Tonina Pyramid City

You may have been to Palenque, or Chichen Itza, and even had the privelege of traveling to the other pyramid cities at Giza, but not many travelers seem to go out of their way for the ruined Pyramid city of Toniná in Chiapas Mexico. This acropolis is found near Ocosingo about halfway between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque itself, and a serious landmark along the way for those interested in the Mayan civilization that once was. Put in the coordinates of 16°54’4.39?N 92°0’34.83?W on a map, and you virtually be hovering about the central terrace of Tonina. Unlike Palenque, this is not as grand a city, and it is excavated fully, whereas Palenque is only 10-20% uncovered, the rest lying beneath jungle vines, and guarded by howler monkeys. At Tonina, you can also find the Meso-American ball court and several smaller structures, and chambered tunnels within the pyramid itself. I had a chance to visit this ancient site during a foray in Chiapas recently.

What Tonina lacks in structures, they make up for with the sculptures resembling some of those in intricacy from the Olmec civilization, and there are over a hundred of them. Most of these are representative of old Kings, or prisoners in suffering. One in particular near the ball court depicts a man kneeling with his hands tied around his back. Another circuclar tablet looks like two Mayan men trying to instigate each other by pulling the others ears from around their heads. Aerial views of the pyramid complex
itself reveal many interesting patterns, apexes, mazelike walls, and perhaps sacred characters. Many of these have alleys for walking through, and terraces at their summit. A view from the top stone after climbing the acropolis affords a panorama of the Rio Jataté, and the Ocosingo valley.

Tonina was actually is warfare with Palenque during the Mayan rule, and this is a testament to their power as they rose to dominance. The hieroglyphic texts speak of K’inich Hix Chapat as the first ruler sometime in the late 6th century. The second kings rule is depicted in monuments with captives who are bound, and mention specific
names of lords and sites that are as yet unfound in Mexico, namely ‘Annak’. The pyramid city was taken over by a kind of Palenque, K’inich Kan Balam II, and then reclaimed by K’inich B’aaknal Chaak. The ballcourt stucco scultptures are depictions of important captives taken from Palenque. It seems there is a morbid humor involved with the
ball game, and the defeat of enemies. The fourth ruler of Tonina was still yet a child when he came to power, which reveals a fascinating detail about Mayan social life. Tonina eventually fought a battle with ‘Piedras Negras’ a town on the north side of the Usumacinta River, now in Guatemala.

Tonina was not built all at once, and in total had 8 rulers, as other Kings came to restore the pyramids, and install more sculptures. Tonina is also a gravesite, and centre of many palaces such as the Palace of the Frets and Palace of the Underworld, which is invigorating to go caverning through. The late classic era of Tonina is steeped in cultural imagery of aquatic deities, dragons and monsters from the earth, so these sort of divine and bestial beings were obviously playing on the mind of the people of this time. There is also on site museum  with most of the sculptures, and there is a central tenet of violence and warfare amongst the captives, while I find in Palenque from a previous visit, more evidence of ceremony and perhaps sacramental use of plants, and shamanistic ritual. The site itself is also told in story through the hieroglyphics of the Mayan calendar, and the depictions found in the various temples; the ‘Prisoners’ and the ‘Smoking Mirrors’ has a mural that describes the legend of the four suns and the Mayan deities.

To visit Tonina I stayed at the nearby cabanas, which were comfortable bunkhouses just 2 minutes from the entrance. Tonina was also free, but accepts donations. There are some rare fruits trees growing near the pyramids, like the Yaca which is more common in Veracruz, and a relative of the Guayabana. Many of the trees host  some of the special ‘air plants’ or bryophytes that are common here. There are many Mexicans visiting the site, and less gringos,  it is not nearly as busy as Palenque or Chichen Itza. There are also horse drafters offering rides to and from the pyramids from further away. I was thoroughly impressed with Tonina and spent several hours here on the grounds, and climbing the steps or studying the pictures. If going there from San Cristobal or Palenque, make sure to go very early because the travel there takes a long time, and the road is slow, but make sure you don’t miss it if you’re following the pyramid trail.

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