Visitors to Monte Albán  (8 a.m.–5 p.m.) enjoy a panoramic view of green mountains rising above the checkerboard of the Valley of Oaxaca . Monte Albán is fun for a picnic; alternatively, it is an auspicious place to perch atop a pyramid above the grand Main Plaza, etched by lengthening afternoon shadows, and contemplate the ages. Allow at least two hours for your visit.
As you enter past the visitors center , north is on your right, marked by the grand North Platform, topped by clusters of temples. The Ball Court will soon appear below on your left. Twenty-foot-high walkways circumscribe the sunken I-shaped playing field. To ensure true bounces, builders spread smooth stucco over all surfaces, including the slopes on opposite sides (which, contrary to appearances, did not seat spectators). This, like all Oaxacan ball courts, had no stone ring (for supposed goals), but rather four mysterious niches at the court’s I-end corners.
The Main Plaza, 1,000 feet long and exactly two-thirds that wide, is aligned along a precise north–south axis. Probably serving as a market and civic/ceremonial ground, the monumentally harmonious Main Plaza was the Zapotec “navel” of the world.
Monte Albán ’s oldest monumental construction, the Danzantes building (surmounted by newer Building L, on the west side of the plaza between Buildings M and IV), dates from Period I. Its walls are graced with a host of personages, known commonly as the danzantes (dancers) from their oft- contorted postures—probably chiefs vanquished by Monte Albán’s armies. Their headdresses, earplugs, bracelets, and necklaces mark them among the nobility, while glyphs around their heads identify each individual.
Building J (circa A.D. 1), one of the most remarkable in Mesoamerica, stands nearby in mid-plaza at the foot of the South Platform. Speculation has raged since excavators unearthed its arrow-shaped base generations ago. It is not surprising that Alfonso Caso, Monte Albán ’s original principal excavator, theorized it was an astronomical observatory. In the mind’s eye, it seems like some fantastic ocean (or space?) vessel, being navigated to some mysteriously singular southwest destination by a ghostly crew oblivious of its worldly, earthbound brother monuments.
The South Platform affords Monte Albán’s best vantage point, especially during the late afternoon. Starting on the right-hand, Palace-complex side, Building II has a peculiar tunnel on its near side, covertly used by priests for privacy or perhaps some kind of magical effect. To the south stands Building P, an undistinguished, albeit multiroom palace.
The South Platform itself is only marginally explored. Looters have riddled the mounds on its top side. Its bottom four corners were embellished by fine bas-reliefs, two of which had their engravings intentionally buried from view. You can admire the fine sculpture and yet-undeciphered Zapotec hieroglyphs on one of them, along with others, at the South Platform’s plaza-edge west side.
Still atop the South Platform, turn southward, where you can see the Seven-Deer complex, a few hundred yards away, labeled for the name-date inscribed on its great lintel.
Turning northward again, look just beyond Building J to Buildings G, H, and I at plaza center, erected mostly to cover a rocky mound impossible to remove without then-unavailable dynamite. Between these buildings and the palace complex on the right stands the small chapel where the remarkable bat-god jade sculpture was found.
On Monte Albán ’s northern periphery stand a number of tombs that, when excavated, yielded a trove of artifacts, now mostly housed in museums. Walking west from the Northern Platform’s northeast base corner, you will pass Mound X on the right. A few hundred yards farther comes the Tomb 104 mound, presided over by an elaborate ceramic urn representing Cocijo, the Zapotec god of rain. Just north of this is Tomb 172, with the skeletons and offerings left intact.
Heading back along the northernmost of the two paths from Tomb 104, you will arrive at Tomb 7 a few hundred feet behind the visitors center . Here, around 1450, Mixtec nobles removed the original eighth-century contents and reused the tomb, burying a deceased dignitary and two servants for the netherworld. Along with the bodies, they left a fabulous treasure in gold, silver, jade, alabaster, and turquoise, now visible at the museum at the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo in Oaxaca City .
A few hundred feet toward town on the opposite side of the road from the parking lot is a trail leading past a small ball court to the Cerro de Plumaje (Hill of Plumage), site of Tomb 105. A magnificent entrance door lintel, reminiscent of those at Mitla , welcomes you inside. Past the patio, descend to the mural-decorated tomb antechamber. Inside the cruciform tomb itself, four figures walk in pairs toward a great glyph, flanked by a god and goddess, identified by their name-dates.