Toniná: Exploring the Lost Pyramid City

Last Updated on: 10th September 2023, 01:59 pm

Overlooking the Valley of Ocosingo in the state of Chiapas is one of Mesoamerica’s largest and most unique structures. The Toniná Pyramid consists of seven tiers, many of which are home to temples, palaces and monuments. As such, it shouldn’t just be considered a large pyramid, but an entire pyramid city.

The pyramid rises up to 75 m high, making it about as high as Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun – tying it for the tallest pyramid in Mexico and the third-highest in the world (the Great Pyramid of Giza, for reference, is 147 m high).

Not everyone counts this as a pyramid, however. Many archaeologists refer to it as an ‘Acropolis,’ which is why Toniná is often absent from lists of the world’s highest pyramids. But in my opinion, Toniná does indeed qualify as a pyramid, albeit a very unusual one.

Despite its grandeur, Toniná is unknown to most visitors to Mexico. And getting there can be a bit tricky nowadays, as the area falls within Zapatista territory. Nevertheless, Toniná can still be accessed as a day trip from Palenque, which you can learn more about below.

Toniná Pyramid

Toniná: A Brief History

While the general area was populated since at least 300 AD, Toniná hit its peak between 600 and 900. And in ancient times, Toniná was known for being a war-like and ruthless city. 

Based on hieroglyphic inscriptions, we know that Toniná waged war against Palenque in 711, capturing its king, Kan-Hok-Xul II, son of Pakal the Great and younger brother of Kan Balahm. They built the Temple of War at the top of the pyramid in celebration, while a relief depicts the capture.

Toniná continued to thrive in the 9th century as many nearby cities began their decline. An influential king named Zots Choj ruled around this time, and it’s he who commissioned the Mural of the Four Suns (more below).

The last recorded ruler is known as Jaguar Serpent, and his final monument dates to 909. In fact, this is the very last Mayan Long Count date ever discovered!

Evidence suggests that later around the year 1000, Toniná was occupied by a group of outsiders. In addition to attempting to repair parts of the pyramid, they also buried their dead within it. These settlers remained until around the year 1250, after which Toniná remained abandoned for good.

Centuries later, a Spanish priest would document the ruins around the year 1700, while the famous archaeologist duo of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood would briefly visit in 1840.

Minor excavations would then be carried out throughout the 20th century, but nothing major happened until 1972, when the site was studied and excavated in detail by a team of French archaeologists. 

Considering how massive the Toniná Pyramid is, there’s surely a lot more waiting to be discovered.

Approaching Toniná

After getting dropped off at the ruins in a colectivo from Ocosingo (more below), you’ll encounter the ticket booth near the site entrance. At the time of writing, Toniná is open daily from 8:00-17:00 and costs $65 MXN to enter.

Toniná Pyramid

Just near the entrance is the official site museum, which features numerous artifacts discovered amongst the ruins in addition to details about Toniná’s history. Sadly, like many site museums I encountered throughout Mexico, it was closed.  

Past the museum, walking down a rural path, you’ll get a glimpse of the massive pyramid peaking through the trees in the distance. And before long, you’ll reach the site itself.

The archaeological site just consists of two parts: the Ball Court and the Pyramid. But as we’ll cover shortly, the Toniná Pyramid could be thought of as its own city.

The Ball Court

Toniná’s primary Ball Court was completed in 696 by Baknal Chak – the same ruler who’d later capture Palenque’s king. The sunken court stretches out to 70 m long and features numerous attributes that make it unique.

Instead of the traditional rings one finds at a typical Mesoamerican ball court, the walls here are adorned with sculptures of bound captives. While the ball game’s rules likely varied from city to city, one wonders what unique set of rules they would’ve used in Toniná!

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

Another interesting feature of this court are its stone markers. While they would’ve played a role in the actual game, archaeologists have discovered hollow spaces beneath some of them. 

It’s possible, therefore, that they may have been symbolic portals to the underworld.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

In any case, these are some of the most detailed and well-preserved stone markers you’ll find at any Mayan site in Mexico. And over to the back, you’ll also find a freestanding sculpture. But who it’s meant to depict is not entirely clear.

On that note, informational signage at Toniná is almost entirely lacking. Local guides are available for hire near the Ball Court, but hopefully this guide will come in handy during your visit as well.

On the topic of the ball game, a unique carving can be seen on display at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. Carved in the year 727, the scene depicts a king of Toniná playing the game against the reigning king of Calakmul.

The strange part is that the Toniná king depicted in the relief, K’inich Baaknal Chahk, had already been dead for a couple of decades when the relief was carved! 

Toniná Ball Game
The kings of Toniná and Calakmul - likely allies at the time - face off in a ritual ball game

Back up at ground level, the nearby altar is where archaeologists found a relief of a ball player being decapitated. While one would naturally assume this to be the fate of the loser, some scholars believe that the Mayans actually decapitated the winners – a ritual act that would lead them straight to union with the gods.

The south end of the plaza is also home to a ruined temple, now largely overgrown. Compared to the main pyramid, it appears tiny and insignificant.

Just in front of the pyramid, meanwhile, lies yet another ball court, though much smaller in size and depth.

Toniná Pyramid

Ascending the Toniná Pyramid

There’s no other structure quite like the Toniná Pyramid in all of Mexico. Built over the course of centuries, its design appears rather haphazard and chaotic.

But upon closer examination, there’s plenty of reason to believe that its final form was planned from the very beginning.

As mentioned, the pyramid consists of seven tiers. And a central staircase leads from the bottom right up to the Temple of the Smoking Mirrors, Toniná’s highest point.

Fascinatingly, this staircase consists of 260 steps – the same number of days as the Mayan Tzolkin calendar. And the total number of temples adds up to 13. Not only does 13 appear frequently in the Mayan calendar system, but it also represents the layers of heaven in Mayan cosmology.

What’s more, is that if we add thirteen to seven, we get 20, the number of days in a Mayan month. Surely, there are more numerical synchronicities involving the Toniná pyramid that have yet to be uncovered.

Toniná Pyramid

Due to reconstruction efforts taking place at the top during my visit, only Tiers 1 through 5 were accessible. Hopefully, the work will finish soon and you can make it all the way to the top during your visit.

Toniná Pyramid

Tier 1

Beginning your ascent, you’ll arrive at Tier 1, where you’ll find the Temple of the Underworld over to the right (most of the pyramid’s temples and palaces are situated to the right).

The temple consists of a series of three vaulted doors, but the area was off-limits at the time of my visit. Dating back to around the year 500, it’s one of the pyramid city’s oldest temples.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

Tier 2

Archaeologists have discovered numerous sculptures around Tier 2, among them Toniná’s – and the Mayan world’s – last-dated inscription.

Over to the right is the Palace of Agriculture, home to a six-columned room and a large stucco monster mask that’s two meters high. 

Toniná Tier 2
Toniná Tier 2

Tier 3

Tier 3 is one of Tonina’s most interesting. A palace lies here to the east (right), where you’ll find a staircase leading up to a small platform.

And on the platform is a throne comprised of stone and stucco, the legs of which once resembled those of a jaguar. A stucco relief behind it may have also represented Venus.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

A path takes visitors through a vaulted tunnel up to an intermediary platform between Tiers 3 and 4. Yet another stucco piece can be found up here, this one depicting the Feathered Serpent. Stucco monster masks can also be found nearby. 

Additionally, on the northeast of the same patio, is a large monster mask accompanied by glyphs.

Aside from admiring the stucco decorations, you can also enjoy making your way through the labyrinthine palace.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

Tier 4

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

Back at the central staircase, you’ll encounter a stela which you’ve already been able to see from the bottom. It depicts a 6th-century ruler known as Jaguar Bird Peccary. 

The one here now is a replica, however, with the original on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. It reveals what a refined taste in art Toniná possessed despite being such a war-like city.

The original sculpture on display in Mexico City

Reaching Tier 4, you’ll find yet another residential complex over to the right. And under a protective roof is another stucco decoration which depicts various figures wearing elaborate ritual garb.

Tier 5

The highlight of Tier 5 is the Mural of the Four Suns, commissioned by the influential king Zots Choj. It depicts a scene from the Popol Vuh, the text which includes the Mayan creation myth, among other tales.

Toniná Pyramid

The mural features a giant X with a human head emerging from a sun disk in the center. And to the left we see the god of death in the form of a skeleton, holding the head of a captive from a city called Pia, not fat from Palenque.

Unfortunately, a fence now obstructs much of the view, but you can climb up the platform in front for a better perspective.

Toniná Pyramid
Looking back down

You’ll find numerous platforms and altars on Tier 5, many of which are climbable. They offer excellent views of the lower tiers as well as Tiers 6 and 7 above.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

As mentioned above, most of the Toniná Pyramid’s structures are on its east, or right-hand side. But from Tier 5, one can find what appears to be a residential palace to the west.

And you’ll also find a staircase taking you down to a level that exists between Tiers 4 and 5. This space is home to the Temple of the Water which is adorned with a stucco god mask and unique geometric patterns. You’ll also find an intricately carved stela.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

The Upper Tiers

As mentioned, Tier 5 was as far as I could go due to renovations taking place at the highest temples. I could, at least, climb some of Tier 5’s platforms for clear views of the top.

Toniná Pyramid

Admittedly, it wasn’t entirely clear where Tier 6 ends and Tier 7 begins. The top levels of the Toniná Pyramid are home to a myriad of additional pyramids and temples, making this a very difficult piece of architecture to wrap one’s head around. 

One of the structures at the top is known as the Temple of War, topped with a roof comb similar to Palenque’s Temple of the Sun. As mentioned above, it was built in celebration of capturing that city’s king in the 8th century.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

To its rear is the Temple of Commerce, next to which is the Temple of the Smoking Mirror, Toniná’s highest point. It was completed in the 9th century during the reign of Zots Choj, and it surely offers tremendous views of the valley below.

From my distant vantage point, I could also make out additional carved stelae and stucco decorations which I hope to get a closer view of during a future visit.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

Coming back down, I took in the views of rural Chiapas while stopping to admire some of my favorite structures once again. Having been to dozens of archaeological sites across Mexico, there’s nothing else like this pyramid city in the rest of the country, and probably not in the world.

Aside from a small tour group and a local family, I largely had the pyramid to myself throughout my visit. With the huge number of tourists visiting Palenque, it’s a wonder more don’t know about what may very well be Mexico’s tallest pyramid.

Toniná Pyramid
Toniná Pyramid

Additional Info

Toniná is located a few kilometers east of Ocosingo, a city that lies in between Palenque and San Cristóbal de las Casas. While normally reachable as a day trip from either, it may not a good idea to visit from San Cristóbal if you’re taking public transportation, for reasons we’ll get into shortly.

The only bookable tour online, however, does depart from San Cristóbal, though the driver would surely be up-to-date on the current situation.

Getting to Toniná from Palenque:

Getting to Ocosingo from Palenque is pretty straightforward. You will find a couple of different colectivo stations on Benito Juarez street a few minutes east of the main ADO station.

These minivans don’t run on a set schedule and only depart when full. In my case, I only had to wait about 15 minutes for the bus to depart, as this seems to be a popular route. The ride to Ocosingo costs $100 MXN at the time of writing.

Not sure what the day would bring, I decided to head to the station around 7:00 in the morning, and I was later very glad that I did.

While Google Maps lists the journey as being around 2 hours and 45 minutes, it ended up taking around four hours! This was largely due to construction taking place all along the road. But at least there were no blockades.

This is an interesting ride, because in addition to the beautiful scenery, the journey will take you through Zapatista territory, or areas taken by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a socialist rebel group. While the violence is now largely over, they initiated their fight against the Mexican government back in 1994. But the topic is too complicated to get into here.

Along the way, you’ll spot numerous Zapatista logos in addition to images of Che Guevara, which is a bit ironic.

Once in Ocosingo, you can then catch another colectivo for Toniná. It’s on the opposite side of town, however, and it will take you about twenty minutes to walk there (or you can hail a cab).

It would be wise to download the Maps.me app in advance, as they clearly have ‘Bus to Tonina’ marked on the app. The colectivos depart from the city’s main market.

Arriving in the market area, I immediately found a minivan with ‘Toniná’ marked on it that was just about to depart. Toniná is also the name of a village, but if you tell the driver you want to visit the ruins, he should take you up to the entrance. The ride lasts about 20 minutes.

When you’re finished with the ruins, walk about ten minutes away from the site until you reach the highway. From there, you’ll find frequent colectivos headed back to Ocosingo. The local people here are very friendly, and they would switch between talking amongst themselves in Mayan and asking me questions about my travels in Spanish.

Back in Ocosingo, simply repeat the process mentioned above in reverse. This is a long and tiring day trip which is why it’s best to depart from Palenque as early as possible.

Getting to Toniná from San Cristóbal de las Casas:

Getting to Toniná from San Cristóbal de las Casas is largely the same as the process from Palenque described above. Near San Cristóbal’s bus station, you’ll see many colectivos headed for Ocosingo.

But why is it better to do this day trip from Palenque? It’s because there’s a lot of civil unrest in the villages between San Cristóbal and Ocosingo, and many have complained of being extorted for money multiple times by people with machetes who set up roadblocks.

Apparently, many of these groups see themselves as freedom fighters for socialism, and may even hand drivers political propaganda after receiving their ‘donation.’

Extortion aside, straight-up robberies are not unheard of, either. It got so bad that companies like ADO or OCC will no longer take this road after too many of their buses were robbed at gunpoint at night. They now opt for the much longer route via Villahermosa, Tabasco.

Another potential setback is certain sections of the road being blocked entirely. If that happens, your driver may be forced to take an alternate road that will surely make the journey much longer.

With all that being said, I’ve met a number of people who’ve traveled on this road – both via private vehicle and colectivo – with no incidents. So, as long as you keep yourself up to date on the situation, you may be fine visiting Toniná from San Cristóbal. But I’d still recommend visiting from Palenque instead for peace of mind.

The city of Palenque is best thought of as a base from which to see ruins and waterfalls and not as a destination in its own right. As such, it would be wise to stay somewhere in the western part of the city near the main bus station instead of nearby the central park.

When visiting Palenque (the archaeological site), the colectivos taking you there can be found in this general area on Allende street, in between Miguel Hidalgo and Benito Juárez streets. You can also hail one from the main road near the bus station.

Also in this area, one can find the small colectivo stations with buses for Ocosingo, the nearest town to the pyramid city of Toniná.

And right near the main ADO Bus Station are tour offices through which you can arrange tours to Yaxchilan/Bonampak and the Cascadas de Agua Azul.

I stayed at a hotel called Posada Nacha`n – Ka`an which was located near all the locations just mentioned. I stayed three nights and paid around $315 MXN per night for a private room with a private bathroom.

The main downside was that the internet barely worked, but as I was out on day trips for most of my stay, it wasn’t a big deal.

The hotel has a luggage storage room and you can find staff on hand from early in the morning. This allowed me to leave my things as soon as I arrived on the morning bus from Bacalar, making it possible to immediately head to the Palenque ruins.

Even if you don’t stay at Posada Nacha`n – Ka`an, I recommend the general area, especially if you plan on visiting Toniná independently. Other highly-rated options include Hotel Chablis Palenque and Casa Céntrica en Palenque.

Staying right by the ruins would be another good choice.

 

Booking.com

If renting a car is not an option, the city of Palenque is well connected by bus. If you’re coming from the east or north, you’ll find direct buses from places like Villahermosa, Bacalar, Campeche and even Mérida. I came on a night bus from Bacalar and everything went smoothly.

Unfortunately, things get complicated when coming from other parts of Chiapas further west. While the nearest major tourist hub in Chiapas is San Cristóbal de las Casas, due to the occasional blockades and robberies mentioned above, coach buses now take a much longer, indirect route which lasts around 11 hours.

It is possible, however, to take local colectivos between the two cities, which will likely involve a transfer at Ocosingo. I’ve met travelers who’ve done this without any problems.

In any case, Villahermosa, Tabasco, is well worth a couple-day stop in between Palenque and San Cristóbal. Its Parque Museo La Venta hosts some of the finest artifacts of the Olmec civilization, while nearby the city is the overlooked site of Comalcalco, the western-most Mayan ruin.

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