The Best Maya sites to visit, at #9: amazing Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico

A visit to Toniná: Introduction

Although my last visit to Toniná was more then 20 years ago, I still remember the former Maya city well. A unique and beautiful site.

It’s a relative small Maya site, but the central temple-complex is enormous. It must have been a considerable place in its blooming days (Late Classic, 600-900 AD).

The so called Acrópolis which actually is a gigantic pyramid with seven terraces – reaches to the heavens. It’s 74m/ 243ft high. Higher than, for example, the Pyramid of the Sun of Teotihuacán in Central Mexico.

An impression of the Maya city of Toniná from above.
An overview of the Maya city of Toniná. (Picture taken by D.R. Pepe Yoshua, Mexico).
Two visits to Toniná

I visited the site of Toniná twice.

The first time in 1992, when I travelled through Mexico & Guatemala for three months. It was the second Maya city I ever visited, after my visit to Palenque a few days earlier. It was enough to get hooked forever on the fascinating Mundo Maya.

The second visit to Toniná was in 2000. I lived & worked in Guatemala at the time and during the Xmas Holidays we visited Chiapas, Mexico.

  • Both times I made pictures of the Maya sites, but they got lost in time. That’s why I use images shot by others who gave permission to use them. Below every picture I will mention it’s creator.
The summit of the Acropolis of Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico.
Reaching to the sky. A pyramid on the fifth terrace of the Acropolis of Toniná (Picture taken by J. Antonio Cruz Coutiño, published on Wikipedia)).
  • I hope to visit Toniná again asap to take my own pictures. For the time being, many thanks to the people who helped me out.

A little history of Toniná

Toniná means “House of Stone” in the local Maya language (Tzeltal). Its original name was probably Po or Popo, which means “White” or maybe “White city”.

The city is located on the Western edge of the former Maya territory. 64km/40m south of Palenque in nowadays Chiapas, Mexico. It’s arch rival in the Late Classic Period, when both cities reached their peak.

Toniná was rediscovered for the outside world in 1830s. Soon thereafter its ruins were visited by the North American John Lloyd Stephens and his British travel companion Frederick Catherwood (1840).

An adventurous couple that left us two beautiful travel books about their journeys through the Maya World. Popular works that confronted many interested readers in the US & Europe with the fascinating Mundo Maya for the first time (See also my Introduction to the Maya World).

The fact the books of Stephens & Catherwood are still produced says enough.

Click on covers, if interested in the .

(“Paid link”)

First voyage (which includes descriptions of their visit to Toniná):

Second voyage:

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A Classical Maya City

Toniná experienced its heyday between the 6th and 9th century AD.

It looks like there was an almost continious rivalry with nearby Palenque. Both cities backed up by the bigger cities to the East. That is, Palenque by Tikal and Toniná by Tikal’s arch enemy Calakmul.

Toniná, Chiapas, México (Picture taken by Simon Burchell, published on Wikipedia).

A rivalry that left some historical events recorded in images & inscriptions on the temple walls in both cities.

Like for example, the fact that in 687 AD the ruler of Palenque – K’inich Kan Bahlam, son of the Great Pakal – managed to capture the ruler or ajaw of Toniná (Generally only known as “Ruler 2” of Toniná). That is, warriors of Palenque captured him, took him to Palenque where he – on a special occasion – was offered to the gods.

Almost a quarter of a century later – in 711 AD – it was Toniná’s turn. Troops of Toniná managed to capture the ruler of Palenque. Instead of killing him though, it seems they kept him captive for a decade.

It’s unknown why Toniná chose this strategy. Probably it was a way to keep their main rival under control for al these years. Anyway, after about 10 years the former ajaw reappears in the records of Palenque. What we don’t know if he again ruled as Palenque’s highest authority or was still bound to the rules set by Toniná.

A beautiful stele adorns one of the buildings of the Acropolis of Toniná.
A beautiful stele adorns one of the buildings of the Acropolis of Toniná (Picture taken by Pako Arreola, Mexico).

A renewed visit to Toniná

As mentioned above, a renewed visit to Toniná is high on my Bucket list.

Just a few years ago I already visited the beautiful state of Chiapas again. This time, coming in from Yucatán. I only found time though to visit Palenque, Yaxchilán & Bonampak. All three amazingly beautiful places and high up in my Personal Top 12 of Maya sites.

Too bad I didn’t get to Toniná, but that – at least – gives me one more reason to go back to beautiful Chiapas, Mexico.

While climbing to the top op the Acropolis you encounter this enormous impressive stucco-work. One of the highlights of the Maya site of Toniná (Picture taken bij Giovanni Agostino Frassetto, Italy during his visit to Toniná).
While climbing to the top op the Acropolis you encounter this enormous impressive stucco-work. Too bad a considerate part is missing. Nevertheless, one of the highlights of the Maya site of Toniná (Picture taken bij Giovanni Agostino Frassetto, Italy).

I will be going back to Toniná as well, where excavations have continued & and I will find a Museo de Sitio nowadays, that I never visited before. That’s always great news, a Maya site with its own museum.

Some tips for your visit to Toniná

  • Bring drinks & snacks. Toniná isn’t located in a tropical area – like Copán, Tikal, Yaxhá or Uxmal – but still, it’s a high climb to the top of the Pyramid.
  • You can surely buy some drinks & snacks in neighboring Ocosingo (passing through). Also a good place to rest afterward with some good restaurants, as I remember. Or even stay the night.
  • Visit the beautiful site museum of Toniná. Although I never had the chance myself, I’ve received a good impression through the internet. The museum obviously isn’t big, but it offers some beautiful, unique pieces.
Visit to the interior of the Site Museum of Toniná. Overview of some art pieces found in the city. (Courtesy of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH).
Interior of the Site Museum of Toniná (Courtesy of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico.
In the museum you’ll also find a small maquette of the central part of the city of Toniná.  (Courtesy of the Insitituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico.
In the museum you’ll also find a small maquette of the central part of the city of Toniná. (Courtesy of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico.

Reading tips before your visit to Toniná

Although there may be specific books about Toniná – besides the mentioned travel books of John Lloyd Stephens – I’ll only recommend a famous general book about the Maya civilization: 

  • Sharer, Robert & Traxler, Loa P., The Ancient Maya, 2006 (originally 1946), Stanford University Press, Stanford California. ISBN 0 8047 4817 9.

Click on cover, if interested.

(“Paid link”)

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Some last photo impressions of Toniná

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(Picture taken by Simon Burchell, published on Wikipedia)
The Ball Court of Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico.
The Ball Court of Toniná. Picture taken by Pako Arreola, Mexico
Stele of Toniná, Chiapas, México.
Stele of Toniná. Picture taken by Pako Arreola, Mexico.
One of smaller temples or altars that adorn the main plaza at the base of the Acropolis of Toniná.
Some smaller temples or altars adorn the main plaza at the base of the Acropolis of Toniná. Picture taken by Pako Arreola, Mexico
A man walking inside one of the temples of Toniná, Chiapas, México.
Picture taken bij Giovanni Agostino Frassetto, Italy.

For an overview of my personal favourites, go to: Top #12 Maya-sites

For an overview of all travel posts of my blog, go to: the Home Page.

  • Final message, for fellow travel writers & bloggers: TravelPayOuts is a global integrated affiliate program focused exclusively on travel offers. If it works for me, it will probably work for you too: TravelPayOuts.
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