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The Ruins of Mitla

Although Mitla ranks second to Monte Albán in number of annual visits, and Mitla’s rise as a city-state followed the decline of Monte Albán, Mitla is no second-rate ruin. The area is singular in two respects: its architecture and its period of habitation.Signs of continuous human occupation in the Mitla area date back to the first century. When the Spaniards arrived in 1521, Mitla consisted of five groups of buildings. Three of these are situated outside today’s archeological zone where you must pay an entrance fee. 

Mitla Layout

The Southern Group is now little more than vegetation-covered mounds that were once the earliest settlement at Mitla. Built next, the Adobe Group’s decaying adobe foundations are topped by the town’s oldest church, El Calvario. Between these two on the bank of a small creek is the Arroyo Group. Here we begin to see the architectural style of the typical Zapotec palatial complex: three patios surrounded by rooms. The northern patio area is smaller and was probably a residence for Mitla's elite, while the larger patios likely served administrative purposes. Although encroached by vegetation and modern-day households, with a little imagination you can see the beginnings of the emerging city-state. The Church (or Northern) Group lies partly within the gated area of the ruins, but it’s possible to examine the pre-Hispanic foundations of San Pablo Church without the benefit of a ticket or a guide.

Mitla Admission and Guides

Entrance to the ruins is $2.85 (37 pesos), with exceptions for pre-teens, the disabled, seniors and card-carrying students. A guide will run you about $11.54 (150) pesos for a 45 minute tour, longer if you’re inclined to ask questions and offer a tip. Trilingual signage on-site provides minimal information – more can be gleaned from guides, who are well-versed in the history and archeology of the area. 

Architectural Highlights

At the Columns Group, your guide may point out some of the advanced architectural attributes: exterior walls slope inward and are capped by a stone cornice. This deflects rainwater from the face of the lavishly decorated building. Sixteen different geometric designs, composed of 100,000 individually cut stones held together only by their interlocking shape and pressure, surround the palace. In an area known for seismic activity, the lack of mortar in these mosaics and the yielding support of the walls’ clay foundation attest to the early Zapotecs’ construction skills as architects and stonemasons; their magnificent mansions have withstood earthquakes through the millennia.

Within the Columns Group, you’ll see the resplendent restoration of red stucco veneer flanking the north patio’s central staircase. Climb the steep stairs and enter the gallery where six huge stone columns – hewn and transported from the mountain visible three miles to the east – once held a wood beam roof. The lintels above many of the doorways are also single massive stones, some with their original red painted designs intact. These structural yet decorative elements, along with the intricate stonework geometric designs, make Mitla unique. 

Religious Significance

Indeed, after the decline of Monte Albán about 700 AD, Mitla became the religious and ceremonial center of the Tlacolula Valley; neighboring chiefs showed Mitla’s ruling High Priest deference by attending him barefoot. Two cruciform tombs have been excavated in the Columns Group’s south patio. To visit them and admire their matching geometric carvings, one is required to stoop through the low-ceilinged entry. This enforces respect, today as in antiquity, for an enduring edifice and its ancient architects.


Other places nearby Mitla: Chiapa De Corzo, Ocosingo, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Palenque, Santa Catarina Minas, Tehuantepec, Puerto Escondido, Acapulco, Ciudad Cuauhtemoc and Toniná (ruins).

By Leanne Mackenzie
I'm a former medical lab technologist from Canada, now exploring other options in my semi-retirement. Currently I live in a converted Greyhound bus...
26 Nov 2009

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