Monte Alban is easily one of the best sites in Mexico, and a great place to visit on day trips from Oaxaca. Set at 1,940 meters above sea level (that’s 6,400 feet) and rising around 400 meters (1,300 feet) from the valley floor at less than 10 km (6.2 miles) from Oaxaca, the hilltop site will not only be great to explore in and of itself, but also a fantastic place to get views of the surrounding region.
If you are looking for information on visiting Monte Alban, Mexico, I got you covered! I have been there twice: once independently, using public transport from Oaxaca; and once on a guided tour for a more in depth experience.
In this post, I will share everything you need to know about Monte Alban, with information on what to see on the site; how to get there from Oaxaca, and the best Monte Alban tours. Ready to find out more? Let’s go!
What You Must Know Before Visiting Monte Alban, Mexico
The History of Monte Alban
Monte Alban is a pre-Columbian ceremonial center that has been occupied by a number of ancient civilizations, including Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Olmecs over a period of 1,500 years; and which has been influenced by various other peoples, including the Nahua (inhabitants of Teotihuacan), Aztecs and the Maya. The evidence of these civilizations from the pre-Classic and Classic periods includes temples and tombs with hieroglyphic inscriptions, and a ball game court.
The site, whose name means “White Mountain,” is one of the most important one in the Oaxaca Valley – it was the capital of the Zapotec civilization between 500 BC and 850 AD. When the Spaniards arrived in the area, the site had already been abandoned.
The site is known for the unique dimensions and chronology and has been a focus of archeological study for many years. Monte Alban was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
What to See at Monte Alban, Mexico
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia
The museum is a good starting point for your visit if you would like information about the history of Monte Alban. It has a small collection of artifacts from the site including pottery, relics, small sculptures, and a few carved stone danzantes (from the Los Danzantes building).
You will also find a bookstore, a café with a terrace from where you can enjoy incredible views of the site and the surrounding valley, and guides you can hire for your visit.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia is open Monday to Sunday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Admission is included in the fee you pay to enter the site.
The Main Plaza
The Main Plaza at Monte Alban was the monumental center of the site. The civic and ceremonial structures used by the people are located here. There are also several residences in this area that researchers believe belonged to the elite residents of Monte Alban.
The Ball Court
Just in the vicinity of the Main Plaza, amongst more elite residences and temples, lies a ballcourt. This ballcourt was used for different functions including ballgames and other sporting events, as well as cultural events, like festivals and musical performances.
The North Platform has a ceremonial area and an altar. When you walk into the North Plaza, find Stela 9, a stone pillar carved on four sides. Then walk up the reconstructed stairway to get to the top of the platform.
This structure is an elegant residence of one of the prominent citizens of Monte Alban. The walls surrounding the home are grouped around a central patio. The tomb inside had numerous clay artifacts. The walls of the tomb were painted with priests bearing gifts.
No visit to Monte Alban would be complete without taking in the view from the top of the pyramids. You will be rewarded for your long, hot walk up the stairs when you reach the top. You will see the breathtaking panoramic view of the rest of the site and the surrounding countryside with its lush vegetation and colorful trees.
An interesting fact about these pyramids is how they differ from the Egyptian pyramids. While in that ancient land, the Egyptians buried their rulers and other prominent citizens inside the pyramids, Mesoamerican pyramids were used for many utilitarian purposes. The pyramids of Monte Alban were used as palaces and temples; altars were used for human sacrifice.
The tombs at Monte Alban are believed to be the origin of the Day of the Dead festival. The wealthy citizens of the city were buried alongside their belongings here, with objects made from gold, silver, jade, and stone. This helped archeologists determine the identity of the dead. The tombs were built extremely well and sealed to prevent deterioration. When the scientists initially found them, the tombs were completely intact.
The Day of the Dead tradition is believed to have originated from what was found in the tombs of Monte Alban. The celebration includes dancing, drinking, eating, and parades. During the festivities, the living place food and other gifts on gravestones. Today, the Mexican tradition to celebrate the dead happens every year at the very end of October.
The VG Complex
This complex started out as a ceremonial site, but it is now believed by experts to be a topographical measuring point. The buildings located to the north, south, and east were all temples. The main temple was west and had two columns of foreign stone that supported a roof. The columns have the engraving, ‘God of the Wide Beaked Bird’.
At the south temple, there is a slab placed by the Zapotecs that documents the history of Monte Alban. The depiction of the glyphs is the transfer of power in the generations.
When you exit the VG Complex, you will see a structure of stone disc panels beneath the east temple. This decoration, based on the design, led archeologists to believe at one point there was a small population of Teotihuacan people at Monte Alban. This may have been the location of the world’s first exchange program occurring between the Zapotec and the Teotihuacan people.
This building is unique because the carved stones are in a peculiar arrow shape. Inside the building are over 40 large slabs with carvings and writings that depict the people that once lived there. Many of these slabs are believed to be ‘conquest slabs’ that mark the occasion of a battle victory. Archeologists have theorized that these slabs date back to Monte Alban II.
Los Danzantes of Monte Alban
This site is considered the highlight of Monte Alban. There are about 300 stone slabs here called danzantes, or dancers. Although the name implies that these slabs were there for an entertainment purpose, experts believe they depict something else. The accepted theory today is that these slabs were prisoners or sacrificial victims, and their position implies that they were tortured and mutilated.
How to get to Monte Alban
The is the cheapest way of getting to Monte Alban. In Oaxaca, take the bus from Calle de Tinoco y Palacios to Alamos or Atzompa. The trip takes approximately 40 minutes. Then you will need to hike up a path to the road that leads to Monte Alban – though I shall warn you, it is a rather long walk so you may want to get a taxi to head up. The cost for the bus trip to Monte Alban is around 8 Mexican Pesos ($0.41 USD) each way.
Shuttles run by Autobuses Turisticos depart every hour in front of the Hotel Rivera del Angel, located just outside of Oaxaca City center. The buses run from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm from the hotel. Buses departing Monte Alban to return to town run from 12:00 to 5:00 pm. The roundtrip ride costs around 56 Mexican Pesos ($2.80 USD).
Take a guided tour
There are numerous tour operators that run day trips to Monte Alban from Oaxaca. These day tours might also include another tourist destination on your way to or from Monte Alban. These can be easily arranged online on one of the numerous travel booking sites. You can also ask your hotel front desk to recommend a tour for you.
For guided tours of Monte Alban, click here or here.
You can drive from Oaxaca City to Monte Alban. The distance is about 10 km (6 miles) and, depending on the time of day and traffic, the drive can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes.
Taxi or Uber
Many Monte Alban visitors get to the site from Oaxaca using a public taxi or Uber. If you plan on staying at the site for most of the day, you should not have any problem getting a taxi or Uber when you are ready to leave – just jump on any that has just dropped off tourists. The cost to travel this way is up to 160 Mexican Pesos ($8.00 USD) each way.
Useful information for your visit
Opening hours and admission fee
Monte Alban is open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm daily and the cost of admission is 85 Mexican Pesos ($4.50 USD).
Best time to visit
The best time to begin your visit to the Monte Alban site is early in the morning. It is better to get there as early as possible since it will be cooler than later in the day. You will also have a little quiet time before the tour buses arrive and crowd the site. The site is especially popular with locals on the weekends (it’s free to visit for Mexicans on Sundays), so a weekday visit would be the best option.
Weather in Monte Alban, Mexico
The weather at Monte Alban is primarily sunny and warm year-round. It is best to wear a hat to protect your head from the sun, and loose fitting, light colored clothing for your comfort. It is recommended that you use sunscreen on all exposed areas.
What to wear
Whether you choose to climb the pyramids or not, you will be doing quite a bit of walking around the site. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. To avoid dehydration, bring plenty of water for your trip.
Facilities on site
There are restrooms on-site in the museum. There are also restrooms inside the site in the far right corner.
Make sure to read my other posts about Mexico:
- The Best Things To Do In Oaxaca
- Where To Stay In Oaxaca
- The Best Travel Tips For Mexico
- The Best Itinerary For 3 Days In Mexico City
- The Best Things To Do In Puebla
- The Best Mexico Itinerary
- What To Eat In Mexico
- How Not To Get Sick In Mexico
2 thoughts on “The Best Guide To Monte Alban, Mexico”
Thank you for the helpful article. It is a good, quick guide to this important site. It does however have some inaccuracies that are a bit misleading. Nothing big but it can be made better. I hope the feedback is helpful¨.
When you say that Monte Alban “has been influenced by various other peoples, including the Teotihuacan…” you should note, Teotihuacan is a place, not a people. You probably meant the Nahua, inhabitants of Teotihuacan and often erroneously called the “Aztecs.”
I’ve been to MA a dozen or so times. I am taking some people there tomorrow but, unless I missed it, there is only ONE ball court, not two as you state. I will double check tomorrow.
Los Danzantes are several dozen. I don’t think there are anywhere near the 300 you mention.
I wonder if you have a source for your statement that “The tombs at Monte Alban are believed to be the origin of the Day of the Dead festival.” It is correct that Zapotecs honored their dead in many ways, but so did most of the peoples of Mesoamerica. Customs varied but I do not believe it is the Zapotecs exclusively who gave birth to Día de Muertos celebrations.
Finally, it is good you included a variety of travel options as many people think you can ONLY go by tour bus. I do however think, the option of public bus and a hike are unrealistic. The drop-off point for the “urbanos” gets you to the base of the mountain. Hiking up, as you suggest would take at least two hours, probably more and you have to be in good to very good physical condition. Taking that option, you would get to MA tired and ready to turn around and go home
Thank you for all your points. I am not sure why I wrote that there are two ball courts. I have been there a bunch of times myself and you are right, there only is one. Re. Los Danzantes, I certainly haven’t counted how many there are, but there are around 300 slabs. Finally, re the transport: I did the bus + hike myself once but I am a keen hiker and fit so point taken.