The Other (Better) Palenque: Tonina

Chiapas’ most famous archaeological site has been increasingly difficult to reach in recent months, with the road to the ruins of Palenque being repeatedly blocked by local protesters. Last time I was down in Chiapas, I met a number of backpackers who – while noting the protesters deserved to have their voices hear – were nonetheless disappointed to miss out on what is now regarded as one of southern Mexico’s premier tourist attractions.

I’m about to tell you the same thing I told them: don’t worry, Palenque has a sibling, and it’s probably one of the country’s most under appreciated sites.

The ruins of Tonina are perhaps Chiapas’ best kept secret. Most backpackers passing through the state won’t even hear about them. Tour agencies will only do trips their on special request. The guidebooks mention Tonina, but only in passing; as though it’s a second rate side trip.

None of this makes any sense, because Tonina is breathtaking.

Unlike Palenque, Tonina is basically one large complex of temple-pyramids. However, the sheer size of this complex is awe-inspiring.

The pyramids tower over the surrounding countryside, giving a bird’s eye view of the verdant fields that stretch out in all directions. Perched at the very pinnacle of the complex, it’s hard to not feel like an ancient Mayan god, or perhaps an emperor lording over the lands below. This view actually served a very important purpose one and a half millennia ago, when Tonina was a bustling, heavily militarised city state. During its heyday between the 6th to 9th centuries, Tonina as one of the Mayan world’s most aggressive kingdoms. Its obsession with war earned Tonina plenty of enemies, including Palenque. However, thanks to that beautiful view, nobody could get the drop on Tonina’s defenders, who could easily spot an incoming army from miles away.

Perhaps the best part of Tonina is the fact that you’ll have to work for that view. You’ll have to spend a good 10-15 minutes or so climbing the sides of pyramids to reach the very top. Since the site is practically deserted most days, you might have the climb all to yourself. Needless to say, it all feels a bit like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie.

Now, I already know not everyone will agree Tonina is better than Palenque. It lacks the jungle backdrop that makes Palenque so exciting, and has far fewer structures. It also doesn’t appear to have been excavated as thoroughly. However, Tonina makes up for this with the lack of crowds and incredible view; plus the fact you can actually climb the pyramids.

Tonina is very easy to reach from San Cristobal. Take any of the regular colectivos from outside San Cristobal’s long distance bus terminal heading for the town of Ocosingo (doable in less than two hours). You’ll then need to head down to Ocosingo’s main market, the Tianguis Campesino. From there, ask around for the combis to Tonina. It’s a bit hard to describe exactly where they leave from, as the tianguis is a bit of a maze. Lonely Planet has a stop marked on their map, but it’s off by around 300 meters. The trip to the ruins takes around 15 minutes from town.

Apparently, there’s supposed to be an entrance fee to Tonina, but for some reason the guards just waved me through for free.

The site itself can be comfortably covered in an hour or two. You could wait at the ruins for a combi, though I just started walking back to town with my thumb up. Within 10 minutes I was chilling out in the back of a pick up truck, and was back in Ocosingo in time for lunch. Speaking of which, there’s a few good restaurants around the town’s plaza. Ocosingo itself doesn’t have many attractions, though it has an interesting history. In 1994, it was the site of one of the fiercest battles between the Mexican army and the EZLN rebels. Today, the countryside around Ocosingo is still among the most ardent bastions of EZLN support, and you’ll see plenty of images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Subcomandante Marcos/ Galeano.

Likewise, there’s also a heavy military presence in the area, including a massive army base on the road between Ocosingo and Tonina. I also saw plenty of surprisingly well armed grunts milling around Ocosingo’s town centre, though I have no idea if this is normal.

Finally, to return to San Cristobal, you can either take a bus or colectivo. There’s only one bus during the day, and it leaves right on 3pm. I was lucky enough to arrive just as it was leaving, though the driver was happy to wait one moment while I rushed inside and grabbed a ticket. If you’re not so lucky, colectivos run from the lot uphill from the terminal until around 7 or 8pm. The bus is slightly cheaper and more comfortable, so it’s worth trying to make it. You’ll arrive back at San Cristobal between 4.30 and 5pm.

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