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Monte Alban Ruins: My Guide to the Oaxaca Pyramids

You don’t have to go far to see pyramids in Oaxaca! Here’s a detailed guide to Oaxaca’s Monte Alban pyramids.

Built by the Zapotecs, Monte Alban is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Mexico. Dating back to the sixth century B.C., Monte Alban functioned as the Zapotec capital for 13 centuries between 500 B.C. and 800 A.D. Its impressive architecture remains — terraces, pyramids, and canals —on a low-lying mountainous range overlooking Oaxaca. 

In 1987, Monte Alban was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unlike other famous Mayan ruins like Chíchén Itzá, you can actually still climb the Monte Alban pyramids. From the top of the North and South Platforms, you can see the sheer scale of the city. One of the most popular things to do in Oaxaca is a day trip to the ancient Monte Alban ruins. To help you make the most of your visit, I’m sharing my experience as well as tips to visiting the Monte Alban pyramids.

monte alban ruins - monte alban oaxaca - oaxaca pyramids

Monte Alban ruins Facts

Monte Alban was once the capital city of the Zapotec civilization, one of the oldest and most powerful Mesoamerican civilizations. The Zapotecs began building Monte Alban around 500 BCE on a flattened mountaintop. Over the centuries it became a thriving city. The city was laid out in a grid pattern, and it was home to a complex political and religious system.

At its peak, Monte Alban was home to approximately 35,000 people and was the largest city in the region. You can really get a sense of how it was a complete city during its heyday. There are remnants of impressive buildings and structures, such as the Grand Plaza, the Ball Court, and the Palace. They also created intricate carvings, sculptures, and pottery.

Monte Alban was abandoned in the late 8th century CE for reasons that are still not fully understood. However, it remained an important cultural and religious site for the Zapotec people and was used for religious ceremonies and rituals.

monte alban oaxaca

Best Time to Visit Monte Alban  Ruins

The best time to visit these Oaxaca pyramids is from October to April, when the weather is dry and mild. This is also the time of year when many of the city’s festivals and cultural events. 

In general, Oaxaca has a desert climate with hot days and cool nights. Pack a light jacket regardless of the time you visit as the temperature drops drastically in the evening.

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca marks the start of the busiest time of the year, from late October through mid-January. Oaxaca also gets crowded in July, when the city celebrates its biggest cultural festival, the Guelaguetza.

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How to Get to the Monte Alban Oaxaca

By Car

We hired a car for our Oaxaca road trip, and I drove to Monte Alban from Oaxaca center. The 20-minute drive was relatively steep towards the archaeological site, but nothing too challenging. If you’re planning to explore the Oaxacan Coast like we did, then a car definitely comes in handy.

I always book my car rental from Discover Cars as they offer the best prices and excellent customer service. An economy rental car in Oaxaca costs around $100 for a whole week, which is less than $20 a day. The current price for gas is 23.50 MXN (around $1) per liter.

Check Car Rental Prices

By Bus

There are several buses that go from Oaxaca City to Monte Alban, including the Turismo Monte Alban. The buses leave from the Central de Abastos bus station, which is about a 10-15 minute taxi ride from the city center. The bus ride takes about 20-30 minutes and should cost around 20-30 pesos (about $1-2 USD) one way. 

It’s a good idea to check the schedule and availability of transportation options in advance, especially if you’re planning to visit Monte Alban during peak season or on a weekend.

By Taxi

Taxis are readily available in Oaxaca City, and you can easily hire one on the Didi app. The ride takes about 15-20 minutes, depending on traffic, and should cost around 200-300 pesos (about $10-15 USD) one way. 

Ask your hotel to arrange one for you if you’re worried about being overcharged. Be sure to confirm the price before you start your journey to avoid any misunderstandings.

By Colectivo

Shared taxis, known as “colectivos,” are a popular and affordable option for getting around in Oaxaca. You can find colectivos to Monte Alban at several locations in the city center, including near the Santo Domingo Church. The colectivos leave when they are full, so the departure times can be unpredictable. The ride should cost around 20-30 pesos (about $1-2 USD) one way.

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roads of oaxaca - how to get to monte alban

Visit Monte Alban Independently or on Tour?

Another way to get there is to book a day tour from Oaxaca that includes transportation, admission, and a guide. It’s a great option if you want to learn more about the Monte Alban ruins and have someone else handle the logistics.

While it’s easy to explore Monte Alban on your own, hiring a guide is make a world of difference. They can provide a wealth of information about the site’s history, culture, and architecture and bring the place to life. 

We definitely regretted not hiring a guide as we felt like we were just seeing the place and not learning the stories that happened here.

oaxaca pyramids

Best Monte Alban Tours

There are plenty of half-day and full day tours to Monte Alban that you can book online. I usually book my day trips on Viator or GetYourGuide — both are reliable and offer free cancellations.

Most tours include air-conditioned transport, entrance fees, and a bilingual guide who will be with you for 2.5 hours. The full-day tours will also bring you to the nearby artisan towns such as San Bartolo Coyotepec.

  • Half Day Monte Alban: This guided tour has the best price ($22.5) and reviews, and shows you the site in just 4 hours.
  • Full Day Monte Alban + Artisan Villages: This tour ($34) will not only show you the archaeological site but also bring you to the arts and crafts towns of Arrazola, Cuilapam de Guerrero and San Bartolo Coyotepec.

Monte Alban Hours

The Monte Alban archaeological site is open every day from 8am to 5pm, 365 days a year. The Museo del Sitio (site museum) is open the same time.

The best time to visit the Monte Alban pyramids is early in the morning, around opening time. This is when the site is the least crowded and you can avoid the heat of midday.

Make sure to arrive before 4pm however as this is the time of last entry. The site staff don’t allow any leeway for this time. Gates close at 5pm sharp.

monte alban pyramids oaxaca

How Much Time to Visit Monte Alban?

The Monte Alban ruins extend over some four miles (6.5 square kilometers), so plan to spend at least three hours exploring. The ancient city is situated on a hill, and there’s a lot of walking involved. But it’s not steep or difficult walking.  

The museum itself can take up to an hour or so. If you are planning on visiting, I’d advise leaving it for last. Plus, if you’re looking to spend time getting lunch at the site restaurant that will extend the trip too. 

oaxaca pyramids - monte alban ruins

Cost of Visiting Oaxaca Pyramids

Tickets to enter the site can be purchased at the entrance. The entrance fee is 85 MXN per person (about $4.25 USD), and free for kids under 13 years old. It’s free for Mexican citizens and residents on Sundays — don’t forget to bring your ID if you are one.

It covers the entrance to the site and the on-site museum. Your ticket allows you to leave and re-enter during the same day, so you can go out of the archaeological zone for a break or lunch and then return.

If you’re looking to take a tour here they start from around $650MXN/$33USD per person. Here’s a look at the Monte Alban tour available. Read on to find out which tours I recommend.

carvings - monte alban pyramids

Visiting Monte Alban with Kids

Monte Alban is a huge complex and there’s very little shade, so it can be tricky for families traveling with young kids. That said, it’s absolutely doable if you plan in advance or book a private tour which will give you more flexibility.

I explored the Monte Alban ruins with my 8-year-old daughter and we had a great time! It’s one of her favorite ancient ruins in Mexico as you can actually climb the pyramids. It’s plenty of fun exploring ruins with kids aged 5 and above as they can already walk and climb, and can handle the heat.

If you’re traveling Oaxaca with younger kids, I suggest carrying them in a sling or hiking carrier. It would be a pain to transport tiny toddlers in a stroller as the stone walkways are mostly uneven. Pack lots of water, hat, and maybe an umbrella for kids who don’t do well in the sun.

visiting monte alban - with kids

Things to Do at Monte Alban Oaxaca

All in all, Monte Alban has numerous impressive structures and buildings that provide insight into the history and culture of the Zapotec people.

See the Gran Plaza

The first thing you’ll see when you enter the archaeological site is the Gran Plaza, the main square of the ancient city. It’s surrounded by impressive structures such as the Ball Court, the South Platform, and the North Platform. The plaza was likely used for religious and political ceremonies.

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oaxaca monte alban gran plaza

Climb the North Platform

To your right is the North Platform, one of the largest pyramids at Monte Alban. You can climb up here for a view of the whole archaeological site. It’s believed to have been used for public ceremonies and speeches. This structure is similar to the South Platform, but it’s smaller in size.

Wander around the Ball Court

I recommend visiting the structures clockwise, starting from the Ball Court. This is a large open area with walls on either side that were used for a ball game. The ball game was a significant part of Mesoamerican culture, and the game often had religious and political implications.

oaxaca monte alban - ball court

Get Lost in the Palace

To the immediate north of the Ball Court is the Palace, a complex of interconnected buildings that were likely used for administrative purposes. It has several courtyards and rooms with intricate designs and carvings.

Only recently, archaeologists discovered a secret tunnel between the palace and other structures around Gran Plaza. The tunnel probably provided a way to transport the leaders around the city unnoticed.

monte alban oaxaca

Visit the South Platform

At the far end of the archaeological site stands the impressive South Platform, the largest pyramid in Monte Alban. It’s believed to have been used for astronomical observations. It has several staircases and platforms. Climb here and walk to the back of the platform for spectacular views of the Sierra Madre Mountains.

monte alban pyramids - south platform

See the Observatory

Standing in the Gran Plaza, the Observatory (it was closed when we visited) was believed to have been used for astronomical observations. It has a platform with a central hole that aligns with the sunrise and sunset during the equinoxes.

observatory monte alban oaxaca

See the Carvings in Templo de los Danzantes

To the east of the site is a small temple with carvings of human figures in a dance-like pose. The carvings are believed to represent the Zapotec elite and their positions in society. This explains why the temple is named Templo de los Danzantes (temple of the dancers).

Visit the Site Museum

Standing next to the main entrance, the Museo del Sitio is home to beautiful pieces of Zapotec ceramics and sculptures. On display is a collection of engraved steles, which shows the development of the Zapotec writing system during the 13 centuries of occupation of the city (500 BC-800 AD). 

In the museum you’ll also find three mummified bodies and the original offerings they were buried with. The exhibits show the importance of the religious and burial practices of the Zapotecs. 

museum in monte alban ruins

Rules at Monte Alban Ruins

During our visit (in November 2022), most parts of the archaeological site were opened and everyone was free to walk everywhere. The only thing that was blocked off was the central stairway. 

This is an ancient archaeological site and it’s important to remember that you can’t take or remove anything from here. Make sure you stay within the boundaries and not wander into forbidden areas. Drones are not allowed in the area.

monte alban oaxaca

The Threats Facing Monte Alban pyramids

The Monte Alban archaeological site was included on the 2008 World Monuments Watch to highlight the various threats affecting the site. The hieroglyphic inscriptions at Monte Alban, were rapidly eroding from exposure to the elements as a result of digs. 

An added assault to the Monte Alban ruins came with forest fires, which decimated much of the buffer zone around the site, damaging architectural remains, and exposing the site to continuous encroachment of settlements. The 8.2-magnitude earthquakes that hit Mexico in September 2017 caused damage to many of the structures at Monte Alban.

Thankfully the World Monuments Fund and National Institute of Anthropology are working hard on stabilization, and conservation projects at the Monte Alban site.

Where to Eat at Monte Alban 

There is a snack shop right by the entrance to the Monte Alban ruins where you can buy cold drinks and snacks. Just be prepared to be overcharged (it wasn’t too bad, I paid $2 for a big Gatorade).

The museum building also has a cafe/restaurant that opens from 10am to 4pm. Feast on yummy huevos ranchero, tamales or chilaquiles with a glorious view of the mountains around you. Again, expect to pay more for food here. 

monte alban ruins restaurant

If you’d rather drive to a restaurant in Oaxaca center (as you probably know, Oaxaca is a culinary powerhouse!), here are some recommendations on where to eat in Oaxaca:

Tlayudas Libres Doña Martha

One of the best things to do in Oaxaca is eating street food. This streetside stand on Calle de los Libres has a loyal following. Their tlayudas sizzle with pork lard and drip with the perfect combination of melted Oaxacan cheese and grilled meat. Find its location here.

Itanoní Flor del Maiz

One of the best places in Oaxaca for a rustic and genuine culinary experience. The setup is humble with women cooking over the comal (flat metal pan), and serving up memelas made with heirloom-corn tortillas, rich pozole and a three-chile mole. Read reviews.

Los Danzantes 

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With locations in Oaxaca City and nearby San Agustin Etla, Los Danzantes is a popular restaurant and mezcal distillery that serves contemporary Mexican dishes with unique Oaxacan flavors. Its gorgeous setting right next to Templo de Santo Domingo makes it a hot favorite. Book your table here.

Ancestral Cocina Tradicional 

This restaurant in Xochimilco serves reinvented Oaxacan dishes, prepared with locally grown produce and ingredients in a beautiful setting. In 2021 and again in 2022, the restaurant was recognized by the the Mexico Gastronomic Guide of Culinary Mexicana as one of the 250 top and best restaurants in Mexico. Book our table.

oaxaca pyramids - monte alban

Where to Stay near Monte Alban Ruins

Monte Alban ruins are close enough to Oaxaca that most people visit on a day trip. There aren’t many hotels near the Monte Alban pyramids and there’s not much to do here besides seeing the pyramids — I recommend staying in Oaxaca’s historic center and visiting Monte Alban ruins just for the day.

Luxury: Hacienda Los Laureles

Located just outside of the city, Hacienda Los Laureles is a peaceful oasis surrounded by lush gardens and fruit trees. Cool whitewashed walls, terracotta floors, and wrought-iron furniture lend a rustic authenticity. Check rates here.

Luxury: Parador San Miguel Oaxaca

This historic hotel, housed in a restored 16th-century mansion, is a true icon of Oaxaca City. It’s located in the heart of the old city, 20 minutes from Monte Alban. The rooms are spacious and elegantly decorated, with antique furnishings and traditional artwork. Check rates here.

Mid Range: Hotel Azul de Oaxaca

We stayed at this beautiful boutique hotel with a central but quiet location. The stylish and modern hotel with a focus on sustainability and local art. The rooms are bright and colorful, and the hotel’s restaurant is known for its innovative takes on traditional Oaxacan cuisine. Check rates.

Mid Range: Hotel Casa Antigua

Just 2 blocks from the central Zócalo Square, Hotel Casa Antigua is a restored 19th-century house with a traditional central courtyard. The hotel’s rooftop restaurant serves delicious breakfasts and dinners using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Most things to do in Oaxaca are steps from this hotel. Check rates here.

Budget: Paulina Youth Hostel

A great budget option for travelers looking for a clean and comfortable place to stay in Oaxaca. Located in the heart of the historic center, the hostel offers private rooms and dorms at very affordable rates. Check rates.

What to Pack for Monte Alban

Throughout the Monte Alban ruins, there is very little shade and it can get very hot. But as Monte Alban is located at an elevation on the hills overlooking Oaxaca, the weather is rather pleasant and it can even get chilly during certain times of the year. Make sure you pack a wide-rimmed hat, lots of water, and light, airy clothes. 

The walking isn’t too difficult as it’s mostly flat. You won’t need hiking boots. I wore my Teva sandals for the whole day and they were fine. Here’s the list of what I packed/wore:

monte alban ruins - oaxaca pyramids

Final Tips for Visiting Monte Alban

I hope you found this Monte Alban ruins travel guide helpful and that it has inspired you to visit the Oaxaca pyramids.

Here are a few final tips for your trip to the Monte Alban ruins:

  • Arrive just as gates open at 8am to avoid the heat and the crowds. 
  • Take plenty of water and snacks with you. There are many vendors selling cold drinks in the archaeological site, just make sure the bottled drinks are sealed before opening them.
  • Wear sunscreen, a hat, and comfortable shoes – it gets hot!
  • You will need cash for the entrance fees, so make sure to bring some Mexican Pesos with you.
  • If you need transport back to the city after your visit, just approach the taxi drivers by the entrance and discuss the price. It shouldn’t cost more than 200 MXN ($10).

Enjoy Visiting Monte Alban Oaxaca!

Thank you for reading this far. If you have any questions on the Monte Alban ruins or have any tips of your own on visiting these Oaxaca pyramids, please leave them in the comments below and I will be happy to reply to any questions you have.

Read my articles on Oaxaca below:

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links i.e. if you book a stay through one of my links, I get a small commission at NO EXTRA COST to you. Thank you for your support!

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