In the Belizean jungle there is a place of mystery and undisclosed secrets, waiting to be discovered.
When the Spanish made contact with the Mayan civilisation in 1511 it was an accident. Their boat ran aground in what would become modern Belize and the Spaniards were captured by local Mayan tribes. The ancient city of Lamanai had grown to become one of the most important trade cities in the region by this point and was one of the first political centres to deal with Spain, who conquered the city and burned the unique Mayan texts that could have enlightened us to every aspect of their culture. Unfortunately as in much of Mesoamerica the city was eventually lost to the jungle. Creepers and fallen leaves drowned the acropolis. Moss grew and then died, and then grew again on top of old growth, leaving little trace of the temples. Over three hundred years of neglect left the site buried and almost out of memory.
How do you reach a hidden city?
Beside a lagoon on the New River, Lamanai is best reached by boat. That’s how Thomas Gann would have arrived and carried out early excavations in 1917. Further excavations took place in the 1970s and 80s, and again in the early twenty-first century but even today it is only partially excavated. Nevertheless artifacts found at Lamanai demonstrate its links to the wider Central American economy even in the Post-Colombian period. Lamanai’s relatively rare advantage of being beside a strong river undoubtedly ensured its survival beyond the collapse of all those around it. Today the 26 mile speedboat ride up the New River is the most fun way to reach the ruins of Lamanai, the alternative being a 35 mile dirt road and probably double the time it takes by boat. We traveled from Chetumal in Mexico to reach Lamanai via Orange Walk, and that alone was an adventure, but this Mayan site is well worthy of being the first place on an itinerary around Belize.
As I sped along the watercourse I spotted some hills in the distance and thought they were strangely out of place in this generally flat region. Their scale didn’t suggest to me that they could be man-made but when the boat shuddered to a halt the guide pointed and said simply “Temples”. Three obvious peaks beside each other, the one to the northeast the tallest and the longest. These are not mere bumps, they are tall and monumental even though they are completely hidden by trees, from the water at least. The guide pointed to the middle bump – he had spotted visitors on the top, its summit cleared of trees. They waved at us, and we waved back. In two days I would be where they were.
Into the jungle!
We stayed at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge during our time in the jungle. It’s pricey but there are loads of little excursions around the jungle and lagoon to spot wildlife, and the location can’t be beaten as it’s just half a mile from the ruins. Our guided trip to the Lamanai ruins left the Lodge at 9am, meaning that when we arrived at the ancient city we were the only tourists. Just me, Kristina, and our guide. First things first we needed context, and that came in the form of the excellent little museum.
Locals love their heritage
It’s full of interpretation that sets you up nicely to understand what you’re looking at but the glass cases have some amazing objects that take you through the total length of time the site was occupied and in power. Arguably Lamanai has been ‘occupied’ since around 1600BC but that’s really pushing it in my opinion as the nearby modern villages don’t really interact with the site other than to operate it as a tourist attraction. Nevertheless the local knowledge and interest, nay love, for the site is very clear to see.
Rangers were strolling around with huge machetes, clearing fallen branches and debris from the paths or helping the small teams of archaeologists and botanists (literally one or two people at a time) to reach where they needed to go. As we walked up these slippery paths we were absolutely amazed with what our guide was pointing out underfoot. Almost everywhere you look there are potsherds – pieces of pottery – being washed out of the soil simply by the rain. Obsidian slithers are ever present and it was explained how the two different types of this volcanic glass showed how far ranging the trade routes were that brought these blades to Lamanai. History, and archaeology, before our very eyes. I found a wonderful little piece of cross-hatched pottery just sitting on the surface and had to resist the massive urged to pocket these things. Massive urges… Especially as on anther day at the Lodge another guide told us that he has jade beads and stone idols from when he dug foundations for his house. Jealousy doesn’t describe how I felt.
At the top of this muddy path we came to the Mask Temple. This relatively small pyramid earns its name from the two massive masks beside the central staircase. The ones on show today are reproductions of what was there originally but it does little to detract from the first impression. The jungle is close around the structure and the ramp around the side lets you climb and examine everything precisely. Unlike Tulum or Chichen Itza there are no barriers here.
Next up was the High Temple, the one we could see people on from the lagoon. It is awesome. You step into the grassy area at its base and the pyramid towers above the canopy. The four levels connected by terrifyingly steep stairs with only a rope to guide you. It had rained heavily the night before so climbing up was hard work but the view from the top is tremendous. The yet-to-be-excavated acropolis, just a few hundred metres away, looms even taller than the ‘High’ temple but is completely shrouded by the thick jungle. The Lodge pontoon in the distance juts out into the lagoon, the Maya Mountains forming a beautiful backdrop. All other directions full of jungle. We stopped at the top for a few minutes to enjoy the view and as we stood there a new tourist boat pulled into the lagoon far below. We reversed our roles from before and waved at the occupants as they waved back. With their arrival about to disturb paradise we descended the treacherous pyramid carefully with the soggy rope.
At the bottom our guide explained how the pyramid had been through successive periods of alterations. It never stayed the same for long as terraces were sculpted, or covered rooms depicting the Mayan underworld added and promptly removed. With a twinkle in his eye and no small degree of pride he explained how some recent discoveries had been dated hundreds of years previous to any other estimates, which possibly makes Lamanai one of the very oldest of Mayan sites. The impression of Lamanai being underestimated continued throughout our tour and conjecture as to what remains to be found in the acropolis was rife. When oil prospectors rammed a pole into the top of the high temple to use it as a trig point for their new charts they narrowly missed a cache of Mayan treasure that was found several years later. Therefore pots of gold have been found before and the suggestion was that there could be untold fortunes in them thar hills, hopefully things that would enable Lamanai to be fully excavated and explained. Or at least interpreted more clearly…
Ball courts are typical to Mayan sites and Lamanai is no different. It’s much smaller than the gargantuan one at Chichen Itza, but that’s a wholly different site. Nonetheless you get a great impression of the strategy needed to battle in the ball courts. The tight spaces meaning that every move needs to be far more precise than anything required in larger courts. The trees above us shock violently as howler monkeys dropped between branches. They sneaked up on us silently, unlike the day before when their roars sounded like something from Jurassic Park and they could be heard from many hundreds of metres away. I must have had dinosaurs on my mind a lot when I stayed here as I even saw T-Rexes in the shape of the distant canopy:
The fall of the King
Along from the ball court is a reproduction of a large stele I spotted in the museum. It depicts, as they so often do, a powerful ruler bathing in his own magnificence. But the twist here is that this stele was cast down as an offering to the gods. A fire was lit around its base so that it shattered and tumbled down the temple. The symbolic sacrifice of a venerated god-king’s memory aiming to call off whatever scourge was afflicting Lamanai. One of many mysteries around this ancient site.
What’s this? Tourists!?
The final magnificent sight at Lamanai is the Jaguar Temple. Our guide took us through the living quarters beforehand, explaining all about their living and sleeping arrangements. We nodded politely but it sure wasn’t the most interesting of moments when our attention was being stolen by the huge pyramid! We turned to the Jaguar Temple and noted the growing number of tourists scattered around. Thankfully just as we headed to the temple this tour group departed and we had it all to ourselves once more. Just the three of us. The carved jaguar faces at the base were stunning pieces of work that looked even better in profile than face-on. Climbing this final pyramid we bathed in the wonder of the place. Mounds and slopes off to each side are covered with soil, yet to be explored. Middens and buildings alike. There are thousands of structures still to explore.
On our way back to the boat we stopped to see where a tree had fallen over in a storm. Its roots had pulled human remains from the soil, we could see the jaw bone and teeth clearly. All that separates the visitor from the exhumed bone is a strip of tape. I’ve never been to a place that felt so much like it was about to explode with new discoveries. Wherever you look there are rocks urging you to turn them over and see what’s hidden beneath. Anything could come to light. It’s an extraordinary feeling to be so free to wander around what is in effect a huge archaeological dig. Even if it is a dig that’s stalled for lack of funds.
The future at Lamanai
I’m almost afraid to hear if Lamanai gets the funds it needs. A very large part of its unique appeal lies in the fact that it is just excavated enough to provide a tourist with the thrills they need whilst retaining the illusion of remoteness. In my own experience I compare it to the Great Wall of China at Simatai and Jinshaling, places that are pretty tumble-down, utterly beautiful and remote, but fairly accessible all the same. I had to pass on [relatively] nearby Tikal due to a lack of time but I imagine that I might even prefer Lamanai to Tikal because of the loneliness about the place. The method of getting to Lamanai isn’t to shabby either! It’s somewhere I’m immensely pleased that I took the time to visit properly and at a time of day that let me appreciate all there was. If they do find the money they need to continue the search at Lamanai then I sincerely hope that they find what they’re hoping lies in the acropolis, whether that be a golden horde or an infinitely more valuable Mayan codex. Either way I’m sure this place will spill it’s secrets little by little in the coming years.