Somehow I missed posting this blog article... Here it is after the fact.
I first discovered Oaxaca (like Christopher Columbus discovered America right?) when I was researching archaeological sites and saw this city on top of a mountain similar to Machu Picchu in Peru. It wasn't as pretty as Machu Picchu but possibly bigger and intriguing. It was in a state called Oaxaca which seemed to be very popular with backpackers. One thing led to another and in 2006 I traveled here with my kids. I guess I could credit the Zapotecs and their interest in building cities on mountain peaks that got me to Oaxaca in the first place. Now we're back and we want to go see Monte Alban again but this time do it our way. Last time we took a tour because we really didn't know how to get up there to the mountaintop and it was the fastest way to see the ruins. We got transportation and a guide but it the tour only left 15 minutes left to sit and contemplate so we missed a lot. This time we looked in the guidebook for the place to get a bus and went to that location. We saw no ticket booth but a man came along asking if we wanted a touristic bus so we followed him around the corner to the touristic bus store. There we paid for tickets and waited. The "buses" here are really heavy duty trucks with bus tops on them and they need to be. The roads are rough and I imagine a normal bus would wear out quickly. The ride up took about 30 minutes and gave us almost 5 hours to see the museum and the ruins. It's designed so you can hire a guide when you get there but we didn't since we've already gone through that. We ate in the restaurant and predictably got taken for about double then went through the museum before ascending the hill to the city.
Monte Alban was built by the Zapotecs which still make up the majority of the indigenous population in the area. The Monte Alban civilization is the longest continually running civilization in the Americas having been created in 500 BC and ending when the Spanish invaded in 1500 AD. During the course of their run they saw the Olmec (from which they came), Maya, Teotihaucanos, Toltecs and Aztecs come and go with only the last still existent when they were conquered. If you think about the time line had they been in Europe they would have seen the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Gauls and Franks come and go too. Two thousand years is a long time. So Monte Alban was their ceremonial center as well as other things. They had a ball court there similar to the Olmec ball courts and many temples. If Monte Alban were the center of a major city now the city square would be twice as big as the largest in the world (Red Square in Moscow). It doesn't look that huge in the photos until you zoom in and notice the people on the far side are very small. Just thinking that over 2000 years ago these people flattened what was once a pointed mountain peak 1500 ft above the valley floor to build a giant city is mind boggling. They also did a lot of other things including astronomy, math and medicine. They found carvings and skulls showing proof that they were doing research in medicine. In the Museum they show several skulls that had holes drilled in them and plugged. They also showed dentistry that had been done and there are carved stones showing anatomy. Very interesting people. According to scholars the Maya got their knowledge of astronomy and writing from them. They in turn got their writing system from the Olmecs which came up with it.
Most of the day we spent laying under shade trees watching people come and go and the rest climbing the pyramids to get a better view. Some day I'd like to come here in the spring when everything is lush and green. I've included a link to a hires photo so you can see how big the city is by how small the people are on the other side.
That evening after we got back to town we attempted to get something to eat only to find out that the entire city was reserved by the residents. I guess that's fair but there was a lot of tourists going without food. I thought that things might be different since it was new years eve but didn't expect everything to be reserved. We wandered the streets and only found one restaurant accepting patrons - for $40 a person. No thanks. We did find a bakery open so we got a bunch of baked goods thinking we were going to starve otherwise but within one block of the hostel found a rotisserie that would sell us a whole chicken for under $5 so that's what we did. I actually went back for a second chicken because we finished the first quite fast.
To see the fireworks we went onto the hostel roof and overall I wasn't that impressed. I'm fairly certain that the people who live around our lake spend about 10x the money on fireworks than ALL of Oaxaca combined.