Hwy-190 provides access to the alluring villages of the Valle de Tlacolula, slicing some 45km east of Oaxaca towards Mitla, before cutting south to Tehuantepec and the coast. The route is well served by colectivos and buses from the second-class terminal (every 30min or so), making day-trips possible, even without a car. Check with the tourist office for which village has a market on the day you’re going. If you want to explore the valley further it’s a good idea to stay in one of the villages, some of which have self-catering facilities.
The main allure of the ancient Zapotec site of DAINZÚ resides in its raw appeal, with few tourists or imposing facilities to detract from soulful contemplation. Just over 20km from Oaxaca on Hwy-190, Dainzú, established around 700–600 BC, stands partially excavated in a harsh landscape of cactus-covered hills around 1km south of the main road. The chief structure, Edificio A, is a large, rambling hillside construction set around a courtyard, with elements from several epochs. Along the far side of its base a series of danzante figures can be made out, similar to those at Monte Albán except that these clearly represent ball-players. Nearby is the ball-court, only one side of which has been reconstructed. Edificio B is another large and complex platform structure; its most striking feature is a tomb whose entrance is carved in the form of a jaguar.
Teotitlán del Valle
TEOTITLÁN DEL VALLE, 4km north of Hwy-190, is the most famous weaving town in Oaxaca. The rugs are the product of a cottage industry that seems to involve almost every family in town; along the road as you approach and all over the village you’ll see bold-patterned and brightly coloured rugs and sarapes, some following traditional designs from Mitla, others more modern, including many based on the work of Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher.
Even if you’re not buying, poke your head into one of the compounds with rugs hanging outside. There’s little hard-sell, and most weavers will be more than happy to provide a demonstration of pre-Hispanic weaving and dying techniques; traditional dyes use natural substances including indigo, pomegranate and cochineal, the latter made from a substance secreted by the cochineal beetle that, when dried, creates an inimitable blood-red colour. There’s a small Mercado de Artesanías on the main plaza with a decent range of rugs, but quality and prices are generally better if you go direct to the producers.
The small Zapotec site of LAMBITYECO, prettily planted with agave and cactus, can be seen in twenty minutes, but it’s worth it for the exceptional carvings and stucco-work. Just two buildings of the two hundred or so that have been identified have been excavated, along with some outbuildings that include an original temazcal. The smaller building at the back is the Templo de Cocijo, extensively decorated with masks of Cocijo, Zapotec god of rain and thunder, in the form of a stylised jaguar; two stunningly preserved versions flank the tiny central patio. The larger Palacio de los Racoqui is thought to have been the home of several generations of an important family – perhaps the city’s rulers. There are some superb friezes, including those on the lintels of two tombs, excavated where they had been buried deep inside the building, with remarkable portraits of the individuals buried there.
Santa Ana del Valle
SANTA ANA DEL VALLE, 4km north of Tlacolula, is a tiny, very quiet and very traditional village with a fine selection of locally produced rugs. You’ll see them for sale everywhere. There’s a tranquil and well-managed homestay programme should you want to stay; the local baker makes delicious bread and there’s a shop where you can buy basic provisions. A three-hour walk, outlined on a board outside the community museum, will take you to Iki ya’a, a hilltop Zapotec site with fine views.
One of the least-visited archeological sites in the region, YAGUL lies to the north of the highway at about the 35km mark – a signposted twenty-minute walk (or 1.5km drive). The large site spreads expansively across a superb defensive position, and although occupied by the Zapotecs from a fairly early date, its main features are from later on (around 900–1200 AD, after the fall of Monte Albán) and demonstrate Mixtec influence. On the lowest level is the Patio de la Triple Tumba, where the remains of four temples surround an altar and the entry to the Triple Tomb, whose three funereal chambers show characteristically Mixtec decoration. Immediately above the patio, you’ll see a large and elegantly simple ball-court, the largest known after Chichén Itzá. Higher up, the maze-like Palacio de los Seis Patios, probably a residential complex, features six small courtyards surrounded by rooms and narrow passages. From here a good path leads up to a viewpoint on a mesa-like crag, with superb views over the surrounding valleys.
The town of MITLA (“Place of the Dead”) is a dusty and none too attractive place, which you’d visit only to see the stunning Mixtec site at the upper edge of town. It may not have the grandiose scale and setting of Monte Albán, but Mitla is magnificently decorated with elaborate stone mosaics that are among the finest in Mexico. You’ll see these superlative bas-reliefs and geometric designs at their best if you arrive towards closing time, when the low sun throws the patterns into sharp, shadowed relief, and the bulk of the visitors have left.
Mitla reached its apogee during the post-Classic period, when Monte Albán was in decline. Construction at the site continued until the late fifteenth century, at which point it was finally conquered by the Aztecs. The abstract designs on the buildings seem to echo patterns on surviving Mixtec manuscripts, and have long been viewed as purely Mixtec in style. But more recent opinion is that the buildings were constructed by Zapotecs and that the city was a ceremonial centre occupied by the most important Zapotec high priest. This Uija-Tao, or “great seer”, was described by Alonso Canesco, a fifteenth-century Spaniard, as being “rather like our Pope”, and his presence here would have made Mitla a kind of Vatican City.