Located about an hour east of the city of Oaxaca, Mitla is the second-most popular site of the Zapotec civilization. But the experience of visiting Mitla and Monte Albán couldn’t be more different. 

Monte Albán is a hilltop site full of vast plazas and numerous pyramids. Mitla, on the other hand, consists of several courtyards and a palace scattered about the modern town of the same name. But while Mitla may be small, it’s all about the details, with its most remarkable feature being its unique stonework friezes.

In the following guide, we’ll be covering the history of the ruins, tips on visiting Mitla and how to combine a visit with nearby attractions.

Visiting Mitla: Essential Info

At the time of writing, the Mitla Archaeological Zone is operating at a reduced schedule. The site is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, while the operating hours from Wed. to Sat. are 10:00 -15:00, with no entries being allowed after 14:00. On Sundays, the site is only open from 11:00-13:00.

It’s always a good idea to check the official INAH website before visiting any archaeological site in Oaxaca, as Google’s listed hours are sometimes wrong.

Entry to the ruins costs $85 MXN per person. When you buy your ticket for the Mitla Archaeological Zone, you get access to what are known as the Church Group and the Column Group. While not essential, there are three additional groups you can see for free around town. Keep reading to learn more.

Most people will be visiting Mitla from Oaxaca, from which there are two departure points. If you’re staying near the Zócalo, you can find buses for Mitla at the  Central de Abasto station, also known as the ‘2nd Class Bus Station.’

For those staying further north, you can find transport on Highway 190 a little bit east of the baseball stadium. While I’d read about public buses, I went to Mitla on a few different occasions and only ever saw shared taxis. 

Wait around long enough and you should see a car with ‘Mitla’ written on the window. The standard price for the hour-long trip is $40 MXN per person.

Returning to Oaxaca, I was able to catch a coach bus at Mitla’s bus station located on 179, about 7 minutes on foot from the shared taxi drop-off point (See map above).

For those arriving via shared taxi, you will have to walk around 20 minutes to reach the site entrance, though you can visit a few other groups of ruins on the way.

Mitla: A Brief History

In the Zapotec language, Mitla is known as Lyobaa, or ‘Resting Place.’ The name ‘Mitla,’ meanwhile, is derived from the Nahuatl word Mictlán, which means ‘Underworld.’ Accordingly, the Zapotecs believed this area to be the abode of the Lord of the Underworld, and it was therefore considered highly sacred.

Mitla’s rise coincided with that of Monte Albán, with a sizable settlement of a few hundred residents forming by 200 BC. During Monte Albán’s thriving Classic Era (200-800 AD), however, Mitla would gradually decline. 

But centuries later, after Monte Albán began its own decline from around 800 AD, Mitla would again begin to grow, reaching its zenith in the 13th century. Its population would expand to around 10,000, roughly the same number of inhabitants in the modern town of Mitla today.

Mitla’s peak lasted from 950 AD until the arrival of the Spanish, and it long served as one of the most important Zapotec cities after Monte Albán’s fall.

In the Late Postclassic Period (1250-1520 AD), scholars still aren’t entirely sure if it was the Zapotecs of Mixtecs ruling over Mitla. As we know, from the 14th century, the Mixtecs took over Monte Albán, largely using it as a necropolis. And while they were certainly present in Mitla, many archaeologists believe that the city remained under Zapotec control.

In any case, throughout the 15th century, the Zapotecs fought hard to defend their territory against the invading Aztecs. And while Mitla eventually fell, it remained largely autonomous, albeit with regular mandatory tributes to the Aztec Empire.

Later in the 16th century, the Aztecs would succumb to the Spanish Conquistadors, and so would all the former territories of the Zapotecs. Beginning in the colonial era, there was great interest in Mitla due to the intricate stone patterns of its palaces, and many adventurers began visiting the site in search of treasure. As far as we know, though, all of Mitla’s tombs were discovered empty.

As an archaeological site, Mitla garnered far more interest than Monte Albán up until the 20th century. While their roles have switched today, Mitla nevertheless remains one of the most popular day trips from Oaxaca.

The Church Group

After purchasing your ticket, the first set of ruins you’ll encounter is the Church Group, named as such for obvious reasons. In its center is the San Pablo church, built in the 16th century by the Spanish colonialists.

As evidenced at other ruins like Izamal and Cholula, building churches over indigenous sacred sites was a common way for the Spanish Catholics to display their dominance over the local ‘pagans.’

Visiting Mitla

Also known as the North Group, these structures are estimated to have been constructed by the Zapotecs in the 14th century. Even before entering, you’ll notice Mitla’s trademark patterns and monolithic stone columns.

Stepping inside, you’ll find yourself in Courtyard B, where you’ll find even more stonework friezes. The pattern is known by the Nahuatl word Xicalcoliuhqui. And while Xicalcoliuhqui in general aren’t limited to the Zapotecs or Oaxaca, these particular patterns are unique. But what do they represent?

Well, we’re not entirely sure. Some scholars believe them to represent waves, while others suspect the patterns may be an abstract way of depicting the cycles of nature. Another possibility is that they were copies of particular textile motifs associated with Mitla’s ruling clans.

Surrounding each end of the courtyard are narrow hallways which visitors are free to walk through. You won’t find much inside, however. 

Through a passageway in Courtyard B’s north side, you can enter Courtyard A. Above the doorways, you can see the remains of red murals which were painted in the Mixtec style. As mentioned above, the extent of Mixtec dominance over Mitla remains debated, with some scholars claiming the art was merely ‘influenced’ by the Mixtecs.

In any case, the parishioners clearly didn’t care much for the art, as they long used Courtyard A as the parish stable!

Mitla Reliefs
Visiting Mitla
Visiting Mitla

After exploring the courtyards, you can get up closer to the church to appreciate it from different angles. The church occupies a third courtyard which archaeologists have dubbed Courtyard C, and the ancient Zapotec walls continue to support the Catholic structure.

Visiting Mitla
The official church entrance

Further modifications had to be made to make room for the priest’s house, and it can be a bit hard to tell which wall dates from which phase.

The church remains active and can indeed be entered, though the main entrance is located outside the boundaries of the official archaeological site.

Visiting Mitla

The Column Group

To reach the next group, you’ll have to walk through a small outdoor market which separates the two main areas.

The Column Group was home to the palace of the High Priest, which you’ll first see from behind. The  Xicalcoliuhqui patterns here are even more vivid here and impeccably preserved.

Visiting Mitla

As you’ll notice, the buildings of Mitla feature multiple different patterns right next to one another. But whether or not they held different meanings or were merely stylistic remains a mystery.

Visiting Mitla
Visiting Mitla

Coming around to the other side, you’ll arrive at Courtyard E, in the center of which is what appears to have been an altar. Over to the side, meanwhile, is a megalithic stone that was likely used as a lintel.

While originally surrounded on all sides by elaborate buildings, the stones from this section were taken to be used in the Church of San Pablo. The main structure, at least, remains very well preserved.

Visiting Mitla
Visiting Mitla

The bottom of the elaborate palace retains its original red paint, while the sides and upper lintels of the main building are decorated in yet more detailed stonework. While unique, they remind one of similar designs at the Puuc sites of Yucatán.

A wide staircase will take you to the main portion of the building, accessible via three openings. The room inside is appropriately titled the Hall of Columns, as it’s home to six large stone columns that once supported a now-lost ceiling.

Visiting Mitla
Visiting Mitla

The lintels are also comprised of single monolithic slabs, similar to the piece in the courtyard. Amazingly, some of the palace’s monoliths weigh as much as 18 tons, with the stone coming from quarries in the mountains to the north.

In ancient times, the hall would’ve hosted stone images of deities from the Zapotec pantheon, in front of which sacred rites would be carried out. 

Visiting Mitla

Normally, visitors would be able to proceed deeper into the palace, entering a room called Quadrangle D. But disappointingly, it was closed at the time of my visit and still is at the time of writing. 

Inside the room, which served as the High Priest’s residence, one would be able to see more friezes and more original red paint. All the Xicalcoliuhqui patterns we see throughout Mitla, in fact, were originally painted red.

Visiting Mitla
Courtyard F

The Column Group is home to yet another courtyard, Courtyard F. Its surrounding rooms are much better preserved than that of E, though it clearly lacks a central palace.

What you’ll find here instead are two tombs, though both were inaccessible at the time of my visit. If you get the chance to step inside, Tomb 1 is said to contain a large stone column that grants men with many children if they hug it, according to local legend.

Visiting Mitla

Tomb 2, meanwhile, was built in a similar cruciform-shaped design, while it also features a mural painting. As mentioned, no treasures were ever found inside either tomb.

Interestingly, this courtyard doubled as Mitla’s administrative area in pre-Hispanic times.

Visiting Mitla

If you’re visiting Mitla while the tombs are still closed and really want to check out a Zapotec tomb, you can visit the site of Zaachila to the southwest of Oaxaca. 

While only one tomb can be entered and that’s really all there is to see there, a visit can be combined with the nearby abandoned monastery of Cuilapam.

Visiting Mitla

More Around Town

Most people visiting Mitla simply see the Church and the Column Group, which are both part of the ticketed archaeological zone. But walking around town, you can find three additional groups that anyone can enter freely. They’re free for a reason, however, as none of them are especially noteworthy. 

But if you’re like me and like to see everything, there’s no major reason to skip them other than time constraints. Check the map above for the precise locations.

The Arroyo Group

Visiting Mitla
Visiting Mitla

The Arroyo Group consists of a spacious courtyard, appearing very similar to the other groups previously mentioned. No friezes remain intact, however.

Modern houses have been built right up to the courtyard’s edge, and one shudders to think what ancient heritage has been lost for good.

The Arroyo Group can easily be visited on your walk to the main Mitla ruins, followed by the Adobe Group.

The Adobe Group (Calvary Group)

Also known as the Calvary Group, this is the most interesting of the three free groups, as it’s actually a small pyramid instead of a flat plaza. As the name suggests, it was created with adobe bricks. But the Spanish couldn’t just leave it alone, as they had to build a church here, too.

Visiting Mitla
Visiting Mitla

Known as the Calvary Chapel, it dates back to 1674. And while the chapel itself is currently off-limits, one can climb to the top of the mound to take in the views.

Notably, the small pyramid may have been one of Mitla’s earliest structures, having been built sometime between 250-750 AD.

The South Group

While the least visually impressive of the three free groups, the South Group consists of an even higher mound than that of the Adobe Group. There’s no clearly defined path to the top, but it’s not that hard to figure out your way up.

From the top, you can enjoy excellent views of Mitla, a designated Pueblo Mágico, and the mountains in the distance.

I visited this one after seeing the main ruins, and when I finished it was an easy walk to Mitla’s small bus station.

Visiting Mitla
Visiting Mitla
Visiting Mitla

Additional Info

Visiting the Archaeological Zone of Mitla shouldn’t take you more than an hour (past the ticket gate, at least). And considering how Mitla is nearby other important sites – both archaeological and natural – it makes sense to add additional excursions to your day trip.

To the west of Mitla on Highway 190 are no less than three additional Zapotec sites, two of which are currently open. If you time things right, you can stop at the ruins of Yagul and Dainzú on your way back to Oaxaca, even if you don’t have a car.

Unfortunately, however, the current reduced operating hours at all three sites (10:00-15:00) make this quite difficult. While I managed to see all three in a day, I just barely finished on time. Furthermore, they also have different weekly schedules. At the time of my visit, the only day of the week that all three were open was Wednesday!

Another one of Oaxaca’s most popular day trips is Hierve el Agua, a collection of travertine pools and rock formations with stunning views. And everyone visiting the site via public transport from Oaxaca will have to transfer in Mitla. As Hierve el Agua is not very large, it’s entirely possible to stop at the Mitla Archaeological Zone on your way back to the city.

If you have limited time in Oaxaca, be sure to check out our upcoming guides to Yagul/Dainzú and Hierve el Agua to help you decide which day trip is right for you.

Oaxaca is the capital of the state of the same name, and the city (officially known as Oaxaca de Juárez) is easily one of Mexico’s most popular tourism destinations.

With that being said, the city is relatively isolated geographically. While numerous bus routes exist, it will likely be a long journey no matter which direction you’re coming from.

ADO and its associated companies run direct buses from Mexico City (both TAPO and Norte stations) which last 6-7 hours. Direct buses from Puebla’s CAPU, meanwhile, take about 5 hours.

For those coming from the east, you can catch a direct OCC bus from San Cristóbal de las Casas. The ride last around 10 hours and most of the routes are night buses. You can also ride directly from Comitán, Chiapas, which takes 12-13 hours.

For those coming from Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, the journey is not a quick or easy one either. Coach buses from Huatulco take no less than 9 hours, while buses from Puerto Escondido (via Huatulco) take more than 11!

While there is a more direct minivan route from Puerto Escondido which lasts 6-7 hours, it’s not for the faint of heart. Even those not normally prone to motion sickness often find themselves regretting the nausea-inducing journey through mountainous roads. Fortunately, a new highway is being worked on, but it’s not yet ready at the time of writing.

If you’re not into long bus rides, you can simply fly. The Xoxocotlán International Airport has direct flights from cities throughout the country, along with a few from the US (Houston, Dallas and LA).

Oaxaca is not a very large city and as long as you’re staying relatively central, you can easily get around on foot. While many look for accommodation near the central square, or Zócalo, I’d recommend staying a bit further north.

Look for somewhere near the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán or El Llano park. While still very central, I consider this to be a nicer area than that of the Zócalo, (Oaxaca is so compact, though, that the two areas are just 15 minutes apart on foot.)

Alternatively, the neighborhoods of Jalatlaco and Xochimilco are very popular places to stay and are within walking distance of the historical center. Further north, Reforma is another popular district.



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