Toniná: Mexican Archeological Zone for the Adventurous
“Great goodness, can I climb that high?” may be your first reaction when facing the main complex at Toniná. But you can. You’ve already reached this strangely alien Mayan complex. You’re more than the pampered tourist if you’re facing Toniná.
I fully grasped its height later, while examining a photograph taken one hundred yards from the complex. The picture failed to show over a dozen men working on the top edifice. Coming from the Yucatan or the Gulf coast of Mexico, take Highway 199. Definitely plan to stop at Palenque. The restaurants and hotels past the town are fine, but you won’t find four-star accommodations again until San Cristóbal de las Casas. You might spoil yourself with a better than average inn while in Palenque.
Leaving Palenque, Highway 199 is a narrow, curvy blacktop mimicking a raw river cutting through unbroken jungle. The road has few places to pull off, but there are several magical spots mixing water and tropical mountain rain forest that are must-sees. Cascadas Agua Azul and Misol-Ha’ are two sites of natural beauty that shouldn’t be overlooked. My last trip to Toniná was in November. I left Misol-Ha’ Waterfall in the late afternoon. I wanted to reach Ocosingo. I’d be driving after dark.
Heavy rains had drenched the area. Not twenty-five miles past Misol-Há, the road worsened. I encountered the first of a dozen major league washouts in the highway. With darkness closing over the hills travel became hazardous. I drove leaning forward to see better and my arm muscles tightened with constant tension. Worse, I missed the scenery. I felt relieved when I reached Ocosingo. The town had doubled in population since my last visit. I entered from an unfamiliar point where I couldn’t find my bearings. The change, however, turned positive. I passed through the familiar central area and hit a six block section wild with happy, gossiping people. They enjoyed the evening activities of sidewalk shopping and savoring drinks, ice cream or mango, melon, banana and other fruit treats I didn’t recognize.
I circled the blocks several times, stopping to enjoy a roasted ear of corn, sold by a sidewalk vendor, and soaked in the carnival-like atmosphere. By the time I reached the hotel at 9:30, the festivities were over. I was tempted to stay another day to capture the beehive activity on film.
I found the same hotel where I’d stayed years earlier. Surprisingly, I got the same tiny, Spartan room. The rates had jumped from six to twenty dollars, but the increase provided a black and white television. By the time I’d enjoyed a savory steak on the balcony and talked with four Danish women enjoying a bus trip through Mexico, the little central park had darkened and fallen silent.
A few vendors lined the street to sell to people returning from outlying clubs that rumbled with life until the late hours. I thought about visiting one or two cantinas, but wanted to get an early start to Toniná the next day. I also reflected on a near fight the last time I’d hit an Ocosingo club.
I hadn’t been involved in the argument but when it got heated it was obvious everyone, including women, in the bar would have thrown punches. The owner got the main combatants outside and apart. I thanked heaven knowing if a melee occurred the police would manage to capture the lone North American. Tucking myself in for the night, I was glad I recalled that old promise to myself to avoid Ocosingo’s taverns.
I slept later than intended, perhaps due to the tedious after-hours drive the day before or perhaps I just felt lazy. A fruit plate and scrambled egg breakfast, eaten in the company of the Danish women on the hotel’s balcony, made an ideal start to the morning before leaving for the ruins. The fifteen miles took forever on a poorly marked road.
A few smiling Mayan Indian girls and women attended two small tables selling trinkets and soft drinks at the entrance. Large shade trees sheltered them and created an inviting parking area. Only a car and truck indicated other tourists.
The entry fee was just over three dollars. There weren’t any signs, but I discovered two galleries inside the surprisingly excellent little museum complex. The displays were useful to gain some knowledge of Toniná’s history. The staff was helpful and obviously proud to be associated with the archeological zone.
The dates on Toniná are still being puzzled over. The complex could have been built as early as 350 A.D., but archeologists currently think most of the monuments and clusters of temple-pyramids date from the Maya Classic era, the sixth through ninth century A.D.
A healthy walk, probably a quarter mile or more is required to reach the complex. I should’ve brought water, but didn’t realize the length of the path. Luckily it was November. At most other times of the year, I would’ve had to turn back for water before exploring.
At the end of the lane a steep set of stairs goes down and up crossing a shallow, vegetation-choked creek. Once I topped the stairs I enjoyed my first view, an ancient ball field. Two large circular stones, resembling ancient manhole covers, lay on the field of play. A local farmer sitting on a retaining wall stood. He wanted work as a guide and insisted the stone discs were used in the ballgames once played on that ancient turf. An archeologist might have shed some light on their use but his explanation exposed the fact he had little knowledge of their original purpose.
Stepping from the ball field, I enjoyed my first full view of the Gran Plaza and the 249-foot high pyramid complex. The conglomeration of stacked edifices provided a Disney-like ambiance. A dozen or more men, appearing ant-like, worked on the highest temple.
Toniná’s construction differs from nearby Mayan complexes. The builders employed small rocks, whereas larger stones were used in other sites. Toniná may translate to “House of Stones.” This translation makes sense after the first view. Many experts on Mayan architecture believe central Mexican civilizations had more influence on Toniná than is typical of most Mayan sites. The multifarious pyramid was built on a large hill and has several main terraces.
Throughout the complex maze-like rooms adorn various terraces. Some experts speculate they had to do with astrology. Others believe they were used to hold captives. Archeologists will eventually determine if the rooms match up with the heavens at night. My guess was the quarters served both purposes, as well as other uses our modern minds will never fathom. The construction known as the “Entrance to the Labyrinth of Passages,” even in the early afternoon light is far too dark to step into without a flashlight. It is on the first level.
Toniná is noted for being a distinct dynastic center and defeating Palenque in a war. Many of the rulers are known. The friezes relate some of the site’s history. Several scenes focused on prisoners captured in battle.
Above the replica on the stairs and to the right loomed a large flat sculpture titled “Frieze of the Dream Lords.” The wall-mural is covered by a tropical palm-thatched roof. A wire fence keeps viewers back several feet. At this level, finally, the men working at the top can be clearly discerned.
Most notable among the frieze sculptures were inverted heads staring outward. Some theories suggest the upside down heads represent decapitated prisoners. Another sculpture I found especially interesting was a skeletal figure. I spent half an hour studying the “Frieze of the Dream Lords,” and discussing aspects of it with a young German woman who’d joined me while climbing. Surprisingly, once home and zooming in on photographs, I saw more of the scene than I did in person. I wonder if the frieze overwhelmed me, preventing concentration on a single part.
Toniná’s elevation is 2,950 feet. There are times when clouds roll in and shroud the top of the site. I didn’t visit the complex at such a time. Toniná has 260 steps, which may relate to the complex Mayan calendar system. The higher elevation provided cooling breezes that make stopping to catch my breath and enjoy the panorama a real pleasure.
Halfway to the top stood a most intriguing structure called “The Tomb of the Earth Monster” by some, and “Temple of Agriculture” by others. It stands as a stone structure the size of a child’s play house. Within, sits a beach ball-size shaped stone. My first thought, guessing the orb must weigh 350 pounds, was, “I’d have hated to help carry the damn thing up here.”
The theory for “The Tomb of the Earth Monster,” is the sphere represents the earth being eaten by the monster. I’ve no idea as I couldn’t make much of the intricate design covering the tomb.
Finishing my exploration, I joined a German couple for a soft drink under an open tent at the entrance. I needed the refreshment and a bit of easy conversation. I’d been hydrating myself constantly while in Mexico. This was the sixth pyramid complex I’d explored on this trip. The exercise had built me up a bit. Had I not consumed extra water daily I don’t believe I’d have enjoyed the complex so much or seen nearly half of what I accomplished. If you have the opportunity to explore Toniná, make certain you’ve been taking daily walks for a while. It’s not the type of site one should tackle while out of shape. Additionally, I’ll carry water next time.
I’ll revisit Toniná. The mysterious site is still in the early stages of being explored and properly studied. For those who enjoy Mayan history, the Mayan Calendar and the 2012 legends, Toniná is an extra special archeological zone. The latest date of the Maya Long Count discovered so far, 909 A.D., is at Toniná. The collapse of the Mayan civilizations begins in earnest after that date.