Sunday, March 11, 2012

Monte Albán

And today we visit Monte Albán, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site on top of a low mountain in Oaxaca.

The views from the top were quite beautiful!

This Zapotec city was probably founded around 500 BC.

The north corner of the Great Palace.

The ruins are quite impressive, especially given their mountain-top perch. 

The city was built in stages until 1600, when it was abandoned.

One of the several platforms at Monte Alban.

Mexico has many fascinating ruins like this, some of which we've visited in the past, like Teohuacan, Chichen Itza and Tulum.

Many of these sites have ball courts, like the one at Monte Alban...

The game involving putting a ball through vertical rings. In most places, the losers were sacrificed to the gods, which probably made for an exciting game! But our guide told us that at Monte Albán, they sacrificed animals instead. Not much better!

These stone carvings are around 2,000 years old.

Gordon, about to climb one of the more modest staircases.

The elevation of Mexico City is almost 8,000 feet above sea level. Oaxaca is around 5,000 feet. We all really noticed the effects of altitude, particularly when climbing some of the taller platforms on this site.

Many trees were blooming all around Oaxaca. I called this one the "bee tree" because it was covered in honeybees.

Amazing where flowers will grow!

Here's a view of the plaza from the top of the south platform. Our friends Anne and Andrew are the couple walking in the centre!

Another view of the ball court.

Gorgeous jacaranda trees were blooming all over the city, including up at Monte Albán,

In 1932, they discovered Tomb 7 here. Its contents are on display at a museum in Oaxaca. One of the items I found most fascinating was this turquoise-encrusted human skull...

One more reason I vote for cremation. Nobody's gonna  stick doo-dahs on my skull and display it in a museum!!

Monte Alban is a magnificent place to visit and I highly recommend it if you're in or near Oaxaca.

After the ruins, we had lunch down in the town. With my very limited Spanish, I chose the pork and (black) beans...

...which came out looking wholly unappetizing. It did taste better than it looked, and I ate it up, but I really wish I'd had the vegetable soup our friend Andrew enjoyed..

Yesterday Red asked me to talk about eating local food, going out at night, etc. in Mexico. Mexico has been getting a LOT of bad press lately, particularly regarding some isolated incidents involving Canadian tourists being assaulted or killed. The media tends to blow this stuff WAY out of proportion. Here's a good article on Mexico and its safety for Canadian tourists.  We have travelled quite a lot over the years, and to places considerably more dangerous than Mexico. We went to Guatemela in 2002 but I wouldn't go there now as we consider it too dangerous. But I feel quite safe in Mexico. That said, I wouldn't visit certain areas, like Ciudad Juarez, but that's not exactly a tourist zone anyway!

I think the most important thing to do when travelling anywhere is use common sense. Don't wear flashy jewellery. Use a moneybelt for your passports, and use the hotel safes. Be aware of what's going on around you and be careful where you go after dark. Don't get drunk and lose control of your senses, because that's just asking to be taken advantage of!  Listen to your intuition. Knock wood, in all our years of travelling (throughout southeast Asia, Latin America, and other places) we have never had a crime committed against us, nor have we even felt threatened or in danger. I think it's important to educate yourself about the country you're visiting before you go. Honestly, I was more freaked out by the American I saw openly carrying a handgun in Tucson drugstore than anything I've seen in Mexico!

We've been to this country three times now and have not had a bad experience. Well, rush-hour on the Mexico CIty subway wasn't fun (think sweaty sardines), but hey, nobody groped my butt!

Foodwise, you need to use common sense as well. I would LOVE to eat all the street food in Mexico, but I don't, because I don't want to spend my vacation on the toilet. If I were down there for several months, I'd take the plunge and acclimatize my stomach to the local bugs, because there is some amazing street food there. On our last three "exotic" trips (Sri Lanka, and twice to Mexico), we took the    oral vaccine Dukoral before we left. I swear by it! I haven't had turista any of the times we've used it.

I don't drink or brush my teeth with anything but bottled water when I travel. I did have some ice on this trip, but I was told that ice with holes bored through the middle is commercially made and safe. For restaurants, we do what we do in Canada: read reviews, and look around to see if the place looks clean! And sometimes I just take a chance and eat what looks good. Occasionally this bites me in the ass; I brought home an amoeba from Cambodia that was so stubborn, my doctor and I named it Amelia and spent a long time killing it with antibiotics. Gordon managed to get typhoid fever in Cambodia because he had inadvertently let his vaccine lapse. While it wasn't pretty, it happened at the end of our trip and didn't wreck it. And hey, I now know how to change an I.V. bag!

The worst bout of food poisoning I ever got was in my own home when I was living in Montreal. I ended up being taken to hospital in an ambulance for that one. So I don't worry too terribly much when I travel. I do exercise caution, but I also try local foods. Hepatitis A vaccines are also a good idea. :)

As far as going out at night, we are careful. We walked around Mexico City at night a bit, but only in areas where the streets were full of people. We only took the subway there during the daytime. And it doesn't matter if you're in Mexico or Toronto; pick-pocketing happens everywhere, so keep an eye on your wallet! So far, we have not ever been robbed in 23 years of travelling together. Hopefully that will never happen, but if it did, I would not resist. Better to lose your money than your life.

I've seen other tourists on our travels who won't touch the food unless it's in the form of a McDonald's burger, and who are utterly paranoid about everything they eat. I think that takes a lot of the fun out of travelling, so I prefer to exercise caution, take some risks, and hope for the best. So far it's worked for me, amoeba aside.

We also read guidebooks and TripAdvisor and often eat at/visit places recommended in those, but if you only follow what's in the guidebooks, you can miss out on a lot. Just use your noggin. Get any necessary shots before you travel, drink bottled water, and take along Pepto Bismol, Immodium and some Tylenol just in case.

Ya know, most Mexicans are decent people like most Canadians or Americans. They aren't out to kill you. Educate yourself before you go, use common sense, and odds are good that you'll be just fine. 

And if you order "pork with beans" in Mexico, don't expect it to look like it came out of a Heinz can. :)


  1. Really appreciate your comments on food and safety. You emphasize over and over again use common sense. You also have lots of experience to go along with the common sense. I have found your description of your trip fascinating. Even from your pictures the ruins make one think about the culture that had developed and disappeared.

    1. ANd did I mention common sense? :) But I've seen a lot of travellers leave common sense at home. It's not a good idea!

      The history of Mexico is just fascinating. Yes, they have beautiful beaches but they also have an amazing culture and the archaelological sites are highly impressive!

      ANd then there are those fried grasshoppers...

  2. Anonymous11:21 pm

    And most importantly, don't let anyone steal you skull and turn it into art!


    1. Honey, my skull is already a work of art, ha ha ha.

  3. Lots of spectacular views. And good advice about food which we can all apply,even here in Canada where lots of people get food poisoning from badly prepared or stored food.

    1. No kidding! I have had more problems with food poisoning in Canada than anywhere else (once it was my own bad handling of food!) Glad you are enjoying the pics, Jenny.

  4. Imagine the giant buildings they did without machines and modern tools. Unbelievable. Have a nice day.


    1. And to get all that stuff up a mountain!! It's amazing. Slave labour I guess!

  5. Good safety tips! That applies ANYWHERE you travel!
    My Passport was stolen years back at Heathrow in London...and nobody calls that a dangerous area!
    I was travelling alone and can only pin-point 2 spots it could have happended. Right after customs (when they hury you up for the next person) or when I made a phone call trying to decipher the phone system!)

    1. Oh ugh Elisabeth, I always worry most about losing my passport on vacation! Poor you.

  6. Very cool pics! Depending on where I might travel, it is easier and safer to pass as Canadian in may parts of the world. Living close to the border helps, eh?

    1. You're so close to the border, you're already practically Canadian! :) Hey, if you don't want to look like an American when you travel, DON'T wear sneakers and a fanny pack. Dead give-away! ;)

  7. Anonymous8:17 pm

    Wonderful photos. I am so fascinated by all those amazing ruins and the people who built them. Just stunning.

    Also, great traveling advice!

    1. I'm thinking poor sods doing slave labour built these amazing things! I wonder how they looked in their heyday, when the stonework was all painted. I love these old archaeological sites.

    2. At least with the Egyptian pyramids the latest theory is that there was no slave labour involved. No idea about Mexico, though.

    3. I wouldn't want the job!

  8. Great post about safety and food :)
    My mom and her friend travel a lot too and they have never been pickpocket or felt threatened or got foodpoisoned (knock on wood)
    Like you say use your common sense !!

    1. Thanks Kjelle! A money belt really helps. :)

  9. Great post Natalie! I love the photos and advice.


Thank you for all your comments, which I love to read!