Visiting the Ruins of Mitla Oaxaca: The Ultimate Travel Guide

From intriguing geometric mosaics believed to represent deities to the city’s deep-seated role in religious rituals, Mitla is more than just ruins—it’s a portal to the vibrant past of the Zapotec civilization.

Travel couple in the Mitla Ruins in Oaxaca Mexico

Nestled in the Oaxaca Valley lies Mitla, a testament to the architectural genius and profound spiritual beliefs of the ancient Zapotec civilization.

As one of Oaxaca’s archaeological crown jewels, Mitla offers more than just historical ruins. From its iconic geometric mosaics to its sacred tombs, the ruins of Mitla Oaxaca beckon travelers to step back in time and unlock the mysteries of a civilization that once flourished amidst Mexico’s rugged landscapes.

We visited Mitla to marvel at its intricate stone mosaics, and found ourselves wondering: What lies beneath the ruins?

In this article, we delve deep into the Mitla Ruins and let you know how to get there, what to expect, and discuss the rich history of the archaeological site.

Mitla Ruins Details

  • Hours: 10 AM – 4 PM daily
  • Cost: $90 pesos (as of August 2023)
  • Location: 📍 Mitla Ruins Entrance – Google Maps
  • Parking: Free parking in the parking lots near the entrance
  • Restrooms: Restrooms located in the entrance/visitor center

How to Get to the Ruins of Mitla Oaxaca

Getting to Mitla can be a little confusing – if you just type “Mitla” into Google Maps, it gives you the completely wrong location.

The correct location for the Mitla Ruins is actually called “Zona Arqueológica de Mitla”. However, if you go to that location, that’s not where you enter the site!

The entrance to the Mitla ruins is actually quite far away from that location.

Here is a link to the entrance for the Mitla Ruins, which is a parking lot right at the main entrance.

Map showing the entrance to Mitla
The entrance to the Mitla ruins is located at the north end of the complex, near the Grupo del Norte (North Group) structures.

The main entrance to the Mitla ruins is very unassuming, and luckily we had a private driver take us there and he knew exactly where to go.

If you opt to take public transportation to Mitla, the buses from Oaxaca City only stop at the entrance to the town of Mitla, and do not go all the way to the ruins. So you’ll need to walk the rest of the way to the ruins on the north side of town.

Nomadic Backpacker has an article about taking the bus to Mitla, so I recommend checking out their article if you want to go to Mitla by bus.

What to Expect When Visiting Mitla

Because Mitla is somewhat out of the way, it’s much less crowded than Monte Alban.

It’s also much smaller than Monte Alban – you can get through the Mitla Ruins in about an hour or two.

After going through the entrance and purchasing your ticket, there are a few guides standing there, and you can pay for their services if you’d like.

Grupo Del Norte

The first thing you’ll come across in the ruins is the Grupo del Norte structures.

Grupo Del Norte exterior near Mitla ruins entrance

The Grupo Del Norte was our favorite place to explore, since it’s quite small, and is full of mosaic tiles on all of its sides.

Chloe sitting inside of Mitla ruins Grupo Del Norte

The Church of San Pablo sits squarely in the center of the Mitla ruins, providing a backdrop for photos in Grupo Del Norte.

The colonial catholic church was built in the 17th century atop the ruins. It used stones from the Zapotec ruins in its construction. It serves as a stark representation of Spanish conquest and conversion efforts.

The Grupo del Norte is also a good place to spot the red and white mural paintings that adorn the buildings.

Codex type mural painting in Mitla ruins
The remains of some of the codex-type mural paintings in Mitla ruins

These mural paintings served as documents that narrate the history of the people that inhabited Mitla.

👉 Fun Fact: The artistic style of the mural paintings in Mitla has opened the discussion to a possible Mixteca influence in this Zapotec city!

Once you’re finished at the Grupo Del Norte, you’ll walk through a small marketplace to get to the southern area of the ruins.

Chloe looking at stalls in the Mitla Ruins marketplace

Grupo de las Columnas (Group of the Columns)

The Grupo de las Columnas (Group of the Columns) is the most prominent feature in the southern area of the ruins.

It stands out due to its larger architecture, easily the largest structure in the Mitla ruins.

Group of the Columns exterior in Mitla Oaxaca

The Group of the Columns contains three courtyards and the Hall of the Columns.

Salón de las Columnas (Hall of the Columns)

The Salón de las Columnas (Hall of the Columns) consists of six large monolithic columns that served to support the roof which has since eroded away.

Hall of Columns in Mitla Oaxaca
The Hall of Columns in Mitla has 6 vertical columns, believed to have been supports for the roof of a large chamber.

The stone for these monoliths was quarried from nearby mountains and brought to the site.

Tombs

Part of the underground labyrinth of Mitla used to be open to explore, but when we went in August 2023, it was closed off to tourists.

The underground labyrinth of Mitla is just as decorated as its buildings on the surface, with stone friezes and murals similar to the facades of its buildings.

History of Mitla

There are traces of human habitation dating back in Mitla to between 0-200 A.D. Following the decline of Monte Albán as a dominant force, Mitla emerged as the principal Zapotec city, establishing itself as a central power hub in the Oaxaca Valley. Its golden era spanned between 950-1521 A.D.

The Mitla archaeological area encompasses five significant architectural complexes:

  • Grupo Del Norte (North Group)
  • Grupo de las Columnas (Group of the Columns)
  • Grupo del Adobe o del Calvario (Adobe or Calvary Group)
  • Grupo del Arroyo (The Arroyo Group)
  • Grupo del Sur (The South Group)

Due to their earlier construction dates, both the Grupo del Arroyo and Grupo del Sur reflect the design tradition of plazas encircled by palaces on platforms, a style synonymous with Monte Albán.

The Grupo Del Norte, Grupo de las Columnas, and Grupo del Arroyo all contain the administrative buildings and palaces of Mitla’s leaders.

The design of these buildings stands out with its massive monoliths and facades adorned with ornamental mosaics. These architectural details are a testament to the rich Zapotec architectural heritage that began in Monte Albán and was significantly influenced by Teotihuacan.

Unique Architectural Features of Mitla

The mosaic tiles of Mitla Ruins at Grupo de las Columnas
All sorts of mosaic tiles adorn the Grupo de las Columnas structure at the Mitla Ruins

The most distinctive feature of Mitla is the intricate geometric mosaics that adorn its buildings. No other site in Mesoamerica has geometric mosaics. These designs are made up of thousands of individually cut stones that are pieced together without mortar.

The mosaic tile installations on the buildings in Mitla showcase the high level of craftsmanship and mathematic understanding of the Zapotec artisans who built Mitla.

The patterns on the buildings aren’t merely decorative. They have symbolic meanings rooted in Zapotec cosmology and beliefs.

Lesser-known Facts About Mitla

While the stone mosaics and iconic ruins often steal the limelight, there exists a depth of stories and lesser-known facets that add layers to Mitla’s history.

In this section, we’ll dive into the intricate history of Mitla, from speculative designs to its underground labyrinths.

The Meaning Behind Mitla’s Unusual Geometric Designs

Mitla tile mosaic detail
Some people have speculated that some of the tile mosaics in Mitla are an interpretation of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. What do you think?

There are many speculations of the meanings of the geometric tile designs in Mitla.

Some people have interpreted the tile designs as an abstract version of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent deity common to Mesoamerican religions.

Others believe that some of the tile designs represent elements like the earth and sky.

Mitla ruins with tile mosaics

Role in Religious Rituals

Mitla was perhaps the most important site in Oaxaca for religious and ceremonial purposes.

The Hall of Columns at Mitla served as a ceremonial space where priests conducted rituals, including the burning of incense, animal sacrifices, human offerings, and other sacred ceremonies.

Underground Tunnels and Chambers

During the 17th century, catholic priests and missionaries sealed off the entrances to the underground labyrinth at Mitla.

The underground chambers of Mitla were almost certainly tombs. There have been some tombs discovered in Mitla, however, all of them were found to be empty.

A significant portion of Mitla’s underground area remains unexplored, primarily because of existing structures – the Church of San Pablo in particular.

The Gateway to the Underworld

The name “Mitla” is derived from the Náhuatl term “Mictlan,” which translates to “underworld” or “place of the dead”.

Mitla was a significant religious center, and there are several tombs within the site. Some tombs are adorned with intricate mosaics and house ancient relics.

Being buried at Mitla was a privilege, reserved for members of the upper class such as priests and rulers.

Best Time to Visit Mitla

Any time of the year is fine to visit Mitla. The weather is fairly pleasant year-round in the Oaxaca Valley, which includes Mitla.

However, for a balance of good weather and manageable crowd sizes, visiting between late November and early December or late February to early March might be ideal.

If you visit during the rainy season between June and October like we did, the best time to visit Mitla is in the morning, since the heavy downpours usually occur in the late afternoon.

Trey Lewis is an outdoor enthusiast. Whether its hiking knife-edge ridges or just fishing by the river, Trey isn't afraid to get dirty in search of the next adventure.

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