Week Ten: Exploring the Mayan Ruins of Lamanai

This week, I’ll be writing about another new experience that I had in Belize, a visit to some Mayan ruins.

We knew even before setting foot on our first plane to Belize that we wanted to visit a Mayan temple whilst we were there, and, based on recommendations from other guests in the hotel, decided to go on a tour to Lamanai. Lamanai is an archeological site in northern Belize that was once a thriving Mayan village. In keeping with the crocodile theme these entries seem to be taking, the name Lamanai is Mayan for ‘Submerged Crocodile’.

We took our tour with a company called Searious Adventures, one of the many tour operators on Ambergris Caye, and one that was highly recommended on Trip Advisor. Our tour operators advised us that the journey from San Pedro to Lamanai was half the adventure, and they weren’t kidding. To get there we had to take a boat, a bus;

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Somewhat perturbed to board a bus that relied on faith…

And then another boat through along a jungle river;

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Pictured: Intrepid adventurers

On the second boat, our guide for the day, David, took us close to the overhanging trees until he’d found the spot he was looking for. Up in the branches, a few spider monkeys had congregated, dutifully waiting for the odd-looking hairless monkeys to pass them the fruit they had clearly come to expect as their toll.

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Two to the Jaguar Temple? That’ll be half a slice of honeydew melon, please ma’am.

When we reached our final destination, David took a few minutes to point out the temples and ruins we would be seeing on a board, before explaining that when had been excavated to date was only about 1% of what the Mayan’s left when they deserted the settlement. The jungle has swallowed the rest, but work continues on the site to this day. David then showed us an obsidian blade that had been found, and possibly used for blood letting or as a weapon. He was quick to tell us that there was no evidence that human sacrifices had ever taken place at Lamanai, and that the settlement had likely been a prosperous one, situated as it was by the river and the fertile jungle. David hypothesized that it was disease (i.e. small pox) brought over by the Spanish and the English that killed many of the Maya in the region, and caused the survivors to desert Lamanai.

After a brief stop in the museum, we headed to the first of the excavated temples, the Jaguar Temple;

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Jaguar Temple

After patiently pretending to listen to David as he lovingly explained the finer points of the structure (so named for the representation of a jaguar on its side), the group eagerly got to asking the important question; Can we climb it? David smiled wanly as though he had expected this. He gently explained that we had a choice; we had time to either climb every temple we saw and not hear anything about them (which he admitted would make his job easier), or we could climb only the tallest temple and receive a proper education on each structure. We unanimously lowered our heads in shame and opted for the latter, feeling like errant schoolchildren. I’m fairly sure I saw one member of our group scuffing his shoe disconsolately on the ground out of the corner of my eye. David nodded in satisfaction, and proceeded to reward us with tales of the Maya’s rich history, inviting us to imagine what life must have been like in the ancient civilization.

After a short trip through a jungle path, we were at the High Temple;

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The High Temple

Standing proudly at 108 feet tall, the temple was awe inspiring. And steep. So steep in fact that there was a rope stretched down the length of the middle section of stairs to assist climbers. The rope was there for good reason; only the day before a tourist had fallen whilst climbing, and had to be rushed to hospital. The verdict was still out on whether she would have to be flown back to the US for treatment*.

David warned us to drink plenty of water prior to attempting the climb, even if we didn’t feel like we needed it as mistakes were often made when the body was dehydrated. He also advised that we were climbing the temple at our own risk, and that the tour guides and operators assume no responsibility for any injuries that may occur.

Warnings very much heeded, my husband and I started our ascent of the temple;

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So far, so good.

Knowing that vertigo sometimes gets the better of me, my husband, whom I suspect is part mountain goat, bounded ahead of me, ready to hoick me up to the nearest ledge should I have a wobble. Although, come to think of it, I did see him examining our life insurance policies rather closely just before we left home, so perhaps his motives weren’t so pure after all…

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Did I mention it was steep?

I made it to the second highest bit and, deciding that my view wasn’t going to be much improved by elevating myself another three or so feet to the exposed top of the temple, rested there. I am however reliably informed that the view from the temple’s highest point looked something like this;

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Clearly overrated

Going down was somewhat harder, mainly because my legs were tired at that point, but thankfully everyone from our group made it down safely. Once we were all accounted for, we headed to the third and final temple;

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The Mask Temple

David explained how the Maya designed the temples with acoustics in mind. From the top of the Mask Temple, which only priests would be allowed to enter, the priest could address the crowd without raising his voice. This is because the temple and it’s adjoining structures were placed in such a way that the sound of his voice would have reverberated around the courtyard in front of the temple, allowing the masses blow to hear him as clearly as though he were standing right in front of them. It was all tremendously clever.

The path then looped back to the Jaguar Temple, and a couple of strategically placed gift shops which we spent a couple of minutes browsing, hoping to prolong our trip. Sadly before long it was time to board the first boat of our journey back to San Pedro, and we had to bid David, Lamanai, and the ancient Mayans a fond farewell. But although we had to say goodbye, we took with us a greater understanding and appreciation for a truly fascinating early civilization. Plus a couple of fridge magnets for the folks back home.

VERDICT: I thoroughly enjoyed Lamanai. It’s mind boggling to think that these incredible structures were build thousands of years ago, without the aid of modern technology. If you get a chance to go, go! Bonus points if you make it to the top of the High Temple.

*To the fellow tourist who fell climbing: Our entire tour group wish you a full and speedy recovery, and hope you’ll be back on the road less traveled soon.


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