Take a step back in time at the ancient Zapotec capital of Monte Alban on the outskirts of Oaxaca City. Its 360-degree views, historical significance, and UNESCO World Heritage List designation make Monte Alban THE archeological site to visit in Oaxaca.
Monte Alban sits upon terraces carved out of a mountain, about 1,300 ft (400 m) above the valley floor. There are massive temples in the Gran Plaza, a large ball court, tunnels connecting buildings, an observatory, tombs filled with treasures, and unique stone carvings known as “Los Danzantes”. It’s one of the largest and most important archeological sites in all of Mexico. In fact, Monte Alban is so important that it’s even featured on the $20 peso!
This site should be on the top of your list of things to do in Oaxaca, right along with strolling through the markets in Oaxaca City, seeing the petrified waterfalls at Hierve el Agua, visiting the world capital of mezcal, and experiencing a traditional market day. If you’re a fan of Mesoamerican ruins, you should also take a day trip to explore the Greek-like mosaics on the ruins in Mitla.
As a lover of archeological sites in Mexico, I wanted to visit Monte Alban for years. When the day finally came, my excitement could not be contained! There are many companies in Oaxaca City offering tours to these ruins along with other stops, but since we like to enjoy sites at our own pace to make sure we see them all, we decided to head up without a group.
We had heard that there was some sort of shuttle van that takes tourists from the Zocalo (main square) in Oaxaca to Monte Alban and back but weren’t quite sure how much it was or where to get it from. Not to worry, we figured it out, and are ready to fill you in all al the details about the best way to get to Monte Alban.
- How to Get to Monte Alban from Oaxaca City
- Monte Alban Archeological Site Entrance Fees and Services
- Why is Monte Alban Important?
- Exploring the Gran Plaza in Monte Alban
- Los Danzantes of Monte Alban
- Tomb 7 in Monte Alban
- Monte Alban Site Museum
- Tips for Visiting Monte Alban
- What to Pack & Wear for Monte Alban
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How to Get to Monte Alban from Oaxaca City
Bus: The cheapest but slowest way is to take a second class bus for $6 pesos from the Central de Abastos to the town below Monte Alban. Then hop in a moto-taxi that takes you all the way up the winding road to Monte Alban.
Taxi: Private taxis can be hired in the Zocalo or anywhere along the streets of the city center and charge about $300 pesos round trip. This is generally the most expensive option.
Guided Tour: You can also save time by reserving one of the guided tours below or walk around El Zocalo to buy a tour in-person from one of the many roaming salespeople for about $200 pesos PLUS the cost of admission.
Shuttle Van: A great compromise between cost and time is taking a shuttle van. The shuttle leaves from the Zocalo every hour from 8:30 am-3:30 pm and returns from the Monte Alban parking lot every hour from 12 pm-5 pm. The cost is $70 pesos round trip per person (as of Oct. 2018). You’ll find the tiny office for Lescas Co. Travel Agency in the building right across from the cathedral in the Zocalo (behind the statue and vendors). TIP: Sit on the passenger side of the van to take in the views from the mountainside road on the way there.
We ended up taking the shuttle van because we wanted to get there early enough to beat the mid-day heat without paying for a taxi but be warned that these run like colectivos. Meaning it is NOT a direct shuttle service. They may or may not stop along the way to pick up other passengers. And, they operate under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: they’re not going to inform you about their actions unless you speak Spanish and ask lots of questions.
Once we bought our tickets, the man in the Zocalo office walked us over to a street corner about a block away, where an empty van picked us up. We then drove exactly 2 blocks, where he pulled over and we had to wait for another, smaller van to show up which we transferred into. Then we drove to a hotel for more passengers, and finally on our way to the ruins. Once we arrived and were dropped off at the parking lot, we had a short walk to the site entrance. For the return trip, the van was ready at the expected time, but unbeknownst to us and a few other passengers, the drop off point was a hotel a few blocks south of the Zocalo.
Monte Alban Archeological Site Entrance Fees and Services
Once you get to the main gates, you’ll see the ticket booths, museum, and the main entrance. The entrance fee $70 pesos per person, which includes entry to the museum, but no map. You can usually buy maps at the archeological sites in Mexico for $10 pesos, but you need to ask for it. Or just take a photo of the large ones usually near the entrance.
They have a regular ticket booth with a human and a ticket selling machine which has an option for English and accepts credit cards (gotta get those points!). They also have official guides for hire upon entering. There are numerous informational plaques inside the site in English, Spanish, and Zapotec.
Like most INAH (Institute for National Anthropology and History) archeological sites in Mexico, the site is open year round, from 8 am to 5 pm (last entry is at 4:30 pm). But, unlike most sites, Monte Alban also a cafe inside with a shaded patio and a great view that’s perfect for grabbing a refreshing drink (or cold beer) after exploring the ruins. A museum full of artifacts and stelae, a souvenir and jewelry shop are near the entrance. There are two bathrooms here: one at the entrance and composting toilets at a far end of the site.
Why is Monte Alban Important?
Monte Alban was once one of the most important cities in all of Mesoamerica. It was founded in 500 BC, and was inhabited for over 1,500 years, until around 800 AD. Unfortunately, its original name was lost, but some believe it was called Danibaan (Sacred Mountain) or Danibéeje (Jaguar Hill). At its peak, the Zapotec capital here was inhabited by an estimated 35,000 people.
Monte Alban is also significant because it was one of the first sites with evidence of distinct social classes, with the lower classes living in the agriculture terraces on the sides of the mountain, and the civic and religious leaders living in the palaces on top of the mountain. The Zapotec elite had extensive contact with the rulers of Teotihuacan (ancient inhabitants of the Pyramid of the Sun near what is now Mexico City); the architecture, ceramics, and paintings in Monte Alban are uniquely influenced by Teotihuacan culture. Some of the stone carvings also show Olmec influence.
The Zapotec rulers in Monte Alban conquered and colonized surrounding cities. Eventually, this great power came to an end, and the site was left abandoned only to be claimed by the Mixtec people, who used it as a burial site.
Exploring the Gran Plaza in Monte Alban
Once you pass the entrance area, you’ll make your way uphill on a path and until you reach the splendor of the Monte Alban ruins and see the breathtaking views of the valleys below.
The main area of Monte Alban has a huge central plaza, known as the Gran Plaza, surrounded by structures and platforms on the North and South ends (both of which you can climb). We recommend climbing up the stairs (remember to zig zag to make it easier to climb the tiny steps) on one of the platforms and looking out unto the ball court, temples, and astronomical observatory, while trying to envision what it must have looked like thousands of years ago. Pretty impressive!
Monte Alban has tons of different areas to wander around in and some trees for shade. Don’t just limit yourself to the Gran Plaza, climb the platforms, hike up the hills, and explore!
Los Danzantes of Monte Alban
One of the most interesting things about Monte Alban is the collection of rather large carved stones with male figures that are known as “Los Danzantes” (The Dancers) located in the Gran Plaza. They are in fact, not dancers, but prisoners of war that have been mutilated. Their facial expressions, tied up hands, and missing male parts are pretty clear. Not sure how someone decided they were dancers, but it does make for a catchier name than “Mutilated War Prisoners”.
Tomb 7 in Monte Alban
The most famous tomb in Monte Alban is Tomb 7, which is considered one of the richest burial sites ever uncovered in the Americas. It was excavated in 1932 and contained the skeletal remains of at least 8 people and more than 500 artifacts. The majority of which were made of gold and silver, along with pieces made of jade, turquoise, pearl, shells, coral, and amber. One of these was an impressive turquoise covered skull, which you can view in the Museo de las Culturas next to the Santo Domingo Church in Oaxaca City.
Tomb 7 is a bit difficult to get to. You have to walk back down past the museum and follow the small signs around the parking lot. We didn’t see anyone else doing this, so if you are the only one on this path, you’re probably on the right track.
Monte Alban Site Museum
We spent about 2 hours wandering around the structures in Monte Alban, stopping often to take breaks from the heat under some trees. Once we were done, we visited the lovely air conditioned museum back at the entrance. It contains stelae, artifacts, and bones from burial sites that were found nearby.
Another way to do it would be to visit the museum upon entry, explore the ruins, and then grab a bite to eat at the cafe. Either way, you’re going to want to cool off somewhere before heading back down to the city.
Tips for Visiting Monte Alban
- Location: About 5 miles west of Oaxaca City, Mexico
- Cost: $70 entrance fee for archeological site & museum
- Hours: Monday-Sunday, 8 am – 5 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
- Transportation: Shuttle is $70 pesos per person round trip (about 30 minutes each way)
- Best time to visit: During the early morning or afternoon. There is very little shade, so avoid trying to explore this site during peak sun hours.
- Where to Eat: On-site cafe sells food, water, soda, and beer
- Where to Stay: Oaxaca City
What to Pack & Wear for Monte Alban
Backpacks are allowed in at this site. Make sure to pack it full of sunscreen and water. Oh, and don’t forget to reapply that sunscreen. Even if it’s cloudy. Trust me on this one.
- Travel-Sized Sunscreen
- Packable Panama Hat (one of my travel essentials!)
- Foldable Sunglasses (I own and love these)
- Reusable Water Bottle (this is the one I’ve used for 10 years)
- Travel Camera (wish we had this one)
- Closed-Toed Walking Shoes (for climbing tiny, uneven, stone steps without tripping or stubbing your toe!)
- Foldable Day Pack (I use this one)
We really enjoyed visiting these famous ruins on the $20 Mexican peso. They have unique architecture, beautiful views, and an interesting museum. Make sure to make Monte Alban a top priority when visiting Oaxaca!
If you’re headed to Oaxaca, check out our other posts:
- The Ultimate Guide to Oaxaca City
- The Top 3 Markets to Explore in Oaxaca City
- Where to Eat and Drink in Oaxaca
- Ocotlan vs Tlacolula: Experience the Best Village Markets
- How to Visit Oaxaca’s Petrified Waterfalls and Arbol del Tule
- Hiking and Biking in Santa Catarina Ixtepeji Oaxaca
Have you visited or are you planning to visit Monte Alban? Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions or tips for your fellow readers!