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Toniná ruins and museum

Far out in the lush green countryside of southern Mexico, surrounded by trees, fields, cows and chickens, the Mayan ruins of Toniná are tiny compared with the sprawling complexes of Palenque and Chichén Itzá. In fact, Toniná distinctly lacks the crowds and tourist blight of those popular archaeological stomping grounds. Its pyramidal towers of stacked stone barely jut through trimmed vegetation that is just dying to cover it back up. Toniná, in short, is a place to visit before everyone else does.

The site was an important city and celestial-observation center as early as A.D. 350. But it wasn't until 711 that Toniná trounced rival Palenque and captured its king. This fact is gloated over in numerous statues depicting decapitated prisoners, now on display with other artifacts in the Toniná museum, which opened in 2002 (with labeling in Spanish only). Known for taking captives and either beheading or ransoming them, warlike Toniná was abandoned sometime after the 10th century. Serious excavation started in the 1970s. Today, only part of Toniná (which translates as House of Stone) has been excavated, including sacrificial altars and a ball court. Most visible is the ceremonial stack of temples, lodgings and prison cells that rises from the hillside in several asymmetrical layers. (Note: The ascent to the top involves climbing hundreds of narrow, steep and uneven steps. This is a dangerous place for unsupervised children.)

Probably the most interesting attraction at Toniná is the 4-by-16 meter "Mural de los Cuatro Eras" (Mural of the Four Eras, circa A.D. 790 - 840) on about the fifth level of the hillside. This four-panel stucco frieze refers to a belief in four cosmic eras, each with its own sun. The fourth and final era, with all its spooky underworld, winter and mirror themes, was what the Toniná people considered to be the present. Thus the temple atop the ceremonial complex is called "El Templo del Espejo Humeante" (Temple of the Smoky Mirror). Though much of the mural has been destroyed or damaged (or is difficult to see from behind the wire fence), what remains is a scary vision. This personified interpretation of gods and eras includes a toothy jaguar, an upside-down decapitated head with feathers spurting from its neck, a nasty bulging-eyed skeleton with a bug-like body, and a big grinning rat holding another head.

It takes two to three hours to leisurely visit Toniná. Unfortunately, the labyrinth in the "Palacio del Inframundo" (Palace of the Underworld) has been partially closed off, so that the dark, indoor maze is unfinishable. Also, the claustrophobia-inducing "Tumba de Treinta Metros" (Thirty-meter Tomb) has been boarded up.

The museum is open 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Monday - Sunday. The archaeological zone is open 8 a.m. - 4:45 Tuesday - Sunday; closed Monday. Admission is 41 pesos. Free for children under 14 and seniors over 59. Also free (with ID) for retirees, pensioners, professors, students, and people with disabilities. Free on Sunday for national visitors and foreign residents. The fee is 35 pesos to take video. The museum has a baggage-storage room and bathrooms.

Toniná is about 14 kilometers from Ocosingo via bumpy country roads. A taxi from Ocosingo to Toniná costs about 70 pesos. Minibuses (marked Predio-Toniná) run about every 20 minutes from 6 a.m. or so to Toniná from the south side of the "Tianguis Campesino" market in Ocosingo (across from the supermarket El Mayoreo). The 20-minute ride costs 10 pesos. Return minibuses are just as often, and run until after Toniná closes around 5 p.m.

Vendors at the entrance sell water and soft drinks (10 pesos and up) and snacks like candy bars, bananas, nuts, tamales (5 pesos and up). You can also eat inside the complex past the museum at the thatched-roof Restaurante Toniná, with main dishes like a plate of roasted chicken and fixings (70 pesos). Farther on, there is also a café with drinks and snacks.



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19 Apr 2010


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