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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, July 2020

Toniná, Chiapas: “House of Stone”

by: Jim Windisch

Complete darkness enveloped us as we turned the corner. The last bit of light from a small lantern on the floor was obsolete by the time we completed the turn. My niece, Ana Sabido and I had just entered the Temple of the Underworld at the archaeological site of Toniná, and immediately rounding the first curve of this structure, we experienced this invincible condition mid-morning on a beautiful sunny day. I stood for a moment, attempting to understand what sort of rites would have taken place here. We continued on for what seemed eternity to me, but was only approximately 50 feet. Turning another corner, sunlight re-entered our vision presenting a beautiful vaulted ceiling.

Figure 1 – Vaulted ceiling of entrance to Temple of the Underworld - Photo by Author

As we approached the doorway, to our right was a nearly perfect cross, looking due South. Was this to represent the four directions which were so important to the Maya? Possibly…

Planning for Toniná

While arranging for sites to visit during our trip to Chiapas, Toniná was a casual recommendation. I had previously read of the site through books on the Maya, but never mentioned prominently. Not thinking of why that may be the case, it was booked into our itinerary, and set for a visit March 16th.

We flew into Chiapas from Mexico City, into Tuxtla Gutiérrez, an airport able to take jets, but not much bigger than a normal local airport taking in two engine planes. Not aware of how remote we already were, we discovered our rental car facility was a two mile car ride away. Pulling into a dirt covered parking lot, there stood a tiny office which held, I guessed, records needed, and possibly used more for siestas (sleeping).

Our travelling companions, who we kindly refer to as guides, were niece Ana Sabido and her boyfriend David Cruz. Pulling out , we turned left and started heading east on Route 190. Our destination was San Cristóbal de las Casas, where we would post for two nights at a bed and breakfast, central to our initial travels of the area.

On our way there, we spent a few hours in Chiapa de Corzo. A very scenic town, we took a boat ride on the Rio de Grijalva and admired the Sumidero Canyon. The town shows indications of major growth, but the boat ride had all the signs of a town still living in the middle of a jungle, centuries past. The waterfall we were to visit was dry, but with the sighting of a crocodile, and the witnessing of a boa strangling a gecko for its next meal, both were just as nice as well, and a kind reminder to keep all body parts inside our craft.

Before leaving, we discovered that a pyramid site was in town, so we decided to spend a few moments there. To my amazement, this turned out to be an important site in the Mayan trails. The portion we visited had small excavated temple buildings, with what also appeared to be dwellings. Across the street, there were what appeared to be mounds, but could not be accessed as it was fenced off for protection. As what has too often happened with many of these sites, residents built right up to, and over many of the ruins. This was incredibly evident, as we were leaving town; a Nestle chocolate plant had leveled some of the site for its facility, leaving a few mounds standing around the grounds as remaining evidence of an ancient civilization ever residing there!

One very important artifact of Chiapa de Corzo is that the earliest Maya long count date had been discovered here. From our understanding, it was held in the museum in town, but we were pressed for time, so the visit would have to wait for another time.


The next morning, we were on the road at 7:30 am heading to Toniná. Approximately 50 miles from San Cristóbal, this scenic drive along route 199 immediately took the form of a 3 hour arduous drive. Driving through this nearly untouched country, the Mayans still live in tiny communities and in order to protect the citizens from speeding drivers, the government have installed large speed bumps, literary one in front of every residence and neighborhood! Coupled with hairpin turns in this mountainous terrain, it was impossible to drive much over 30 mph if you wanted to keep your car intact (and your head and back in shape).

Arriving in the town of Ocosingo (“c” is pronounced “k”, “oko”). Toniná lies about 8 miles outside the town limits. Stretching out into the valley, we passed a military installation on our right, and a few moments later, Toniná made its first appearance through the valley surrounded by the local mountain range.

Figure 2 - Toniná as seen two miles away - Photo by Author

I was taken aback by the enormity of the site! Still over two miles away, this archaeological wonder owned the entire valley, something totally unexpected. Anticipation of a smaller, less important site disappeared, with

my senses rolling into full adventurous approach to what this city might unfold and the importance it once held in the history of the Maya! This was discovery time! We pulled into the site, with full expectation of running into a big crowd, but that was not to be the case. Covid – 19 was dominating the conversations in the area, but this did not seem to be the reason. We did find that the museum was closed on Monday’s, but no way could be a deterrent for the lack of visitors. Actually pleased to find hardly anyone there, as it would offer uninterrupted access to many of the sites features, we began our unforgettable self - guided tour.

Life of the Mayas of Toniná

No time was wasted, as we had approximately a ½ mile walk from the parking lot to the grounds. The vastness of this site is incredible as our walk into the main plaza took us by many areas that were still unexcavated.

Toniná is a modern name, meaning “House of Stone” in the local Maya language (Wikipedia). Palenque, 40 miles away had many wars with Toniná, with both fighting for dominance of the entire region. A long line of Kings had ruled here, and evidence is shown that they once held sway of this region for many years(ibid).

The first marker on the trail indicated that besides the kings that had ruled, priests, astronomers, military, and other dignitaries had lived in the temple. And here, our first surprise of this city was given to us: there were 260 steps to the top of the temple, the exact number of days in the tonalamatl, the sacred Mayan day count!

After crossing a gully, we arrived in the plaza of this incredible city. To the left of us, looking South there is a grand ballcourt, with incredible carved heads of jaguars. These ball courts held great reverence to its inhabitants, as losers, and at times winners, were sacrificed to the gods for rain, good crops, abundance, etc. I wondered where the hoops were that would have been used to “score” points with the use of a rubber ball, as they were absent.

Figure 3 - My wife, Maricarmen standing in the primary ball court. – photo by author

Figure 4 - One of jaguar heads in ball court- photo by author

We trekked back to the plaza to begin our ascent of the main pyramid. It was at this moment I grasped the enormity of this structure. With the help of a mountainside, the main temple is 243 ft. in height, making it taller than The Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan, staking its claim to the tallest pyramid in Mexico. Seven main levels were constructed, with each consisting of smaller temples. The Temple of the Underworld, mentioned at the beginning of this article is found on the second level.

We witnessed numerous friezes on the seven levels of this grand structure. A somewhat disturbing one is what is referred to as the Frieze of the Dream Lords. Separated into 4 different sections by what appears to be sun rays, there is a large skeletal character, referred to as a companion of the spirits in death. Was this part of the rituals that took place in the Temple of the Underworld? I felt a strong possibility to this connection as the entire place took on the feel of a holy, ritualistic site. Unable to find any other information, future investigations may provide additional information to answer these questions.

The most incredible portion of this structure was one of the levels contained a 6 stepped symbol built into the side leading to the next level. It appeared to be mirrored, separated by a wide band going upward towards the next level. This stepped symbol has become to be known as the levels of heaven and earth. Found throughout South America, this symbology had migrated North through the passing of time, and seeing this built into this panel provided more questions on when this symbology was transmitted to this area. Many have speculated the more steps there are, the closer you were to the gods. Arthur Posnansky (Tihuanacu – The Cradle of American Man, p 106; Book 1) indicated that that the inverted staircases symbolized earth and the celestial. I stood admiring this incredible ideology built into this structure, a size and capacity in which I had never witnessed anywhere else in Mexico.

Figure 5 - Six step mirrored symbology possibly representing earth and the celestial. Notice the squared tail to the far left and right of each staircase. - photo by author.

After a strenuous climb to the top of this fabulous structure, a beautiful view of this entire site and surrounding area was presented. I sat there for a few minutes, taking it all in. While envisioning what life was like at the epic of Toniná, I noticed three mounds to the west of the main temple where I was resting. What could these be? Getting close to them was not possible, as they set on private property of a local rancher. Were they unexcavated temples of some sort? Were they markers tracking stars or planets? Possibly both?

Figure 6 - 3 mounds on private property next to Toniná - photo by author

More Important Attributes of Toniná

Two days later, on our way to Palenque, we were back on the same route through Ocosingo. Since we had not been able to visit the museum, a quick detour was taken back to Toniná for an opportunity to view the artifacts discovered there.

There were many items of pottery and tools that had been utilized by its inhabitants. Calendars were also exhibited, with one standing out that tracked the Sun, Moon, Venus and other stars.

Figure 7 - Calendar of the Sun, Moon, Venus, and Stars - photo by author.

Also found here, important for Maya studies, is the latest known date written in the Maya long count format. Found on the back of a sculpted stelae, the Maya long count date is recorded. This represents 10 baktúns, 4 katúns, zero tuns, zero uinals, and zero kins. Actual day counts are as follows:
Baktún = 144,000 days; so 10 x 144,00 =1,440,000 days
Katún =7200 days; so 4 x 7200 = 28,800 days
Tún =360 days, so 0 x360 = 0
Uinal = 20 days; so 0 x 20 = 0
Kin = 1 day; so 0 x 1 = 0

Adding the 1,440,000 days to the 28,800 days comes to 1,468,800 days or just a bit over 4024 years! This inscription is just one small sample of the reverence and expertise that the Maya held in counting time. The museum had the stelae dated sometime in January of 909 A.D. With the Mayan start time of August, 3114 B.C., the recorded count seems to be in line.

Figure 8 - Latest Maya long count date of 10 baktuns, 4 katuns, zero tuns, zero uinals, and zero kins. Introductory glyph is found at top, followed by date-Photo by author

Back on the Road to Palenque

Finishing up our visit to the museum, we were back on the road to Palenque. Once again, this second visit found only a few visitors at the site. Was it due to the popularity of Palenque 3 hours away? Just the complete remoteness of it? Maybe to both… These and other questions raced through my mind as we travelled on the next portion of our journey. We had witnessed an important site in Maya history, complete with ball courts, incredibly important friezes, long count dates, and more. These structures are very important, and will be in the need of tourists, or additional help from the government to help resurrect more of 90% of the site that remains buried. Neighboring land will also need to be purchased from ranchers that hold additional secrets to the lives and habits of the Mayans that had lived here.

What had been a casual mention to add to our itinerary, became the most captivating portion for me of our tour through Chiapas.

Figure 9 - Pyramid of Toniná looking North - photo by author

Wikipedia – Toniná
Posnansky, Arthur, Tihuanacu: Cradle of Civilization, 1945 , J.J. Augustin Publisher

Thursday, August 18, 2022