While not as large as other ancient Zapotec settlements in close proximity to the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, its sheer antiquity and beauty are more than enough to impress any visitor.
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 invitations developed by other growing settlements like San José del Mogote.
When arriving at the site, it is easy to see why Yagul was the chosen location for their settlement, as streams running from nearby mountains feed a rich ecosystem overflowing with approximately 500 species of plants and animals, many of which are edible.
Though we will likely never know what these first settlers called the site, its Zapotec name Yagul roughly translates to “old tree,” though some linguists argue it could also be interpreted as “old house.”
Yagul was first rediscovered in the late 19th century by archaeologist Adolfo Bandelier who saw evidence of large-scale pottery production, as well as close links to the nearby city of Tlacolula with which Yagul likely existed in some sort of alliance.
Like many Zapotec sites, Yagul is divided up into discrete plazas, each containing its own ceremonial and civic structures, including pyramids and elite burials.
The 30 elite burials at Yagul have been found to contain precious stones and fine poetry buried among the remains of high-status individuals, including women and children.
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 of the time, such as ballcourts.
Several large stone sculptures discovered at Yagul have been removed for their protection and now reside in nearby museums, though a handful of extremely ancient artifacts that would be quite difficult to carry away still remain.
Yagul was inhabited by Zapotec peoples well until the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors and evangelists began to overrun the area, forcing its inhabitants to flee into the mountains under the threat of Spanish steel.
If you go
Yagul is roughly 35 kilometers or 22 miles southeast of the state capital of Oaxaca de Juárez on the extremely transited Tehuantepec highway.
Though plenty of public transportation is available, if you can afford to hire a driver for the day, this would be ideal as it would also give you the opportunity to visit other spectacular sites in the region like Mitla, Lambityeco, or Dainzú.
This particular area is also well known for its artisanal mezcal production, so as long you are not driving, stop by a couple of distilleries.
One issue you are likely to run into when exploring lesser-visited archaeological sites in Oaxaca is that the workers are not great at opening up on time. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s best to just wait a while or yell to get someone’s attention. Do not simply jump over the gate.