Tonina is not a name that will spring to most readers minds when they think of Mayan ruins. I know many people have never heard of Tonina, including backpackers who have travelled through southern Mexico. Tonina is a fantastic site though. The pyramid perches high atop a platform at the edge of a range of soaring pine swathed mountains, overlooking a tranquil, bucolic valley. The site sees relatively few visitors and has a very serene atmosphere.
This guide will help you make the most of a trip here.
History Of Tonina
Tonina was founded sometime in the 3rd century AD, in the western Mayan heartlands. By the 7th century Tonina had became an aggressive regional powerhouse, vying with Palenque for control of the region. During the 7th century Tonina defeated Palenque, becoming the dominant power in the western Mayan world. It was during the height of its power in the 8th and 9th century that most of the buildings you can see today were built.
The last ever Long count calendar date find was discovered in Tonina, dating from 909AD: this means the city may have been the last of the great classic cities to fall.
The main sight at Tonina is undoubtedly the huge pyramid complex that dominates the whole landscape here. The pyramid is 75 metres tall, making it the tallest in Mexico, and one of the tallest in the world (a small part of the height may be due to the landscape though). The pyramid is so huge that for years archaeologists thought the acropolis of Tonina was built on the side of a hill, rather than it all being part of one massive man-made construction. However, excavations in 2010 definitely proved that the pyramid wasn’t built on a hill.
The size of the pyramid has to be seen to be appreciated. The top of it can be seen from miles away down the valley, and as you approach it from the entrance it’s full size comes into effect. The pyramid acropolis is built on seven large platforms, with the top of the pyramid occupying the highest platform. From top to bottom there are 260 steps, equalling the number of days in the Mayan calendar, this has led many scholars to claim the pyramid was constructed as a symbol for time. It certainly takes some time to climb to the top.
Once you reach the top the views are amazing. In front you can see down into the valley of Ocosingo, complete with farms and Mexican cowboys driving their herds across the pastures. Behind the building lie the sides of the Chiapas mountains, covered in rugged temperate forest that stretches up towards the jagged peaks. Looking down you can see the excavated back of the pyramid descending in tiers towards the ground.
It’s a magnificent view, and one that I managed to enhance by climbing up onto the narrow column of stone that’s on top of the pyramid. Here I stood up perched high above the valley, and took in the whole amazing panorama. It was an exhilarating feeling to be balanced so high up like that, though I don’t recommend it to people who are afraid of heights — or have bad balance!
The buildings of the acropolis are fascinating to explore. Some of the buildings here have been really well preserved, and as you meander around it’s easy to picture what life might have been like here.
An interesting point about the acropolis is it has thirteen temples, equalling the number of days in a ‘week’ of the Mayan Tzolkin Calandar. If you add the thirteen temples to the seven platforms you get twenty, which is the same as the number of weeks in the same Mayan Calandar. This city really must have been built to partly represent time. It’s an amazing accomplishment that a civilisation that didn’t even utilise the wheel or draft animals, could calculate time so accurately. Not to mention build colossal structures to represent time itself.
The part of the acropolis itself I found the most exciting (apart from climbing to the top of course) was the Palace of the Underworld. Here I discovered a labyrinthine of vaulted, inter-connected passageways. The passageways were very narrow, low-ceiling and dark in places; it almost felt like I was walking through a maze. I saw bats roosting in ceilings, and several times had to navigate past huge spider webs slung across passageways at face height. To access some areas I had to climb over walls or duck down to walk along low passages. It was a fascinating area to explore, and was a welcome surprise to my day exploring Tonina.
Something I noticed from studying some of the sculptures and friezes is how much they glorify Toninas military successes. One sculpture in the acropolis depicts the Mayan god of death as a skeleton carrying the severed head of a Lord of Palenque. Other friezes depict bound prisoners of war and sacrificial victims victims. It’s amusing some scholars used to think that Mayan society was peaceful, it shows just how wrong they were.
The last area I will mention is the Great Plaza. This is the first part of the city you enter, and covers the whole six hectares of the first platform of the city. Most of the buildings here aren’t that well preserved, but there are the remnants of a temple and large ball court. The ball court wasn’t as well preserved as some other ball courts I’ve seen, but it does contain a few sculptures. It’s also a very tranquil, peaceful spot with good views, which is aided by the fact there are so few visitors at Tonina. There were no more than twenty people there during the whole of my visit, and only other other foreign traveller.
Tonina is a stunning site that has great views. It’s worth coming here just for the scenery, and to see the contrast of a Mayan ruin against a backdrop of mountains and temperate forest, compared to the usual flat jungle of the Yucatan.
The ruins see very few visitors too, so you get a more raw experience and can explore them at your leisure. The area beyond the pyramid also has at least 160 buildings that haven’t been fully uncovered yet. Clearly Tonina has many secrets it’s yet to reveal..
This is one of Chiapas hidden gems, and should be on the top of your list if you are travelling in the state.
Admission Price: Free. That’s right, no overpriced admission tickets here. You can make a donation at the wooden entrance shack where you sign the visitors book.
Opening times: Nominally 8am-5pm, but it would be easy to visit at anytime as the site is so open; it would be a sight to behold at night.
Getting there and away: Tonina is 8km up the valley from the mountain town of Ocosingo. From Ocosingo collectivoes leave from the road close to the market. A one way journey is 15 pesos and takes in some lovely scenery, though they often love to drive fast so hold on tight. Coming back the last collectivo leaves just after 5pm.
Accommodation: There is a small eco-tourism centre close to the car park. I didn’t check the prices but the location is superb. Ocosingo has plenty of good value places to stay. The town was the cheapest place I visited in Mexico, some twin rooms are as little as 80 pesos a night.