory signs inside Monte Alban were in 3 languages – Spanish, English and Nahuatl. We did however ask a few (non local?) Mexicans what language the latter was and received the guesses “Frances” and “Alaman”! It would appear that Mexicans as a whole are not too knowledgeable about their own indigenous peoples and languages!
When we visited in Mar 2008, Oaxaca seemed, on the surface, to have put behind it the bloody riots of late 2006; the town was full of tourists around the lively Zocalo and the restaurants were busy. However, those events are relevant to the dual inscription. Starting with protests by teachers, they tapped into deep seated discontents which had and still have a significant indigenous dimension. The “Popular Assembly of Oaxaca” which emerged as the umbrella group coordinating the protests claims to look to indigenous political practices for its inspiration. To understand Oaxaca and the surrounding countryside you need to understand the indigenous peoples, their history and their sense of being wronged- in the past and today. High above Oaxaca, Monte Alban stands as a symbol of their greatest period! But the truly “Bicultural Mexico of today” and the “Ideal form of coexistance” do not yet seem to have arrived.
And, if you do visit both? Well, despite its traffic, Oaxaca is a pleasant city to explore and to relax in, though perhaps its general colonial atmosphere is of greater worth than that of individual buildings. The fine 16th century Convent Church of Santo Domingo (photo 1) is the location of the UNESCO sign. The convent garden has been turned into a botanical garden of indigenous plants but, annoyingly, can only be visited as part of a group tour. The Santa Catalena Monastery has been very attractively turned into another Camino Real hotel – it is worth a wander even if you don’t stay there! Monte Alban will cost you 48 pesos and will take 2-3 hours to visit once you are there. The famous “Dancer” carvings have been removed to the museum (which, in common with all those we saw beyond The National Museum of Anthropology, offers no information for non Spanish speakers) and replaced on site with replicas. There are fine views both of the site and the surrounding countryside from the high points around the Great Plaza (photo 2). To the uninitiated, the views of pyramids and ball courts etc won’t differ greatly from those you may have seen or will see at other sites such a Xochicalco – but it still worth a visit if you are in Oaxaca.
In May, 2003, I had the wonderful experience of visiting Monte Alban! Saying "what a place!" does not do justice. We had a great tour guide showing us around and spent about 5 hours with him. We could have visited that many days. It is a truly awesome site (and this is not the only World Heritage Site I have visited). Just trying to imagine the history of the place is overwhelming. I am delighted that it is so well protected, well managed, and opened to the public. I hope to visit again. Gloria
I went to visit Oaxaca when i was 16yrs old. My grandmother was born and raised in a small town in Oaxaca, and she is Zapotec. As a matter of fact, Spanish was her second language. We walked through downtown and went to a night festival in one of the squares in front of a church. It was so great. Then when we went to Monte Alban, i just could not believe where i was standing. It was breath taking. To think that people from centuries ago could create something so wonderful, and so strong that it would last until now!i can say that i stood on history. It was almost scary to think of the things that went on when it was habituated by the Mayans. I definetly recommend going to experience it for yourself.
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