The Mayan ruins at Tonina in Chiapas Mexico are about half way between San Cristobal de las Casas and the Mayan ruins of Palenque, just south of the small city of Ocosingo. Driving from San Cristobal de las Casas you will reach the statue of a Mayan warrior at the entrance to Ocosingo. If you turn right off of the highway at the statue and drive about 15 minutes south you will reach the left hand turn-off for the road that leads to the incredible and deeply under visited Mayan site of Tonina.
Archaeologists excavating the Mayan ball court at the Tonina site recently unearthed a pair of sculptures depicting captives awaiting execution. I was visiting Tonina with a friend about 2 months ago and saw them working on the ball court. I went back with my wife Kelly last week to see the newly uncovered statues, but was disappointed to discover they were covered with a plastic tarp in the cordoned off ball court, unavailable for public viewing. Even though the newly found captive statues were covered, we still had a wonderful day of exploring the site and the very good museum connected to it.
Tonina sits at the edge of a large valley that sweeps through part of southern Chiapas and heads down towards Guatemala. Instead of typical Mayan ruins that have different temples and structures spread out over a large area, Tonina (at least the excavated and viewable part) is one huge sacred mountain covered with terraces containing different temples and structures on each terrace as it goes ever upwards.
The view from the top of the ruins looking forward is filled with fields and trees fading into the mountains on the other side of the valley. Looking to the rear you see green tree covered hills, which Kelly and I are convinced are themselves more temples awaiting excavation. The air was clear and clean, which is to say that it was rainy season. In the non rainy season months, October-ish through April-ish, the practice of agricultural burning is wide spread. The air of the valley can get a bit smokey at times, but a little smoke in the air shouldn’t stop you from visiting the site regardless of the time of year.
In many of the ruins around the Yucatan and Chiapas all of the sculptural work that was done out of plaster and stone has been taken away to museums or has eroded into nothingness over the centuries. One of the great things about Tonina is that there are a reasonable amount of sculptured plaster figures and icons to be seen in different places around the ruins. They have also unearthed some rooms and sculptures that still show signs of 1100 plus year old red and blue Mayan paints.
If you really want to take your time and explore all of the passageways and structures on each level of the Tonina ruins, it could easily take you three to five hours, though I once ran (no running!) from the bottom to the very top and back down in under 20 minutes. Bring plenty of water and wear comfortable hiking shoes or sneakers, the narrow steps and passageways can be very dangerous if you don’t have a good footing. Don’t wear flip flops and don’t let your teenagers do it either. I advise that for ALL ruins if you are going to be climbing around and exploring.
The museum at the entrance of the site is a good place to stop and look at some truly great works of Mayan art before getting back into the car or bus. The museum has two separate levels, I suspect quite a few people just see the one lower room without realizing that if they climb the set of stairs outside heading up to the restrooms, they will come to a whole other room full of sculptures and other ancient wonders.
When I asked the folks working in the museum about the new discoveries at the Mayan ball court of Tonina, the docents told me they were covered in plastic, still in the ball court. They also said that when the archaeologists are done examining the sculpted captives, they will be displayed at the museum on the site. Why you need to use plastic covers on stone sculptures that were exposed to the elements then buried for 1200 or more years, before they get removed to a museum in a few weeks, is beyond me. Couldn’t they just have put some sort of umbrella over them so Mayan geeks like me could see the new discoveries in situ?
The first time I visited Tonina this summer I met a school group from outside of Tuxtla Gutierrez. As I understood them, they were essentially in what would be considered junior college. They were very friendly and curious about the United States and my travels. They were both pleased and surprised when I told them that I thought Chiapas was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.
They told me that several of them wanted to some day move to the states, to which I responded that they should stay in this amazing place and help build the future of Chiapas. The teacher smiled big and gave the students an, “I told you so” look. They said that they would earn much more money in the USA, to which I responded that you could have all the money in the world and it still wouldn’t buy you love or happiness. To my great surprise they all, including the teacher, spontaneously applauded and cheered what I had said. They had never thought that an American was capable of thinking that way.
I have to say that every interaction I have ever had with a teen or young adult in this country has been a positive one. The teens here tend to be friendly, smart and curious. Even kids with spiky hair and anarchy T-shirts are quick with a smile and generally polite in conversation, though I have noticed that here in Chiapas, this is true of just about everyone.
There is an excellent article about the newly discovered statues on the blog Mayan Decipherment.
Here’s a link to the first blog post I did about Tonina Mayan ruins with more photos.