Tag Archives: Tonina

Tonina, Hidden Chiapas Archeology Gem: The Road Less Traveled


Few people make Tonina, the classic Maya archeological site just beyond Ocosingo, Chiapas, a travel destination. Instead, they choose to go between San Cristobal de Las Casas and Palenque directly, bypassing the most vertical site of the ancient Maya world. It’s another three hours by road to reach Palenque, which demands at least one overnight stay. (Do you see us at the top?)

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From San Cris, Tonina can be navigated in about a day-long round-trip, giving you several hours at the site.  We left at seven-thirty in the morning and planned to return to San Cris by seven in the evening, including a one-hour stopover in Oxchuc to stretch and see textiles.

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It’s a long and winding road. We traveled from seven thousand foot mountains studded with pines to lowlands bordering the Lancandon rain forest filled with tropical vegetation, banana palms and adobe huts with thatch roofs.  The mountains fall fast to almost sea-level over this almost three-hour journey, so the road curves sharply. Ginger is a great antidote.

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This is EZLN territory, and Zapatista politics for and by the people prevail here. It is not unusual to come across an occasional roadblock demonstration. This is a common method for anti-government protest in both Chiapas and Oaxaca. There are grievances here. Sometimes for a donation, vehicles may pass. Other times, it’s important to know alternate secondary routes and have a full tank of gas when passage on the main highway isn’t possible.

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At Tonina, we had an on-site Maya guide who participated in site excavations ten years ago. He played here as a child.  Our multi-lingual guide who traveled with us from San Cristobal, anthropologist Mayari (meaning Maya princess), fluidly translated between Spanish, English and Tzeltal, the regional Mayan dialect.


There were at most ten other people at Tonina. From the top of the Pyramid of the Sun there is a spectacular view of the Ocosingo valley. Mayari tells us that Frans and Trudy Blom would fly in a single engine Cessna to Palenque and the Lancandon rainforest in the early 1950’s.  She made that trip, too, with her archeology father as a child.

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After most of us climbed to the top (not me this time, because of my new knee), we enjoyed a picnic lunch back at the site entrance, where a small, excellent museum hold pieces excavated from the site.  When I was in Mexico City recently, a huge exhibition (now closed) on the Maya world at the Palacio Nacional prominently featured treasures from Tonina.

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Then we back-tracked to Oxchuk.

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Oxchuk weavers work on a back strap loom and then embroider the textiles by hand.  If you turn off the main highway and venture onto the town’s main streets, you will find family run shops supplying huipils to the women of the local community.  The quality is first-rate and the price is about half of the cost as in San Cristobal.  Definitely worth a deviation. We were a curiosity since I suspect not many tourists make a stop there.

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By now it was dusk and as we approached the intersection beyond Huixtan to turn onto the highway just about fifteen miles from San Cristobal, there was a roadblock demonstration. We turned around, bought two five liter jugs of gas at a roadside stand, asked a local man and his son to go with us (for a fee), and set off on an alternative back road through the mountains that would take us into San Cristobal.  They carried official local papers authorizing travel across mountain communities.


We arrived back at our hotel only an hour later than we had planned. For reassurance at the outset, I called our hotel to tell them our whereabouts and route while our very competent guide Mayari notified ATC Tours to track us on GPS.  Risk of danger? Little to none.


One of our participants said this was definitely an adventure story worth retelling! It was the last day of our two week Oaxaca and Chiapas art and archeology study tour. What a grand finale, wouldn’t you say?

Tonina, Chiapas: Atop the Mayan World

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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