The Top 8 Archaeological Sites Near Oaxaca City

Over the past few years, the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and especially its capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, has experienced a boom in tourism. The city boasts amazing markets, restaurants, architecture, and a wellspring of indigenous culture. 

One of the main reasons Oaxaca has become so popular is an increase in both domestic and international flights. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The largest indigenous group in Oaxaca are the Zapotecs, who, like the Maya to the south and the Mexica to the north, built grand ancient stone cities, several of which are open to the public. So let’s get started.

Monte Albán 

Monte Albán must be visited in person to truly appreciate its size, scope, and unique feel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though not as famous as archaeological sites like Chichén Itzá in Yucatán or Teotihuacán in Mexico State, Monte Albán is among the most impressive ruins in all of Mexico. 

Established by the Zapotec civilization in the 5th century BCE, Monte Albán flourished for over 1,500 years. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Despite its antiquity, Zapotec culture developed during a time of great cultural exchange with other Mesoamerican peoples, including the Olmec, Teotihuacanos, and even Maya.

The southeastern end of Monte Albán’s Ceremonial center with structures including El Palacio, and several Teotihuacan-style monuments. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Monte Albán is also home to one of the most elaborate burial sites in Mesoamerica, known as Tomb 7.

The sophistication and beauty of the jewelry found in Monte Albán’s Tomb 7 is considered second to none in all of Mesoamerica, and that is to say nothing of the rest of its contents. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Getting to Monte Albán from Oaxaca de Juárez is easy, as the site is just five miles away. Several tour companies include Monte Albán as part of an all-day itinerary. Still, you are better off going on your own via taxi (between 150 and 200 pesos) to avoid being rushed.

The Eastern Route (From Dainzú to Mitla)

Several ruins can be found within 30 miles east of Oaxaca de Juárez along the carretera internacional. Since these ruins are all so close to each other, visiting the four archaeological sites open to the public on this route is doable, especially if you hire a driver for the day.


Located in the mountains surrounding Oaxaca de Juárez, aside from archaeology, Dainzú offers some spectacular vistas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Established in the 7th century BCE, Dainzú was already going strong for centuries by the time of the founding of Monte Albán.

Catacombs at Dainzú date from roughly the city’s founding to the 2nd century — by which time they exhibit features similar to those found in Monte Albán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During archeological excavations atop Dainzú’s upper terrace, researchers discovered four rooms with slightly slanted walls covered in large carved stones known as the “relief gallery.”

The “relief gallery” is the only of these chambers open to the public and is chock-full of fascinating petroglyphs. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


One notable feature of the tombs of Lambityeco is that noblemen and women appear to have been buried together in close proximity to the resting places of their ancestors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Zapotec city of Lambityeco dates to the late Classical period and is known for its extraordinary artworks, including stucco masks and tombs.

Aside from being the god of rain, Cocijo was also the deity of thunder and lighting in the Zapotec pantheon. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The area surrounding Lambityeco had been occupied by Zapotec peoples for a thousand years but did not reach its zenith until the 5th century. But like virtually all settlements of the last Classical period onwards, the remains of Lambityeco demonstrate a high degree of influence from other cultures, mainly the Mixteca. 

An aerial view of Lambityeco shows its two main sections, with large portions covered with a metallic structure to protect the artworks within. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 


Aerial view of the Zapotec city of Yagul sitting atop a natural hill and artificial platform. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Archaeologists believe that the area surrounding Yagul was likely first inhabited 3,500 years ago by semi-nomadic people loosely related to the Zapotec. Ultimately, they decided to permanently settle the site, likely in part thanks to innovations developed at other growing settlements like San José del Mogote.

The entrance to an elaborately adorned elite burial within Yagul’s Plaza number 4. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Sometime in the 9th century, as power in the region began to shift from Monte Albán to Mitla, Yagul underwent an architectural transformation that appears to have introduced several elements prevalent in Mesoamerican societies, such as ballcourts.

The Mesoamerican ballcourt found inside Yagul’s ceremonial plaza is elevated and flanked on both sides by structures, suggesting it was likely the most significant in the city. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Yagul was inhabited by Zapotec peoples well until the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors and Catholic evangelists began to overrun the area, forcing its inhabitants to flee into the mountains under the threat of Spanish steel. 


The place of the columns is one of the best preserved in all of Mitla, with much of its geometrical facade seemingly intact and the bright red of its base. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Sometime soon after abandoning Monte Albán, the Zapotec began constructing a new settlement today called by its Nahuatl name, Mitla, but was then known as Yooꞌ Baꞌ ⁠— the place of rest, or place of the dead. 

The interior of a chamber in Mitla, Oaxaca, is adorned with the design commonly known as “Greca Zapoteca.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Today, Mitla is in the middle of a town of the same name in Oaxaca, Mexico. Though the best-preserved and restored structures are within the federally protected archaeological site, temples and tombs can be found across the community in backyards and agave plantations.

An ancient fresco is found in the interior of one of Mitla’s many elite residential structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Given its fame and proximity to the city of Oaxaca (30 miles), tours to Mitla are easy to find and usually also include a visit to the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua and one or two textile shops.


The strongholds of the classical Zapotec in the mountains of what today is the periphery of Oaxaca de Juárez are among the most impressive in Mesoamerica. One such mountain stronghold and vassal of Monte Albán was the mighty Atzompa. 

Exploring Atzompa is not for those uncomfortable with high altitudes or with weak knees. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Entering the site, visitors encounter several large unrestored mounds and the remains of an elite residential complex known as La Casa de Oriente, or East House. Within the residence, archaeologists discovered a sizable interior patio containing a temazcal, or Prehispanic sauna.  

La Casa Oriente with suburbs of Oaxaca de Juárez visible in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Atzompa’s largest pyramid (Structure 5) has been pillaged extensively, leaving it bare of stucco everywhere except its base, but it is still quite a sight.

In its orientation and architecture, Atzompa resembles Monte Albán, this being, of course, no coincidence. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


If you arrive at Zaachila knowing nothing about the site and take a quick look around, you may wonder what exactly is so special about this place. Sure, the surrounding Oaxacan town and its market are charming, but aside from the remains of a handful of pyramids — now turned into mounds littered with ancient pottery — Zaachila does not seem to have too much going on. 

Zaachila’s market is extremely colorful and full of exotic sights, sounds, and smells. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But to the very south of the site is something enticing: a pair of metal doors protruding from the ground.  Upon closer inspection, a couple of staircases are visible, descending into subterranean vaults ⁠— or tombs, to be more precise. 

The entrance to Tomb 1 is adorned with a design that archaeologists believe makes reference to a belief similar to that of the monster of the earth in the Maya religion. The frame of the doorway into the tomb retains most of its original bright red paint, which is stunning to see.

A design appears on the stone lintel supporting and adorning the entrance to Zaachila’s Tomb 1. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Once you have peered in, you will immediately begin to notice several stucco figures related to themes of death and the underworld in Mesoamerica folklore.

A wide shot of Zaachila’s Tomb 1 shows, right-to-left, stucco reliefs of an owl, and flayed figure and a human figure in a horizontal position adorned by a turtle shell. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

These are not the tombs of commoners. Tomb 1 is the final resting place of Lord 9 Flower, a direct descendant of the famous Zapotec king Cocijoeza, whose name translates as “storm of knives” and was famous for his many battles against encroaching Aztecs. Discovered inside the tomb were also the remains of Donaji, the last known Zapotec princess.

Owls were considered sacred animals among several Mesoamerican peoples, including the Zapotec, who believed they served a function as go-betweens for the realms of the living and the dead. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The best way to get to Zaachila is to take a bus or taxi from Oaxaca de Júarez, the state capital. The approximately 15-mile ride is picturesque, and if you opt for a taxi, it should not run more than 100 pesos.

San José del Mogote

A contemporary of several of the Olmecs’ most ancient settlements is the Zapotec ceremonial center of San José del Mogote. Founded around 1500 BCE, San José del Mogote is notable not only for its sheer antiquity but also for the size of its temples and inscriptions.

Even after several millennia, San José del Mogote’s Structure 1 towers over the contemporary town of the same name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During the last half of the 1960s, research teams combed the region surrounding the highlands of Oaxaca. They discovered the remains of a proto-Zapotec civilization dating to the 9th millennium BCE, roughly 11,000 years ago. It is generally accepted that these proto-Zapotecs came into communication with the archaic Olmec and perhaps even the Maya of the Peten. In just a few generations, they spread ideas and technologies that would revolutionize the region.

The remains of a large temple sit along the side of San José del Mogote’s main street. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During a recent visit to the site, a team of archaeologists working west of San José del Mogote’s largest structure appeared to be excavating a large duct. The archaeologists told me they were not at liberty to talk about what they were working on, but with a nudge and a wink, said, “This is going to be a rather big deal.”

Archaeologists toil away under the mid-day sun to reveal even more of San José del Mogote’s incredible legacy. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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