Mitla & Monte Alban: Oaxaca’s Ancient Cities

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When I booked my plane ticket to Mexico last fall I knew a little bit about ancient Mexico. I knew about the Aztecs and the Maya, and that there were a few cool ruins dotted around the country that would probably be neat to visit. But considering that I’ve spent the past 2 years leading people through ancient cities for a living, and seeing as the cities in Mesa Verde are more or less the contemporaries of much of Mexico’s ancient cultures, it’s pretty embarrassing that that was more or less all I knew.

I had no idea how many other cultures lived in Mexico and left their ruins for us to find and explore. Maybe I had, at one point or another, heard of the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Tarascos, the Mixtecs, and the Zapotecs, but I certainly didn’t remember them very well. And I definitely didn’t think of them as far as my tourist itinerary went.

Luckily for me I have an excellent guidebook, and a travel buddy who has already explored the region and knows more or less what’s up.

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Austin and I found ourselves visiting Mitla because it was included in our awesome full-day tour of the Valles Centrales. I actually didn’t even realize we were going there until the tour guide himself announced it that morning, but always up for a stroll through an ancient place, I didn’t complain. We arrived at Mitla fresh from our mezcal tasting and were utterly amazed.

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What is now Oaxaca was, and still is, Zapotec territory, and Mitla today is a modern Zapotec town. Smack in the middle of it, right next to the church, town square, and main market, is the remains of what was once a Zapotec religious center. This center experienced its height just before the Spanish came along in the 1520s. When they arrived, they dismantled many of the structures and, in an attempt to let the locals know ‘whose boss’, used those same materials to build their churches and chapels. The site itself backs all the way up to the main church’s walls, where it melds into the building in a seamless, if not tragic transition.

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It’s a relatively small site, but what it lacks in size, it makes up in intricate character.

Geometric stone mosaics cover the buildings here – according to my guidebook, fourteen different designs have been identified to date. And much to my delight, many of those designs were featured on the rug I had purchased just hours before. Now I could see for myself the place that inspired the textile I had so instantly fallen in love with.

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Even better, what is left of Mitla is intimate and well-preserved. So much so that you are allowed to climb the steps and wander through the inside of the ancient religious structures. There are even two small tombs that – as long as you are up for a squeeze – you’re allowed to enter.

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After Mitla, I had high expectations for Monte Alban, and a few days later we headed out of the city see what was once the capitol of the Zapotec civilization.

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Monte Alban translates to ‘White Mountain,’ and sits 400 meters above the valley floor and what is now the city of Oaxaca. It was occupied from around 500 BC up until around AD 800 when it was abandoned and fell into ruin. At its height (between AD 350 and 700), Monte Alban was home to an estimated 25,000 people. And perhaps most impressively, its earliest inhabitants spent the first seven hundred years of the city’s existence leveling the hilltop for expansion. Yes, these people literally MOVED A MOUNTAIN in order to turn it into the sprawling metropolis it became. Today, the site sits on a perfectly flat plateau with 360 degree views of the valleys, mountains, and cities that have since sprung up below.

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Much of Monte Alban’s original structures and pyramids have not survived the ages. What is mostly left are the raised platforms the major buildings once inhabited, which is still grand by itself and gives you a nice idea of the layout of the once-great city.

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What I didn’t find at Monte Alban were the striking geometric patterns from Mitla. But after looking closer I did discover many intricate carvings in these giant stone walls.

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Included in these veritable works of art are what are known as Los Danzantes or ‘The Dancers.’ (Side story: Austin and I had gone to a restaurant called Los Danzantes for dinner just the night before where we pondered what the story could be behind the name. Imagine our delight to find the answer on a wayside the very next day!). These figures are believed to depict the sacrificed leaders of conquered neighbors, and the hieroglyphs accompanying them are the earliest known examples of writing in Mexico.

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It was very cool.

But it was also very hot, and the mountain-top position didn’t provide much shade. So after a few hours of climbing everything we could in the site (hello burning thighs!), we headed to the cafeteria for a beer and boarded the bus back to the city.

Oh Oaxaca, you got me again.

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