March 3, 2016: Our next destination was Toniná, a relatively unvisited ruin site about 2.5 hours south of Palenque. The process of getting there on February 19th, was an odd adventure.
First, our neighboring RV caravan at Maya Bell packed up and got out about an hour ahead of us. As we packed the house to get on the road, our previously quiet campsite was inundated with hundreds of school kids on a camping outing. As we lowered our awning, dumped our sewage tanks, etc. these kids set up tents all around us and their teen aged camp counselors started activities. These included a dance in the RV space next to ours blasting songs like “Fireball” by Pitbull at extremely high decibel levels…before 9:00 AM. We will give the Spanish-speaking adults the benefit of the doubt and assume that they don’t understand the not-age-appropriate lyrics. (Sorry, the scene was too surreal to remember to take pictures.) We just wanted to get out of there. It was very strange.
We escaped this mayhem and set off on the winding mountain roads between Palenque and Toniná. We were now entering a totally new topography and climate. The scenery is incredible.
The driving was slow. When not in winding mountain roads, the roads tend to run through towns occupying the relatively scarce flat lands:
As discussed previously, many of the people are extremely poor. We were aware that in the weeks preceding the Pope’s visit, there had been some roadblocks along this route. These were political protests (about what we don’t precisely know) and while inconvenient, they were no threat. Normally, they would stop traffic for a few hours, then let everyone pass and repeat.
As is typical throughout Mexico, locals try to sell things to passing drivers at topes (the ever-present speed bumps). What is sold varies, but often involves locally produced fruit and beverages. On this drive, vendors were quite aggressive, coming right up to the vehicle in their sales efforts, sometimes banging on doors and windows to get more attention. We’re not sure why people think these tactics work. Just like vendors in markets and on the beach, etc. it’s the charmers that get people to stop. The aggressive, almost hostile merchants cause people to turn their heads, ignore them, and get by as quickly as possible. Only, when you’re driving, there’s the added threat of potentially hurting people. This concern escalated when we encountered a group of kids under 10 who got right in front of the vehicle hawking their wares, creating kind of a kinder roadblock. After firmly telling them that they needed to get out of the way, they did and we continued.
The next such encounter was a bit more problematic. We came upon a group of a half dozen women with several kids in tow who actually blocked the road with a wire and demanded first that we buy their wares and then outright demanded cash to pass (100 pesos or about $5.50 US). Honest sales efforts are one thing, extortion is another. While we are sympathetic to the situation these people are in, we can’t reward this behavior by paying them and incentivising them to stop the next people who come along. After several minutes of making it clear that we weren’t interested, there was a bit of yelling from Laura’s side of the van, the wire came down, and we continued.
And finally, during all of this, the vehicle was not performing as it should, intermittently failing to shift as it should when accelerating. Particularly climbing. Which is not good in the mountains. This left us feeling pretty nervous about being stranded in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of Chiapas. Tow trucks are not much of a thing here. Ultimately though, after seeking the assistance of two different mechanic shops in the area, we were told that we should continue our journey to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a considerably larger town, to address this problem. So we did, and we will tell you about that in our next post.
We camped on the 19th just outside the ruins at Toniná. The next morning (Feb. 20) we got up and walked 50 yards or so to the site.
Before we get into the archaeology, we’ll address this sign at the entrance to the ruins with a very superficial explanation:
This sign proclaims Toniná to be the territory of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (E.Z.L.N.), a revolutionary guerrilla army, lead, until recently, by a man called Subcomandante Marcos, fighting for the rights of the aforementioned indigenous people of Chiapas. 20 years ago, when we first visited Chiapas, there were real concerns about the safety of traveling in remote areas due to the then newly active political movement/armed uprising. It wasn’t clear where, exactly, the Mexican government had control. Today, the EZLN is still fighting for the people, and apparently running several areas of Chiapas semi-autonomously. There are still conflicts, some bloody, though reliable information is hard to come by. Regardless, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of danger for visitors here today.
So, back to Toniná, where we encountered another good museum full of treasures from the site.
During this trip we’ve encountered an interesting Mayan practice regarding (presumably notable) prisoners of war. They are memorialized in elaborate carvings of the prisoner that show him (or in rare cases her) bound and wearing a belt or a “tattoo” that details his name, place of origin, and captor.
There are images at both Palenque and Toniná showing prominent figures of the other kingdom captured in battle, but Toniná seems far more obsessed with it. These prisoners were ritually sacrificed, perhaps to gain their power. Some prominent prisoners warranted likeness statues that were themselves dismembered, their pieces scattered and buried outside the temples.
After seeing the museum, it was time to see the site itself.
As you can see in the model above, the excavated part of Toniná is not a large site geographically, just one gigantic construction with 7 layers of temples and residences on top of it. You can see the ubiquitous I shaped ball court in the lower left, with an enormous raised plaza at the foot of the temple mount. We climbed all over that sucker. (And a little bit inside, too.)
We did not intend to hire a guide for this visit, but this gentleman was persistent in his efforts to guide us, and ultimately we relented. He pointed out that he lives in a house in that clearing you can see behind him:
We had paid $350 pesos for a quite mediocre guide at Palenque, which we regretted. This gentleman offered to show us around for $100 pesos. Unfortunately, the quality of guides at sites without official INAH guides is hit or miss (and there’s no excuse for not having official guides at Palenque at this point). Some of our best guides have been locals, some of whom have worked with the archaeologists excavating the site, others who simply work to clean and maintain the site, and some who simply take an interest or see a lucrative job opportunity.
Our guide, luckily, was very interested in the subject matter (And had a lot to say. He almost never stopped talking.) and seemed to at least have the aura of authenticity, unlike our last guide who talked a lot in absolutes and unscientific theories. It is unfortunately not uncommon to see businesses and products claiming the Maya were adherents of all sorts of modern new age sensibilities for which there is no scientific evidence, but you certainly don’t want to hear such things from someone you’re paying to show you around a site. For example, our guide at Palenque could confidently tell us that the Maya were vegetarians (they weren’t) but he wasn’t so confident about the buildings we happened to be standing in front of.
So, delighted with the quality of our guide, we ended up giving him $200, which seemed to please him. We also bought him a coke at the little store as part of our scheme to get change for a $500 peso bill (< $28 US) so we could pay him. We weren’t too surprised that the store, which had many tens of thousands of pesos worth of food, beverages, and souvenirs, did not have $300 pesos in change on hand, and we had to wait for someone to go out and find some. And then we had to wait while the three children running the store debated the mathematics necessary to arrive at the proper amount. So have a seat and enjoy the amazing scenery. This is Mexico.
Some of the Toniná sights:
It has recently been discovered that this giant multi-level structure is not sitting on a natural hill, as previously assumed, but is almost entirely an artificial construction, making it the largest “pyramid” in Mexico (bigger than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan) and one of the largest in the world.
And how big was this city, really? Look at this nearby “mountain”. Doesn’t the top look… artificial?
One thing unique (in our experience) about Toniná is construction with flat rocks, rather than the more square blocks we’ve seen elsewhere.
One of the most interesting discoveries at Toniná is the Frieze of the Dream Lords (which is unfortunately difficult to photograph due to protective barriers, and the Mayans’ inconsiderate placement of huge throne right in front of the mural.)
After touring the ruins, we returned to the limping van and headed to San Cristóbal de las Casas – you’ll hear lots more about that in our upcoming posts.