skyline at Monte Alban, OaxacaToday our group from CCSF visited the Zapotec site of Monte Albán. If you want to get actual facts, I’ll direct you here and here. This post will just be my impressions and what I think I gleaned from the guide who — in accordance with this intensive language class — conducted the tour completely in Spanish. That lead to wildly different interpretations as we sneaked around the back of pyramids out of earshot of our professor to compare notes in English. Luckily some of us had read up on the ruins beforehand and, together, I think we came up with something close to the Monte Albán history.

The first thing you have to wrap your head around is that, somewhere around 500 B.C., a Zapotec king or shamen looked up at an imposing mountain 6391 feet above sea level (1312 more than the floor of the valley of Oaxaca) and said, “We are going to level off the whole top of that peak into a giant plateau. Without the wheel, without any beasts of burden, just with massive amounts of people power.” Over the next 1200 years, they not only accomplished that feat, they built more than a dozen temples, administrative and government buildings and large interconnecting paved plazas. Oh, and they also terraced the entire mountainside all around, so they could provide housing areas for various classes, grouped with priests on the top, soldiers and government officials on the next tier, artisans below that and peasants down near the valley. Of course, the peasants had to haul all their produce up that mountain-side to get to the markets which were on the plazas.

Monte Alban view of main plaza

Give it up for the Zapotecs, the hardest working people in Mesoamerica. This is just a partial view of the ruins. I couldn't even get the whole complex in one shot.

But to really get an idea how fit these people must have been, you have to look at the stairs. The riser between stairs is much higher than the standard stair height (which I believe is a foot). In fact, only one of the male students who is over six feet found the step up a comfortable lever length for his leg. Now the average Zapotec, at that time, must have been about 4’7″. Many of them today aren’t that much taller. I can only offer the equivalent of that “Stairs of Death” StairMaster machine you find in some gyms. You know, the one that’s like a mini-escalator of stairs. Now imagine taking those stairs three at a time. While balancing on your head a full load of corn or tomatoes or blocks of stone or whatever else the shamen were demanding.

Monte Alban view, Oaxaca

This is me standing on the tallest temple. Waiting for my heart to explode.

When contemplated that way, even though I was feeling the altitude, I figured I couldn’t leave without climbing a few of the temple steps. Luckily, there are restored steps you are allowed to climb. Unluckily, they are on the tallest temples. The trick, I found, was to pull my hat down low, not look at how much further I had to go, and just keep climbing. I made it. My heart almost stopped. And I could take a perverse pleasure in climbing beside the ten year old whose mother had attached herself and her two other equally disagreeable children to our group. As this kid whined and moaned and said her legs hurt and she couldn’t go up any more, I did it. Yes, I did it. I became THAT adult. “Listen kid, if you are having trouble with this activity now, what are you going to do at my age?” Yes, I hated THAT adult when I was a kid. But now I know why he or she always insisted on saying these things. It’s fun. Little twerp.

Cactus at Monte Alban, Oaxaca

This is me, prostrate behind a nopale cactus after climbing down the temple steps.

Anyway, back to the Zapotecs. They faded away and abandoned the city in about 1000 A.D. But not before they plateaued another mountain and built a group of temples up there. That one hasn’t even been excavated. At some point the Mixtecs invaded and subdued the Zapotecs, although both groups continued to use Monte Albán as a sacred place and burial ground.

Keith at Monte Alban, Oaxaca

This is mi compadre, Keith, another of the "older" students, who insisted on calling this place "The Ruins of Ricardo Montalban".

So as I said, I felt it only proper homage to the Zapotecs to climb at least two of those pyramids. But tonight, after four hours of stomping around ruins and doing the Mesoamerican StairMaster, I’m ready to whine.

I can just hear the ghostly voice of a Zapotec spirit: “Why when I was your age…Twerp!”