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Mitla, 46 km (27 mi) southeast of Oaxaca, expanded and grew in influence as Monte Albán declined. Like its predecessor, Mitla is a complex started by the Zapotec and later taken over by the Mixtec. Unlike Monte Albán, Mitla's attraction lies not in its massive scale, but in its unusual ornamentation; the stonework depicts mesmerizing abstract designs with a powerful harmony. The striking architecture, which dates as late as the 1500s, is almost without equal within Mexico thanks to the exquisite greca workmanship on the fine local volcanic stone, which ranges in hue from pink to yellow.
The first structure you enter is the Grupo del Norte, where the Spanish settlers built Mitla's Catholic cathedral literally on top of the Zapotec structure, integrating the foundation. It's comparable to having the history of Oaxaca laid out before you in one building—truly remarkable. Mitla's name comes from the Nahuatl word mictlan, meaning "place of the dead." Don't expect to see anything resembling a graveyard, however; the Zapotec and Mixtec typically buried their dead under the entrance to the structure where the deceased resided.
There are a few underground tombs in the impressive Grupo de las Columnas (Group of the Columns), the main section of the ruins that are fun to climb down into. In that group is also the palace that forms the most striking architectural achievement of Mitla.
The journey on Carretera 190 takes about 50 minutes. If you haven't rented a car, you can catch a colectivo at the side of Oaxaca City's second-class bus station or along the road to Mitla—or hire a cab or car through your hotel to take you on a day trip to Mitla (and perhaps a mezcal distillery as well). The ruins are in the midsize town of Mitla, which has many small restaurants along with a beautiful church that practically dwarfs the ruins. There's a small market area adjacent to the parking lot with public restrooms and snack and souvenir vendors.
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