Visitors to this part of southern Mexico (including ourselves) are usually pretty impressed by the beauty of the three valleys near Oaxaca city which are collectively known as the Valles Centrales. They are wide and majestic and full of worthy attractions.
Turns out, the indigenous Zapotecs were pretty fond of this valley too and they left behind some pretty impressive proof of the cities they built here including the strategically-placed Monte Alban, mysterious Yagul and pattern-filled Mitla archaeological sites.
The Zapotecs built their capitol, which dates back to 500 BC, in the Valle de Etla just a few miles from what is now Oaxaca city, the capital of Oaxaca state. What remains of Monte Alban is an impressive collection of temples and plazas on a flattened hilltop with million dollar views–and a good vantage point for spotting approaching enemies.
The attractions here are relatively close together (a blessing since there’s very little shade) and can be toured in under two hours including a ramble through the on-site museum.
The first thing that’s odd about the Mitla archeological site is that it’s located right in the middle of a large town that is also named Mitla, in the Valle de Talcolula. The second oddity is the Catholic church smack in the middle of the site, built there by the Spanish, maybe in an attempt to expunge the place of its past as a major sacrificial site.
But the most remarkable thing about Mitla, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, are the 14 distinct and recurring intricately carved patterns that decorate almost every stone surface in the city. If it could be carved, the Zapotecs decorated it with one of these core patterns which are thought to symbolize the sky, feathers, the earth and other important elements.
While touring the Yagul archeological site, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 (this explains the flurry of restoration work that was going on when we were there), we bumped into a guy from the US named Greg. He explained the “rule of three” theory about the site which was ruled concurrently by three kings who are now buried in three underground tombs which are the site’s main attractions. Bob also told us about the Rana Reina (frog queen) and we might have missed the stone carving of this frog queen, located in the plaza that houses the three tombs, if he hadn’t pointed it out.
It’s well worth climbing up the trail that leads above Yagul so you can check out another underground tomb and enjoy views across the Valle de Tlacoluca.