The ruins of Monte Alban, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s greatest attractions – from prices and hours to transport and attractions, find out everything you need to know to plan your visit.
History of Monte Alban, Oaxaca
Before we get in to the visitor information, let’s get into some of the history behind the magnificent Monte Alban ruins.
Spanning over 1500 years, the Zapotec capital grew from a rural town into a city of 25,000. Along the way, their power and influence expanded throughout the region. Perched on a hill overlooking a central valley, they could watch over their citizens and territory.
The peak of Monte Alban, Mexico came between 300-700 AD, and the majority of the structures you see today originate from that time period.
We actually learnt many historical facts about Mexico just from visiting Monte Aban alone.
Opening Hours: 8:00am to 4:30pm everyday.
Entrance Fee: 70 pesos / $3.75.
Photography: There’s apparently a 45 peso fee for using your camera but this isn’t usually enforced. You might want to put away your camera just in case.
Duration: Allow at least 2-3 hours to cover all of Monte Alban, Mexico.
Best time to visit: Go early in the morning before it gets too hot and the tour buses arrive. Monte Alban is popular with local tourists on weekends so visit during the week if possible. Despite all of this, it’s not as popular as many other ruins in Mexico and when we visited, we were surprised to find few other people there.
Parking: Another good reason to get there early is to score a spot at the free parking lot near the entrance. On a busy day it can fill up by 10-11am, especially with tour buses. There’s more parking on the side of the road but you’ll have to walk uphill to the entrance.
Vendors: There are a few vendors inside and outside the park selling trinkets, souvenirs, snacks and water but they’re not too pushy.
Guides: You don’t really need a guide as there are lots of interpretative panels around the site, most of them in both Spanish and English. However a guide will give you a more personal and in-depth visit and you can hire one at the entrance. They charge around 250-550 pesos / $13.35-29.30 an hour – guides can be hit or miss so you might want to chat with a few and gage their level of English, knowledge and personality.
Your guide book should also have some history and information about Monte Alban or you can pick one up at the gift shop. A bit of eavesdropping as you walk around can also go a long way!
Museum: There’s a small museum next to the cafe that’s worth a quick stop but all of the signs for the exhibits are in Spanish.
Cafe: The cafe is a little pricey (as you’d expect) but the vallley views from the terrace are amazing. The menu offers a decent selection of food and drinks.
Gift shop: You can buy Monte Alban books and souvenirs in the small gift shop.
Washrooms: There are clean and well-maintained toilets inside and outside the park
What to Bring: We live in our flip-flops but most people will want to wear comfortable walking shoes! It’s a big site with little shade so you’ll need sunscreen, a hat and water. You could spend hours at Monte Alban so bring snacks to avoid getting hangry. Don’t forget your camera!
We recommend purchasing travel insurance before any trip to Mexico. We’ve been using World Nomads in our travels through 80+ countries over the past 12 years. It’s the best-value provider we’ve found in terms of price and coverage and we haven’t had any issues when we’ve had to make (fortunately) minor claims.
Where to Next: Looking for more things to do in Oaxaca City? Click on our post below…
Top 8 Things to do in Oaxaca City
Oaxaca City is one of the most popular destinations in Mexico – from museums to markets, find out the main attractions in our Oaxaca City GuideRead more
How to Get to Monte Alban, Mexico
Monte Alban is 10km from Oaxaca City and a taxi there will set you back 100-150 pesos / $5.35-8.00.
If you get there early in the morning you’ll have no problem getting a taxi back to the city. This gives you more freedom to go at your own pace rather than arranging a pick-up in advance or possibly paying more to have a taxi sit and wait for you.
Price: 100-150 pesos / $5.35-8.00
#2. Monte Alban Tourist Shuttles
Autobuses Turisticos runs shuttles every hour to and from Monte Alban for 50 pesos / $2.80 roundtrip.
They depart from in front of Hotel Rivera del Angel just outside Oaxaca City center. The bus is comfortable tickets cost 58 pesos / $3.10 and the ride takes around 25 minutes.
Buses leave every hour on the half hour from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. Return buses depart from Monte Alban from 12 noon to 5:00 pm.
For example the first bus leaves Oaxaca City at 8:30am and departs from Monte Alban at 12 noon.
The first 5 buses in the morning give you 3.5 hours between buses. This gives you around 3 hours at the site which is the right about of time for most people.
The last buses at 1:30 pm 2:30 pm and 3:30 pm all return at 5:00 pm. Remember that Monte Alban closes at 4:30 pm so the last bus will only give you around 30 minutes at the site.
Departure times from Oaxaca City: 8:30 am, 9:30 am, 10:30 am, 11:30 am, 12:30 pm, 1:30 pm, 2:30 pm and 3:30 pm
Return times from Monte Alban: 12 noon, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 3:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm (for last 3 buses)
Price: 58 pesos / $3.10
Duration: 25 minutes
Hotel Rivera del Angel Address: Francisco Javier Mina 518, Zona Lunes Feb 09, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
Phone Number: 516 6666
* You can also arrange guides and other tours from Autobuses Turisticos
#3. Local Public Bus and Hiking
The cheaper, but more grueling way to reach the Monte Alban ruins is by local public bus (7 pesos / $0.40 each way) from Oaxaca City combined with a fair amount of walking.
Take a bus marked for Alamos or Atzompa from Calle de Tinoco y Palacios north of the Zocalo. It takes roughly 40 minutes to reach the final stop.
From there, hike up a dirt path to the road that leads to Monte Alban and follow that uphill to the site. This takes an additional 45 minutes each way.
This approach is only recommended for people using Couchsurfers since otherwise you will be paying more for another night of accommodation than the cost of the tour. Backpackers on a shoestring may also find it appealing!
Like the organized transport, budget spending 3 hours at the Monte Alban archaeological site.
Monte Alban Ruins Without a Tour
Let’s rewind the clock, and see what life was like for the elite of Monte Alban during their heyday…
The Gran Plaza was the heart of the ceremonial center, and headquarters for the priestly class.
Monte Alban is one of the few civilizations in the world that clearly depicts the creation of the State as a form of government. The economy consisted of tributes from the surrounding communities, and crops grown on the nearby hills.
Most of what we know about the Monte Alban archaeological site comes from hieroglyphs, which may have been the first written language in Mexico.
Measuring roughly 300 by 200 meters, the Gran Plaza is massive! The perimeter is lined with buildings, and also contains four structures in the middle.
There is a lift that increases the mobility of handicapped visitors. Most of the ruins are also roped off so climbing stairs is limited to a few areas.
Juego de Pelota
Upon entering the Gran Plaza, the first structure you come across is the Juego de Pelota (100 BC). Contrary to other Mesoamerican cities, there is no evidence that the outcome of the games led to death. Instead, this and the four other ball courts at Monte Alban were more like modern day judicial courts, settling disputes.
Games were played with a rubber ball that led to points when it went through the rings on either side of the ball court. The difficult part for the players was that they could only use their hips, elbows, and knees.
Despite looking like seats today, the sloping sides of the arena were coated with a thick mixture of lime to form a polished surface for the ball to slide back down into the center.
Although you get a good view of the Juego de Pelota before you descend into the Gran Plaza, follow the path left around the ball court. The viewpoint from the other side provides a backdrop of a pyramid and lush trees. The path then leads to the floor of the Gran Plaza.
Heading towards the South Platform, the second building on your left is Edificio P.
Building P is significant as it helped the Zapotec keep track of the calendar.
The light chamber formed by a narrow chimney in the stairway marked the sun’s zenith twice a year.
Constructed during the golden age, this building was once a temporary home to the elite of Monte Alban. Although you can’t climb up the stairs, you can still see the blind entrance.
The narrow pathway directly behind the door blocks the view into the palace, providing privacy for its occupants.
At the center of the patio is a small alter adjacent to a tunnel. The tunnel has yet to be explored, but it is thought to have been used for access to other structures in the Gran Plaza.
The last structure in the center of the Gran Plaza is the irregular shaped Observatory (100 BC).
Whereas all the other buildings in Monte Alban align to a grid layout, the Observatory defies all rules.
Shaped like an arrowhead, it was built to observe heavenly events.
In Zapotec culture, astronomy played a crucial role in urban planning as astronomy was undertaken daily. Only a select few high class citizens were trained, since childhood, in astronomical observation.
They were able to calculate agricultural cycles, predict the seasonal variances, and the proximity of the rainy season. The knowledge they possessed helped create the development of the State in Monte Alban.
On the south side of the Observatory are hieroglyphs depicting the conquests of other towns between 100 BC to 200 AD. An upside down head placed under the symbol for Monte Alban symbolizes each victory.
This is thought to have reinforced the notion of a powerful army among residents, and a deterrence for potential attackers.
Before you climb the imposing Plataforma Sur, take a look at the base cornerstones that have detailed reliefs.
At the top are two more structures, but the highlight is the panoramic lookout.
You can see the entire city of Monte Alban on one side, and then the commanding view of the valley from the other side of the platform.
The west side of Monte Alban’s Gran Plaza is bookended by two temple-patio-altar complexes.
These are thought to mirror the function of modern day churches, and served as ceremonial enclosures.
The walls most likely supported wood and earth roofs to provide privacy for participants.
Sacrifices and offerings probably occurred at the central altar.
Galeria de los Danzantes
Adjacent to the first TPA Complex you encounter after descending Plataforma Sur, is a collection of carved stones.
The common theme among all of them are obese nude males with a wide nose and thick lips.
The artistic representation of facial features shows an Olmec influence.
The current theory for the engravings is that they depict the rulers from neighboring towns that were captured and sacrificed.
There is evidence that indicates the men were castrated, and the blood was used for an offering to the gods or in a fertility ritual.
The presence of symbols and numerals creates a timeline for Monte Alban’s history.
The only unaltered section is the roof, as the Zapotecs dismantled the remaining walls to be used in future buildings.
Sandwiched between the two TPA Complexes is Building L.
Archeologists theorize that El Palacio on the other side of the Gran Plaza was used as a residence, but this palace was primarily used for administrative and ceremonial purposes.
Much like a modern office, the shape of the rooms were in constant flux. Over the years, they were shortened or enlarged several times to accommodate different requirements.
Located on the left side of Building L is a pair of tombs.
Since it is not common in Monte Alban culture to have exterior tombs, it reflects earlier construction. You will find a series of reliefs on the interior wall if you duck your head and enter the semi-exposed chamber.
Have you ever wondered what a Mesoamerican clock looked like? Well, this basic stela at the Monte Alban is it.
Stela 18 was used to mark the zenith each day.
Midday was one of only four subdivisions in a day for pre-Hispanics. In addition, the stela’s shadow also marked the changing of seasons.
During the summer and winter solstices, the shadow would extend the furthest south and north respectively.
Stela 9 is composed of four distinct glyphs, one for each face and direction.
The southern face depicts an embellished male figure. Facing the east, the carvings show two priests talking.
The western side showcases a very important priest, and the dates that mark his accomplishments.
The most important relief is on the north side, and features a prominent man listening to another.
Numeric and symbolic glyphs at the base may mark an important milestone for the site. Based on the placement of the stela, these people probably performed these actions on the North Platform.
The North Platform is one of the most complex aspects of Monte Alban. The sheer size combined with the quantity of structures and interconnections is remarkable.
Depending on changing functions, the platform was constantly being remodeled over the years.
Try to imagine yourself walking beneath a giant portico supported by 12 columns, and descending into a recessed patio.
Whereas the masses could congregate in the Gran Plaza, only the elite would be able to ascend to discuss more private affairs.
While at the top, take your time and enjoy the view over the Gran Plaza from among the columns.
Turning around, you can appreciate the hidden Patio Hundido, and two structures on both sides.
To the far right is the substantial VG Complex.
The VG Complex
The VG Complex had ceremonial purposes in the past, but now is referenced by the topographical measuring point used to map Monte Alban.
The structures to the north, east, and south all were temples.
The distinctive temple is to the west, where two columns of foreign stone supported a roof.
Engraved on the columns is the ‘God of the Wide Beaked Bird’.
When the temple on the south side expanded, a staircase was built from the main level of the North Platform to the top of the temple.
Along the way, the Zapotec’s placed a stela to document part of Monte Alban’s history.
The glyphs depict the transfer of power from generation to generation.
The striking aspect is that four out of five people were women!
Perhaps we have a lot to learn about gender equality from our Mesoamerican ancestors.
On the way to the exit, and beneath the east temple of the VG Complex, there is a structure with stone disc panels.
The decoration found on Edificio Enjoyado appears on only two other buildings, but neither are in as good condition. The combination of these designs, a collection of ceramics, and a possible mica workshop lead archeologists to believe there was a small Teotihuacan population in Monte Alban.
It is known that some Zapotec’s resided in Teotihuacan, so it may have been the world’s first exchange program.
It is also noteworthy that this platform leads directly to the North Platform so the two cultures must have been intertwined more than we know.
Most homes of Monte Alban citizens were not constructed to last. However, the ruling class built their homes out of stone, mud, adobe, lime, and sand.
That is why visitors are still able to see the foundations, and the tombs were discovered still intact. All tombs have since been sealed to prevent deterioration, with artifacts inside being relocated to local museums.
Both the wealth and importance of the individual entombed helped to determine the quantity and quality of the goods they were buried with. These often included objects made from clay, stone, shell, jade, bone, gold, and silver.
The Mexican tradition, Day of the Dead, of placing food and offerings on gravestones originates from this tradition.
Hacia la Tumba 104
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Monte Alban is Hacia la Tumba 104.
The walls of the elegant house are grouped around a central patio.
Inside the tomb was a wide assortment of ornate clay products.
The surrounding walls were painted with priests bearing gifts.
Residencia y Tumba 56
Tumba 56 is rather small, but what makes it special is the archway that leads to the tomb.
Large slabs of stone were used to create the arch of the roof.
Inside was one small niche where offerings were placed.
Hacia la Tumba 7
Located to the west of the parking lot, and before the official entrance to Monte Alban is Tomb 7.
This tomb is famous for the Mixtec treasure, and is the best reason to visit Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.
Hacia la Tumba 105 y Juego de Pelota Chica
These two structures are located behind the small parking lot.
They are technically free to visit, but you will definitely want to still see the rest of Monte Alban.
The tomb is underneath the palace, which is one of the largest at the site.
The small ball court looks like it was a training facility for kids to practice before moving up to the ‘big leagues’.
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***The Final Word – Monte Alban is the highlight of Oaxaca, and is not to be missed.***
Did you know that the Zapotec civilization was so progressive?
Easy DIY travel outside city centres using public transport
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Visited in April 2016
This post was updated in April 2019