Located on a hilltop just 7 km from the city of Oaxaca, Monte Albán was the capital of the Zapotecs, one of Mesoamerica’s most influential pre-Hispanic civilizations. And it remains one of the country’s finest archaeological sites today. In the following guide, we’ll be covering everything you need to know when it comes to visiting Monte Albán, including its history and the significance of each structure.
Also be sure to check the end of the guide for info on transportation and where to stay in Oaxaca.
Monte Albán: A Brief History
While they’re not as widely known as the Mayans, Olmecs or Aztecs, the Zapotecs were one of Mesoamerica’s oldest, mightiest and most influential civilizations.
One of the earliest known settlements in the region was San José Mogote, where an elite group of around 1,000 residents lived and carried out important ceremonies. Located to the northwest of modern-day Oaxaca, the remains of a stone platform and ball court can still be seen there.
But the city would begin to decline around 500 BC, after which the Zapotecs would establish a new capital on a large 400 m-high hilltop to the south.
Today, archaeologists have divided Monte Albán into several distinct historical eras:
Monte Albán I lasted from around 500-100 BC, and very little from the period remains today. Some remnants can still be seen, however, at one of the site’s most famous buildings, the Patio of the Dancers. By the end of the Monte Albán I period, the city’s population had grown to around 17,000.
Monte Albán II lasted from around 100 BC–200 AD, and it was during this time that the Main Plaza was formed, beside which the Zapotecs built royal palaces and a ball court.
It was also during this time that the Zapotecs thrived militarily, conquering the smaller kingdoms around them and forming the Zapotec Empire. Furthermore, they were linked to distant cities like Teotihuacán and Chiapa de Corzo through trade.
But things got even better during the Monte Albán III period (also known as the IIIa, or Early Classic Period) which lasted from 200-500 AD. The city continued to grow in size, hosting a population of around 25,000. It was also during this period that the North and South platforms were fully established, while the Zapotecs continued decorating their city with sculptures and carved reliefs.
The Zapotecs would then continue their building spree through the next period, which archaeologists refer to as IIIb-IV (500-800 AD). Many of the buildings that can be seen today date from this time.
But construction would cease once the city began its decline from around the year 800, the true cause of which remains up for debate.
Despite never living up to its former glory, Monte Albán would remain inhabited for centuries. But a group known as the Mixtecs would become the new dominant force in the region from the 14th century.
While they didn’t build much, they did use Monte Albán as a necropolis, removing the bodies of the former Zapotec rulers and replacing them with members of their own tribe!
Notably, however, the Mixtecs didn’t drive the Zapotecs out, instead marrying into elite Zapotec families to add legitimacy to their rule. To this day, many modern residents of Oaxaca can directly trace their ancestry back to either the Zapotecs or Mixtecs.
Visiting Monte Albán
Pictures can’t quite do justice to how expansive Monte Albán is, especially its Main Plaza. The site is oriented north-south, and visitors will enter from the north. Here you’ll find the ticket gate as well as the on-site museum, which was unfortunately closed during my visit.
Past the ticket gate, there are a few alternate paths taking you south. One of them has you walking across the North Platform, while other paths run along either side of it.
Whichever path you choose, this guide to visiting Monte Albán will begin with the Main Plaza, as many travelers will want to head straight there to get photos before the crowds arrive.
After exploring the plaza, you can then visit the North Platform and take your time observing the different structures on your way out.
Before leaving, there are numerous tombs to see at the northern end of the site. While you can’t go inside any of them, your visit will be complemented by trips to different museums across Mexico, where you’ll find see their exquisite offerings on display.
In regards to Monte Albán’s opening hours, it depends on who you ask. INAH’s own official website says it opens at 10:00, while other sources say 9:00. Still, other sources say 8:00! Just to be sure, I called the site office the day before, and they told me the ruins would be open at 9:00.
And so the next morning, I arrived there around 8:45, expecting to have to wait for a bit. But the ticket gate was open and they let me right in. And upon entering the site, I saw several other visitors already there.
Confusingly, it seems like the ruins ‘secretly’ open at 8:00 or 8:30, even though they tell everyone 9:00. (Teotihuacán is another such site that seems to discretely open up earlier than its official hours.)
While Monte Albán is close enough from Oaxaca to take a taxi, those taking public transport should aim for the earliest bus of the day which departs at 8:00 (learn more below). This will allow you to photograph the Main Plaza before the crowds arrive.
If you’re not so into doing things independently, you’ll find a plethora of tour agencies in central Oaxaca offering day trips to the ruins.
The Main Plaza
While there is no particular order in which one is supposed to explore the Main Plaza, the following guide begins with the right-hand (west) side, following the landmarks in a counterclockwise order.
After ascending the South Platform, we’ll continue by checking out the structures in the center as well as those along the eastern edge.
While all in Spanish, the most detailed map I was able to find online can be seen here.
The Western Buildings
In contrast to Teotihuacán or numerous Mayan sites, which will wow you with the size of their pyramids, Monte Albán, and particularly its Main Plaza, impresses visitors with its vastness.
At 300 x 200 meters, the Main Plaza is one of the largest plazas in all of Mesoamerica. As mentioned above, pictures cannot properly convey how huge the plaza really is.
On the right hand side, you’ll first walk past a building group known as System IV, a complex of patio temples.
While it was largely established during the IIIb-IV period (500-800 AD), some of its remains date back much earlier to the I and II periods.
Its ‘talud-tablero’ style, which alternates between vertical and sloping sections of the wall, was likely influenced by the architecture of Teotihuacán.
At the northern edge is Stele 18, the tallest and one of the oldest at the site. While it doesn’t look like much now, its likely function was to mark midday.
Continuing to the south, you’ll encounter the Patio of the Dancers, one of Monte Albán’s most iconic landmarks. Rather than just a single building, the Patio of the Dancers is an entire complex which featured dwellings on either side, and parts of it date back to over 2,000 years.
The panels of the dancers were likely originally placed along the wall to present a cohesive story. The Zapotecs themselves, however, later dismantled them and used the panels in the construction of other buildings.
But looking more closely, perhaps these aren’t charming depictions of dancers after all. Archaeologists now believe that the reality is much more grim.
The images likely represent bound captives – or worse, captives that had already been sacrificed. In either case, they appear to have been castrated.
Interestingly, the facial features of the figures here implies an Olmec influence on early Zapotec art.
Many of the on-site panels are replicas, with the originals being housed in the on-site museum (closed during my visit).
At the southwest corner of the Main Plaza is System M, which appears almost identical to System IV mentioned above. Accordingly, this patio temple group also dates back to the IIIb-IV period.
The South Platform
Next, at the southern end of the Main Plaza, you’ll find the South Platform, which remains climbable at the time of writing. But first, take note of the corners at either end.
If some of these carved pieces appear out of place, that’s because residents during the IIIb-IV period placed earlier III period stelae on either side of the base. The scenes here depict both rulers and captives.
Fascinatingly, now missing are a set of panels which depicted an official visit from Teotihuacán’s ruling elite. Teotihuacán, Mesoamerica’s unofficial capital at the time, even hosted a group of Zapotec artisans in one of its quarters.
Ascending the 40 m wide staircase, turn around for what’s arguably the best view you’ll encounter when visiting Monte Albán. From here, you can see Building J right in front of you (more below), along with a clear view of the North Plaza in the distance.
If you manage to make it to Monte Albán around nine in the morning, you might be lucky enough to take in the view without any crowds. But by ten or eleven, expect the plaza to be packed with tour groups.
After taking in the views, it’s time to explore the South Plaza itself. But for whatever reason, this area hasn’t been as thoroughly excavated as the other parts of the site.
You’ll find a modest pyramid at the top of the platform, while additional vantage points offer views of both Monte Albán and the surrounding countryside.
The Central and Eastern Buildings
Coming down, you’ll notice a mysterious structure directly in the center of the plaza. Known as Building J, it’s the only one in the area not aligned to a north-south axis. Furthermore, it’s strangely shaped like an arrowhead. But why?
Archaeologists believe that Building J served as an astronomical observatory. And it also may have acted as a marker when viewed from other parts of the plaza. Astronomy, of course, was highly important to Mesoamerican cultures for both agriculture and religion.
Walking around, you’ll notice that the building is covered in carved reliefs. Having been carved in the II period, they’re quite faint today. But they seem to represent the nearby cities that Monte Albán had conquered.
Across from Building J, on the eastern side of the plaza is what remains of a former royal palace. Constructed between 350-800 AD, it once contained about a dozen rooms which served as residences for the Monte Albán elite.
From atop the palace platform, one can get a clear view of Buildings G, H and I. Situated in the plaza’s center to the north of Building J, they were built atop a natural outcrop sticking out of the hill.
As you can see, they’re all connected to one another and probably functioned as a single unit.
Building H in the center was surely home to important rituals. Not only does it feature a temple at the top of its platform, but a large altar can be found directly in front.
Across from it on the plaza’s eastern edge, meanwhile, are Buildings P and U, which also served as – you guessed it, temples. Archaeologists discovered some burials around here as well, including a unique jade bat mask which is now on display at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology.
In the northeast corner of the plaza is Monte Albán’s main Ball Court, constructed as early as the II era (100 BC–200 AD). Measuring out to 41 x 24 meters, it’s shaped like a capital I.
The Mesoamerican ball game was played all throughout Mexico and parts of Central America. While competitive, the game was also highly ritualistic, with the rubber ball’s movement symbolizing the cycles of the cosmos.
In contrast to most others, this court likely never had rings, implying that while the ball game was a universal custom throughout Mesoamerica, different regions had different rules.
While this was the main one, Monte Albán had no less than five ball courts in total.
Next, it’s time to leave the Main Plaza and walk up the massive staircase leading you to the North Platform. But first, there are a couple of interesting stelae to check out.
To the east is Stele 15, a horizontal stele from the IIIb-IV period which likely depicts a ruler’s ascent to power.
And directly in front of the staircase is Stele 9, whose scenes appear to represent priests carrying out important rituals atop the North Platform. Interestingly, scholars have noted its similarity to Mayan stelae.
The North Platform
Next, if you haven’t already, it’s time to explore the massive North Platform. And near its southern edge, you’ll find its most impressive feature, the Sunken Plaza.
Measuring out to 50 x 50 m, important ceremonies were carried out here by Monte Albán’s most elite members. The plaza features an altar in the middle, while each side is aligned to the cardinal points.
The plaza is surrounded by small pyramidal temples like Building B and Building A, while the western edge is another great place to take in views of Monte Albán’s surroundings.
A bit to the east is the ‘Patio of the Geodesic Vortex,’ home to buildings E and D. Building E contains a stele on top representing local rulers.
Notably, a younger man is depicted as a jaguar which reminds one of how the Olmecs used jaguars to symbolize both divinity and royalty.
The original can be seen from up close at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The Tombs and Palaces
Along the northern edge of the site – both to the far west and east – are various ancient tombs, dwelling places and additional temples. As mentioned above, these tombs cannot be entered at the time of writing, though you can see their findings at various museums.
While I can confirm that many of Monte Albán’s tomb findings are on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, the on-site museum and Oaxaca’s anthropology-related museums were all closed during my trip.
Near the northwest corner of the site is Tomb 104, which contained clay pots, incense burners, and an elaborate urn representing the corn god Pitao Cozobi. For those visiting Mexico City, you’ll find a full-scale replica of this tomb on display.
Interestingly, the spot above the tomb also served as a residence.
Just nearby, meanwhile, is a hill which contains multiple tombs, including 103, 110 and 112, among others. The foundations you see today are those of an elite residence built atop the burials.
On your way out (and likely in), you’ll pass by Building X, a temple built during period II, possibly in the style of Teotihuacán. The surviving upper building was later added in the IIIb-IV period.
Further east, just past the parking lot where you’ll need to wait for the return bus to the city, be sure to check out another interesting tomb and palace complex. Considered one of the most luxurious palaces of the city, it even features its own small ball court!
Visiting Monte Albán from Oaxaca is pretty straightforward. Buses are run by a company called Autobuses Turísticos, whose office is on the corner of Francisco Javier Mina and Díaz Ordaz streets.
Buses depart hourly from 8:00 until 14:00 and a one-way journey costs around $45 MXN. Getting back, wait near the parking lot (near Tomb 105) for an hourly bus running half past the hour. The final bus, however, departs at 16:00 instead of 16:30.
While the ride by car normally takes just 20 or 30 minutes, the bus journey took around 40 minutes in my case. Not only did the bus depart late, but it made frequent stops along the way to pick up numerous local vendors who sell their wares at the site.
On the way back, the return bus showed up around twenty minutes late. But it’s nice there’s even direct public transport to the ruins at all.
You could also hire a taxi when visiting Monte Albán (Uber doesn’t work in Oaxaca). Expect to pay 100-150 pesos for a one-way journey.
While Google Maps will tell you that the ruins are walkable from the city center in 90 minutes, it’s not a good idea. Below the ruins, the side of the hill upon which Monte Albán was built is now filled with slums. On top of that, there are no sidewalks along the road up the mountain.
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.