Lamanai: The Land of the Submerged Crocodile - 03/11/12 02:27 PM
The Belizean Jungle and the Mayan ruins of Lamanai had always been an area I longed to see ever since I did an Essay in high school on the Mayan Civilization. As soon as I was old enough to travel on my own, I’d booked a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. I explored the whole coast, all the way down to Tulum, experienced some fantastic bird watching in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere (the UNESCO World Heritage site) on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, and then wandered around in awe in Tikal, one of the largest archeological sites of pre-Columbian Maya civilization in Guatemala. It took my breath away and ignited a spark in me to see more archeological and historic wonders in the world.
Lamanai – meaning “Land of the Submerged Crocodile” in Belize, is the third largest and possibly most important archaological sites in Belize. It soon became one of my dream destinations. So, in true New Jetsetters spirit, knowing that life is too short to just sit and think about living your dreams, we set aside the time and money for a visit to Lamanai.
Ambergrise Caye in Belize is one of those small, dreamy islands where you can have a fantastic time that won’t break the bank, find a good selection of clean, comfortable lodgings, and feel very safe and secure when you sleep at night. It is also a great jumping base to explore some of the most diverse and exciting landscapes anywhere – the vast jungle filled with exotic janguars, ocelots, monkeys, and toucans; the second largest reef in the world at your feet, the Great Blue Hole, where the massive Whale Sharks migrate annually within easy reach. With our focus being a tour of Lamanai, we chose beautiful Victoria House as our hotel.
Needless to say, I was so excited to be on that boat trip up the New River towards the site of Lamanai, accompanied by tour guides Carlos and Carlos (yes, two Carlos!). The somewhat long journey was never boring, as Carlos #1, expertly trained and at ease in the Mangrove lined maze of waterways snaking through the thick jungle. We cruised slowly so that Carlos could point out various species of the national flower of Belize, the Black Orchid, or the profile of some of their colorful, native birds (Toucans, Ibis, Motmots, Stilts, hummingbirds), and then would speed up the boat on the wider stretches to cool us off and get to our faraway destination in good time. Occasionally we would stop to marvel at wonders such as dozens of beautiful bright blue crabs scrambling for cover in the roots of the large Mangrove trees, or to inspect incredibly huge termite nests in the trunks of thickly entwined trees. Once or twice we observed small American crocodiles with just their eyes and snout poking up above the surface of the water. I understood why this place was called Lamanai - “Submerged Crocodile”.
Our guides were very good, educating us about the local flora and fauna. Mahogany trees were pointed out as being one of the most important trees for Belize economically, as well as the “Chicle”, which gives us the ingredient for gum (we all have had Chiclets, is this not true?) Other valuable trees like Cashew, Coconut, and Custard Apple are very important also, as well as Guava, Mango and Papaya, Banana, and Pineapple.
Finally we arrived at the entrance to Lamanai, which is located in the “Orange Walk District”. The complex sits atop a bluff of the New River Lagoon and is surrounded by very impressive pristine rainforest. Lamanai was occupied continuously for over 3,000 years. It is said the fact that it was so very remote contributed to it’s being able to last well beyond most other Maya sites, until at least 1,650 AD.
I will always remember the haunting sound of the Howler Monkeys as we took our first few steps down the path to the temples. They would follow us as we walked along the jungle path, swinging high above us from tree to tree, visible from the corner of your eye like fleeting ghosts. The jaguar, one of the most revered animals of the ancient Maya, were audible but not visible. As we walked, our guide told us to stop and listen. We could hear a keening call in the distance, which our guide said was the sound of a Jaguar. Carlos explained that they were very difficult to catch sight of, the best chance being in the peace of early morning dawn. The other four native cats of Belize are the puma, ocelot, margay and the jaguarundi. Lamanai is also home to various species of Monkeys, and “The Community Baboon Sanctuary” was established in 1985 to protect one of the few healthy black howler monkey populations in Central America.
Once or twice we heard rustling in the bush. Our guide explained that it could be a Tapir, although they are normally nocturnal. They are the national animal of Belize but have pretty much disappeared in the rest of Mexico and Central America. We were told to keep an eye out for snakes, especially the very vicious fer-de-lance, an extremely disagreeable and extremely poisonous reptile. Two iguanid species also live in Belize: the green iguana or “bush-chicken ” and the black or land iguana, locally called a “wish-willy”. “Jesus Christ” Lizards can also be found here. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History lists over 530 species of birds that have been sighted here, including more than 200 migratory birds from North America who winter in the tropics. In many parts of the inland forest, it is not unusual to see as many as 120 birds over a period of as little as four or five days. At the request of the Belize Audubon Society, seven small mangrove cayes were declared bird sanctuaries. These cayes are nesting rookeries for Wood Storks, Great and Cattle Egrets, Boat-billed and Tricoloured Herons, Reddish Egrets and White Ibis, as well as Magnificent Frigatebirds, Anhingas and other birds.
Suddenly our path opened onto the most picturesque Mayan ruins in Belize: Lamanai. There are three large pyramids, some restored stelae, and some open plazas, as well as a small but unique ball court. There are also the ruins of two 16th century Spanish churches nearby but we wouldn’t have time to see them today. Lamanai was still occupied by the Maya when the Spanish arrived, so it is one of the few sites in Belize to preserve its traditional name. The large numbers of crocodile representations found in carvings seem to suggest that the animal had a very important role in the local mythology.
I was so excited to see “The High Temple”. It was enormous, rising 108 feet (33 m) above the plaza level, built around 100 BC. Some brave souls were climbing it, but I was pretty hesitant. It looked a long way up! However, Steve said, we did not come all this way to stand around and look. The next thing you know I was holding onto a rope for dear life and panting my way up the crumbling stone steps. At the first plateau I did not dare turn around to look down or I knew I would lose my courage. I squeezed my fingers around that rope and started up the next level. There, I decided to risk a look around. My breath caught in my throat. The great panorama of the Belizean jungle laid out all around us, punctuated here and there with blue waters of rivers and cenotes. I knew I had to make it all the way to the top, just to say I had done it. With my legs shaking, I grabbed the rope and kept going. At last! Finally I was at the top! The view was even more amazing. I felt like a bird that had flown to the tallest tree in the forest. A few photo’s later, we were so hot we had to get down. Thank goodness for that rope, because it is a long ways down! I would only recommend this climb to people who are very sturdy on their feet and fairly fit, or you could get into serious trouble.
Finally back on solid ground, we walked the short distance to the south of the High Temple ball court, the only one in Lamanai, dating to around 900-950 AD. It has a circular stone marker with a mysterious story…. It covers up a mysterious chamber where liquid mercury and several pieces of jade were found. Hmmm!
The Jaguar Temple (named because of a jaguar mask excavated here) is another of Lamanai’s huge pyramids. It was initially constructed around 500-550 AD, but is twelve feet shorter in exposed height than the High Temple. It was amazing to hear that a large amount of this temple still lays unexcavated, the memories still buried deep under the ground. The MaskTemple is named after a 13 foot high carved mask of a humanized face with a crocodile headdress and dates to the late 5th to early 6th century.
There is still so much more at Lamanai to be discovered! Due to the cost of excavating archaeological sites, it may take many, many more years for the rest of the area to be revealed to us. I hope I am still around when the time comes, for this is one place I would love to return.
Re: Lamanai: The Land of the Submerged Crocodile - 03/14/12 01:59 PM
Nearly every travel magazine and media outlet has included Belize in their round up of “must visit” destinations for 2012, mainly because the end of the Maya calendar takes place on December 21. And the recent visit by Prince Harry certainly did wonders for putting Belize on even more travelers’ radars.
I guess for once I was ahead of the curve on something as I’ve been traveling to Belize regularly since 2005. I already know how cool the country is. But thanks for the backup National Geographic and TIME Magazine.
Belize is a really a country that has it all for me – rich history, vibrant culture, and certainly no shortage of amazing cuisine. Those elements, along with the very special friendships I’ve made during all my trips, are the main things that bring me back at least once a year.
I’m often asked by many first-time Belize travelers which is the best Maya ruin site to visit if you only have time for one. While I certainly have not explored every Maya temple in Belize, my recommendation is visit Lamanai.
Lamanai is located in the Orange Walk District, which is in the northern part of Belize. Its name is commonly translated to “submerged crocodile”. Lamanai is one of the largest Maya sites in Belize and provides one of the more scenic trips just getting there.
History of Lamanai
Named for the nearby once thriving population of crocodiles, Lamanai is believed to date back to 700 BC and was occupied until the 17th century AD. It was largely unexcavated until 1974, when a team uncovered much of what is seen today – which is estimated to be less than 5% of what is actually there.
Experts believe there are around 700 buildings in the complex, but thick forest has covered much of the structures that made up this Maya powerhouse of over 35,000 residents.
Maya Temples at Lamanai
If you choose to do an organized tour to Lamanai, you will likely have a bit of free time to explore the onsite museum that houses some artifacts and gives a pretty good introduction to much of what you will see at the site. Then, you have the opportunity to explore several of the excavated temples at Lamanai. Since the site has protected status, you are likely to encounter a wealth of wildlife during your tour. It’s not uncommon to see howler monkeys and toucans during your visit.
Here is an introduction to the important structures you will see at Lamanai:
Mask Temple (Structure N9-56)
Your guide will talk about the interesting history of the Mast Temple, the faces of which are cut from blocks of limestone and are said to resemble Olmec iconography from the Gulf Coast of Mexico, especially in their upturned lips and broad noses. The masks are both adorned with headdress representing a crocodile.
High Temple (N10-43)
This is the tallest of the temples (33 meters) at Lamanai. Most people try to climb this as the views are quite mesmerizing, but just remember the trek down may not be that easy – note the rope that many people use to help them get back down!
This temple represents a pivotal time in history as remnants of tiny houses were found below. While a shift from residential to ceremonial use is not necessarily odd, it’s the size of the temple that indicates a major change in the community prompted this statement of wealth and power.
Jaguar Temple (N10-9 Complex)
This temple was built during the early Classic Period in the sixth century and saw modifications in both the eighth and thirteenth centuries. Tiny shrines at the foot of the stairs are believed to have been added in the 1400’s or later.
Other Notable Structures at Lamanai
Although one of the smallest, the Ballcourt has the largest marker found to date. Beneath the marker, they found an offering that contained a lidded vessel resting in a pool of liquid mercury – the first discovered in the Maya lowlands.
This is the only monument found in the original location according to Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History. The figure depicted on the stela is Lord Smoking Shell with dates that celebrate the anniversary of his reign. Festivities took place March 7, 625 AD.
Under the stela, there is a burial that contained five children. Due to the absence of signs of violent death and the fact that children’s remains are not typically associated with the dedication of monuments, it is believed this burial had a special significance.
Getting to Lamanai
While you can access Lamanai by road, tour packages include a scenic 26 mile boat ride up the New River where you have the opportunity to see all kinds of animal and plant life.
Monkeys, crocodiles, various birds, interesting river fauna and more are visible during your journey up the river. The guides are pretty knowledgeable on where to find different animals – my last visit to Lamanai several weeks ago resulted in crocodile sightings and even a couple monkeys coming abroad our boat!
You can visit Lamanai from the Cayes as well, but it does make for a long day trip and is certainly more expensive. You are typically picked up by 7 a.m. at the latest and it’s fairly common to get dropped back off between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. The bonus is the long boat ride and the typically endless supply of rum punch and Belikin Beer. The only downside is you may be so tired from the long day and the rum punch that you call it an early night!
Re: Lamanai: The Land of the Submerged Crocodile - 03/20/12 01:04 PM
Mayan ruins in Belize: Treasures more undiscovered than in more famous sites
“Just look!” says the woman beside me, and I do. The view is simply amazing: lush, green jungle as far as the eye can see.
We are standing atop the High Temple at Lamanai on the Yucatan peninsula in northern Belize, part of a stunning collection of ancient stone structures with even more ancient secrets.
Like Belize as a whole, Lamanai is growing in popularity as a tourist destination. With air and hotel packages available, Belize is an attractive alternative for Canadian travellers seeking a change from the vacation experience in Mexico just to the north.
But there are differences, too. The pace is slower, the crowds smaller, and the Mayan treasures more undiscovered than other world-famous sites in Mexico such as Chichen Itza or Tulum.
You can get to Lamanai by road, but it’s much more enjoyable to split the journey in two by first driving for an hour north from Belize City and then taking a small boat another hour up the historic trade route of the New River, splashing past exotic wading birds, baby alligators, sleeping bats and the occasional fishermen waiting patiently for a nibble.
Some visitors head out in small groups. Others come in larger numbers from the cruise ships that dock in Belize City each week.
Just before we arrive at Lamanai, we get a first glimpse of grey-black stones poking just above the tree line along the river. It’s not until we follow the short trail inland that we realize how enormous this majestic Mayan ruin is.
The High Temple alone is 35 metres, or 10 storeys, tall. Nearby is the Temple of the Jaguar Masks, the Mask Temple, and the Ball Court, all of which are must-sees with hardly any crowds. Wait for just a minute or less and you can find yourself all alone — lost in thought about what life was like here long ago.
Next we move on to Stella 9 at Lamanai, which contains a part of a carving and hieroglyphs (or “glyphs”) about Mayan life that our guide says is “a masterpiece carved in stone.”
Suddenly the wind in the trees blows and a howling monkey makes an eerie racket that suggests perhaps we should not linger too long in this mystical place.
A Mayan settlement for about 3,000 years, Lamanai — which means submerged crocodile — was home for some 60,000 people and was part of a civilization whose traces can still be found in parts of modern-day Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Belize.
Lamanai was rediscovered in the 1970s and over the years archeologists, including Canadian David Pendergrast from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, have been busy mapping, uncovering and decoding it all.
Learning about Lamanai and other Mayan ruins in Belize “is like peeling back the layers of an onion,” explains our guide, Wilfredo Novelo.
What’s been found so far has made it one of the most impressive in Belize, along with other Mayan ruins including Altun Ha, Cahal Pech, and Xunantunich, which Prince Harry visited on March 3.
“It’s simply amazing that they found all of this at Lamanai just 25 years ago,” a woman from Massachusetts says.
Also amazing is that visitors to Lamanai can do something that’s increasingly forbidden elsewhere: climb to the very top of an ancient Mayan ruin. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that shouldn’t be missed, even if the ascent on prehistoric stone steps is somewhat perilous.
We carefully navigate our way up the steep structure and then back down again, with only a rope to steady us while a warm sun shines down.
It’s like making a trip back in time, a little off the beaten track and well worth the while.
Lamanai: Mayan Site
Speedboat trip up the New River to the Belize Mayan site of Lamanai (submerged crocodile). According to our guide, 50 thousand people inhabited this one location at its peak. Monkeys, crocodiles, and colorful birds are seen on New River and at Lamanai.
Re: Lamanai: The Land of the Submerged Crocodile - 10/06/12 02:11 PM
VIDEO: Lamanai Experience
Re: Lamanai: The Land of the Submerged Crocodile - 10/26/12 02:19 PM
VIDEO: Lamanai Belize, High Temple, U.S. Military Helicoptors?Eco Tour day trip from San Pedro to Lamanai...surpriseingly and unexpected guest from the sky. We usually see Dragonflys and Howler Monkeys from here, today was a first for aircraft. Tour Operator, Seaduced by Belize, San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
Maya ruins of Belize
Join me to river boat trip to see the Maya ruins in the Lamanai and then to go to the Chan Chich Resort in the middle of the jungle of Belize, awesome location .
Re: Lamanai: The Land of the Submerged Crocodile - 10/30/12 01:36 PM
VIDEO: Lamanai Series One, First Stop Bomba - Seaduced"
Mayan Ruin Day Trip to Lamanai. Here's a look at the first leg of the trip up The Northern River to the wood carving Village of Bomba.
Lamanai Series Two- The Outpost, The New River "journey by boat"
A scenic 26 mile boat ride up the New River is the easiest way to get to Lamanai. For the aware "birder" it may be the most productive of rare and unusual sightings Belize has to offer as you travel through miles of virgin river fauna, viewing majestic trees with overhanging air plants and colorful Orchids.
Re: Lamanai: The Land of the Submerged Crocodile - 12/05/12 03:07 PM
Lamanai Series Three- The Temples of Lamanai
Lamanai was occupied continuously for over 3,000 years and it's remoteness contributed to it's continuous occupation, well beyond most other Maya sites, until at least 1,650 AD. The vast majority of the site remained unexcavated until the mid-1970s.
Re: Lamanai: The Land of the Submerged Crocodile - 01/05/13 02:37 PM
Escapes: On the trail of ancient Maya temples in Belize
City of Lamanai, High Temple bring ancient world back to life.
Ocellated turkeys, seen at the jungle resort Chan Chich lodge, are native to Belize.
The High Temple at Lamanai. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby
Ruins of the ancient city of Lamanai. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby
A Belize iguana finds a friend next to the river. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby
Howler monkey. Photo courtesy of Belize Tourism
Mennonites watering horses. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby
A Maya pyramid at Xunantunich, one of many ancient structures in Belize. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby
By CHERYL BLACKERBY
Two eco-resorts popular with archaeology buffs and birdwatchers are near Lamanai:
* Chan Chich Lodge has 12 cabanas; call (800) 343-8009 or (011) 501-223-4419. Rates range from $530 to $610 for two depending on the time of year. Rates include all meals, Belikin beer and sodas, taxes, daytime walks and vehicle tours. Visit chanchich.com.
* Lamanai Outpost Lodge has 20 cabanas; call (888) 733-7864 or (011) 501-672-2000. There are a number of room and activity packages. Visit lamanai.com.