Ancient history has always held a strong interest for me; so much so, I minored in it during my undergraduate studies. During my 12 years living in Europe and the United Kingdom, I took every opportunity to visit the remains of numerous castles, fortresses and cities. While the Caribbean is best known for its pristine beaches, sparkling waters and breathtaking reefs, it also has its share of ancient civilizations and sites. Belize is no exception and is home to several archeological treasures. My extended stay here on Caye Caulker, Belize, offered another opportunity for a historical journey visiting the Lamanai Mayan ruins.
Our Journey to the Lamanai Mayan Ruins
Our excursion began with the 6:30 AM water ferry from Caye Caulker to Belize City. The early morning trip across the water was cool and comfortable. The heat and humidity are not an issue at this hour of the day and the ride was smooth and uneventful. Once we disembarked, we quickly located a street vendor we’ve patronized in the past and grabbed some fresh spicy rolled chicken and pork tacos for breakfast. Eight for $0.50 (USD) is a deal anywhere in the world.
With our stomachs taken care of, we hopped into the waiting van for an hour’s ride north to Tower Hill. At Tower Hill, we transferred onto a motorized skiff with five additional adventurers for a 90- minute journey up the scenic New River, terminating at Lamanai. Along the way, we passed a Mennonite farm and caught sight of the farmer in his horse and buggy. Further north we viewed the old British sugar cane processing plant and river transport system – leftover reminders of colonial times.
Our boat driver pointed out several interesting wildlife inhabitants of the New River. A large male iguana was stretched out on an overhanging branch. Waiting on lunch? A mate? Or he may have just been enjoying the refreshing breeze from his open-air perch. Northern Jacana birds were seen regularly during our river boat ride. These delicate water fowl are nicknamed Jesus Birds due to their habit of walking lithely on top of the river’s lily pads, seemingly strolling along, walking on water.
Quick History of the Lamanai Mayan Ruins
We arrived at the Lamanai Archeological Reserve late morning, joining several other small tour groups already on site. The well-maintained freshwater piers lead directly onto the stone and mortar walkways of this picturesque location. Our park tickets were quickly checked and hole-punched by the Belizean Tourist Police and our visit to the Lamanai Mayan ruins began.
Dozens of archeological reports and visitor accounts are available for those interested in the scientific viewpoints on Lamanai. This account shares my impressions rather than any scientific observations or notes. However, a quick historical summary needs to set the stage.
This Mayan city was continuously occupied for approximately 3,200 years, spanning from 1500 BC to the mid-1800’s AD. As has been found elsewhere in ancient ruins, the city is actually many layers, built one on top of the other over the millennia. In the mid 1970’s, Canadian researchers began excavation of the area. Work proceeded through the late 1980’s and has since come to a near standstill. Belize is a small and rather poor country.
Inside the Lamanai Archeological Reserve
While additional digging has essentially ceased, improvements in the Reserve for visitors have continued. A small museum houses unearthed relics, including jade jewelry and earthen pots. Picnic pavilions have been constructed and provide comfortable accommodations for lunches and rest. Three small gift shops run by separate local groups sell souvenirs, drinks and snacks.
The Reserve itself reminds me of a tropical arboretum. Different varieties of trees, shrubs and flowers surrounded us with both beauty and a cooling shade for the walk through the buried Lamanai Mayan ruins. The term ‘buried’ is very apt, since, according to our guide, less than one percent of the city has been excavated. The uncovered structures, however, include three very striking temples: The Mask Temple, The High Temple and The Jaguar Temple. We visited each one, in turn, marveling at the enormous effort of labor needed to erect the solid sandstone-blocked structures.
We were able to climb to the top of each of these structures, traversing many of the actual ancient steps to reach their summits. I felt a certain sense of freedom, while at the same time some apprehension for our personal safety and potential damage to these ancient edifices. As I have learned on my travels, many natural and historical wonders do not yet have stair rails or safety fencing. They are also less frequently visited. It reminds me of our U.S. national parks visits in my childhood during the 1970’s.
Each temple is very aptly named. The Mask Temple features two symmetric masks, with the awkwardly tall steps rising between them. The original masks are preserved with ceramic molding, unnoticeable until you rap one with a knuckle. Our guide mentioned that there is no indication that sacrifices were performed at any of these temples.
At 33 meters (108 feet), the High Temple is the tallest of the three unearthed temples and offers an unobstructed panorama of the entire surrounding river valley. The climb up the side and front of the temple was a well spent and reasonable five minute effort. The view was beautiful and provided a perspective of our location in the river’s bend, as well as the unspoiled forest all around us. Always take care on the climb down. More accidents occur hiking down than on the climb up.
The Jaguar Temple has a crude sculpture of a jaguar’s face as its main focus. I can’t say I would have identified the sculpture as a jaguar without help, but once you know you can picture the animal’s face from the crude carving. And as we walked through the surrounding tall trees, we were greeted by the roars from some howler monkeys. A local family was spotted lounging in the high overhead branches watching over this ancient site. Their voices seemed very appropriate, adding a sense of wildness to the entire visit.
I won’t bore you with the contents of our early afternoon lunch, or the return trip which mirrored the morning commute in reverse. I will end with a few of my thoughts about the Lamanai Mayan ruins. While Lamanai does not rival some of the great archeological ruins I have visited over the course of my travels, it is an extremely pleasant and rewarding trip. I always enjoy a nice river excursion through unpopulated wilds with exotic birds, reptiles and mammals ever present near their fresh water source.
The site of the Reserve is truly beautiful and offers an extremely enjoyable stroll through the colorful and alive forest. I probably won’t be visiting a second time, but I definitely do not regret the experience. It is worth a day of your time to enjoy both the natural beauty of the New River and the pristine environment of the Lamanai Archeological Reserve which gives the feeling of walking back in time into an ancient world.