By River in Belize to Lamanai

temple jaguar face belize
One of the temple faces had an arrangement of windows and projections that made a jaguar's face.

One of our two adventures in Belize was heading to the Mayan city Lamanai by river. Booked through our hotel, the Black Orchid Resort, the day trip was a great balance of jungle river tour of flora and fauna, plus a leisurely walk through the ruins of Lamanai with just four others.

Our guide, Carlos, of Lamanai EcoTours, made seven. We met up with him and our fellow travelers at 9 a.m. on the New River near the village of Carmelita, a bit less than an hour’s drive from our hotel. We settled in the small white boat fitted with a blue canopy, bench seating along the sides, and a 75 HP motor. That was enough for Carlos to show off his knowledge of the river and his need for speed.

On the way up river (a southerly direction in this case), Carlos was a terrific wildlife spotter. The first slowdown was for a dozen long-nose bats, parked on the underside of an overhanging tree. It was our first rush, too, as the bats were startled by the close camera sounds, and blew right over our heads to another tree. We saw several crocodiles up close through crystal clear water, lots of flowering air plants hanging from trees and vines, and dozens of species of birds. Carlos was especially excited about finding a Black Hawk, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a Kingfisher, and several Great Kiskadees. We also enjoyed plenty of Jesus Christ Birds (they walk on water), Cormorants, Herons, and Black Vultures.

Twenty-five miles later, the New River widens into a deep lake, and from the center the top of one temple juts out of the tropic forest. The Lamanai site can be accessed by land somehow, but I’m not sure visitors generally do that, or why they would. At the simple dock we unloaded coolers for lunch, set them in the picnic area, quickly toured a small museum that houses timelines, maps, and a few original stones from the site for safekeeping.

belize hawk
A black hawk scans the river for lunch. We were having rice and beans. I think he was in the mood for fish.

Lamanai is different from other Mayan sites in that it is organized along the river rather than around a central plaza. Although it is about 10 miles long and a half-mile wide, the excavated portion is manageable, and all the temples can be climbed. The Mask Temple has the largest carvings we’ve seen, with heads about three meters square. A fiberglass coating protects the originals and makes the pyramid a living monument even after all these years. The High Temple is, yes, the highest, and affords views of the lake. The Jaguar Temple is unique, too, for it’s display of jaguar faces defined by gaps and holes in the rock foundation on both sides of the center stairs.

belize temple mask
A few of the temples at Lamanai featured large masks.

A few of the temples at Lamanai sported large masks on their facades, the first time we've seen this on Mayan ruins. Here, the mask had been walled over by subsequent generations of Mayans, and archeologists discovered this, and another like it on the other side of the stairs, when they began to restore the site. There are other masks behind other walls that have not been uncovered, but have been discovered by electronic means. To preserve these masks from the encroaching jungle and weather, they have been covered by fiberglass in the exact shape and color of what's underneath, which is probably not a terrible idea.

belize temple mask 2
While many temple masks were well preserved with fiberglass coatings, others, like these, are suffering the ravages of the jungle.

Belize, we were told by our guide, has no organized preservation effort going on their Mayan sites. When I asked him why the government wasn't currently working to preserve and restore the sites to promote tourism, he laughed a bit, then shrugged.

The provided lunch (chicken, rice, salad, vegetables, hot sauce) tasted fantastic, perhaps the best meal we had in Belize. Chatting with our boat mates, we learned Veronica and Carlos from Orlando were on their honeymoon. Ray and Claudette from Southern California advised us not to miss the ATM cave. Both couples had been experiencing the coast and keys of Belize while we were in the interior, being eaten by mosquitoes.

After the tour and lunch, it was full steam ahead. Carlos raced back with daring, hydroplaning turns through the narrow curves of the river, dodging overhanging branches, slowing for fishermen in boats or on the shore, and delivering us safely back to the landing. Our door-to-door time was about seven hours, and the cost including entrance fees, transport and everything was $130 per person.

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