Yagul mesmerizes with more than 4,000 years of history

Sign up for the Roundup!

Get news from Yucatán Magazine once a week in your inbox. It's free and you can unsubscribe at any time.

*Your email address is safe with us. We will never share your information with any third party, except to comply with applicable law or valid legal processes or to protect the personal safety of our users or the public.

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. 

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 invitations developed by other growing settlements like San José del Mogote.

Prehistoric caves at Yagul contain large amounts of human and animal remains and pre-Zapotec petroglyphs. Photo: Courtesy

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. 

Because Yagul is seldom visited by tourists, its richness of flora on fauna is on full display. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.”

A wide stairway leads up to Yagul’s main ceremonial complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

The area immediately behind Yugul’s main ceremonial center is home to a handful of large structures which likely demarcated the beginning of the area designated for the homes of the town’s common folk. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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

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. 

Drone photography shows Yugul’s six main ceremonial centers about its artificial platform. 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 of the time, 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

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. 

A large but heavily eroded stone carving of a frog was found near Yugul’s main ballcourt. As in other cultures like the Maya and Olmec, the presence of imagery making reference to frogs and turtles often is associated with rain god worship. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Grach / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

An elite burial lay directly across what is likely a ceremonial dance platform and an unrestored section of Yagul’s artificial platform. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

Map showing the location of Yagul in relation to Oaxaca de Juárez. Image: Google Maps

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.

The Zapotec stronghold of Dainzú is surrounded by a fortified wall, making its defensive prowess perhaps second only to Monte Albán in the Zapotec world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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 of my personal favorite mezcals, and best of all, they ship all over the country. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

On this day, the gate at Yagul was closed well past its 10 a.m. opening time. Most frustrating. 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.
- Advertisement -spot_img
Verified by ExactMetrics