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

A visit to Toniná

Although my last visit to Toniná was a while ago, I still remember the former Maya city well. A unique and beautiful site.

It’s a relatively small Maya site, but the central temple-complex or Acrópolis is enormous. Toniná must have been a considerable place in its blooming days.

An impression of the Maya city of Toniná from above.
A bird-eye view of the Maya site of Toniná.

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

Two visits to Toniná

I visited the site of Toniná twice in the past.

The first time was in 1992, when I travelled with my future wife Wendy 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 2001. I lived & worked in Guatemala at the time and during the Summer I visited Chiapas, Mexico. (This time not only accompanied by Wendy, but also our little daughter Lisa, who was 4 at the time.)

The summit of the Acropolis of Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico.
Reaching to the sky. A pyramid on the fifth terrace of the Acrópolis of Toniná (Picture taken by J. Antonio Cruz Coutiño, published on Wikipedia)).
  • Both times I took pictures of Toniná, but they got lost in time. That’s why I mainly use images shot by others in this post (after asking their permission). Below every picture I will mention its creator.
  • Of course, I’d like to visit Toniná again asap to take my own pictures. For the time being, many thanks to the people who helped me out.
Before you read on:
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A short 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. Its biggest arch-rival in the Late Classic Period, when both cities reached their peak.

Rediscovery of Toniná

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

An adventurous couple that left us two beautiful 2-volume travel books about their journeys through the Maya World. Popular works that confronted many interested readers in the US & Europe for the first time with the fascinating Mundo Maya (See also my Introduction to the Maya World).

First travelogue in 2 volumes about Stephens’ adventures in Mexico & Central America.

A Classical Maya City

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

As far as we know there was an almost continuous rivalry with nearby Palenque.

At the time both cities were backed up by the bigger Maya cities to the East. That is, Palenque by Tikal and Toniná by Tikal’s arch enemy Calakmul.

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

Overview of the impressive Acrópolis of Toniná, Chiapas, México
Overview of the impressive Acrópolis of Toniná.

Like for example, the fact that in 687 AD the ruler or ajaw of Palenque, K’inich Kan Bahlam II – son of the Pakal the Great – managed to capture the ruler of Toniná (Generally known as “Ruler 2”).

  • That is, warriors of Palenque captured Toniná highest authority, 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. In that year their troops managed to capture the highest ruler of Palenque – Kʼinich Kʼan Joy Chitam II, also a son of the Great Pakal. Instead of killing him though, it seems they kept him captive for a decade.

  • It’s unknown why Toniná chose this remarkable strategy. Probably it was a way to keep their main rival under control. Anyway, after about 10 years the former ajaw reappears in the records of Palenque. Without knowing if he ruled again 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 Acrópolis of Toniná (Picture taken by Pako Arreola, México).

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

Too bad I couldn’t include Toniná, but that – at least – gives me one more reason to go back to the beautiful state of Chiapas.

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 of the Acrópolis you’ll encounter this impressive stucco
sculpture. Unfortunately a big part of this artwork is missing. Nevertheless, it’s one of the highlights of the Maya site of Toniná (Picture taken by Giovanni Agostino Frassetto, Italy).

Tips for your visit to Toniná

Visit Toniná – Getting there

Most people visit Toniná on their way from Palenque to San Cristóbal or vice versa.

If you have your own car the site is only 20 minutes away from the little town of Ocosingo. A place you’ll pass on the way.

A good option for sure. But if you have the time, I’d recommend you to stay overnight in Ocosingo. It’s a friendly place with a few basic hotels & some good authentic “mamita”-restaurants.

Staying overnight not only makes it possible to explore Toniná at your leisure. It also gives you the chance to get to know a smaller typical Mexican city.

Where to stay in Ocosingo

The best place to stay – relaxing enough to even consider staying a few nights – is the Campamento Rio Lacanja. This hotel provides basic, but clean cabins in a natural surrounding.

One of the cabins at the Campamento Rio Lacanja.

Click on the following link to learn more: Campamento Rio Lancanja

Visit Toniná – On a tour

Alternatively you can visit Toniná on a guided tour.

Click on their names to learn more:

GetYourGuide offers:

Stelea in front of the Acrópolis of Toniná.
Stelea in front of the Acrópolis of Toniná.

Viator offers: A full day-tour to Toniná from either San Cristóbal de Las Casas or Tuxtla Gutiérrez

A visit to Toniná. A small group of 6 people standing on top of the Acrópolis. Actually one of the highest pyramids in the world.
On top of the Acrópolis of Toninà. Actually one of the highest pyramids in the world.

Visit Toniná – Further Tips

  • 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.
  • Visit the small, but beautiful site museum of Toniná. It’s always an extra when a smaller site has its own museum nearby.
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.

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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 by 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.

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