If you want to see more of Oaxaca than just the town itself, there are plenty of day trips to take. For the archaeology buff like GB, no trip to southern Mexico would be complete without a look-see at some prehispanic ruins. The Oaxaca area has some good ones. It's easy for yatistas to take a bus trip from Huatulco to Oaxaca, so consider exploring the greater Oaxaca area for at least 3-5 days and seeing at least 2 major sites. You can take local buses to the sites, hire a van or pickup truck/taxi or join a small tour in a van. Tour operators both large and small, expensive and cheap, ply their trade throughout Oaxaca's centro district so it's easy to get transportation to and from the ruins of your choice.
To really enhance your understanding of what each site offers (especially since most sites include Spanish-only signage), use an archaeological guide book like Andrew Coe's Archaeological Mexico - A Traveler's Guide to Ancient Cities and Sacred Sites (Avalon Travel, 2d ed. 2001). Coe gives good explanations - maps and photos included - of the historical, geographic and cultural context of most of the tourist-accessible ruins throughout Mexico. He ranks the sites by using cute little trowel symbols: 4 trowels is "a world-class site, a must for every visitor"; 3 trowels signifies "a major site, possessing great historic and/or artistic value"; and 2 trowels is "worth a detour, and generally of regional importance." 1-trowel sites are only for the hardest-core archaeo-fans.
We saw two sites while in Oaxaca: Monte Alban (4 trowels) and Mitla (a 3-troweler). Given our limited time we chose to take tour vans to both sites, something we don't usually do. In retrospect we should have gone on our own because we tend to want to spend more time exploring ruins than tours allow. But, for most people who are not hyper-avid history buffs the tours would probably be very acceptable.
Monte Alban is indeed a world-class site. Occupation began about 500BC and continued to about 1520AD. In its heyday (100-600AD) there were an estimated 25,000 occupants in the ceremonial center and another 100,000 in the surrounding countryside. Various groups built their temples and other structures on top of those of preceding groups - so you have Mixtec on top of Zapotec on top of Olmec. The ruins are well excavated and restored, and the on-site museum has many of
Monte Alban's carved steles (rock slabs) depict humans in poses that earlier archaeologists described as "Dancers" and "Swimmers." Allow me to retort. That interpretation was made back in the day when it was fashionable to characterize native groups the world over as
Or, take as another example the finely rendered, 2-to-4-foot-tall terra-cotta incense burners that were found by the hundreds in the tombs of Monte Alban and other sites. Before the advent of DNA testing, archaeologists described them as "incense burners" because they'd found residue from copal incense in the clay pots that sat atop the burners themselves. Of course, they omitted the fact that they'd also found bones in the incense burners - but hey, some of them were obviously from jaguar paws, so no big deal, right? Yeah, well lately scientists have discovered that mixed in with the jaguar paws and incense had been human phalanges (fingers, that is) and copious amounts of...human blood. Some of it appears to have been voluntarily donated. Yeesh. I emphasize: archaeologists have found hundreds of these "incense burners."
OK, they're still very pretty to look at. When they're empty.
Monte Alban is worth a day trip, just to marvel at what it must have taken for
Coe calls Mitla a 3-trowel site. It's an easy day trip from Oaxaca town, and the accessible portion of the site is fairly small. About 1/3 of it is underneath a Catholic church that those crazy Spaniards built in the 17th century, just to show the locals who was boss. The entire site is located right in the middle of the modern town. Growing up next to an ancient Zapotec temple must be quite different from, say, a childhood in Chatsworth.
The Mitla structures are unique in that they include large, intricate, extensive friezes and mosaics carved out of separate large pieces of stone, interspersed with remains of red-and-white painted murals. In fact, all the buildings at Mitla (like buildings at other sites) had originally been stuccoed and painted bright red, white, and even blue and yellow. A sample of