The Mayan archeological site of Tonina is breathtaking. The Moon Handbook on Chiapas says it is one of the best sites that no one seems to know about. In fact, there were only about ten people there when we visited. About midway between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, and a few miles off a side road from Ocosingo, Tonina is in the heart of Zapatista E.Z.L.N. country.
Tonina boasts the highest pyramid in Mesoamerica. May I boast that I managed to climb to the summit? Ojala. The Acropolis has more vertical gain than any other known Mayan structure. It is really steep.
Our taxista Ricardo drove me, Fay, Gayle and Dennis to Tonina from San Cristobal de las Casas on a two-and-a-half hour, winding ride on an S-curve mountain road lined with pine forests and valley vistas. We went through Zapatista country and dropped down into the semi-tropical Ocosingo valley where ripe fruit hang from banana trees and cowboys ride the fence line that corral herds of cattle. They say the best cheese comes from Ocosingo.
By the time we arrived it was almost noon. I could feel the altitude although we had dropped almost 2,000 feet from San Cristobal’s altitude of nearly 7,000 feet. It was a dry, very hot day. Bromeliads hung from the trees and wild begonias grew between the ancient stones where Mayan aqueducts once held water.
Fortunately, we were wise enough to share in the cost of a wonderful local Spanish-speaking guide who lived in the nearby village of Nuevo Jersalen and participated in the archeological excavations. He was both knowledgeable and patient as we carefully made our way higher and higher up the seven levels of the site.
Between the four of us, we were able to help each other out with translations and got most of what he explained to us. While he said the guided visit would be two hours long, in fact we were there with him for three hours. Without his helping hand, it would have been impossible for me to climb to the top!
I climbed the last, very steep part almost hand-over-hand, never looking down, going across the face of the stones from left to right. Slowly. Slowly. And, then suddenly I was at the top where the vistas are extraordinary.
Once, many years ago when I had first visited Chichen Itza and Uxmal, my dream was to go to all the major Mayan sites in Mesoamerica. I’ve almost completed that dream and have added Tikal, Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilan to the list. I never imagined that Tonina would be on par with those other more famous sites, but I was surprised to discover that it is a worthy equal.
After getting down from the top we spent some time in the wonderful museum where the original stone carvings, glyphs, funerary masks, stelae, and clay vessels that had been excavated are on display.
Tonina survived for 200 years after the fall of Palenque. As the Mayan world was crumbling around them, the leaders focused more and more on death, sacrifice, and doom. At the museum, I talked with students from Moscow University who speak fluent Spanish and are involved in translating the glyphs from Tonina as part of their thesis.
More archeological digs are happening at Tonina. As recently as four years ago, a new tomb was discovered. This is a site you do not want to miss!
On the way back, we made a stop at Oxchuc where cloth woven on back strap looms are embroidered and worn by indigenous women from the region. It was a great day!