Improvements at Lamanai draw visitors
For close to two millennia it's been one of the busiest pieces of real estate in Belize. And while the traffic these days consists primarily of tourists, thanks to recent improvements at the site, a visit to Lamanai will be better than ever. Patrick Jones reports.
Patrick Jones, Reporting
A trip to Lamanai is really two adventures in one: a scenic boat ride up the New River followed by a trip back in time to one of Belize's most spectacular ancient Maya sites.
The peace and tranquillity found at the top of the main temple, offers an escape to another millennium, while the view across the surrounding forest and lagoon is simply breathtaking. But it's the tireless work of archaeologists hundreds of feet below that has served to give visitors a unique look at life in this ancient metropolis. Hundreds of pottery shards, hieroglyphs, and carefully arranged displays help to tell that story. Allan Moore is the director of the Tourism Development Project which spearheaded rehabilitation work at Lamanai four years ago.
"Most of them are from this site. Some of them we've gathered from the Orange Walk area because if you notice, a community does not live in isolation. And you try to give that impression that there were surrounding communities back in the good pre-historic days and that people need other people to socialize, after all we are a social animal. But most of the artefacts there are from Lamanai. And a lot of them depict the crocodile which was very symbolic of Lamanai."
The displays include artefacts and historical accounts that span the pre-classic, classic, and post-classic periods. These accounts, according to archaeologist Jaime Awe, point to Lamanai's involvement in the ancient Maya world as more than just a remote backwater.
Jamie Awe, Archaeologist
"We also know that part of the reason for that may have been that the site is situated at a very, very strategic position, right by the New River Lagoon, at the head water of the New River, with access into the interior, like into the Peten. So it very likely controlled a lot of the trade coming from the Caribbean Sea, up Corozal Bay, up the New River, and then further inland."
"Archaeologists digging through the remains of this ancient city have uncovered information that tells us that Lamanai is a place that has a history that spans three thousand years of human history. It is the only site in the Mayan world that to this date maintains its original name."
"When the Spanish come here, they obviously are communicating with the people who were living here and they record the name of the site as Lamanai. Now we know that that's probably a misnomer that it was probably Laman'ayin, which means submerged crocodile. Now what's interesting about that is that we have ample evidence that suggests that this was accurate because there is so much crocodilian effigies and symbolism at Lamanai. We have the giant mask at the mask temple. It shows one of the rulers in the mouth or with a head dress if you want of a crocodile, we have lots of figurines that shows people coming out of the mouth of the crocodiles, very strong crocodilian symbols. And so obviously pointing to the fact that the crocodile was an important deity or just deified in this society."
The work of uncovering the secrets of Lamanai dates back to the late '70s when Canadian archaeologist Dr. David Pendergast ventured into the dense jungles of the Orange Walk District. The site spans just under a thousand acres, but less than a third has been exposed. The site, including the ruins of a Spanish Church and jungle covered sugar mill, is immensely popular with tourists and with the opening of the visitor's centre and other infrastructural investments that Government has made over the years, president of the National Institute of Culture and History Yasser Musa says nearby residents will now begin to reap the benefits.
Yasser Musa, President, NICH
"We know on the site there is the benefit that is directly gotten from the gift shop situation. And from the gift shop there is an unseen benefit where artisans have to produce the things that go into the gift shops, so those are two things. Also, you have to be brought here by boat or road, those are benefits, those are business. Again, those boats end up with another business ending up at the tourism village and onto the ships. So there is a staggering effect of different types of economic activity that can be gained from such an investment."
Lamanai is one of the largest and most investigated ancient Maya sites in the country, and last year over twenty-five thousand people visited here. With developments like the visitor's centre, improved access, and strengthening of the buildings that number of visitors is expected to keep climbing. Patrick Jones, for News 5.
Loan funding for the Tourism Development Project was provided by the Inter-American Development Bank.