Mitla of Oaxaca

Oaxaca has a number of interesting archeological sites scattered around the state. While some may not be grand and exciting, they do make for a pleasant couple hours of exploring.  One such place is Mitla. This site is a little bit further away from Oaxaca City than Monte Alban as it is about 44km away from the city. Mitla was the main religious center of the Zapotec culture (Monte Alban was the main political center) – even its name denotes the ultimate reason why religions exist: death. Mitla comes from the word Mictlán which means place of the dead. It should be of no surprise that the conquering Spanish apparently decided the word actually meant “hell”.

Mitla got its start at least 19 hundred years ago but its peak was between 750 and 1521 A.D. When the Spanish arrived, things changed. Since the site was important to the conquered people, the Spanish did their best to destroy it. As such, not much is left today. Still, there is enough remaining to give you an idea what the place would have looked like in its heyday. You can admire the tombs, carvings, geometric designs, mosaic fretwork, and a fence made by giant cacti.

Mitla stands apart from Monte Alban with its bright colour and patterns. Walls are covered in red paint and/or really neat geometric designs. The other difference is that the site was built on the valley floor rather than on top of a hill like Monte Alban…so no grand vistas here. But if you’re a history and/or architecture fan, you’ll enjoy this site. If you’re looking for the proverbial “wow factor”, though, (such as views, giant structures, etc),Mitla may not be your favourite place.

Mitla is included on the Mexican list of national heritage sites which includes other things such as the Tree of Tule. Despite this honour, it isn’t highly visited compared to other places – which sucks for those who make their money selling trinkets to tourists but is fantastic for visitors who don’t like crowds (ie. me). I read that about 500 people on average visitMitla per day and my visit experience seems to support that low number.

In the end, if you’re in the area, I do recommend a couple of hours to visit Mitla. If you’re not in the area, you won’t miss anything spectacular. It’s a nice place but not a “must see”.

9 responses to “Mitla of Oaxaca

  1. Mitla is an amazing place. I haven’t been there in over 20 years, but I visited it multiple times during the year that I was based in Oaxaca. You are right that it is not the most ‘grand’ place, but I remember spending many enjoyable hours exploring its nooks and crannies. It certainly isn’t a ‘boring’ place! 🙂

    Thanks for the great photos — brings back some nice memories.

    • You’ve been! I’d be curious to see if the site changed since you last were there – for example, are more things uncovered/restored today? was it heavily visited by tourists back then compared to today? You have to go back and let me know 😉

      • Yes, I’d love to go back. It’s been a long time now, alas! It wasn’t overly busy then, either, though I vaguely recall it being a bit busier than what you found. However, if you arrived earlier you would almost certainly be alone as you explored. The whole state of Oaxaca is worth exploring, though.

        I used to take the 2nd class buses out of Oaxaca (the city) up further into the mountains and get off at random villages and just explore. I’d inevitably draw attention (I’m 6’4″, two hundred and too many pounds — I tend to stand out). As soon as I’d smile to show I wasn’t some scary, uptight American (I’m Canadian, but the distinction never matters in the mountains of Mexico in my experience) I’d be invited for coffee, engaged in discussions, and otherwise quickly made an official guest of the village. 🙂

        Those were some of my favorite times. With the possible exception of people in northern Thailand and in the mountains of southern Turkey, the peoples of the Mixtec / Zapotec villages in the mountains of Oaxaca were the friendliest I met anywhere in the world. I hope they are still as friendly today! My guess is that they haven’t changed much.

      • oh that sounds like it would have been a fantastic experience! I only saw a bit of of Oaxaca but it is one of my favorite areas to which I’ve traveled. Definitely hoping to go back soon!

  2. Oh, conquistadors, ‘thank you’ for making everything ‘better’! I really wonder what it would look like if everything related to the religion had been allowed to remain.

    What’s there does look interesting though, the patterns are quite neat. They look like the kind of thing I’d really like to touch but really, really shouldn’t!

  3. Pingback: Unfinished Ex-Monastery of Cuilapan, Oaxaca | Rusty Travel Trunk·

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