We hired a driver from Oaxaca City one day to take us out to some of the sites in the Oaxaca Valley. Our first destination was the town and ruins of Mitla, about 45km from Oaxaca City. Mitla was the religious center of the Zapotec civilization. There are five complexes of buildings that remain and they are a bit scattered through the modern town.
The primary complexes are completely surrounded by a modern craft market selling everything Oaxacan to tourists visiting the ruins. The visitor center is located at the far end of this market, conveniently located so you have to walk through the whole thing. After buying a ticket, you will have to cross through the market again to get to the larger temple compound where you can enter the buildings.
Enclosed halls are located off of courtyards within the 'palace'. Mitla is renowned for the stone pattern carvings that cover the walls (inside and out). This section was extremely popular with children (including ours).
You can go further and satisfy your inner Indiana Jones by going down into the tombs. Some crawling is likely required to pass through the entrance tunnel. There's not a whole lot to see down here but it's a nice experience.
Just off the main road to Mitla there are several other smaller Zapotec sites. They tend to be ignored completely by the tour buses (and maybe everyone else too). Mitla was empty early in the morning when we arrived but filled up quickly. We moved on to Yagul which is dramatically situated on a hill about 1 km off of the Oaxaca-Mitla road. I'm told public transport drops people off at the turn-off. If so, it's not too bad a walk to the site.
It is exposed and hot at Yagul (bring water, which is always true in Mexico anyway). The views of the Oaxaca valley are wonderful though.
The bulk of the site is situated on a small plateau where most of the ceremonial buildings are. That includes the ball court which is very similar to the one at Monte Alban. We saw no other visitors at all during our visit to Yagul. It took us about 90 minutes to extensively explore the location. There is a trail up the hillside to a fortress section on the cliff as well.
Officially, this is called the Palace of the Six Patios. It is the remnants of an interlocking complex of six residences. It's a bit of a labyrinth to navigate now and we had some fun with that. It is also home to a healthy population of lizards.
Many visitors to the Oaxaca valley stop at assorted artisan studios (notably weaving and pottery). Mezcal distilleries are also a popular stop. We had done as much of that as we expected a six-year old to be able to handle back in Oaxaca so we skipped them and went to Santa Maria del Tule. It's famous for having a very large tree that you can see behind this sign.
This is sort of a roadside attraction and we didn't have high expectations but it turned out to be a lovely little town. The tree is one small part of a central park complex with a playground, fountain and assorted restaurants around the perimeter. We would recommend it as a stop on the valley route.
So about that tree. It's a very large ahuehuete tree. The town claims it as the widest tree in the world. You can see it just fine from outside the fence but the fee to enter the grounds is extremely small (circa $0.50 per person on our visit) so why not take a closer look. It's shady and cool in the park and just a pleasant spot to hang out in.
Is it the widest tree in the world? We don't know but here's the stats on it. We'd also be curious to know how they came up with the weight.
Tule's church is dwarfed by the tree next to it. For anyone considering a visit without including the further flung ruins, Tule is quite close to Oaxaca city (about 10km away) and easily reached via bus.