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The Mask Temple in Mayan city of Lamanai, Belize
The Mask Temple in Mayan city of Lamanai, Belize

Visiting Lamanai Mayan Ruins of Belize

There are a few interesting facts that make Lamanai one of the fascinating Mayan ruin sites. The history of the area dated back to at least 1600 B.C. and construction of some of the major buildings and temples at Lamanai occurred before the era when other Mayan cities flourished. The classical period from 300 A.D. to around 800 A.D. Mayan peoples continued to live in and around   Lamanai from those early dates up to and well the time that the Spanish colonized the new world. In fact, Lamanai is thought to have been lived into an undetermined date in the 1700s, making it the Mayan city that was occupied for the longest amount of time (nearly three thousand years).

The Jaguar Temple, an ancient Mayan ruin in Lamanai, Belize
The Jaguar Temple, an ancient Mayan ruin in Lamanai, Belize

Despite the long timeframe for Lamanai, unfortunately, its rulers left few stelae and therefore little is known about the history of this site compared to sites such as Caracol. Most of what is known about Lamanai has been surmised through the countless hours of archeological excavations and investigations of the site carried out by David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum. Since much of Lamanai awaits excavation, details of its history are probably hidden beneath the soil and fallen leaves of the rain forest. Nevertheless, Pendergast was able to determine that Lamanai, like most Mayan cities, was first inhabited by farming communities whose main crop was corn. Construction of buildings didn’t commence until several hundred years later; around 800. From that time, Lamanai continued to grow and by around 100 A.D. had become one of the largest Mayan cities. Although other cities such as Caracol and Tikal became larger than Lamanai during the classical period, Lamanai also continued to grow and flourish during this time. After the classical period (around 900 A.D.), Lamanai stopped growing as a city but unlike other Mayan cities, was not abandoned. Although some parts of the city were left to the elements, residents still maintained some of the temples and ball courts. Despite little construction during the post-classical period, it is known that a sizeable Mayan population lived around Lamanai when the Spanish arrived because they built two missions in the area, something the Spanish colonists only did at sites occupied by a fair number of people. In addition to Mayan ruins, the ruins of those Spanish missions can also be seen as the residents of Lamanai destroyed them during the 1600s. Sometime in the 1700s, it is thought that most of the remaining Mayans that lived in and around Lamanai died in epidemics that hit the region at this time and Lamanai was left to ruin.

The Mask Temple in Mayan city of Lamanai, Belize
The Mask Temple in Mayan city of Lamanai, Belize

The reasons why Lamanai was as successful as a city and persisted while other Mayan cities crumbled is probably related to its location on the New River lagoon. The New River lagoon afforded Lamanai long-term stability by virtue of its permanent, easily accessible water supply and soils that were more fertile than at other sites. This large water supply may have helped Lamanai weather the droughts and changes in climate that are thought to have affected other Mayan cities. The lagoon would have also provided Lamanai with a stable food source in the form of the many fish that live there. The New River lagoon also provided Lamanai with a waterway to the coast. Just as modern cities flourish along highways, Lamanai probably flourished as a strategic point along trade routes between Mayan sites from Mexico to Honduras. Evidence for Lamanai being an important trade route has been unearthed in the form of copper and jade objects from as far away as western and central Mexico, and Honduras.

Temple of the jaguar
Temple of the jaguar (Photo Credit: www.wikipedia.org, by Martin Falbisoner, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Just as traders from ancient times arrived at Lamanai by boat, tourists probably follow in their footsteps as they descend the boat and walk to the ruins. The first stop for most is the onsite museum that houses some of the most interesting pieces uncovered at Lamanai. After viewing the exquisite jade jewelry in the museum of Lamanai, tours often walk through a nearby plaza on their way to the Jaguar temple. This prominent structure at Lamanai is often given this name because of the large carvings depicting Jaguar faces on its lower levels. Across from this temple are buildings that were used by Lamanai elite as living quarters. Leaving the Jaguar temple, tours then head over to large stela with an interesting carving that depicts one of the ancient rulers of Lamanai, Lord Smoking Shell. Five children may have been sadly sacrificed to commemorate this steal as their remains were found beneath this elaborate stone carving at Lamanai. Walking to the west, visitors pass a small ball court with a huge ball court marker located near the tallest building at Lamanai, the El Castillo temple. This 125-foot building is one of the first tall structures that were raised during the Mayan civilization as it was built around 100 B.C. This temple at Lamanai can be climbed for fantastic views of the surrounding lagoon and forests. The next and last building is typically shown to tourists are usually the Mask Temple. The largest building at   Lamanai, the Mask Temple was constructed around 200 A.D. and renovated periodically until at least 1300 A.D. The appropriately named Mask Temple of Lamanai showcases one of the largest masks found to date in any Mayan city. This sculpture of a man in a crocodile headdress with quetzal feathers is about 13 feet (over 3 meters) high and hints at the important role this animal played for the people of Lamanai. Another interesting aspect of this mask at Lamanai is that most of the details were carved from limestone. Other Mayan masks were usually carved from stucco that was pasted onto a limestone block. Other buildings that may or may not be visited on tours to Lamanai are the structures found in the northern end of the site located near a river inlet that was probably used as one of Lamanai’s ports. And the ruins of the Spanish missions that were built by enslaved Mayans in the 1500s, and then burned to the ground by their   descendants during a successful rebellion in the 1600s. Yet another modern ruin site at Lamanai, near the mission ruins, is the remains of a sugar processing mill from the 1800s.

Guided Tour with a boat ride to Lamanai:

Aerial View of Lamanai Maya Ruins in the tropical Jungle of Belize
Aerial View of Lamanai Maya Ruins in the tropical Jungle of Belize

There is a road that leads to Lamanai and it can be driven, but tourists taking this 36-mile route will probably see more dust than animals as they bounce along the rough, unpaved road to the ruins. A far easier, more relaxed way to reach Lamanai that also includes wildlife viewing is the trip to Lamanai that goes upriver from Orange Walk. These boat trips are part of all guided tours to the Lamanai ruins that are run out of Orange Walk and make for a fun, memorable day. Tours to Lamanai from Orange Walk typically run for about five hours and include transportation to and from Lamanai, a guided tour of the ruins, and lunch. The two main companies that run day trips to Lamanai from Orange Walk are Reyes and Sons and Jungle River Tours. Both of these locally owned companies have experienced guides that will spot wildlife along the way and be able to answer any questions about Lamanai. The tour to Lamanai by Reyes and Sons tends to be cheaper and they also offer tours to Lamanai without lunch. While the tours to Lamanai run by Jungle River Tours leave from their office or from the Lamanai Riverside Retreat or Saint Christopher Hotel, Lamanai tours run by Reyes and Sons depart from the bridge over the New River south of Orange Walk. As the trip to Lamanai is a popular one, it’s best to reserve a day or two in advance. On the other hand, if enough participants to Lamanai don’t sign up (most trips need at least four), then the tour may be canceled.

Accommodations near Lamanai:

The ruin is located 24 miles up the New River but actually southwest from Orange Walk Town.  This makes the hotels in Orange Walk the most convenient however it can also be visited as a day trip from Corozal or Belize City.

Related Posts:
Welcome to Caracol: the largest known Maya site in Belize
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Visiting Ambergris Caye, Belize

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