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!
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 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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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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