Lamanai in 2012
Lamanai is one of the largest and longest-inhabited ceremonial centers in Belize, an imperial port city encompassing ball courts, pyramids, and several exotic Maya features. It was still occupied when Europeans made contact. Hundreds of buildings have been identified in this two-square-mile area located in thick jungle on the banks of the New River Lagoon.
Archaeologist David Pendergast headed a team from the Royal Ontario Museum that, after finding a number of children’s bones buried under a stela, presumed human sacrifice was a part of the residents’ religion. He also found large masks in several locations depicting a ruler wearing a crocodile headdress, hence the name Lamanai (“Submerged Crocodile”).
The ruins of Lamanai huddle to one side of New River Lagoon and sprawl westward through the forest and under the village of Indian Church (a rural village that was relocated by the government from one part of the site to another in 1992).
Excavations reveal continuous occupation and a high standard of living into the Postclassic Period. Lamanai is believed to have been occupied from 1500 B.C. to the 19th century—Spanish occupation is also apparent, with the remains of two Christian churches and a sugar mill built by British colonialists.
The landscape at most of Lamanai is forest; trees, vines, and strangler figs grow from the tops of buildings. The only sounds are birdcalls and howler monkeys’ roars echoing off the stone temples.
The Lamanai archaeological site consists of four large temples, a residential complex, and a reproduction stela of a Maya elite, Lord Smoking Shell.
The Mask Temple N9-56 housed two significant tombs as well as two Early Classic stone masks. It was built around A.D. 450. The second mask on the temple was exposed in late 2010.
The High Temple N10-43 is 33 meters (100 feet) tall, the tallest securely dated Preclassic structure in the Maya area. The 360-degree view from above the canopy is remarkable.
Lamanai’s ball court is smaller than those at other sites, leading some to speculate it was just symbolic. In 1980, archaeologists raised the huge stone disc marking the center of the court and found lidded vessels on top of a mercury puddle. Miniature vessels inside contained small jade and shell objects.
The Royal Complex was excavated in 2005. This was the residence of up to two dozen elite Lamanai citizens; you can see their beds, doorways, and the like.
The Jaguar Temple N10-9 was dated to the 6th century but underwent structural modifications in the 8th and 13th centuries. Jade jewelry and a jade mask were discovered here, as was an animal-motif dish. Based on the animal remains and other evidence, archaeologists believe that this was the site of an enormous party and feast to celebrate the end of a drought in A.D. 950.
In 1983, archaeologists began an investigation of The Stela Temple N10-27, where they discovered a large stone monument. Designated Stela 9, it depicts Lord Smoking Shell in ceremonial dress. Hieroglyphic text of Stela 9, while incomplete, indicates that this monument was erected to commemorate the accession of Smoking Shell, the Lord of Lamanai. Today, a replica stands at the stela temple; the original can be viewed in the museum at Lamanai.
Wildlife and Bird-Watching
The trip up the New River Lagoon to the site is its own safari; once you’re at the ruins, numbered trees correspond to an information pamphlet available from the caretakers at the entrance of Lamanai Reserve.
Bird-watchers, look around the Mask Temple and High Temple for Montezuma oropendola and their drooping nests. The black vulture is often spotted slowly gliding over the entire area. A woodpecker with a distinct double-tap rhythm and a red cap is the male pale-billed woodpecker. Near the High Temple, small flocks of collared aracaris, related to the larger toucan, forage the canopy for fruits and insects.
The black-headed trogon is more spectacular than its name implies: a yellow chest, a black-and-white tail, and iridescent blue-green back. Though it looks as if the northern jacana is walking on water, it’s the delicate floating vegetation that holds the long-toed bird above the water as it searches along the water’s edge for edible delicacies.
Lamanai is open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. Entrance costs US$10 per person. With the advent of midday cruise-ship tours, the site boasts a dock, a visitors center, craft shops, and a museum. Lamanai is also a popular site for day-trippers from Ambergris Caye, and it can be quite crowded in the middle of the day, especially during the week.
For a more solitary experience, go early in the morning or late in the afternoon; cruise-ship crowds arrive at noon and disappear in less than two hours. To ensure a head start, stay at the award-winning Lamanai Outpost Lodge (tel. 501/220-9444, www.lamanai.com), a highly recommended one-of-a-kind jungle lodge.
Getting to Lamanai
Lamanai is reachable by boat from Orange Walk or by road from San Felipe. Most visitors use one of the tour companies based in Orange Walk or the transfer services of a lodge, but it is possible to do it yourself as well. A two-person boat transfer from Orange Walk could cost as much as US$125, depending on the price of gasoline, less if you can get in with a bigger group.
You can drive the San Felipe road in about 1.5 hours, depending on road conditions. Or take the village bus from Orange Walk to Indian Church, leaving Orange Walk at 5–6 p.m. on Fridays and Mondays. The same buses depart Indian Church at 5–5:30 a.m. on the same days, so you’ll have to make a weekend out of it—or more.
On the opposite end of the time, comfort, and price spectrum, you can charter a 15-minute flight from Belize City to Lamanai Outpost Lodge’s airstrip with one of Belize’s private charter services.
More Travel Information
For more travel information on things to see and do at Lamanai and in the surrounding area, please visit the Lamanai section of our Moon Belize travel guide.
© Josh Berman from Moon Maya 2012