January 26 – April 18, 2023
This post is all about the ruins we saw in Oaxaca. I know, if you have seen one crumbling building you’ve seen them all. Still, for me, like everything else, there are subtle differences, that one thing that makes a site special compared to all the others. And sometimes the adventure is all about just getting there and back.
The state of Oaxaca is home to 12 archeological sites managed by the INAH (National Institute of Archeology and History). Eight of them an hour or less drive from the city of Oaxaca. We visited 4 of those 8 sites.
We had visited Monte Alban 4 years previously but we were excited to go again with our friends who were staying in an Airbnb in the city of Oaxaca. So our first outing in Oaxaca, following a day of rest and laundry at our campsite in the nearby town of El Tule, was to go pick up our friends and head to the ruins.
Monte Alban, one of the most important archeological zones in Mesoamerica, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spread out over 4 square miles, Monte Alban contains great plazas, pyramids, a ball court, underground passageways, and about 170 tombs. It sits on a hill about 1,300 ft above and about 6 miles away from the city of Oaxaca. The quickest way to get there from Oaxaca is to the windy and narrow Carraterra a Monte Alban. The road becomes an adventure when gigantic tour buses come barreling down the hill towards you with just enough room to pass as you pull over as far to the right as you can without sliding off the road and the hill back down into the valley.
But the trip is worth it. I’ve been told by other travelers that they enjoyed Monte Alban more than other well-known sites such as Teotihuacán outside of Mexico City because at Monte Alban you are still allowed to climb the pyramids. There is also a very nice museum at Monte Alban and everyone found something fun in the gift shop.
On February 1st we drove to the city again and picked up our friends. We were heading to see the ruins in the city of Mitla, about an hour’s drive east of Oaxaca. We never made it. About 17 miles away from our destination Ballena Blanca broke down.
Vehicle-less we decided to try to visit the ruins again a few days later. I read that you could catch a bus from downtown Oaxaca to the city of Mitla anywhere on Highway 190 for 20 pesos (about a dollar). Our friends would catch the bus in the city and we would board as it passed through El Tule. That morning we walked down to Highway 190 and waited. And waited. No bus. I texted our friends. They were on their way and had already passed El Tule.
At some point, it became obvious that the bus wasn’t coming. A couple of miles east of downtown El Tule, Highway 190 splits and bypasses the town. Perhaps we could catch the bus on this other part of 190. We walked about half a mile south of town, crossed under the bypass, hiked up a hill to the highway, and walked along 190 until we reached a gas station where we waited for a bus to come by. Cars whizzed past. We saw a bus and tried to flag it down, but it whizzed by us too. Finally, we saw a colectivo. Mitla was posted on its windshield. It stopped for us.
The driver spoke English and we soon learned a bit of his life’s story. When he was young he was taken across the border to California where he grew up undocumented. He had a life there, married, had kids, and divorced. He was making a nice living bartending. But then he screwed up and got caught at a traffic stop. He was deported and decided to go to Oaxaca because he had family there. After living practically all of his life in the US, he had a lot to adjust to including learning Spanish. He told us he really missed steak and hashbrowns.
As we approached Mitla he made a stop and two passengers got out in an area crowded with cars and buses. We were at the entrance to the prison and it was visiting day.
In Mitla we caught up with our friends who were waiting for us. The ruins were a bit of a disappointment. There were supposed to be several sites across the city but all but the main site were either gated off or underwhelming. We tried to find a museum but it wasn’t there anymore. But we did get to use our limited Spanish to ask a guy if knew where the entrance to one of the ruins site was. He was using a homemade weaving loom to create rugs for sale in local shops.
There are also prehistoric caves in Mitla. These caves, along with others at the neighboring archeological location, Yagul, make up another UNESCO World Heritage site. But we weren’t aware of that then and from what I’ve read you need a guide (or at least a map) to take you up into the hills where the caves are.
By the time we decided to go to Yagul, we thought we had finally figured out the bus system. We took a bus out of town to the west and got off where the 190 bypass splits off. We crossed the street and waited for a bus going east. We saw one with Yagul on its rotating marquee and boarded. After about 14 miles and many stops, the bus stopped in Tlacolula de Matamoros, a couple of miles away from our destination. Everyone got off. I, of course, was oblivious to this, to the fact that the bus didn’t start moving again, and that the bus driver was talking to us. Luckily, Greg noticed all of this and realized that the driver was asking us where we were going. We told him Yagul and he told us that we needed to get off and get a colectivo. Since we didn’t have the Spanish skills to argue with him that his marquee said he was going to Yagul we disembarked.
We saw a colectivo right away. I asked if we went to Yagul. He told me only to the cruce (the intersection). That’s exactly where we wanted to go. From the cruce, we had about a mile walk up the road to the ruins site. On our way, we saw petroglyphs high up on the cliffs to our right. On Google Maps it says that there are caves here. Perhaps this is where the UNESCO World Heritage caves were but not knowing for sure we didn’t explore.
Yagul was a fun place to walk around. Perhaps because it is a smaller site and less popular, a tomb was open and we were able to go down into it. Another unique thing we found after hiking up a hill was a bathtub carved out of the rock overlooking the valley below. That would have been a relaxing soak, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed toting the water up there.
After our visit to the ruins, we took a detour from the road leading back to the highway and found a bridge in the middle of nowhere stretched out over some wetlands. It looked like there might be caves in the cliffs in the distance.
Back at the road we easily caught a bus that took us all the back towards El Tule.
Getting to Dainzú was easy. Like Mitla and Yagul Dainzú was off of Highway 190 heading east from El Tule. But it wasn’t nearly as far so once we got to the 190 bypass which we walked to this time, we were pretty sure any bus would take us there.
We arrived early to beat the heat. But when we arrived we found the ticket booth unmanned. Nothing barred us from wandering into the site so we did. Soon after we were greeted by Antonio. We had met Antonio previously on one of our morning walks through El Tule and had a short conversation with him then. He spoke excellent, deliberate English. He didn’t know where the ticket seller was either but he was up for giving us a tour.
He started with perhaps the highlight of the site, wall carvings of priests and ball players. It was a little hard to make out the scenes but Antonio had made paintings of each one to not only show the content, but what they would have looked like when they were originally done.
We also learned a little bit about Antonio. He had been working for the INAH at Dainzú for 30 years. He loved his job, especially teaching children about the ruins. But all this was coming to an end soon. He was planning on retiring this summer. His dream is to visit the ruins of Manchu Pichu in Peru.
Antonio gave us a personal tour of the whole site. The ticket seller never showed up. No other tourists showed up either – which is a shame, this was one of my favorite ruins we visited. When it was time to go, Antonio told us he needed to head into Oaxaca and offered to give us a ride back to El Tule.
We saw Antonio one last time on one of our morning walks before we left Oaxaca. We chatted as we made the same path down the street. Some day if I ever have a windfall I’m going back to El Tule and buying Antonio a ticket to Peru.
* All pics are click to enlarge. Hover over them to read the captions or enlarge them to view them in a slide show.