Southwest of Oaxaca City, a narrow, twisting road leads up to the mountaintop city of the "cloud people," Monte Albán. Seeing this massive ancient metropolis is a mystical experience, especially if you are lucky enough to find one or more of the tombs open. South of the city lies a string of crafts villages. Atzompa, known for its green-glaze pottery, is a popular stop. It's on the road to Monte Albán, as is San Bartolo Coyotepec, where you'll find gorgeous black pottery.
massive temples of Monte Albán, perched atop a mesa, make this one of the country's most spectacular archaeological sites. This vast city was home to more than 30,000 Zapotec. Despite its size, experts estimate that only about 10% of the site has been uncovered. Digs are sporadic, taking place whenever the budget permits.
Monte Albán overlooks the Oaxaca Valley from a flattened mountaintop 5,085 feet high; the views are breathtaking. Either the Zapotec or their predecessors leveled the site around 600 BC. The varying heights of the site follow the contours of distant mountains. The oldest of the four temples is the Galería de los Danzantes, or the Dancers' Gallery, so named for the elaborately carved stone figures that once covered the building. Most of the originals are now in the site museum, but you can still see some in the temple. Experts are unsure whether the nude male figures represent captives, warriors, or some other group; the theory that they were dancers has been discarded because some appear to be bound.
The Zapotec constructed most of the buildings along a north–south axis, except for the so-called Observatorio (Observatory). The arrow-shape structure is set at a 45-degree angle, pointing toward the southwest. It's thought to have been an observatory, as it's more closely aligned with the stars than with the Earth's poles.
The Juego de Pelota, or ball game, was played in the well-excavated court. Hips, shoulders, knees, and elbows were probably used to hit a wooden or rubber ball. The details of these games are sketchy, but there's speculation that they were a means of solving disputes between factions or villages, of celebrating the defeat of a rival, or of worshipping the gods. Although human sacrifice is thought to have been connected with the ball game in certain parts of Mesoamerica, there's no evidence that it happened in Monte Albán.
No one knows for sure whether the Zapotec abandoned the site gradually or suddenly, but by AD 1000 it stood empty. Years afterward the Mixtec used Monte Albán as a lofty necropolis of lavish tombs. More than 200 tombs and 300 burial sites have been explored. The most fantastic of these, Tumba 7, yielded a treasure unequaled in North America. Inside were more than 500 priceless Mixtec objects, including gold breastplates; jade, pearl, ivory, and gold jewelry; and fans, masks, and belt buckles of precious stones and metals. The tomb is north of the parking lot but is seldom open.
At Monte Albán you'll find a small site museum with a gift shop. The cafeteria isn't half bad, and has a great view of the valley; sadly, it closes with the rest of the site at 5 pm.
Direct buses serving Monte Albán depart from the Hotel Rivera del Ángel (Calle Mina 518 951/516–6666 or 951/516–0666) in Oaxaca City hourly on the half-hour from 8:30 to 3:30; the last bus back is at 6 pm. The round-trip fare is about $4; to stay longer than two hours you must pay a small surcharge (you can decide once you're on-site). The road to Monte Albán is west of Oaxaca City and is very easy to follow: the trip takes 10 to 15 minutes.