Toniná

Squint or you'll miss it. Nestled upon the crest of a hillside, under 20 minutes drive from Ocosingo, Chiapas, the ancient Mayan site of Toniná could very well be mistaken for a mirage. Great swirling clouds partially conceal this mystic city, once the biggest threat to Palenque's very existence – yet, its hard to imagine such military capability could be summoned from a settlement so tranquil. Situated upon a 2,950 foot elevation in the heart of Chiapas wild-country, the eagles' nest ruins represent the former stronghold of the Tzeltal Maya; a civilization famed for their merciless brutality and use of warfare to capture new realms.

Dominated by a huge central acropolis atop a series of terraced platforms, the spread of Toniná is actually quite vast. From the approach, the gaping tunnels of the Palace of The Underworld can be made out, as well as the twin peaks of the temple, resemblant of fortress battlements. Toniná Acropolis is the largest of the complex buildings, encompassing an area of some 650,000 square feet and towering 235 feet above the main plaza. The chalky, lower platforms date from around 300 A.D, built using local sandstone and featuring a number of distinctly Olmec frieze examples. Newer additions from platform five upward represent the elaborate skill of Maya artisans, featuring many ornate frescoes that depict the “God of Death” and important captives brought here from Palenque. Should you care to climb the steep, paved platforms, you'll discover a wealth of fascinating sculptures, such as that of the 6th Century king Jaguar Bird Peccary. If you make it to the top, be sure to pay homage to the Gods at Tumba de Treinta Metros (Thirty-Meter Tomb). This narrow, aphotic tunnel was believed by the Maya to be the physical embodiment of the entry to a celestial paradise – one through which all God abiding denizens would eventually pass.

Directly beside the “Toniná” (House of Stone) facing East, sits the curiously labeled “Temple of The Underworld.” Locals refer to this maze of arched passageways as “Labyrinth Of Passages”, for the interlinking interior walkways are surprisingly extensive. A smal red brick inset beside the entrance hints at the labyrinthine layout, although once inside, its nigh on impossible to see your hand in front of your face, let alone gain any sense of direction. Nearby Palacio de las Grecas y de la Guerra is a similar network of interconnecting alleyways, however, the vast space is broken up into great halls, thought to have been used for administration and the dispensation of justice. “Grecas” refers to the geometrical formation built into the Southern exterior wall. From afar, the stepped brickwork resembles a huge 'X' – an oft used Maya symbol, attributed to the god Quetzlacoatl.

At its peak (around 900 A.D), the Central Plaza of Toniná would have been decorated with thirteen individual temples, in addition to a long narrow ball court providing essential entertainment for the royals. If you clamber the 260 steps up to the Temple of Smoking Mirror, you'll get an idea of just how impressive this ancient city once was.

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