The magic of Monte Albán

Community Highlights North America The magic of Monte Albán

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Our guide Monteserrate at Monte Albán

I was starting to sleep a little better but still waking far too early. Sometimes it seems to take longer to adjust to a time difference than others, and this clearly was one of those times. It didn’t help that a plane flew low overhead as I was dosing at 6.15! After that neither of us was going to sleep any longer so we got up and used the time before breakfast to catch up on emails etc.

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Breakfast at the Hotel Azul


Breakfast at the Hotel Azul is served in the courtyard and we were surprised at how chilly it felt at 7.30, given how pleasant the evening before had been. Rather than a buffet, here you order from a menu, so I chose fruit salad and waffles with crispy bacon while Chris had the enchiladas with fried eggs.

Monte Albán

Montse picked us up at 8.30 as planned to drive to Monte Albán, the most significant archaeological site in the region by far. This mountain top was home to the Zapotec people for thirteen centuries. It is jointly UNESCO listed, with the city of Oaxaca itself. UNESCO describe it as, ‘an outstanding example of a pre-Columbian ceremonial centre’. The listing summarises the site’s history:

Monte Albán is the most important archaeological site of the Valley of Oaxaca. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The grand Zapotec capital flourished for thirteen centuries, from the year 500 B.C to 850 A.D. when, for reasons that have not been established, its eventual abandonment began.

Montse gave us a really thorough tour and had a knack of avoiding the tour groups, especially during the first part of our visit, so I was able to get some good photos of the ruins as well as the dramatic views. I realised afterwards that she had led us in the opposite direction to the usual tours, which must have helped in avoiding those groups.

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View from Monte Albán

Right from the start I was captivated not only by the ruins but also by the wonderful views from this elevated spot. It was easy to see why the Zapotecs had chosen this spot for their capital. In order to build it they even flattened part of the mountain to give them the space they needed for their temples and other structures. On the hillside below were terraces with houses and farm plots, while more people lived in the valley below. At its height, from 100 AD to 600 AD, the city along with this wider area had a population of around 100,000.

Our walk took us past some of the smaller structures, including one where archaeologists were at work.

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Edificio X

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Archaeologists at work

We arrived at the North Platform, with more extensive views over the surrounding countryside.

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Near the North Platform

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North Platform

After taking lots of photos here we made our way around the North Platform to the side facing the Gran Plaza. This is the most complex structure here, remodelled several times over the centuries to respond to changing needs. I managed to climb part of the way up it, to a point where I got great views of the Gran Plaza below.

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Views of the Gran Plaza

There were several columns here that would once have supported a portico.

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On the North Platform

While Chris continued to the top I enjoyed taking photos in this area, including trying to capture some of the birds of prey circling on the currents below us and, more successfully, the bees buzzing around the wildflowers growing among the ruins.

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View from the North Platform

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Bee by the North Platform

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Chris on the North Platform

In front of this platform is a stela, known simply as Estela 9. A nearby sign explains that it is one of the most important archaeological finds here. My photos are of the south side with what the sign describes as a ‘richly adorned male character’, and of the east with a figure thought to be a priest.

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Estela 9

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Estelas 9 and 18

Another stela nearby, numbered 18, is the tallest in the complex at 5.8 metres. It dates from between 100 BC to 300 AD and is believed to have been an astronomical instrument, used to mark midday. It also indicated the winter and summer solstices.

Montse then left us to explore the Gran Plaza on our own. This plaza is roughly 300 metres long and 200 metres wide and was the heart of the city, surrounded by temples and elite residential quarters.

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The South Platform from the Gran Plaza

At the far end Chris climbed up the South Platform but I decided to explore the nearby structures more closely. I was fascinated by the carved stones on Edificio J (most of the buildings are identified simply by a letter). A sign explained that each stone ‘has the place glyph of Monte Albán, and below this is an upside-down head, identified as representing conquered peoples’.

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Edificio J

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Carvings on Edificio J

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Carvings on Edificio J, and on the east base of the South Platform

There were more great views in this southern corner of the plaza too, and some shady benches on one of which I rested while waiting for Chris.

Finally we made our way back in the direction of the exit where we were to meet up again with Montse. But first there was one more significant structure to see, the ball court.

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The Ball Court

Unlike Mayan ball courts, this Zapotec example appears never to have had rings attached to its walls. These sloping walls would have been covered with a thick mixture of lime creating a polished surface. When the ball landed there, it would slide back to the floor level where the players were located. Players apparently hit the rubber ball with hips, elbows, and knees.

This was the last structure on our walk around the site (had we followed the usual route it would have been the first) and a great place to finish. We met up with Montse near the entrance and she had very welcome bottles of cold water for us!

Back to the city

On the way back into the city centre we stopped at a viewpoint with a panoramic view of the city, watched over by Benito Juarez, the first indigenous (and so far only) president of Mexico.

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Panorama

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View of Santo Domingo

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Statue of Benito Juarez


Montse dropped us off at the hotel and we took a break to sort photos and cool off. Then we went out again, this time alone, for another walk around. We’d spotted some interesting spots on the drive back so retraced part of that on foot, along Calle Murguia. We popped into a gallery and a couple of craft shops but didn’t buy anything. We also checked out the small crafts market - ditto!

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Gallery, and colourful building

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Colours of Oaxaca

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Street art


There was lots of colour around pedestrianised Calle Macedonia Alcala, and more interesting shops. Eventually we ended up opposite Santo Domingo where we bought sorbets (guanabana flavour) in the local artisanal ice cream shop, Manolo.

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On Macedonia Alcala


We then walked back down Macedonia Alcala, continuing as far as the Zócalo. This wasn’t, as I’d expected, an open space as in Mexico City, but a square with trees, benches and a central gazebo. It was busy with souvenir sellers, shoe-shiners, tourists and locals.

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The Zócalo

I was looking out for street photo ops among the crowds when I noticed a small girl with her father who was selling textiles. She tried to sit on his bag on the ground but slid off. She saw that this made me smile at her, so she did it again, and again. On the third (or was it fourth?) slide I took her photo, with the tacit permission of her father who had been keeping half an eye on her antics.

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In the Zócalo


We had a quick look around the cathedral which was fairly sombre but with some brighter stained glass.

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The Metropolitan Cathedral

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Inside the cathedral

Then we headed back to the hotel, stopping off for fruit smoothies in a cafe on the way.

Dinner at Tierra del Sol

In the evening we had dinner at Tierra del Sol, a restaurant that specialises in the historic dishes of the region. We were seated on the roof terrace which was lovely at first although got chilly towards the end of the meal. The menu was confusing, arranged in sections each focused on a specific ingredient: corn, beans, chillies, chocolate.

A waiter who spoke some English helped us to understand that the corn dishes were starters, the beans soups, the chillies the main courses and the chocolate, naturally, the desserts. He also helped me to identify which dishes were less hot, as unfortunately my digestion can’t take strong chillies these days. We shared a starter of blue corn tortillas wrapped around a filling of cheese and pulled pork – tasty but quite filling even when shared. With this we had a salsa that was made fresh for us at the table, customised to our taste.

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Making our salsa

Chris's main course was again pork, in a rich and chilli-hot mole, while I had the oyster mushrooms in a milder white mole made with almonds, various seeds and white cacao. From the chocolate menu Chris chose a chocolate sorbet while I had something described as meringue but actually more like a rich dense mousse, topped with strawberry and blueberries. It was delicious, the highlight of the whole meal for me!

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Oyster mushrooms in white mole

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Chocolate mousse

This featured blog entry was written by ToonSarah from the blog Travel with me ....
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By ToonSarah

Posted Tue, Apr 09, 2024 | Mexico | Comments