Lamanai ruins – High Temple
As the name suggests, this is the tallest structure at Lamanai. It was built over two phases, an initial pre-classic one around 100 BC and a major reshaping of the front in the late classic period, around 600 AD. In its earlier form it would have had masks on the front, traces of which have been uncovered and can just be made out (look where the person is standing in the lower left corner of my photo).
It’s possible to climb this temple too. It’s a steep climb, though aided by a rope that has been run down the centre of the main staircase. I decided to give this one a miss, but Chris went up (he is halfway there in my main photo) and enjoyed the view of the lagoon from the top, as well as a close encounter with a few vultures (see photo 2).
Between this temple and the next, the Stela Temple, lies a ball court (photo 3). It is much smaller than most and is also one of the latest examples, being constructed around 841 AD when many other Maya cities were already in decline. In its centre is a smooth limestone marker, 1.5 metres in diameter. This would originally have been laid flush with the surface. When it was lifted by archaeologists they discovered a cache containing 131 grams of liquid mercury, a deep-sea Spondylous shell, 19g of cinnabar, and 100 grams of hematite. It is thought that the presence of the mercury in particular indicates a religious significance to the cache. Some believe that because of this, and because of the court’s small size, that it was not used for actual ball games but was largely symbolic. Others disagree and think that this would have been actively used for games. There’s a great website explaining more about the Maya ball game, which even allows you to “play” the game yourself: ballgame.
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Other activities we could have done
There are eight free activities in total, and you can do two for each night of your stay, so a four night stay would allow you to do all of them. They are scheduled to run every day – two at dawn, two in the morning, two late afternoon and two in the evening. As well as these, there are a number of “special adventures” for which additional payment must be made. Many of these run to the same timetable, so it’s easy to mix and match, but if you do several of them you may find as we did that you don’t manage to do your full allocation of free ones – we did four rather than the six we could have done. It would have been possible to fit more in, if we’d done four things a day, but we decided three was enough as we wanted time to explore a bit on our own and also to relax and appreciate our surroundings.
The free activities we didn’t get around to doing were:
~ “Sunrise Canoeing”
~ “Jungle Dawn”
~ “Nature Walk”
~ “Night Walk”
I would really have liked to do the latter, but it was that or the crocodiles and in the end the crocodiles were the bigger draw!
Among the other paid-for activities are:
~ Native Fishing trip - $35 per person
~ Savannah Birding - $43 per person
~ “Mennonite Experience” (I would have liked to have done this had time permitted) - $65 per person (with lunch)
~ “Sunset Airboat cruise” (with cocktails on board – some other guests did this and loved it) - $45 per person
You could easily spend a week here and be busy every day!
Medicine walk and village life
This activity is another of those included in your stay at Lamanai Outpost. It takes place every morning, and when we signed up we were asked whether we would like to have lunch in the village or back at the lodge after our walk. We decided on the village, which proved to be a good decision even if it did mean missing one of the lodge’s delicious meals.
But back to the start of our walk. Along with one other couple, we met up with Raul, one of the lodge’s naturalist guides, and began first with a tour of the gardens of the lodge itself. We learned that many of the plants were those that had been there when the lodge was developed – the cabins and paths were built around them to maintain a landscape natural to this environment. Others were local plants that had been in decline, which the lodge was keen to preserve by propagating them here. Raul explained how many of the plants were still used for their traditional medical and other properties by local people, just as the Maya had always done. These included treatments for snake bites, toothache, sickness, colds and many more. We tasted “tangerine lime” (which was juicy and refreshing, but very sharp) and smelt all-spice, lemon grass and wild oregano.
Next we went to a butterfly farm, which like the one at Chaa Creek breeds Blue Morpho butterflies (photo 4), the pet project of a local villager. They were much more active than those at Chaa Creek, so much so that despite our best efforts one escaped with us as we left.
From there we went to Indian Church, the small village (population about 280) that lies just behind the lodge. We strolled around for a while, seeing the primary school, where we could hear the children reciting sums, the small church and even smaller library (photos 1 & 2). Raul explained that most of the people who worked at the lodge lived in this village, and others worked on the archaeological reserve that surrounds the ruins. Indeed, many of the village’s residents would have lived among the ruins prior to the establishment of that reserve in 1991.
Our final stop on our walk was a small village restaurant ... but that is a story for my Local Customs tip.
On our last evening at Lamanai we did the other of our paid-for activities, the Crocodile Encounter. This started after dinner, at 8.00 PM, so we made our way down to the dock where we met up with Raul and another guide, and one other couple. We were asked to wear small life-jackets as the ride was to be on one of the lodge’s airboats. Once we were all settled we crossed the lagoon to the far side, where Raul explained that this was a serious scientific exercise as well as a tourist trip – the lodge carries out crocodile research on behalf of the University of Miami, so all information collected would be sent to them.
Then we were off, speeding across the marshes by the light of a full moon – magical. Every now and then we would stop, when one of the guides caught a glimpse of something that might be a crocodile, or simply when we were an area they were known to frequent. On one of these stops we spotted quite a large croc, but he swam off before we could get close.
After about 20 minutes of this I was starting to tell myself that the ride itself was well worth doing, crocs or no crocs (which in truth it was). But then we stopped again and this time started to circle – our guides had spotted something. Suddenly Raul dropped the long pole with its wire hoop that was intended to catch our crocodile, and instead reached into the water with his hand – and pulled out a youngster! Wow! We were all thrilled, and as soon as his snout had been held shut with a rubber band, we were each able to hold him and have photos taken. Then the science took over. Our croc was examined for gender (he was clearly a male!), weighed, measured and generally checked for signs of health – all looked good. Each one that they catch is “injected” with a micro-chip so their future progress can be monitored. This one it seemed already had a chip, so this was not the first time he had been caught. Its number was logged so that the scientists would be able to compare the data – how much had he grown since the last time, and so on.
After a final round of photos the rubber band was removed, he was lowered into the water, and away he swam into the night. We meanwhile returned to the lodge and to the bar, still chatting about the great experience and bemoaning the fact that we would have to leave Lamanai (and Belize) the next day. What a great way this had been to end our stay!
- Jungle and Rain Forest
Howler Monkey Trek
Although there are plenty of free activities on offer at Lamanai (certainly enough to have kept us occupied for the three days that we were there), some of the additional paid-for options sounded too interesting for us to ignore. The first of these that we opted for was the early morning Howler Monkey Trek.
And when I say early, I mean early! We were woken at 5.00 AM and headed to the restaurant deck to meet our guide, Raul, for coffee and muffins. We were the only early-risers that day, although several of the included activities also start at that time (another couple had done the Dawn Walk the previous day and enjoyed it). Soon we were off, walking up towards the village and then branching off in the direction of the Spanish churches (see my Off the Beaten Path tip) and ruins. It was a very misty morning – atmospheric, but not, it appears, great for monkey-spotting. Just like us, they like a lie-in on a miserable morning! On many other mornings during our time in Central America we had been woken by them long before dawn, but today when we had got up early to see them, they were still in bed long after us!
Never mind – we were having a great walk. Raul took us past the old sugar mill and explained something of its history (my other Off the Beaten Path tip covers this), and further into the reserve. Suddenly, and much to my surprise as I didn’t realise we had walked so far, we emerged into a clearing and there before us in the mist was the Jaguar Temple – we had walked all the way to the ruins! And now at last, as we gazed again at the temple, we heard the now-familiar howls; the monkeys were up at last!
Raul determined that the noises were coming from near the Stela Temple so we headed in that direction. Beyond that temple he halted – he could smell the monkeys nearby. Though still invisible to us, he had caught a whiff of damp fur, similar to that of wool. I tried and failed to smell it myself, and as I did so he pointed upwards; a troop of monkeys had emerged from the surrounding forest and they were now in the branches immediately above our heads. Binoculars allowed us to observe them more closely – a dominant male, a young male, three females and an infant. We were both given sheets of paper on which to log our observations in our new role as “assistant researchers” – what were the monkeys doing (feeding), how much were they moving around (just a little), which one did we find the most interesting (for me the large male, who was clearly throwing his weight about so that the younger one knew who was the boss!)
After a while the monkeys moved off into the trees and it was time for us to go back to the lodge for our breakfast. Raul radioed for a boat to pick us up at the ruins’ jetty, so it was only a few minutes until we found ourselves tucking into a hearty Belizean breakfast and telling some of our fellow guests that yes, we had (in the end) found some monkeys!
- Jungle and Rain Forest
This is one of two free evening activities available as part of your package at Lamanai (the other is the Night Walk which unfortunately we didn’t manage to make time to do), and like the others is highly recommended.
We set out after dinner one evening in one of the lodge’s boats, along with a few other guests. Our guide was Ruben, and he was excellent – his ability to spot even the tiniest f birds and animals in the dark was amazing! He took us along one shore of the lagoon and some distance along the river. Some of the time the boat travelled quite slowly; at other times he would speed up a bit to cover some ground. He clearly knew what animals to expect in the different locations and made sure we saw as many as possible. Whenever he spotted something interesting he would pull over to the shore, stop, and highlight the creature with his spotlight while telling us something about it. He then turned the boat so that everyone had a close look and a chance to take photos. I found the best way to get a good shot was to use a fast speed and rely on the light from his lamp, as my flash washed things out too much. However when I did need flash it didn’t frighten the animals, much to my surprise, so feel free to use it if you need to – Ruben had been very reassuring on that score when I checked with him beforehand.
Obviously as always with wildlife, there are no guarantees, so you may not see the same things we saw, although I have a feeling that some are pretty regular spots. Our tally was:
~ a large male iguana
~ a smaller green iguana (main photo)
~ Provision tree flower, also known as the money tree (Latin name Pachira aquatic) (photo 2)
~ Mexican tree frog
~ a limpkin and its young (photo 3) – this bird has no other close relatives and is said to be a prehistoric throw-back to the early birds that descended from the dinosaurs
~ cane toad
~ Great Blue heron
~ Proboscis bat (photo 4 – but you’ll need to look carefully as it is so well camouflaged on the bark of the tree)
~ Yucatan night-jar
~ Green heron (photo 5)
~ Green kingfisher
~ leaf cactus – this plant has a single flower which blooms on just one night of the year!
~ fishing bats
The limpkin in particular fascinated me. I read subsequently in Wikipedia that we were very lucky to see it, as it “is easier to hear than see. Its common vocalization is a loud wild wail or scream with some rattling quality .... This call is most often given at night and at dawn and dusk. It has been used for jungle sound effects in Tarzan films and for the hippogriff in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
But the really special moment for all of us was as we returned along the river. Suddenly a manatee appeared in the waters beneath the boat, eerily pale in the beam of Ruben’s big spotlight. It swam beside us and then underneath, giving everyone a good look before it swam off into the night. This is quite a rare sighting and even Ruben was excited by it! We returned to the dock thrilled with our encounter, and very pleased with our evening on the water.
- Jungle and Rain Forest
Sunset cocktail cruise
This is one of the “standard” activities included in your all-inclusive package, and was the first that we did, signing up for a trip just an hour or so after our arrival at the lodge. The activities at the lodge aren’t exclusive so you could find yourself sharing with others (a group of six is said to be typical); however on this occasion we were the only two on the trip, which was nice.
The lodge usually uses a floating pontoon for this activity but it was undergoing repairs that day so we went out in one of their boats. We headed for the other side of the lagoon where we were served with drinks (rum and coke, beer, fruit punch or water) – these aren’t included though so be aware that they will be added to your bar bill. The accompanying tortilla chips and tasty dip are however part of the deal!
Once we both had a drink, the boat turned into one of the channels leading from that side of the lagoon, to look for birdlife. Our guide pointed out:
~ roadside hawk
~ various parrots
~ snowy egret
~ Yucatan jay
~ green kingfisher
~ mangrove swallows
We also saw a number of bats and had a brief glimpse of a crocodile.
As the sun began to sink we returned to the main lagoon and started to slowly follow the shore. Obviously it’s a matter of luck how good the sunset is on any given day – well, we certainly lucked out as ours was a beauty! I can’t do it proper justice with words so will let the photos tell the story ...
Altogether our boat ride lasted about 90 minutes and was well-worth doing – definitely recommended.
Lamanai ruins – the museum
Older websites may show images of a small and rather jumbled museum, but a newer one has been constructed in recent years and now shows off the archaeological finds from the site to good advantage. These include the original Stela 9, various vessels, a great little display of ceramic faces from various periods (see photo 2), and in one corner, the most famous of Lamanai’s artefacts, a small pottery crocodile with a human figure in its mouth.
Admission is included as part of your visit to the site, and photography is allowed although not with flash.
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- Museum Visits
Lamanai ruins – Jaguar Temple
The southernmost of the excavated temples is the Jaguar Temple. It takes its name from the sculptures on the facade which are said to represent jaguars, an animal of great significance to the Maya. This temple was built in three phases, from 500 to 1200 AD. A significant portion remains under grassy earth or is covered in dense jungle growth – unexcavated, it would be significantly taller than the High Temple.
This temple may be climbed but after the heavy downfall we had experienced the steps were very slippery, and only Chris of our group of six was brave (or foolhardy!) enough to risk the climb. I was rather relieved to see him back on the ground. You can’t see the lagoon from here, but you do get a good view of the plaza in front of the temple and the Royal Complex beyond.
We were fortunate to get a second look at this temple when out early the next morning on our Howler Monkey Trek (see below) and if anything it looked all the more impressive and moody looming above us in the mist, especially as we were the only people in the ruins at the time.
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Lamanai ruins – Stela Temple
This temple lies quite near the High Temple and is the only one we were told we may not climb. It takes its name from the stela, Stela 9, which was discovered, face-down and buried in soil, on its front lower stairs (the only stela to have been found at Lamanai). This stela now stands in the small museum at the site, with a replica placed here where it was found. The carvings on its surface are very well-preserved, as you can see in photo 2 – the elaborate headdress, the hand holding a symbolic head (to show victory over his enemies), the bracelet, and so on. It dates from the early seventh century and is thought to depict a ruler – either Lord Smoking Shell or Yopaat.
Nearby are the extensive ruins of an aristocratic or possibly royal residence, known at the Royal Complex. Excavations here have revealed traces of decorations using carved and painted stucco. Many of the rooms opened on to a courtyard, and had stone beds. A stair would have led to an upper storey. It was raining heavily when we were here on our tour so I didn’t take any photos, but we returned the next morning while on our search for howler monkeys and I got a shot of the ruins and the surrounding trees partly shrouded in the early morning mist (photo 3).
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Lamanai ruins – Mask Temple
The Mask Temple is at the northern end of the complex and is an excellent example of the Lamanai “habit” of building in layers, each on top of an earlier structure. In the case of the Mask Temple, five construction phases have been identified, lasting from 100 BC to 900 AD. Our guide Raul showed us illustrations of each phase (illustrations I have since found on this website) but I confess I am at a loss to know how archaeologists can be so sure of the appearance of the earliest phases when they have been so subsumed by later ones.
The most striking feature of the temple is the mask that gives it its name. This is carved from limestone and has been dated to 500 AD. This mask is on the front to the right of centre and was covered in later building phases. The matching one on the left has been left covered by rock to protect it.
You can climb the Mask Temple by stone stairs on the right side. It isn’t too difficult a climb but anyone who suffers from vertigo or has young children in tow might want to avoid it as the flat platform at the top offers no barriers between you and the steep stony drop to the ground (look at photos 3 & 4 to see what I mean).
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Lamanai ruins – an overview
The Lamanai Maya ruins may be less extensive than those at sites elsewhere in Central America, but they are well worth a visit, whether or not you’ve been to some of the other sites. We’d already had a chance to explore Tikal, but a trip to the ruins is another activity included in the package at the Outpost Lodge and it seemed crazy to pass up the chance to see them. And we were very pleased we went, as we had a great morning out and found lots to interest us here.
We came to the ruins by boat, although it’s perfectly possible to walk here too, as we found the next day when we were on our Howler Monkey Trek. It only takes a few minutes from the lodge by water but is a good half hour to walk. If you’re not staying at the Outpost Lodge it’s possible to arrange a day trip here from further afield, including the beaches, with transport by road and boat (see my transportation tip), a tour of the ruins, and lunch either in the village or at the lodge.
Lamanai means "submerged crocodile" in the Maya language. The site is notable for several reasons. It was occupied long after many other Maya sites had fallen into disuse and neglect (until at least 1650 AD) and unlike other sites, many of its temples were built in layers, each on top of a previous structure, rather than temples being torn down and built anew.
Hundreds of ruins are said to be still hidden in the undergrowth, and here and there you will get glimpses perhaps of a man-made hollow that was once a water reservoir, or a “hill” that almost certainly conceals the remains of a temple. But although on a much smaller scale than Tikal, there are still four notable temples which have been restored, three of which can be climbed. And here you are for the most part climbing the actual temple – there are no wooden stairs as at Tikal. The temples are impressive and each is unique in some way, so merit in-depth description. I will tell you more about each of them in my following tips ...
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