Explore the magic of Lamanai

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 15, No. 14            April 7, 2005

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Imagine you are on a boat, slowly cruising a narrow river surrounded by tangled mangrove trees teaming with exotic jungle creatures. As you narrow a curve in the river, you spot the top of an ancient Maya ruin, breaking free from the embrace of the canopied rainforest. Are you dreaming that you are in an Indiana Jones movie? No, you are on an adventure that even “Indi” would admire. You are on a jungle journey to Lamanai set in tropical forest and providing spectacular views from several of its large temples. Lamanai provides a unique experience in the culture of the Maya and the biological diversity of a tropical forest.

    The ruins of Lamanai, one of Belize’s largest ceremonial centers, are located along the west bank of the New River Lagoon at a point where the New River flows from the lagoon on its 80-mile journey — about 40 miles as the crow flies — north to Chetumal Bay and the Caribbean. The New River, known to the Mayas as Dzuluinicob (“foreign men”) was one of the arteries used by the conquering Spaniards and missionizing friars as they attempted to penetrate the forests of the Maya lowlands. The name “Lamanai,” in fact, appears in 16th and 17th century documents as a Spanish rendering of a Maya name, which was originally Laman’ayin (“submerged crocodile”). Lamanai is one of only a few sites whose original Maya name is known. Lamanai’s remoteness contributed to its continuous occupation beyond most other Maya sites, until at least 1,650 AD.

    For those vacationing on “La Isla Bonita,” a day trip to Lamanai offers an unparalleled view of the natural history of North Central Belize. During your journey, you will discover Belize’s diverse landscapes, from farmlands to broad-leaf forests, to the variety of native cultures and communities. There are many excellent tour businesses in San Pedro that offer guided tours to Lamanai, and SEArious Adventures is one of them.

    SEArious Adventures is owned and operated by Willie and Sandy Leslie. Willie is a licensed local guide who was born and raised in San Pedro. His wife Sandy is from Vancouver, Canada. Together they are committed to providing the most professional tour possible and they work hard to make sure that their guests return from an adventure completely satisfied. They take pride in providing their guests with a fun and exciting adventure but also a knowledgeable one too.

    This full day adventure usually starts at 7:00 a.m. with a 45-minute boat trip to the mainland, where you then enter the old Northern River. The boat slows to an easy pace and a delicious Belizean breakfast of fresh tropical fruit, journey cakes and pineapple juice is served. Willie narrates as you pass the dense jungle, spotting colorful blooming orchids, winding green “snake” cactus and huge, brown termite nests. The river water is clear, allowing a view of passing fish and other water creatures. After a short, 25 minute cruise you arrive at the riverside village of Bomba.

    Bomba is a modest village, consisting of small, wooden homes situated on a green grassy riverbank. Many of the homes have makeshift craft shops in front where handmade wooden crafts are sold. These sales are the main source of revenue for the village, and the people are warm and friendly. As you browse their wares, they will often engage in conversation and explain to you the types of woods they use. Everything from sculptures to beautiful bowls are handcrafted, using rich, dark Zericote and marbled red and blonde Rosewood. Often the villagers are working on a rough piece of wood, giving you a look at how these masterpieces begin. Should you fancy a piece that is not quite finished, most of the artisans will offer to have it ready for you when you go through Bomba on your return trip. At Ms. Bernice’s shop, not only will you admire their fine craftwork, but you also can get a look at their pet paca. A paca is a large brown rodent with white spots. Paca’s are considered agricultural pests, sometimes causing damage to yam, cassava, sugar cane, corn and other crops. At times they are killed for their meat, which has an excellent flavor and commands the highest prices of all meats—domestic or wild—at market. After a short time in Bomba it is time to board an old school bus (painted green), and head for Tower Hill, which is near Orange Walk.

    The view from the bus window offers a slide-show snap shot of the Belizean world as it passes by. Glimpses of manicured ranchitos with White Egrets grazing with Brahma bulls, wooden houses on wobbly stilts with busy chickens and children in the yard, makeshift villages with sleepy corner stores and picturesque communities all dot the landscape. Willie points out areas of interest, as well as the diverse flora and fauna as you travel on the sometimes-bumpy Pan-American Highway. Colorful Toucans can be spotted from your window, as well as Black-headed Trogon birds. The hour ride passes quickly as you absorb the sights beyond the window. The next stop is Tower Hill, where you board another boat.

    Local tour guide Amir Reyes greets you at the dock and invites you to make yourself comfortable on his boat. Taking the scenic boat ride 26 miles up the New River is the easiest way to get to Lamanai. Amir, whose family owns the Reyes & Sons tour business, has been a guide for seven years. He knows every twist and turn of the New River, and often slows down to offer a look at this unexplored wonderland of bird life, crocodiles, turtles, bats, orchids and the “Jesus Christ Bird” that “walks on water.” Along the river, he points out a Mennonite community, tidy with white farm homes and livestock. Amir tells us that the Mennonites were invited to homestead in Belize in 1958, and that they produce over 70% of the agriculture in the country. Arriving on the shores of the New River Lagoon, we reach our destination, the ancient Capital of Lamanai, which is surrounded by pristine rainforest.

    We disembark and stretch our legs. The grounds around the docking area are well groomed and a stone path leads to our first stop, the new on-site museum, which houses an amazing collection of impressive artifacts depicting Mayan gods and animals. The facilities include restrooms and a covered picnic area for visitors. After a short tour of the museum, Amir leads us on a walking tour of the grounds. The path is groomed, but is hilly in places and uneven. Good walking shoes, like tennis shoes or Teva-like sandals are recommended. Deep inside the tropical jungle, the temperature can be hot and very humid. The nature paths lead to various temples, where Amir explains in detail the history behind each one. There are at least seven families of howler monkeys that make Lamanai their home and you will most likely see a couple of them peering down through the branches as you wander the trails. They are a treat to see, and when they vocalize their guttural growl/howl the jungle experience, surrounded by ancient ruins, could not be more perfect. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!

    Excavated by David M. Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum during a series of field seasons beginning in 1974, Lamanai’s 718 mapped structures spread across 950 acres. About a hundred buildings have been uncovered. Much of Lamanai’s importance is reflected in the large, imposing Late Pre-Classic temple-pyramids, which usually underlie Early Classic constructions. Lamanai features the second largest Pre-Classic structure, and in front of one temple stands a 13-foot stone temple mask of a Maya king. With one of the longest occupation spans in the Maya World, Lamanai has been continuously occupied for over 3000 years. The Lamanai Archaeological Reserve also contains a colonial sugar mill that was established in 1860. Remains of two 16th century Catholic missions are nearby. Maya natives rebelled and burned the churches to the ground as part of a regional uprising. A makeshift Maya stelae standing in front of what remains of one church, is widely interpreted as renouncing all allegiance to Christianity. The sites protected status provides for an abundance of wildlife inside the park. In addition, the marshlands around the lagoon support many species of water birds and wildlife, including crocodiles.

    During the tour, Willie offers us bottles of cold water and fresh baked coconut tarts. The water is readily consumed, and the tarts are a welcome treat. After an hour of exploring the amazing ruins, and literally walking in the footsteps of the ancient Maya, we return to the covered picnic area for lunch.

    An impressive spread awaits us, prepared by Amir’s mother. We feast on stew chicken, rice and beans, fried plantain, coleslaw and potato salad. Cold beverages are served and the group enjoys dining together while excitedly talking about the day’s adventures. After lunch, some take the opportunity to explore the small gift shops located on the grounds. One shop sells hand crafted copper, silver and brass jewelry, hand crafted by artisans from the Indian Church Village, which is located adjacent to Lamanai. Sales from the jewelry, inspired by imagery from Lamanai and other Mayan sites in Central America, help to fund for the village. Another store sells colorful Guatemalan clothing and crafts; while another store carries stone Mayan sculpture replicas. After a little shopping, the group gathers back at the boat for the journey home.

    For part of the trip home the group is quiet and subdued, as tired travelers are lost in thought, reflecting on the day’s events. While on the final boat ride home Willie serves up glasses of rum punch, and the group comes alive again, chatting over the sound of the boat motor and restless ocean waters. It is a day that exceeds all expectations, and some may even be surprised to find that they too have a little “Indiana Jones” in them.

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