Day Trips from Oaxaca: Monte Albán & San Martín Tilcajete

Despite nearly everything being closed during our week in Oaxaca, there was quite a bit to do outside the city. Our favorite by far was our day-trip to Monte Albán. Only 7km outside the city, this was an event for us!

We had hired a taxi the day before and suggested leaving 30 minutes before the site opened. He recommended leaving an hour early and told us that due to Covid, only 200 people were allowed to visit Monte Albán each day. We couldn’t confirm the information, but we set off at 8am anyway.

The drive was fast – it took longer to get out of city center (with one-ways and road closures) than to get to the site itself. Driving up the final hill we found ourselves in standstill traffic – there was indeed a line of people waiting to get in!

We sat in that line for nearly two hours – constantly discussing how far away we might be and if it would be better to get out and walk. A handful of people passed us on foot, but most stayed with their vehicles.

Once the site officially opened, our taxi would drive ahead 15 or so spaces every 10 minutes. When we finally got to the entrance, we realized they were staggering arrivals. We were moderately glad we hadn’t walked, since it was another several kilometers to the archeological site, but we definitely would have appreciated some communication!

Despite the time it took to get there, we were blown away by what we saw.

Monte Albán is a registered UNESCO site famous for having been inhabited for a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs. What fascinates me is that the architecture – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids, and artificial mounds – were all carved out of the mountain itself.

The photo above is of the Main Plaza, accessed by monumental staircases. You can climb some to move around the site, but most are off limits for preservation purposes.

A unique characteristic of Monte Albán is the large number of carved stone monuments throughout the plaza. Known as “Danzantes” they are said to represent the sacrificial victims, including war prisoners, nearby leaders, and captured villagers.

Over 300 of these stones have been discovered so far. Some of the best preserved can be found in the on-site museum, which is currently closed due to Covid. Many are still located throughout the Main Plaza.

Monte Albán (like many of the other ruins we saw in Mexico), was much larger than we had anticipated. You start your walk through some of the smaller parts, before entering the Main Plaza. But honestly, the site has so much more to give beyond that. To see it all, you need to be able to climb the staircases throughout, limiting access for some.

Even those of us with that ability still have to make it through the sun, which can be intense even in the morning – and all the more so because we didn’t get in for over an hour later than anticipated. A downside of the site is that there isn’t a lot of shade. One of the best places for a rest is on the steps themselves.

Despite the sun and despite the delay, Monte Albán was truly incredible and made our time in Oaxaca worth it. Though we can officially state there is no limit on visitors. We saw way more than 200 people, but the site is so large, it easily accommodates high numbers.

Our second trip out of Oaxaca was one that we hadn’t planned before our arrival. Having done our research, we know that Oaxaca was famous for its alebrijes – brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures.

Originally made in the 1930s by papier-mâché artist, Pedro Linares, they came from a dream he had about creatures that took on the properties of multiple animals, like a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns, and a lion with an eagle head. It wasn’t until the 1990s that alebrijes were carved from wood in Oaxaca. And one of the most famous of those carvers is Jacobo Ángeles.

Jacobo & María Ángeles have a showroom in downtown Oaxaca that we went to first. On display is their “Plague” collection – a series of carved bugs that push the “limits of what we consider beautiful and what we passionately reject as unpleasant.” I have to admit feeling a lot of that rejection, though Chandler and I were both mesmerized by the bee statues.

We decided we wanted to visit their workshop to see a larger collection. This meant another trip outside of Oaxaco, this time to the town of San Martín Tilcajete. We had the same taxi driver take us. This drive was a bit longer – closer to 45 minutes, but we were blown away by what we saw in the town. There wasn’t just one, two, or three alebrije workshops, there were dozens. The town is also covered in beautiful street art displaying copies of their unique creations.

We arrived at Jacobo & María Ángeles’ workshop – mostly retired now, the couple operates a workshop that trains other artisans in the craft – and were invited on a private tour. Miguel was incredible. He started by showing us the traditional paints and the food/natural materials they come from. Still occasionally used for special pieces, most alebrijes are now painted with acrylics to increase the longevity of the statues.

Based on our birth months and years (it felt like astrology meets the Chinese Zodiac) we were told our alebrije spirit animals. If I understood correctly, the first animal represents us in life, the second in death. I got the oddly charming combination of armadillo and iguana, while Chandler is represented by a snail and an owl.

Then we continued our tour through the workrooms.

Mostly created in open-air rooms, the alebrijes can take several months to several years to complete. They also pass through many hands. First, the rough carving begins – many pieces are made from a single piece of wood. Then the sculpture is passed along to a more experienced carver. These are then given a base coat(s) of paint before the intricate work begins. Each alebrije is hand-painted and each designer highlights different patterns and different colors, making each piece one-of-a-kind.

On display was their newest collection, “Nomads.” Always a fan of dystopian futures, I was fascinated by this rendering of a “future where science merges with ancestral Zapotec beliefs by genetically experimenting with human beings, mixing them with animal characteristics going against nature with the aim of achieving greater longevity, resistance, and adaptation to the earth.”

Despite the lovely tour and the fantastic display, we were surprised that almost no pieces from the workshop were for sale. Production had slowed during the pandemic and they have begun work on ceramic creations as well. For sale were alebrijes made by nearby artisans and workshops.

We were disappointed not to find an alebrije that spoke to us, but it was still fascinating walking through the process.

Had we done more research, we probably would have visited a few more workshops, but without that information we decided to head back to Oaxaca. Our time in Oaxaca may have been a bit of a bust, but we thoroughly enjoyed our day-trips.

  1. I like the idea of alebrije, and the one depicted here in this post definitely looks fascinating! That photo of the ingredients they use to color the artworks almost appears as if they were used to cook a special dish. Just beautiful.

    1. I’m hoping to someday find the right alebrije – I feel like its not something you just randomly buy. And I couldn’t agree more about the colors – I would absolutely eat those traditional paint ingredients : )

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