Lamanai means submerged crocodile. You get to the Mesoamerican archaeological site by taking a boat up the New River, which runs north in Belize. Lamanai was settled around 900 BC and occupied into the 1800s, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied Mayan sites in Belize. There are also the remnants of two 16th century Spanish churches and a colonial sugar mill dating back to 1860, both are unusual for Mayan sites. I did the 71-mile each way boat ride from Orchid Bay with the Silver Fox crew of Captain Nate and first mate Roger along with the Brenning family from Nashville who were also visiting the resort.
Rain was likely that day, but as we zoomed across the bay in the early morning, a rainbow appeared. I took it as a wonderful sign for the day. As we entered the brackish water from the ocean to river, we were guided in by a great blue heron. The water was so calm it looked like a mirror. We slowed down to see an abandoned sugar factory with large rusty barges still on the river. I was amazed by Nate’s wildlife spotting abilities starting with an orange iguana high up in a tree. He’s driven a boat along the river for years and his trained eye to spot things is incredible. There was hardly anyone on the water or along the riverbanks, except for one guy in his small boat with his dog.
The clouds were quickly turning dark signaling only one thing – heavy rain. It started out light, then it poured for about 20-30 minutes. The Brennings and I quickly scurried under a tarp to keep the sting of the beating rain at bay. The comedic scene made all of us laugh. It was also a poetic moment for me as it was December 31st and I was struggling to keep it together as the year I lost my mom, my last immediate family member, was coming to a close. I thought to myself, the rain was washing away the sadness and pain of the year. In the middle of the rain, we pulled into Maracas in Orange Walk to seek shelter. We were hoping for tacos or coffee, but they were closed.
We waited out the rain for about ten minutes and decided to continue on with the rain pouring down. All of us, except Nate, who was driving the boat, and Roger, who got the driest spot under the tarp, were soaked so it wasn’t a big deal to continue on in the rain. It really did add to the adventure. Once the rain slacked, Nate slowed down to point out bats and a spiny iguana on a snake cactus. We passed a Mennonite village. Mennonites living in the Chihuahua state of Mexico moved to Belize in the 1950s when the Mexican government wanted them to serve in the military. Birds started appearing as the rain stopped included blue herons and Northern Chicana bird. We saw one of the red and black birds scurrying from lily pad to lily pad. The bird is nicknamed the Jesus Christ bird because it looks like it can walk on water.
We hit a super narrow stretch of the river, which I was glad to hear is one way. It felt like Nate put the pedal to the medal as we navigated our way for about ten minutes to where it opens up to a lagoon. We arrived at Lamanai Mayan ruins.
Once off the boat, we doused ourselves in bug spray and started our walk to the temples. First two things we saw were the black orchid, which is the national flower and has dark tiny dark purple orchids instead of black, and a troop of howler monkeys high up in the trees. As we walked Nate told us more than 700 buildings have been found, but only four are excavated enough to visit. The island that is home to Lamanai is 10 miles long 2 miles wide. The Mayans lived here more than 3000 years. At the height of the civilization, it’s believed 40,000-60,000 lived in Lamanai. In 1544, the Spaniards came looking for gold, which ironically the Mayans believed “gold was the sun’s shit” as Nate told us. Mayans believed jade was more precious and thought it had magical powers. In 1864 the British arrived and the Mayans were gone. The British discovered the Mayan ruins and the remnants of two Spanish Catholic churches in the Spanish missionaries’ efforts to Christianize the Mayans. In the 1860s, a sugar mill was built and then abandoned in the late 1800s. The churches and sugar mill make Lamanai one of the most unique Mayan sites in Central America.
Our first stop was at the Jaguar Temple, named because of the two jaguars on each side. Nate shared a tip – best to view faces is from side. He was right. The Jaguar Temple was originally built 500-600 BC as one of last temples here. Archeologists found a mosaic jade mask and it is believed to a religious building.
We walked over to the Royal Plaza Complex. This was the area where elite people would have lived. As we were walking through looking at the different rooms and seeing the stone beds that would have been topped with some type of straw bedding, I couldn’t help but think that it looked like something straight out of a movie. In the quiet, I imagined what it was like in ancient times with people going about their daily lives.
The next stop was at Stela 9 Temple. It is believed to have been built for an important religious event, most likely coinciding with a significant celestial alignment. Nate told us the Mayans recorded events on papers and stones. The flat stones are called stelas and round ones are called altars. I also learned Mayans depicted kings who were alive by them facing forward and a profile depiction was a dead king. At the ball court, I found the long rectangle court with two long stone benches. I closed my eyes and imagined a game being played here and wondered what the stakes were. In the center is a rounded stone. Nate tapped on it and it’s hollow. He told us when archeologist looked underneath the concave alter, they found cinnabar, jade and most interesting, liquid mercury. Lamanai is one of two Mayan sites where liquid mercury was found. The other was Caracol along what is now Belize’s border with Guatemala.
I audibly said “wow” as we approached High Temple. Nate told us it’s 108 feet from the plaza floor to the top making it roughly the height of a ten-story building. We climbed a wooden staircase on the side of the temple as you are not allowed to climb the front stairs anymore. We stopped on the terrace level where Nate told us the mask represented the Mayan rain god. We scrambled up the final stairs to top of the temple which is 272 feet above sea level. The view of Lamanai and the New River is spectacular from the top.
Our last stop was at the Temple of the Masks in the area believed to be settled around 600 BC. This structure has two masks flanking the stairway with Olmec, not Mayan, faces. The link to the Olmec civilization, which flourished between 1500 BC and 400 BC is unique. Nate told us the Olmecs are considered the mother culture of the Mayans and oldest pre-Columbian society in Mesoamerica. Two tombs were discovered in this temple. One is believed to be a king and the other perhaps a queen. We took a stone staircase on the side and backside of the temple to the top of the temple. From the top I closed my eyes for the last time and imagined what life would have been life at Lamanai in the height of this Mayan civilization. I opened my eyes to take in a moment of calm as our small group has this temple to ourselves for just a moment before the cruise tour groups and other groups arrived.
After touring the ruins, we devoured a lunch of rice and beans, watermelon, and chicken. We also had a little time to explore the small museum, which I highly recommend doing to see some of the artifacts found at Lamanai.
I quickly checked out the small shops and found a pair of jade earrings made locally. While paying, the lady told me a traditional ceremony to ring in the new year (I visited on New Year’s Eve). She said to combine cinnamon, allspice, juice of a lime and 1 spoonful of honey with 2 liters water and cleanse your body.
On the boat ride back, we saw more birds and iguanas and were hopeful we would see some crocodiles since the rain had passed. As we whizzed through a snake-like part of the river, Nate spotted our first one. It wasn’t long before he spotted another. Both definitely added excitement to our already adventurous ride, along with quenching our thirst with a round a Belizean beer. As we got close to where the river meets the ocean on our way back to Orchid Bay, we had to stop to watch the ferry cross the river. The ferry is hand-cranked! Like the Mayan ruins, crocodiles and other wildlife, that’s something you don’t see every day.
Author Jennifer Broome spent a week staying at Orchid Bay, in northern Belize. Check out her other blogs including snorkeling in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an afternoon in Corozal, a lesser traveled town for tourists.