Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hiking To Monte Alban Archaeological Site, Oaxaca

Hiking To Monte Alban Archaeological Site, Oaxaca

Update, 2014  Bus return
Monte Alban Archaeological Site is exstensive.  Many platforms 
offer stairs for climbing.  Site fee is 59 Pesos. Hours 9-5
     We have hiked to Monte Alban several times by the back trail from the village of Xoxocotlan, just a few miles west of Oaxaca City.  Often we return by bus after touring the site rather than walk down.  Find the Autobuses touristicos bus in the Monte Alban Parking lot.  They run Round trips eight times a day.  Returns to Oaxaca City are on the hour. (50 Pesos RT) Last bus down 5:00 pm.

Climbing is allowed on several of the stairways at Monte Alban
When hiking to Monte Alban from Xoxocotlan you start at 5,000 feet altitude and hike to 6,300 on dirt trails.  It makes a great half day hike and the views of the valley and the ruin itself are well worth the effort.  (You can also hike or bike the paved road from Oaxaca City)
     Local bus service reaches within two blocks of the Plaza and church at Xoxocotlan.  Find the bus that runs south on Benito Juarez in Oaxaca or go to the bus station six blocks south of the Zocalo on Bustamante and find the buses running to Zaachila,  Take the bus that runs to Cuilapan and ask the driver to let you off near the plaza of Xoxocotlan.
     We start our walks in the morning from the plaza and head towards the mountain in the distance to the west where the morning sun spreads gold over the ancient city on the hilltop as it touches the tops of the temples of Monte Alban.

The housing for the population occupied these hills when the
 site was inhabited 300 BC to 800 AD.  One of the Xoxo trails
is just to the right in this photo.
Hiking Trail Xoxo    
 The trail leads through agricultural fields and then past the water storage area where you start to ascend in earnest.  Shards of grey pottery litter the trails and an occasional sliver of obsidian will glimmer in the sunlight.

Climbing the steps of the north platform,
 Monte Alban, Ruin Site, Oaxaca 
        These grey pieces of pottery are from the classic period of Monte Alban, the era from 200 AD to 800 AD when the city that spread over the surrounding hills was home to 30,000 people according to some archaeologists.
It was at the end of this period that the city stopped being a center of power and most of the people inexplicably disappeared.  They moved away into smaller settlements in the valleys below the mountain city or perhaps just inexplicably depopulated. The city died around 800 AD in an unknown manner and for as yet unknown reasons.

 Two trails lead up from Xoxo.  See map below.
The slopes grow steeper as you ascend through treeless grassland and shrub.  No large trees grow on the hillsides now but at one time the slopes were covered with trees researchers claim.
Today the local people scour the hills for wood for cooking fuel.  There is scarcely a stick left standing except at the top of the mountain. Very few trees or bushes of any size remain growing on the lower slopes.

     We did find a copal tree on one hike, however, a tree that has grown so scarce as to be nearly eliminated.  The copal is a deciduous tree that oozes a resin used by the local Zapotec and Mixtec people in making incense for ceremonial purposes. The wood is also ideal for carving sculptures of wood because of its lack of grain. The consequence of its popularity with wood carvers is that the tree has grown scarce on the mountainside.  The tree is all but gone from the side of the mountain near the village of Arrazola where 70 families carve small colorful animal sculptures from the wood for sale to tourists.  They import their wood now from distant mountains.

     This unchecked use of resources may be the reason that the ancient people had abandoned their mountain city; perhaps they had depleted the trees for cooking fuel and to fire ceramic ovens just as the modern people have done.
     You ascend higher above the valley as you reach the southern section of the ancient city and you will see many shards of grey and orange pottery.  The occasional glint of obsidian, a black volcanic glass-like material that the ancient people imported from distant Teotihuacan, 300 miles to the north will likely be spotted on this walk.  The ancients used the black stone as knives and scrapers.  If you do find one, test its cutting edge on your arm hairs and you will be surprised how sharp the stone can be.  The edge might have been put on that sliver of obsidian 1500 years ago by the deft blow from a rock or from the pressure of a deer antler but it will be as sharp as when new.
Obsidian blades were also used by warriors and when set into a wooden club they made a fearsome weapon.

Looking towards the south Platform, the grass covered hill
in the distance with a stairway in the middle and a stone building at the top.
South Platform
     As you continue higher, the tops of the temples on the east side will come into view and you will reach 6,300 feet above sea level as the land flattens and you continue hiking towards the South Platform of the ruin.
     The areas on the lower slopes once contained house sites and they are littered with shards.  When you view the mountain from a distance in afternoon light you can see the terraced areas that contained houses.  At one time the hills surrounding the ceremonial center of the city were crammed with houses.
     No water has run on the hillsides in modern times. There was a spring at the bottom of the hill and it is possible that the people transported all water from the spring or from the river, carrying it along the trails to the top.  Food and fuel might have come the same way.
A standing stone at the ruin site of Monte Alban
 said to serve as a marker of the two zenith days
 in Oaxaca, May and August.

      The bushes grow higher as you reach the top of the mountain but there are few trees.  The trail passes un-excavated mounds and mounds that have been investigated and stabilized.
     Once you reach the top you have a clear view of three alluvial valleys and the high Sierras to the north.  To the left as you look north will be the Etla Valley, to the right, the Mitla Valley, and to the south, the Zimatlan Valley. The valleys were formed by the Rio Atoyac, Once a mighty river but now just a trickle from the direction of Etla Valley.  The river runs through the Zimatlan Valley and from there it flows west as it tumbles and twists through a drop of five thousand feet elevation and courses through over a hundred miles as the crow flies to become  the Rio Verde before emptying into the Pacific Ocean north of Puerto Escondido
     As you continue on the trail north you will reach the top of the South Platform where you will have a magnificent view of the abandoned ceremonial center, a long plaza rimmed by pyramidal platforms with a group of pyramidal shaped buildings running north south down the middle.
A view from the north platform 
looking towards the south platform, 
the high structure in the background.
      As you descend the steps of the south platform the plaza will lay before you, wide, long, and flat, an area between stone buildings that some archaeologists believe was a market place similar to what one sees today where markets surround the churches, similar to what Bernal Diaz del Castillo described in his book about the conquest. The markets Castillo described surrounded the temples at  Tenochtitlan, the city of Moctezuma and the Aztecs, the city that the Spaniards, led by Cortez, conquered in 1519.  
     You are sure to find Monte Alban impressive in its size and scale, a complex of stone buildings planned so meticulously that it is remarkable that the builders suddenly abandoned it after more than 1200 years.
A mystery that may forever endure.

Google Map, Monte Alban

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