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Oaxaca Ruins Tours, Ranked

Updated: Jun 6

Journey into the fascinating past of the Zapotec people, who lived in Oaxaca most notably from around 250-950 AD. All around the modern city you can find examples of these people, from the painted or carved symbols of the Zapotecs on the commonly found alebrije souvenirs, to the massive ruins and structures left behind from their settlements. Several of these archaeological sites, known in Mexico as zonas archaeologicas, are worth visiting while you are in Oaxaca.

Below I detail the four that I visited (out of 7 listed), ranking in order of most interesting to 'worth a quick look', as well as the others that I haven't had a chance to see yet. I've also included tour information for those without a vehicle who would like to pair a day of siteseeing with perhaps mezcal tasting, gastronomy and market tours, and more.

Zapotec symbols carved into stone

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In this article you will find:

The Best Zonas Archaeologicas in Oaxaca, Ranked

My Favorite Oaxaca Ruins Site

white sign reading yagul

In my opinion, this is the must-see, best Oaxaca Ruins site. Yagul is not only a pretty large complex, but it has the most fascinating buildings and structures and we had the place to ourselves at opening time.

stone wall with mountain vista

The views heading up and down the hill are tremendous of the mountain range, making photographers drool at every turn of the bend and at the top of the ruins. If you so choose, you can even park half way up and hike along a trail to the top.

a hilly road leads to a mountain vista

Once you enter the site, we turned to the left to first see this amazing little courtyard full of tombs. We entered the triple tomb, discovered in 1954. Stepping into this eerie, probably scorpion-filled crypt, I felt like Indiana Jones. It was muggy and dark, lit only by the sunlight, and had some really cool carvings inside.

stone tomb with faces carved into it

Venturing further above ground, we freely scaled the stone walls and stairways to various rooms and courtyards, all seemingly part of a labyrinth structure of building remains.

The ball court, as always, to me is very fascinating and a highlight of most of these ruins.

stone ball court ruins

Spend about 30-45 minutes walking around all of the structures before heading into Mitla or Tlacolula for their Sunday market. Yagul is just 5 minutes off the main road, so it is an easy stop along the road to anywhere east of Oaxaca city. Don't forget to pop into Wicho's Donuts for a delicious treat beforehand.

Yagul Visitor Information

Cost: $95 MXN

Hours: Daily 10am-4pm

Time needed to visit: 30-45 minutes

Onsite amenities: Ticket booth, free parking

The Most Unique Oaxaca Ruins

white sign reading lambityeco

Readers may be surprised to see Monte Alban and Mitla lower on my top ranked Oaxaca ruins sites, but there is a reason for that. Like Yagul, this next site was also a completely isolated visit, where we were the only visitors. I think the uncrowded sites allow more time to really lean into what you are seeing, without following a path or fighting with background people in photos.

stairs made of stone

I think Lambityeco is 100% worth a visit. It's accessed literally by a driveway off the main highway and takes zero effort to get to. Once in the shaded parking area, pay your ticket fees and wander for about 20 minutes to a very condensed set of buildings.

See wow-worthy carvings, like this Zapotec figure also used as Mezcal Casa Chagoya's symbol.

Zapotec carving of a man with a headdress

Overlook a palace of rooms, see the typical steeped staircase structure, and marvel at amazing views of the Oaxacavalley and its mountain ranges.

mountain view with greenery

When you conclude your touring, which takes only about 20 minutes, read the signs about the temazcal steam baths, the first in fact found in the valley of Oaxaca. The steam baths were used to bathe women after giving birth, purification ceremonies, and for curing illnesses.

ruins of a steam bath with sign

Lambityeco Visitor Information

Cost: $75 MXN

Hours: Daily 10am-4pm

Time needed to visit: 20 minutes

Onsite amenities: Ticket booth, free parking

The Best Large Scale Oaxaca Ruins

a woman with a Zapotec city in the background

Ranking third in my top 4 Archaeological sites in Oaxaca, the behemoth Monte Alban. Perhaps I am a little spoiled having already seen the impressive Teotihuacan complex in Mexico City, but I found Monte Alban to be a bit underwhelming. Don't get me wrong, the sheer size of this massive archaeological site in itself is impressive, as are the many pyramids dotting the plaza of the north and south field, but I didn't find as many interesting carvings or relics of the ancient Zapotec civilization as I would have expected or hoped.

Instead, we slogged around the serpentine path to the right at the start of our touring, which has visitors skirting past tombs and other side crops of structures (plus a restroom, good to note), but the path was hot and long. I wondered when we were going to happen upon the major stuff that I had seen in photos - the primary common spaces you seen in the photo behind me.

When we found it, I had a feeling of, "now what?". My head glanced to the north platform and to the south platform, but it was so hot and I was so tired from the high altitude walk (it is at 6400 ft) that venturing down the long complex of buildings to see up close felt like a haphazard effort. I certainly wasn't going to be climbing anything, so we took some photos and made our way up to the ball courts.

stone ball court

Now my knowledge of ball courts is simply from what I learned at Coba in the Yucatan, about the game called pok a tok. In pok a tok, Mayan warriors would be chosen to fight to the death in a ball game using elbows, knees, etc - but no hands! It was often brutal and bloody, but was apparently an honor to be chosen for the right to play.

At Monte Alban, their signs explained a different story, one of peaceful dispute resolution. The game was not played to the death, nor was it used for gore. It was a place where tribesmen could settle arguments over land ownership and other common disagreements. This was very interesting for me to read!

This section of Monte Alban was probably the most unique to see and photograph, and also coincidentally the easiest to walk around.

I suggest when starting your visit to Monte Alban, go up the staircase and turn LEFT. You'll skip the long path around the ruins complex and get right to the action.

Afterwards, there are clean bathrooms, a nice restaurant with a scenic overlook, and plenty of souvenir opportunities.

Visit the museum to see cool carvings and artifacts as well!

Monte Alban Visitor Information

Cost: $95 MXN

Hours: Daily 10am-4pm

Time needed to visit: 1-3 hours

Onsite amenities: Ticket booth, free parking, souvenir vendors, free restrooms, restaurant, museum, gift shop

The Prettiest Oaxaca Ruins

stone carved ruins

In fairness, Mitla doesn't deserve a bottom spot on any list, but of the four we visited this one latest in the day meaning, it was HOT. We'd already been mezcal tasting earlier and visited Yagul, so we were beat. To truly appreciate this place, like always suggested, start early.

The complex itself was easy to get to through the winding streets of Mitla's town, with parking for about $2 USD for the day nearby. An artisan market lines the route in and out of the ruins and actually splits the path in half, so you'll cross through the market several times.

At its center find the Spanish church with beautiful red domes, then walk around to see carvings and beautiful structures. Here's a little slideshow of what to expect, below:

Mitla Visitor Information

Cost: $95 MXN

Hours: Daily 10am-4pm

Time needed to visit: 1 hour

Onsite amenities: Ticket booth, $40 MXN parking lots, souvenir vendors

Other Archaeological Sites in Oaxaca

Apparently quite large and impressive, I wish I had enough time to visit on my trip.

Cost: Free

Hours: Saturday and Sunday from 9am-3pm

Tucked away down the Ruta de Artesanias, this one is hard to get to without a car.

Cost: $75 MXN

Hours: Thursday to Sunday 10am-4pm

Easy to spot signs on the Ruta Caminos del Mezcal, it's a good stop off on the way to Tlacolula, Mitla, or Hierve El Agua.

Cost: $75 MXN

Hours: Daily 10am-4pm

To learn more about some of these amazing sites from another source, check out this guide on Sailingstone Travel.

girl walks in front of ruins and cactuses

Suggested Oaxaca Ruins Tours

If you don't have a car, consider taking one of these packaged Oaxaca ruins tours.

Tour Info

Tour Perks

Book Now

From $110

See Monte Alban, Mitla and Dainzu in one epic tour.

From $165

This site tour includes a visit to Yagul, the huge tree in Tule, the artisan town of Teotitlan, and Hierve el Agua. It also includes a special lunch in the home of one of Teotitlan's artisan workers.

From $54

This visit to Yagul also includes time spent at the infamous Sunday Market in Tlacolula

From $45

See artisan village of Teotitlan, followed by Mitla, a buffet lunch, a visit to Hierve el Agua AND a mezcal factory.

From $47

This small-group tour will have you spending the day at Monte Alban, followed by several artisan workshops, and it includes a buffet lunch at a local restaurant.

Tips for Visiting Archaeological Sites in Oaxaca

Like most travelers will tell you, try and go in the early parts of the day, because the highest heat is actually around 3-4pm. Even at 10am upon opening, these places are hot, dry, dusty and extremely limited in shade.

With UV indexes hovering around 11+, it is important to wear sunblock on at least your face and arms.

Always wear a wide brimmed hat to protect your face, neck and shoulders, and I suggest good hiking boots and loose clothing as well. I wore breezy pants and never felt hot.

Influencers may wish to wear flowy dresses like my daughter below (she is just begging to be a social influencer, I swear), but it was a super impractical outfit and kept getting stuck on thorny plants and stone stairs. There is no pleading with a four year old when it comes to what to wear, but perhaps we adults can have better common sense!

girl in pink dress in front of Zapotec ruins

Also, expect that most of these destinations will not have any accommodations as far as food, water or restrooms, so plan accordingly.

Parking is typically free at the sites.

All ticket sales are made en efectivo (in cash!). Be sure to have enough to pay for your entry.

In traditional Oaxacan fashion, expect to spend a full day exploring these sites, celebrated later with heaping plates of mole accompanied by mezcal, and a healthy dose of agua, because you'll be dried out after roaming ruins all day. All of these can be visited within just minutes outside the Oaxaca city Centro, so there is no reason why all of these can't make it on your itinerary to Oaxaca.



Hi, I'm Maria!

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