If you arrive at Zaachila knowing nothing about the site and take a quick look around, you may ask what exactly is so special about this place.
Sure, the surrounding Oaxacan town and its market are extremely 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.
But to the very south of the site, you will surely notice something enticing: a pair of metal doors protruding from the ground.
Once you get a little closer, you will notice a couple of staircases descending into subterranean vaults — or tombs, to be more precise.
Four large tombs have been discovered in Zaachila, though Tombs 3 and 4 are not open to the public and were apparently severely damaged in the 1970s.
The entrance to the tomb is adorned with a design that archaeologists believe makes reference to a belief similar to that of the monster of the earth in the Mayan religion. The frame of the doorway into the tomb retains most of its original bright red paint, which is stunning to see.
Once you have peaked in, you will immediately begin to notice several stucco figures related to themes of death and the underworld in Mesoamerica folklore.
As you have probably already guessed, these are not the tombs of commoners. Tomb 1 is, in fact, 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.
Both Tombs 1 and 2 are of a similar mirrored design, though Tomb 2 is much more austere. The first thing you will likely notice inside the tombs are two mirrored stucco images of an owl with its wings spread wide open and talons sharp, as if welcoming the dead but also serving as a warning to trespassers.
This distinctive owl figure has become the symbol of Zaachila and is prominently displayed in several parts of town, including the outer facade of the market, wings spread, of course.
Also featured prominently is the Zapotec deity of death and the underworld, Pitao Bezelao, who takes on the form of a flayed man with a protruding trunklike nose.
One of the most unique pieces of imagery found at Zaachila is a figure of a man in a horizontal position as if he were swimming. The figure is largely covered by a turtle shell and is also adorned with a reptile headdress.
As mentioned earlier, the rest of the site is made up of the remains of temples and pyramids, which have been ravaged both by time and pillaging.
Residents of Zaachila appear extremely proud of their ancient heritage and, to this day, perform rituals at the archaeological site in honor of deities such as the corn goddess Pitao Ko Shuub.
Zaachila was likely founded sometime in the 5th century, but its tombs date to the 14th century and were constructed around older temples.
Several sculptures, stelae, and ceramic vessels were also discovered within Zaachilas tombs, but they have all been extracted for safekeeping and are kept at several museums across the state.
If you go
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 quite picturesque, and if you opt for a taxi, it should not run you more than 100 pesos or so.
General admission is 85 pesos, and free for students and teachers, as well as Mexican residents on Sundays.