The Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize

The Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize

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One of the first activities I did in Belize was a tour to Lamanai from Orange Walk.   These are Mayan ruins in the heart of northern Belize, known for impressive architecture and incredible setting on the edge of the New River Lagoon.  Usually accessed by a boat tour, I was excited to get my first real taste of Belize!

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I arranged a tour through Casa Ricky where I was staying, and the guide Amir arrived to pick me up at 8.45am.  We drove a short way out of town to the river dock where Amir runs river boat tours to Lamanai as Reyes and Sons.  He started the tours when he was 15 years old, after learning his dad’s trade of fishing on the river.  His wife’s family used to live on the Lamanai reserve, but were relocated when the reserve opened, so he & his family have been a part of Lamanai as long as he can remember.  His wife & mother-in-law now run one of the shops on site too, selling handmade crafts, jewellery and other souvenirs.

The High Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize
The High Temple at Lamanai in Belize

The Drive to Lamanai

Usually the tour would begin on the river, on a boat journey of around an hour and a half to reach the ruins.  Today though, I was the only person on the tour.  Usually more people join to fill up a boat, but with just me we decided to drive to Lamanai, and take a short boat trip later in the afternoon after returning to Orange Walk.  Amir joked (or maybe he was serious) that only 5 roads in Belize are paved.  The road to Lamanai certainly wasn’t one of those.  A bumpy track by anyone’s standards we bounced around for over an hour before we finally arrived at the ruins.  On the way, we passed through a Mennonite community, Shipyard, which was fascinating to see.  The Mennonite families don’t marry outside their community, they wear traditional clothes and hats, and drive horses & carts instead of cars.  They are renowned for their ability to fix cars and other motor vehicles though, we saw one home that looked like a bus graveyard all lined up to be repaired.  They are also excellent farmers, and Amir told me around 70% of all meat & corn produced in Belize is from Mennonite farmers.  This does have one downside though; the fragile ecosystem of the Lamanai reserve is suffering due to the expansion of Mennonite farmland, which destroys the natural habitat of the animals in the reserve, including jaguars, pumas, anteaters and tapirs.

The Jaguar Temple at Lamanai in Belize, Mayan Ruins
The Jaguar Temple at Lamanai in Belize

Exploring the Mayan Ruins at Lamanai

On arrival at Lamanai, I popped to the bathroom & Amir paid for my entry ticket.  We had a brief look in the museum which had a few artefacts from the site and an explanation about the growth of Lamanai and its place in Maya society. Lamanai was inhabited for almost 3000 years; far exceeding the average lifespan of most Maya communities.  The design of Lamanai also differs from most settlements; instead of being arranged around central plazas, the temples are built alongside the river in a linear development.  The name Lamanai means ‘submerged crocodile’ in Maya, and you don’t need two guesses at which animal lurks in the waters alongside the ruins!

The Jaguar Temple at Lamanai in Belize, Mayan Ruins
The Jaguar Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize

After the museum, we set off to the first pyramid, the Jaguar Temple.  Part of the pyramid is carved into the shape of a jaguar’s head – using a bit of imagination I could see what they meant.  Apparently, there was a tarantula hiding in the nostril hole but we couldn’t see it when we had a look, and I didn’t want to get too close just in case!

The Jaguar Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize
“Jaguar-Shaped” Carving on the Jaguar Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize

Facing the temple was a raised area that used to be steam rooms for the reigning Maya; we rested there in the shade for a few moments, and spotted some howler monkeys snoozing in the trees above.  Amir told me that the monkeys here sleep a lot, as there is very little fruit, they rely on leaves as their main source of food, which is harder to digest and doesn’t give as much energy as fruit would – hence the sleeping monkeys.

The Jaguar Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize
Can You Spot the Sleeping Monkeys at Lamanai?

We carried on to the High Temple, strolling through the forest and watching out for birds & lizards along the way.  It is possible to climb this temple; it is actually set up very well, with a wooden stair case winding around the back side of the pyramid to allow you to climb almost to the top without the risk of falling down & breaking your neck.  The last few steps to the summit are on the limestone pyramid, and it is definitely worth the view, just watch your step.

The View from the Top of the High Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize
The View from the Top of the High Temple at Lamanai

After clambering to the summit, I gazed around.  I was completely alone up here as Amir had stayed at the base.  A couple of butterflies were playing in the breeze, and I surveyed the land around me, from the river on my left, to green tree tops as far as I could see to the right.  The sun continued to beat down from above, and despite the breeze I was still sweating.  The jungle heat was unrelenting, so I didn’t stay exposed for too long.

The High Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize
The High Temple at Lamanai Maya Ruins in Belize

After a careful descent, we continued to the last pyramid, the mask temple, which has huge faces carved into the rock.  There are 2 visible faces, which were carefully excavated, and coated in a kind of varnish to protect them from the elements.  On the upper layer, two more faces are hidden behind a wall of rock.  Amir showed me a drawing of how the pyramid looked before it was built over (Mayas would build over the top of old temples and expand them, growing the buildings with each new king), and beneath the visible top layer is another, buried beneath.

The Mask Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize
The Mask Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize

Although Lamanai is not a large site, it is definitely worth a visit while you are in Belize to see how the Maya lived here, in what was once a thriving city of 20,000 people.  The excavated site is fairly small, with just these three temples, a ball court, and a few smaller buildings, but all around lie more ruins beneath the soil.  In the future archaeologists may well uncover more secrets here!

The Mask Temple at Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize
The Mask Temple at Lamanai Maya Ruins in Belize

We returned to Orange Walk along the same bumpy road, and I somehow managed to fall asleep, despite hitting my head on the roof whenever we went over a particularly vicious bump.  Back at the boat dock we took one of the boats out for a ride, as a consolation for not being able to take the whole trip on the water.  We saw a semi tame spider monkey which bounced down from the trees to receive a snack, grabbing the peanuts we offered with her outstretched hand, a couple of kingfishers, lots of egrets and a splash in the water which we guessed was a crocodile!

The Friendly Spider Monkey
The Friendly Spider Monkey

We also passed by the huge sugar factory, originally opened in 1967 by Tate & Lyle, it is now owned by Belize Sugar Industries, and is where raw sugar cane is part refined into brown then white sugar, and molasses to be eventually turned into animal feed or rum!  Rusting boats we tied along the river waiting to be filled with the molasses to trundle down river deliver their load. Sadly, the factory has polluted the river here and swimming is not recommended – due to the pollution, and crocodiles who inhabit the river.

These Rusting Barges Transport the Molasses from the Sugar Factory
These Rusting Barges Transport the Molasses from the Sugar Factory

After my adventure at Lamanai and on the river, I got back to my hostel around 4pm, took a well needed shower & collapsed into bed!  When I visited in April, the heat and humidity made any kind of activity a struggle.  For a trip to Lamanai I recommend taking plenty of water, suncream, insect repellent and a hat.  You can also buy cold drinks at the shops in Lamani.

If you don’t want to take a tour to Lamanai, it is possible to drive if you have your own car.  However, the route is bumpy & on unpaved roads – not all of which are marked on maps, so be sure to check the route beforehand.  There aren’t any public buses, and although the Lonely Planet says hitching is possible, I don’t recommend doing it alone.  While other ruins, for example Machu Picchu in Peru, really make an impact; a large portion of the ‘wow factor’ at Lamanai is in the journey to reach it.

Have you been to Lamanai?  How did it compare to other Mayan ruins in Belize?

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Exploring Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize

 

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16 thoughts on “The Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize

  1. We want to visit Lamanai next February but I have issues with the heat. What do you recommend? Is there anywhere to cool down at the site itself? I see that swimming in the New River isn’t recommended due to pollution etc. Is there an air-conditioned visitor center or museum at the site?

    I see you at least mentioned the possibility of purchasing chilled drinks at Lamanai. Is that really possible? What sort of facilities do they have there?

    Thanks.

    1. Hi! The facilities are fairly limited to be honest, there is a small museum but I don’t think it had air conditioning, and bathrooms close to the museum. There are a couple of ‘huts’ that sell souvenirs and bottled soft drinks there too – coke, sprite etc and water from a chiller, so the drinks are cold. They are only at the museum/entrance though, not dotted around the site so buy a drink before you set out to explore. There is plenty of shade too as the temples are in the forest, and February should be cooler than it was in May (which is apparently the hottest month in Belize). A lot of the locals tend to carry a face cloth with them, a wet cloth like that may help or a spray bottle with water in can help to cool you down too. Be aware though that if you are coming with a tour group from a cruise ship they don’t have much time at the site so tend to rush around – an independent trip would give you more time to rest and cool off!

      1. Thanks so much Claire. Your insight really helps prepare folks such as myself. While I do admit that – yes – we WILL be visiting while in port with our cruise, my photographer husband and myself are VERY passionate about Mayan ruins and getting to see them. We desperately want to do either Lamanai or Xunantunich while in port at Belize. However, our first (and only) Mayan ruin so far is Dzibilchaltun which we visited while in port at Progreso, and I can honestly say that if the cenote hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have made it.

        I’m okay up until about 84-86oF. Any hotter than that and I will need some augmented cooling measures….be it A/C, a cenote, the ocean or chilled bottles of water being dumped over my head. I’m not fussy. Any of those will suffice! Sitting in the shade generally doesn’t help me too much, unfortunately….especially if it’s very humid/tropical…..which of course Belize is!

        Anyways – thanks again for your help. At least I know I can get chilled drinks there! 🙂

  2. I was so excited to see this! We’re considering Belize for our vacation this fall and Lamanai is high on our list.

    I noticed no throngs of tourists in your pictures. Did you find it to be relatively uncrowded?

  3. Hi. I am looking at doing tour tomorrow but it seems cheaper than other ones. Could I ask what you paid please?

  4. I love Lamanai – interesting that you call it a smaller site…for Belize, it’s a HUGE one. I’ve been a number of times but never by road – thanks for all the information. Love that you stayed in the OW.

  5. I enjoyed reading about the Mennonites and their many skills. I’ve never heard of this community before and I would love to learn more about them including how they live and their customs. I also didn’t know that the Mayan Ruins in Belize are the natural habitat for jaguars and pumas – wow!

  6. I am always fascinated whenever I read posts about the Mayan ruins. The ruins and the Mayan history and culture are really very interesting. You were lucky to have the place almost to yourself. Lamanai looks so beautiful and serene. Can almost hear the ruins telling their story.

  7. This looks like so much fun! I’ve seen Mayan ruins in Mexico but not in Belize. They are most impressive. The sleeping monkeys sound really interesting too.

  8. I never imagined Mennonites in Belize. I did imagine Mayan ruins, though. How fascinating to see them. It’s so unique that they run along the river rather than in the usual pattern – I would really love to experience Lamanai for myself.

  9. This is great to see, as when I was in Belize, I only visited the Mayan Ruins at Xunantunich near San Ignacio. Looking at these photos, I can see the similarities in the two. I didn’t venture north in Belize but will keep this in mind for the next trip. Thanks for sharing!

  10. This post is awesome. The Temples at Lamanai have just left me speachless. I love Maya temples so much but unfortunately never seen one. The monkeys as always create a challenging backdrop for visiting a place. Did they steal anything from you? Some food, fruit, biscuits?

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