Highlights of Mexico (8): Monte Alban and more Oaxaca

Day 5 was Easter Sunday and we were woken up from about 6 am with very loud fireworks celebrating that the Lord had risen. Then the covers were taken off some of the birdcages in the courtyard and the dawn chorus started. Next church bells began to toll calling the faithful to mass. All in all, a lively start to the day in downtown Oaxaca City.

Breakfast was in the restaurant and the television had some news for us. Mexico’s federal police announced that they had just detained in Oaxaca state a man identified as one of the top money launderers for drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Our morning excursion – starting at 8.30 am – was to the ruins of Monte Alban where we spent three hours, mostly walking around the huge site, but finishing at a small museum and the cafe. It is located on a high plateau overlooking the city and approached by a long, winding, and steep road.

Located just west of Oaxaca City, Monte Alban was the ancient capital of the Zapotecs and was later inhabited by the conquering Mixtecs. Archaeologists have divided the history of Monte Alban into five phases: Phase I – up to about 200 BC when the town grew to a population of about 10,000; Phase II – between 200 BC and 350 AD when the town became dominant in the region; Phase III – from about 350-700 when the city was at its peak with a population of between 25,000-35,000; Phase IV – between 700-950 when the city was abandoned and fell into ruins; and Phase V – between 950-1521 when there was minimal activity. Today it is a UN World Heritage site.

We were surprised at the extensive nature of the site and pleased that Jose had suggested we reached it early to avoid the worst of the crowds and the heat. At the heart of the excavations which started in 1931 is the Great Plaza which is over 300 metres (980 feet) long with a variable width averaging about 160 metres (520 feet). There are tall temples with wide stone staircases and various tombs and religious buildings plus a sunken patio and a ball court.

We were back at the hotel at 12.30 pm and the official programme for the rest of the day was “at leisure” – a chance to rest and recover in preparation for two flights and another Mexican state tomorrow. After a short sleep, Roger and Vee went out for a couple of hours to stroll around the nearby Zocalo area. First, just north of the Zocalo in the adjoining square of Alameda de Leon, we visited Oaxaca’s Cathedral. Construction of this version began in 1553 and (several earthquakes later) concluded in the 18th century.

Then, in Zocalo itself, we had a leisurely lunch in a restaurant called “El Portal del Marques” where we shared a club sandwich and each had a dessert (apple strudel for Vee and banana split for Roger). We sat on a covered terrace looking out over the square so that we could shelter from the bright sun and indulge in a favourite sport of people-watching: lots of very colourful clothes, lots of enormous stomachs, lots of babies and children, lots of hawkers and musicians, and policemen always walking round in threes.

Later, when it was nighttime, we returned to the Alameda and Zocalo squares and found an even more magical atmosphere. The squares and the restaurants were full of people and alive with noise. As well as the usual stalls and hawkers, there were all sorts of entertainers. A three-piece musical group had lots of locals dancing salsa with panache. A woman in mask and dress decorated with skulls offered children slips of paper from a special box. A crowd watched on a huge television screen a football match between Oaxaca and another Mexican team.


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