You are waiting for a train.
A train that will take you far away.
You can’t be sure where it will take you.
But it doesn’t matter
A Trip from Ambergris Caye to the Lamanai Maya Ruins
Mary Jo and I took an wonderful day trip from the Ambergris Caye to the Maya site of Lamanai. If you are in Ambergris Caye, this is great way to see not only a large Maya site but also to see the river system and the jungle interior of Belize. There are at least three main tour operators for Lamanai trips in Ambergris Caye. Try not to take a tour which takes you through Belize City and do opt for a trip going through Bomba. This will assure you both a smaller tour group and it will maximize the amount of river travel and minimize highway driving time. Ambergris Caye was a major trade post for the classical era Maya with an island population which exceeds the current population (including tourists). With the Lamanai trip, it is true that getting their is half the fun.
Lamanai was continually occupied by the Maya people from “1,500 B.C. through the Spanish conquest to the British occupation.” There is small archeological museum at the site and site features three principle pyramids/temples and a “palace”. The site is not completely excavated and much remains to be uncovered there. The largest pyramid is 108 feet tall and all three pyramids can be climbed if you are so inclined.. The views from the top, over the top of the jungle forest and with views of the New River are superb. The Tour guides picked us up at the pier of our cabana on Ambergris Caye at 7:00 AM. There were 10 of us from the Caye on this trip plus two tour guides. The skipper picked his way down the various small Cayes until he was almost due west of our intended landfall on the mainland, then he pulled us due west on the compass and for the next hour we crossed the protected lagoon to the mainline. No GPS or radar for these guys. Entering a lagoon we then moved up the waterway, through thick groves of Mangroves for the next hour. We saw iguana and a (small) ‘gator on the banks of the waterway. Finally we came to the tiny village of Bomba where we stopped for a light breakfast and switched to an ancient local bus. Bump-a-di-bump, off we when on our way to the New River which would be our access to Lamanai. The bus drive took us over dirt roads through farm land and several small villages. Our bus arrived at the New River at the little junction of Tower Hill.
Here we transferred to a second boat for the trip up river. This boat was skippered by a third guide who knew the river and would be our guide at the Lamanai site. The New River runs parallel to the Rio Honda, Belize’s two north flowing rivers which dump into Chetumal Bay.
Navigation on the New River is complex with many side channels. On this part of the trip we saw egrets, iguanas, spider monkeys and water lilies. Since we are from Maine it made up laugh to see that the egrets and great whites where taking the same vacation as we were and catching some sun while the snow was falling in Maine. We hope to see them back in Maine this summer. The Maya made extensive use of the New River for navigation (even today). All of which takes us to lunch time and arriving at the site. It has been an eye opening and exciting trip so far.
A walk of the Lamanai site takes us first to (and up) the youngest temple: The Jaguar Temple. We heard the tremendous roar of Howler monkeys in the distance. Quite spooky. This is a fairly easy pyramid to climb. There are huge Jaguar faces on the front of the temple. Half way up you can pause at the remnants of a small temple with a large stone block about the size of a pool table (this is NOT a ‘king size’ bed). From the top you can view the main court yard (at least the main court yard of those cleared so far) and a view of the ‘palace’ beyond. There are huge un-excavated mounds on either side of the court yard. All of this is quite sunny and exposed.
Moving across the court yard we enter the forest and the (so called) ‘palace’ which is the (ritual) home of the ruler. This is quite peaceful area of low walls, heavy forest, cebia trees, palms and several mysterious large flat blocks. Spend some silent time here if you can. Continuing north we came to a second court yard area with a small, lovely ball court and the ‘High Temple’ which for us was the crux of the visit. The ball court is very tiny and seems like a intimate sacred space where if you waited long enough you would see (what Linda Shele calls) Maya supernaturals. The center marker (now removed) from the court contained a unique cache: a jar of liquid mercury. Readers of Neal Stephenson and those conversant in European Alchemy will recognixe the importance of this supstance. This is a unique find to my knowledge. Beyond the ball court is a smallish court yard and the High Temple itself. This is 108 feet in height and is quite a vigors climb. The risers between steps are about 16 inches but there is a strong rope to help you with the climb up and down. This is a great adventure and the view from the top is well worth the climb. You can see the New River and the Maya Harbor and and very nice view of the jungle from the top. For Mary Jo the climb down was another thing altogether. There are additional temples and ruins to see at Lamanai and a modest gift shop of local crafts is available at the site.Frankly we were just about over taken by a large party from a cruise ship from Belize City and we beat a hasty retreat for the boat to avoid the crowds and to preserve our memory of a quite visit. The trip home was a dream New River to bus to boat across the lagoon and back to Ambergris Caye by sunset. A long and lovely day.