The Ancient Maya Site of Lamanai

by McNab Editorial Team

Whispering with cloud beings… A sprinkling from the skies at the Maya Temple of Lamanai.

Lamanai
Photo Courtesy: Leonardo Melendez Photography

Hidden in the forest near Belize’s largest freshwater lagoon lies Lamanai, a monumental city of the distant past. Crafted by and credited to the great Maya civilization that once thrived here, this awe-inspiring architectural wonder is an attractive destination for any thrill-seeking modern explorer.

Situated along the banks of one of Belize’s largest and most impressive river networks, this once great city is now buried in thick jungle. Though the ruins can be reached by road, they are best accessed by boat. The waters of the nearby New River wind from deep in the forests of Northern Belize and empties into the Corozal Bay to the East. Contrary to its contemporary name, this river is the very same ancient channel that provided food, transit and clean drinking water to the builders of Lamanai over 2000 years ago.

The name Lamanai comes from the Mayan Lama’an’ain meaning submerged crocodile – an animal of great importance to the ancient Maya.

Caribbean Culture and Lifestyle: Lamanai

Maya art and myth depict the earth as positioned on the back of a large swimming reptile, often seen as a crocodile. Furthermore, the famous Maya God, Itzamná, carries the symbol of the crocodile and is associated with rain, sun, earth, fertility, and abundance.

Because the Maya people depended on agriculture, this deity was of the highest importance. So high in fact, that the High Temple at Lamanai is said to be for this god of rains. Towering 33 meters into the sky, the High Temple offers a breathtaking view of the New River Valley and Lagoon. High atop this man-made mountain, ancient priests would have prayed to the sky-dwelling gods for a plentiful harvest.

Some Archaeologists suggest that the Maya civilization crumbled after a prolonged drought which affected their crops. The story has it, the people then turned against their rulers, who could not uphold their promises to appease the gods. Lamanai’s proximity to fresh water for irrigation allowed the population here to survive many years beyond those of neighboring cities.

Today, the rains have returned and the freshwater near Lamanai is still good to drink. Many tour guides boast of drinking directly from the river… but watch out for croco­diles, because they share the waters.

How to get to Lamanai

Caribbean Culture and Lifestyle: Lamanai
Photo Courtesy: Leonardo

From Belize City, head north by road for about an hour on the Philip Goldson Highway. Shortly before reaching Orange Walk Town, you’ll cross a toll bridge and will need to pay $0.75 BZD. Charter a boat or buy a seat from a local tour operator for an exhilarating trip up the river to find the ruin. By air, you can fly from Placencia or San Pedro and arrange for a tour operator to pick you up from the Orange Walk Airport or for an aerial view book a helicopter tour and see the ruin from the sky.

Pack: water, comfortable shoes, bug repellent, binoculars, camera – pack light so you can climb high! A light snack can be a lifesaver – however, most tours do provide lunch as a part of the package.

Explore other Ancient Maya Temples in Belize

Written by: G. Michael Bowen

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