The very name Lamanai comes from the Yucatec Maya word “lam’an’ain,” or “submerged crocodile.” Once a great city—waxing in power, even as cities to the south like Tikal and Caracol were waning—its ruins lay buried until the 1970s, when archaeologists started excavating the site. They eventually learned that Lamanai was one of the most continually inhabited cities in all of the Maya lowlands, with evidence of occupation dating back to the 16th century BC (!). An extensive museum displays dozens of artifacts, including many made of copper, found buried with elites.
Among all of Belize’s archaeological treasures, Lamanai is special because the journey to get there is just as thrilling as the destination. You’ll leave early in the day from home sweet San Ignacio, then drive through the morning mists, northward to Orange Walk, so named for the old citrus plantations in the area. You’ll go straight to the docks on the New River, where you’ll transfer to a small but comfortable speedboat with a sun roof—and then the ride begins! Since the land is flat, navigating New River is like riding a go-kart on a race track. But this track isn’t straight: it’s a labyrinth of curves and forks and double-backs, passing through reeds and rushes and Mennonite farmland. But your guide knows exactly what path to take, and moreover, will introduce you to whatever resident river birds, monkeys, and crocodiles turn up to say hi. Then you finally arrive in a huge lagoon, where the top of High Temple peeks up over the jungle canopy.
After exploring the museum, your guide will show you the site itself. On beautifully kept grounds, there are three majestic temples, each built during a different time period. The Mask Temple is famous for its enormous carved stone facades; the Jaguar Temple is a national icon that appears on the label of every Belikin’s beer in the country. But the High Temple affords the most breathtaking view—if you climb all the steps to the top, you can see over the jungle canopy to the entire river lagoon, and imagine what it must have been like as a busy port a thousand years ago. Because of its unique location, Lamanai is unlike any other Maya site in Belize.
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