Mexico: The Road to Toniná and encounters with the Zapatistas.



My original plan (yes there was a plan, albeit vague and written in metaphoric pencil) had been to travel from San Cristobal up to the ruins in Palenque, spend a night there and then carry on to Merida.

However I discovered that the six hour journey to Palenque is a long, twisty-turney affair, complete with speed bumps and unmade portions of road. Amongst the many ailments that seem to be afflicting me in my older age is motion sickness, and I didn’t fancy six hours with a paper bag on my lap.


This was when someone suggested to me substituting Palenque with Toniná. Only two hours along the road, this is quite do-able on a day trip from San Cristobal. Toniná is a newly discovered ruin; it had been hidden underneath a grassy hill for many years. Being ‘new’ it is far, far less busy than Palenque up the road.

In fact it seems likely that the two communities (Toniná and Palenque) were arch rivals back in the day. There’s only forty miles between them, but it’s forty miles of mountainous terrain.

There are tours to Toniná out of San Cristobal, however they require a minimum of four people to run them and they rarely get enough. So unless you come with a ready made quartet it’s probably best to go there under your own steam.

You can get a collectivo (mini bus) from just next to the bus station to Ocosingo (look for the men yelling Ocosingo! Ocosingo! and you’ve most likely found it). This journey should take around two hours. From there you can get another collectivo (a pick up truck this time) for the remaining ten kilometres to the ruins.



All good in theory. I got to the collectivos around nine. With these buses they wait until it is full before leaving, so it was ten before we were on our way.

Around an hour out of San Cristobal we suddenly ground to a halt. The Zapatistas had put up a roadblock, protesting something or other (I never did find out exactly what). There was a wooden block with nails lying across the road; nothing was getting through in either direction.

Our driver considered options for a while, chatted with other drivers and finally it was decided that we should walk across the roadblock and board a bus stuck on the other side.

changing buses. I didn't point my camera at the protesters; they tend not to want photos.

Changing buses. I didn’t point my camera at the protesters; they tend not to want photos.

We then continued on to Ocosingo, where I needed a cab to get to the place where the pick up trucks to Toniná are (good old Google maps don’t go out that far) and then finally I was on the pickup truck going out to the ruins, making it there around 2pm.


Tonina means house of stone in the local Tzeltal language.

900AD was its heyday

lots of steps to climb.

lots of steps to climb.

These ruins are fascinating. Hardly any visitors were there the day I went and you are left alone to pretty much climb and run around as much as you like. However be warned they have recently been recognised as an UNESCO world heritage site, so things will change. It means it will be easier to get there in the future, but no more climbing over them unsupervised, I suspect.

IMG_4695There is also a small museum there, but unfortunately I needed to cut it a little short because I was worrying about getting back to San Cristobal. It turned out I had good reason to worry; our minibus needed to take a detour to avoid the road block travelling back, which more than tripled the travel time.

We drove back through the heart of Zapatista territory. At one point a bunch of young men wearing balaclavas and with shotguns casually draped across their backs stopped the driver to ask some questions, before agreeing to let us pass.

IMG_4676The Zapatistas are not a threat, although they can appear a little menacing with their masks and their shotguns. Really they just want to put an end to what they see as a corrupt central government who simply take care of their own and leave the people in poverty.

Stop me if that one sounds familiar.

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