In the Mexican state of Chiapas, Mayan and Pre-Colonial ruins are the order of the day for truly adventurous travelers. From Palenque to Izapa to Lagartero, fascinating archeological sites are available for visitors’ viewing and exploration pleasure. Among them, though, is a less popular and yet incredibly stunning ancient city of war, power, and breathtaking pyramids: Toniná, in Ocosingo, will hit all the historical travel hot spots.
Built on a hill just outside Ocosingo, the ruins of the complex ancient city of Toniná rise amongst the jungle and hills - for a long time confused with a hill itself, archeologists have for the past two decades uncovered one of the most interesting and complex examples of the monumental constructions of the Mesoamerican period and the Mayan Empire.
A Warrior Jewel Of The Mayan Empire
Toniná, which can mean stone house or the place where stone structures are built, in honor of time in the Tzeltal language, is a fairly accurate descriptor of the site. Built in between the jungles that now make up the fields surrounding Ocosingo, Toniná is a mighty, monumental pyramid city structure built entirely of the once-white stone of the region. The architecture, as is usual in the Mayan culture, is guided by astronomical values, seeking to homage the natural mountains and creating harmony with the sky, and honoring the deities of the Sun, Moon, Venus, and Earth.
Toniná’s history is long, as there are indications that it was inhabited for at least a thousand years. Its greater age of power was in the late Classic Mayan Period, around the 7th through 9th centuries. It was a city of great military might and power, as can be seen in the depictions of captors, prisoners, and their customary sacrifices, in all of its temples; at the height of its power, it was one of the most important cities in Mesoamerica.
Throughout its rule, Toniná's main enemy seems to have been the city of Palenque, about 60 kilometers away, whose ruins and archeological sites can also be visited. Carvings that seem to indicate the capture of two of Palenque’s rulers can have ushered in Toniná’s golden age.
Like most of the great Mayan cities, it is difficult to know exactly what caused its decline, though the arrival of the Aztecs and later the European invaders are what historians associate with Toniná’s decline and eventual disappearance.
The Great Pyramid
Dating back to the 6th century, the Toniná Acropolis is a complex and unique structure, expanding for over 300 meters in width and 75 meters in height - the tallest pyramid in all of America, even beyond the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan. It comprises seven stories, thirteen temples, palaces, murals, statues, and a Pitz court, the ancient Mayan ball game.
Toniná is so big, for years it was thought carved into a hill, but today evidence shows it is almost entirely man-made - and only 30% of its total structure has been excavated, according to local archeologists.
An Underrated Masterpiece Of Mesoamerica
Much less crowded than the neighboring, former enemy’s Palenque ruins, Toniná is considerably unknown and less popular a tourism destination; this propitiates visitors with nearly deserted access to the ancient Mayan ruins.
There’s no price to pay for the opportunity to tread through these stunning ancient ruins without bumping into heaps of tourists, stands, vendors - the relative solitude that Toniná’s underrated status grants it can make anyone feel like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones, exploring long-lost civilizations and hidden treasures.
Visitors can explore at will the eerie Palace of the Underworld, a palatial maze thought to be a liminal space to the Inframundo, illuminated by expertly placed windows that channel the changing daylight to illuminate its long corridors; they can walk along with the Pitz Court, where prisoners played the bloody game of the Gods centuries ago, cross temple ruins and ancient houses, come face to face with surviving depictions of ancient gods and climb all the stories to the very top of the Pyramid overlooking the entire Acropolis and the hills and forests of Chiapas.
The climb can be very, very steep, so appropriate shoes are a necessity!
There are murals and high-relief carvings in stunning condition throughout the pyramid, but most of the statues are replicas; the original statues and plaques are preserved in careful conditions at the Toniná Museum right at the archeological site. Holding the most fragile of the treasures of Toniná and built according to the Mayan cosmogony, the Museum is almost as necessary a stop as the ruins themselves.
Toniná is considerably far from any airports, at 13 km away from Ocosingo, 115 km away from Palenque and 80 km from San Cristóbal de las Casas. The way to the site can be made by car, through the jungle, but by far the easiest and smoothest way there is to take the public bus from Ocosingo.
Beyond the ruins and the museum, the site has parking spaces, an auditorium, bathrooms, and a diner that serves traditional Mexican food, where exploring tourists can recover their energy.
- Hours: Monday through Sunday, 8 AM to 5 PM
- Rates: Entry is 70 pesos, including access to the site and the museum.
A tip: Local guides and archeologists give tours, prices vary from 100 to 500 pesos, and it’s very much worth it for the enriching and educational experience they’re able to provide the trip.