With life, comes death. As hard as we may try to escape this reality, there comes a point when we cannot run from the inevitable decline. How do we deal with it? Turn ourselves to dust and go with the wind? Build elaborate pyramids and attempt to retain our physical presence? These are not questions I can answer.
But I can tell you this: Visiting the Mitla ruins in Oaxaca, Mexico will bring you another perspective on the matter. Mitla’s name was derived from the native term Mictlan, which means “place of rest.” And to this day, it remains an important place to remember those who have passed. Many tombs lay underneath the ruin sites, two of which have been emptied for tourists to explore. But that’s not all. The five groups of structures are also full of mosaic patterns, large columns, and ancient paintings.
Set aside some time to channel your inner Indiana Jones. Climb deep into the tombs and feel the energy from generations long ago. You’ll understand why Mitla is Oaxaca’s second-most important ruin site (behind Monte Alban).
Arriving at Mitla Ruins
We made our way out to Mitla from Oaxaca City (less than 30 miles, or 45 km) early one morning. Passing by the fields of agave, it was hard to avoid thinking about the upcoming mezcal adventure to Santiago de Matatlan that afternoon – or the magnificent pools at Hierve el Agua the next morning. But first on the agenda: Mitla ruins.
Once the taxi dropped us off, we opted to walk through the small, yet charming town of Mitla toward the ruins, rather than hire a 3-wheeled “moto” taxi. After passing a handful of small restaurants and the main plaza, we took a seat on a bench outside the Templo Católico de San Pablo Villa (Catholic Temple of San Pablo Villa). The only other people we saw at 9 am were workers inside the church, busy with reconstruction efforts after last year’s earthquake.
A tour van drove past us headed for the ruins. Eager to beat the crowds, we jumped up and followed suit. The main entrance of the Mitla ruins is at the northern end of the site behind Templo Católico de San Pablo Villa. In fact, the church is constructed on top of one of the most significant areas in Mitla, using stones from the original Zapotec buildings. The sad truth is that the Spanish conquest often imposed Catholic beliefs by destroying the existing monuments and erecting their own directly on top.
Main Patios and Group of Columns
We paid the $42 peso (approx. $2 USD) entrance fee and entered the northern group of ruins. Right away, we see two walls to our right stretching about 40 feet (12 m) long. These are the backsides to the first two Zapotec patios (essentially square courtyards with walls on all sides). And just beyond that is the backside of the Catholic church, half constructed from a ruin wall and half from more modern methods. An intense display of the catholic imposition on the ancient temples.
We walked in the first patio closest to the church and found ourselves in a grass courtyard surrounded by four walls about 10 feet (3 m) high. The unique mosaic patterns stretch all the way around the top of the walls. We then continued through a small tunnel and into the second, slightly-smaller patio area. This is where some of the best paintings remaining at the site are located. Red glyphs of animals and other symbols bring you back in time.
Traveling a bit south, crossing through an area full of vendors, you’ll find the Group of Columns. This group is amazing and can’t be missed. The exterior is covered with multiple layers of intricate mosaic designs, representing the sky, the earth, and the underworld. (Here is a great read for more information on the designs.)
As you round the corner and enter the square at Group of Columns, a wide staircase leads into a small chamber with six massive columns, about four feet in diameter and twelve feel tall (1.2 m by 3.7 m). Next to the columns is a small hallway, leading to an interior chamber, approximately 30 feet by 30 feet (9 m). This is a private, secure area thought to have housed Mitla’s most prominent figures, most likely high priests and other leaders.
Each side of this patio has an entrance to a small, rectangular room, four in total. They are filled with wonderful mosaic patterns. The roofs have been reconstructed with a wood frame and palm leaves – similar to a palapa – to show what they would have looked like when inhabited. Walking into these rooms, the energy of the past begins to flow through your body.
Entering the Tombs at Mitla Ruins
Once done at the Group of Columns, we continued south to the final patio at this section of ruins. This one is where you get to channel your inner Indiana Jones. We noticed the groups from the tour vans failed to visit this area, missing out on our favorite memory of the site.
Entering the final courtyard, you’re once again surrounded with mosaic-covered walls on all sides. But here there is something else: two openings in the patio floor with stone staircases leading down. We were the only ones in the area, slowly creeping down toward a small entrance, and found ourselves staring into a pitch-black tunnel about three feet (1 m) high. Well, no time like the present, right?!
So we grabbed our cameras, crouched down to squeeze through the tiny entrance, and made our way into the darkness. After climbing inside, then back up a few stairs, we faced the entrance way to a tomb. There was a light at the end but pitch black on either side. Trapped heat and humidity hits you in the face. And the energy was exceptional. At this point, we understood exactly why the town was named to mean “place of rest.”
We climbed back out, with our hearts pumping and adrenaline high, and came back into the sunlight. What an experience! That basically wrapped up this group of ruins, so we strolled back to the entrance area and made our way back to town.
Other Ruin Sites in Mitla
On our way back, we stopped by three small patios situated on the eastern side of road up between the main plaza and the church. This is Grupo del Arroyo. A neighboring farmer noticed our hesitance to go past the first area, so he eagerly waived us on and into the back sections. This group of ruins is completely open, free to enter and unprotected. It hasn’t been maintained or reconstructed quite as well, but it was nice to see what the ruins were like without much help.
Another site sits west of the Group of Columns a few blocks: Grupo del Adobe El Calvario. If you look that way on your walk up to the northern group, you’ll be able to see part of it.
And finally, for those with extra time and the desire to hike, there is a fortress area about a mile west of Mitla. Our taxi driver was from Mitla and he said it was amazing – the earliest building site of Mitla and a defensive stronghold. We weren’t able to squeeze it in this trip.
Details on Mitla – Transportation, Hotels, and Markets
The taxis from Oaxaca drop you off at the main transportation hub in Mitla; nothing more than a few taxis hanging out at a funky little 5-way intersection situated about 3/4 of a mile (1.2 km) south from the main ruin area. The colectivo (shared taxi) from the baseball stadium in Oaxaca City cost $30 pesos per person ($1.50 USD), and the private taxis are approximately $300 pesos ($15) per car. The walk from the drop-off point to the ruins goes past most of the small town’s restaurants and shops, as well as the main plaza and Grupo del Arroyo. Or if you’d prefer to skip the walk, 3-wheeled taxis known as “motos” can bring you straight to the main area of Mitla ruins for about 10 pesos each.
Mitla is a small town, but very charming. We spent the night at Hotel Zapotec for 250 pesos (about $12 USD); it even had pretty decent wifi, but was a no-frills sort of place. If you’re looking for something a little nicer, Hotel Don Cenobio is right in the center of town. It also has a restaurant.
There is a lovely market in Mitla: Mercado de Abastos. Fresh flowers and produce are near the entrance, and in the back you’ll find plenty of prepared food stalls. Breakfast for us was an amazing quesadilla with squash blossoms and mushrooms, and an orange juice squeezed right in front of our eyes.
Around Dia de Muertos time, the market has the locally produced pan de muertos (bread of the dead) decorated with beautiful white icing. They also sell other celebration decorations and it is a homage site for many locals in the area. Fun place to stop by!
The restaurants are mainly small, family-run establishments. We had a nice tlayuda and a great set of tacos at MiTlayuda (get it? Mitla & tlayuda pun!) for around 150 pesos ($7 USD) total, including two beers. We passed by a pizza place and a few other hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Once you’re done in Mitla, don’t forget to check out some of the nearby attractions: Hierve el Agua for spectacular petrified waterfalls and spring-fed pools high above the valley floor; Santiago de Matatlan to get the inside scoop on mezcal production; and Tlacolula for an amazing Sunday market!
Would you climb deep into the darkness of the tomb at Mitla? Let us know with a comment below!