One of the highlights of any trip to Belize is a visit to the ancient Maya world and thankfully one of the best ancient Maya sites, the Lamanai ruins, is not far from Belize City and can be easily seen in a day. Lamanai is one of the largest and oldest Maya ceremonial sites within the region consisting of over 700 impressive structures. Lamanai – which translates into “submerged crocodile” – dates back to 1500 BC and tells the story of the ongoing Maya resistance against the European invaders for centuries making this site the longest known occupation throughout the Maya empire. It wasn’t fully abandoned until the 17th or even possibly 18th century. Its impressive setting along the banks of the New River surrounded by lush tropical jungle make a visit to the ruins all the more meaningful.
Located about 25 miles south from Orange Walk Town on the shore of the New River Lagoon, getting to the ruins is half of the fun and is quite frankly an adventure in itself. The majority of tourists opt to take an hour long speedboat ride to the site so you can observe and explore the fascinating flora and fauna that live along the mangroves of the river. Blessed with over 590 species of birds in Belize and plenty of unusual trees and plants, not to mention sun-bathing iguanas and crocodiles, the ride is magnificent and adds to the adventure of the arriving at the ruins. The ride back is full speed ahead and all the more thrilling.
Lamanai was my first experience exploring the fascinating ancient world of the Maya during a week long trip to Belize and Guatemala, and began a deep curiosity and appreciation for Maya culture and civilization.
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I rose to the sing-song sound of birds coming through the cracks of my window at the Black Orchid Hotel located on the banks of the Belize River near the tiny village of Burrell Boom. The morning was already thick with humidity blanketing my skin as I sat down to eat breakfast at the outdoor terrace of the hotel. After breakfast, our group was heading off to visit the Lamanai Ruins, one of the most popular day trips out of Belize City, and I was filled with anticipation for the day.
We left promptly at 8, piling into our oversized van that would bring us the hour drive northwest to the town of Orange Walk where we would board our boat to the ruins. Along the way, we passed villages and farmland. While tourism is Belize’s largest industry, agriculture comes in second place employing one-third of Belize’s labor force. Sugar is the largest export followed by citrus and bananas. As we drove, I could smell the unmistakable scent of smoke and our driver informed us that we were in the middle of slash and burn season, when the farmers burn the sugar cane and prepare the land to plant corn. While it is not the most environmentally friendly practice, some farming traditions are hard to change.
We arrived in Orange Walk an hour later where we met our guide Eddie, from Lamanai Eco Tours, who was taking us to the ruins via speedboat up the New River. Eddie was personable, knowledgeable and has lived in Orange Walk his entire life. I couldn’t think of a better guide for our trip. The ride to Lamanai would take us approximately an hour and a half as we would take it slow and stop along the way so Eddie could point out some of the incredible flora and fauna along the way. The only other way to reach the ruins is via a bumpy unkept road that takes 2-3 hours to arrive and there is no bird-watching involved.
Eddie told us that there are over 590 species of birds in Belize and 150 are migratory from North America. The birds especially love riverbanks like this one along the New River which is why it is one of the top bird-watching destinations in Belize. We also passed a large Mennonite Community that lives and farms along the river. We learned that Belize has a sizable Mennonite population who immigrated from Germany, Canada and the US. Most groups keep to their traditional way of life and are predominantly dairy and agricultural farmers.
Some of the incredible flora and fauna found along the banks of the New River. We also saw many iguanas basking in the sun and a few lingering crocodiles.
The only other people we saw along the way were the Mennonite families out fishing. The men all wore big straw hats, with cowboy boots, navy woolen slacks and white long-sleeved button down shirts while the women and girls wore traditional dresses and little caps with their long blond pigtails sticking out.
As we neared a large opening in the river, Eddie showed us where a natural source of freshwater feeds into the river. “That”, Eddie exclaimed, “is why the Maya built Lamanai here”. Not only did they have fresh drinking water, the river was rich in wildlife and more importantly provided an excellent trading route for the Maya who developed an extensive river trade route all the way to the Caribbean that increased their power and wealth.
Our boat arrived at the western bank of the New River Lagoon where we docked and got off the explore the ruins. As we walked ashore, we could hear the distant roar of howler monkeys and of course the music of the birds. We had lucked out being the only group of tourists there at the time. Apparently we had missed the massive cruise ship crowds that are common on some days and we would be blessed with having almost the entire place to ourselves! In all my years of travel, I knew that was a piece of some serious good luck.
Before entering the ancient city of Lamanai, we learned a brief history of the Maya by both our guide Eddie as well as our G Adventures local guide, Hugo. I honestly had very little knowledge of the mysterious world of the Maya, however, the more I learned about them, the more fascinated I became. At a time when Europe was in the Dark Ages, the Maya was building their astronomically aligned civilizations with their incredible mathematical and architectural skills. The only big mistake they made which would eventually lead to their demise was they cut down all the trees.
The Maya Civilization
The Maya Civilization centered within the tropical lowlands of Central America for over 3,000 years. An astonishingly advanced civilization, the Maya excelled in agriculture, pottery, mathematics and hieroglyphic writing, leaving behind an extraordinary ancient empire of temples, pyramids and massive cities. Belize was once known as the epicenter of the ancient Maya world which at its height of power had close to 2 million Mayans interspersed throughout its relatively concentrated geographical block in Mesoamerica (the name for Mexico and Central America countries before the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century). Belize alone is home to over 900 archeological sites and hosts some extraordinarily impressive ruins including Xunantunich, Altun Ha, Caracol, Cahal Pech and Lamanai to name a few. A visit to the ruins takes you back in time to a fascinating world of a highly advanced civilization.
The Maya empire evolved around 2000 BC and thrived until their decline in 1500 AD. 250 AD – 900 AD was the highest point of power and culture of the Maya Civilization and was known as the “Classic Period”. It was during this time that the political system changed into a Theocratic system where rulers represented the Gods to the lower class people on earth. Knowledge was power and since low-class people had no education, they believed whole-heartedly in their rulers. The Classic Period was a flourishing period of massive growth and the building of the incredible temples, pyramids and cities that are left behind today. What makes Lamanai so iconic is that it represents all three periods of the Maya Empire (Pre-Classic, Classic and Post-Classic).
It is believed that the Maya were nomads who originated in Mongolia and crossed the Bering Strait heading south in search of food. They survived by hunting animals and eventually settled in Central America and parts of Mexico because they discovered corn and were able to domesticate it. Corn has played an important role in Maya culture and history ever since. The Maya civilization fell into decline and began abandoning their cities around 900 AD well before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.
Researchers have determined that there are several reasons for the decline of the Maya Empire. First, there was a drought in 850 AD resulting in a huge shortage of food. Second, the cities were greatly overpopulated. Lamanai alone was believed to have supported up to 35,000 people at its peak. Third and very important, there was a massive problem with deforestation. To build their magnificent cities, the Maya had to cut down all the trees in the jungle as they needed a ton of wood to burn the limestone into powder to plaster the ruins. The deforestation resulted in less rain and eventually led to drought. Widespread hunger meant huge social problems and more fighting as the Maya people rebelled against royalty. The Maya began to abandon the cities and move to the highlands where there was more fertile soil. When the Spanish arrived in 1544, the Maya were divided and weak and had already depopulated their once great cities making their eventual decline inevitable.
Today, there are three distinct Maya tribes remaining in Belize: Mopan in north, the Yucatec who migrated from Mexico and the Kekchi who migrated from Guatemala. In Orange Walk District, most of the Maya who live there today are Yucatec who arrived in the late 1840s. Despite Spanish attempts to convert the Maya to Christianity, the Maya of Lamanai held off and even burned down two Roman Catholic churches in a huge revolt in 1640. Unfortunately disease finally got to the Maya of Lamanai and the ancient city was finally abandoned sometime within the 17th or as late as the 18th century.
Exploring the Ruins
When you arrive at the dock, you are instantly swept into another world, the mysterious world of the Maya. The ruins are set a short distance from the riverbank within the thick foliage of the jungle composed of gigantic Guanacaste trees, mighty strangler figs, allspice and rubber plants. Our group followed Eddie a short distance through the jungle to reach the first set of ruins, The Jaguar Temple, where we stopped to listen to a brief history of the excavation process.
Although the ruins at Lamanai were discovered as early as 1917, large scale excavations did not began until 1974 and were led by Canadian archeologist David Pendergast. Eddie told us it took 12 years to complete and out of the 700 structures within the 4.5 square km area, only three large structures have been fully excavated. There are many more mounds of ruins left untouched, covered in dirt, grass and trees and will probably never been fully excavated.
The Jaguar Temple
The Jaguar Temple is located inside a 100 yard wide plaza built in the 6th century AD and modified many times up until the 15th century when the Maya civilization dissipated. As symbolism was extremely important to the Mayas, the Maya used masks and other forms of art to decorate their temples. The Jaguar Temple received its name from stone jaguar masks in front of temple. For the Maya, jaguars represented power. Although the masks are badly eroded, the ruins are in remarkable shape given their age. Eddie told us that the Maya mastered the art of making their own cement from local limestone which is why the ruins stood the test of time.
The High Temple
Outside of the plaza that holds the Jaguar Temple is the High Temple. Known as the third tallest Maya temple in Belize soaring to 108 feet tall, the High Temple is a magnificent work of art. Located north of the Ball Court, where the Maya used to play and watch sports, the High Temple was build in 100 BC to celebrate their Gods.
The highlight of the entire visit to Lamanai is the hot, sweaty climb to top of High Temples where you will be rewarded with astounding views of the jungle.
Only the rulers were allowed to live within the Maya compound and the commoners were only allowed in to visit for ceremonies or to trade. There is large platform on top of the temple where I can imagine the great Maya rulers praying to their people.
The last major structure at Lamanai is the magnificent Mask Temple. The construction of the Mask Temple began around 200 BC and the temple was modified multiple times all the way up to 1300 AD. The Mask Temple received its name from the two 13-feet tall masks of a man in a crocodile headdress that date back to 400 AD. Given the age of these limestone masks, replicas have been placed on top of the original masks to preserve them. The original masks were colorfully painted.
Not to Miss
After our tour, we enjoyed a picnic lunch of traditional Belize food (fried plantains, rice and beans, chicken and coleslaw) we had a short while to explore the Lamanai museum and the small gift stands next to the dock. My one regret was that I did not save enough time to fully explore the museum as it was fascinating. Be sure to leave at least 30 minutes or more for the museum as there is a lot of excellent history inside.
Another tip: For those who tend to get motion sickness, the boat ride back is at full speed winding around all the twists and turns of the mangroves. It is a bit intense even for those who don’t get sick! So be prepared.
When to Go
Belize has two main seasons: Low Season/Wet (June-October) and High Season/Dry (December – April). May and November are shoulder seasons where the weather can be a little more unpredictable but it is not as busy as high season. Obviously dry season is the best time to go as the weather is pleasant with lots of hot sunshine and a bit of humidity. I went in late February and the weather was perfect. It is best to avoid the rainy season if possible as a lot of tours and sites simply shutdown and it is also hurricane season.
Tip: Try to find out when cruise ships are in port and avoid if all possible going on those days! We had the entire place to ourselves and it was amazing! We were able to get great photos and the ruins wasn’t over-run with tourists making it a delightful surprise.
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