Besides being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Monte Alban, close to the Mexican City of Oaxaca, is one of those lesser-known archaeological sites that rivals the better known sites, such as the Egyptian pyramids, the ruins of Rome or Athens, the Turkish ruins of Ephesus and even Tenochtitlan outside Mexico City. Best of all, it’s just under three hours away from Dallas.
When people look at the “largest public plaza” statistics, they often are pointed to places in China. But none of the Chinese public squares are as large as the public square created by the Zapotecas about 2,500 years ago at Monte Alban, and that public space isn’t even the largest among the public squares in other sites around Mexico.
In other words, people don’t give credit where due to the indigenous peoples of Latin America who created societies that were equal or better than their European counterparts of the same period.
To fully understand the importance of the Latin indigenous cultures, people have to come to the subject with an open mind able to displace incorrect ideas that they formed by our society’s focus on Europe. And because the focus has been shifted away from Latin sites, they remain today largely unexplored. Most of Monte Alban sits waiting for the funding and interest of modern architects to expose it.
Monte Alban was abandoned along with several other Latin indigenous sites all around the same time, about 800 A.D. The reason is not clear. Some theories point to cycles that indigenous peoples used to decide when to move on, combined with drought and lack of crop rotation depleting the soil and bad climatic conditions. Still, it’s an area ripe for further exploration by some industrious graduate student or professor.
At the entrance to Monte Alban you can look at a scale model of the site. From this model, you can see that the Zapotecas had to level the top of a mountain to build Monte Alban.
Monte Alban society was highly stratified with rulers, priests, scientists, astronomers and peons. There was a written language, a calendar, mathematics skills, etc., all of which only began to be pieced together starting in the second decade of the 20th century.
The grave sites of Monte Alban leaders were largely looted by early explorers of the Mexican continent and dispersed to museums around the world. The fact is, the treasure here was every bit the equal to the Egyptian pyramids.
Of particular interest is the fact that the civilization had ball parks and played games with a rubber ball, indicating, perhaps, the earliest civilization to have mastered the way to make rubber and its benefits.
The self-guided signage at Monte Alban is not very good. There are English language translations, but they are mostly faded beyond recognition. I suggest that you get a licensed Mexican guide to take you to the site to best understand what you are seeing. The main plaza appears to be at least as large as 20 football fields side by side. You cannot tell the immensity of the site until you get down on the middle of the field. It will take time simply to walk the entire area. Add to that the time to understand it, and Monte Alban deserves at least half a day to see.
The visitor’s center at Monte Alban has an excellent museum, café and information. You can usually hire a guide on site.
Getting to Monte Alban is easy on tourist buses from Oaxaca, Mexico, also a fantastic city to explore. The buses run from Hotel Rivera del Angel as well as numerous touring companies whose signs are everywhere in the tourist areas. My recommendation is to go on a tour with an English-speaking guide, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
Because Oaxaca is subject to earthquakes, some of the ruins at Monte Alban are under restoration, not from ancient times, but from recent damage to previously-restored ancient structures. Still, there is so much to see and learn here, the restoration does not get in the way.