Back in 2014, I journeyed to one of my most anticipated stops in Central America, Belize. I had been keen to visit this Caribbean country after reading a random guide-book one day. After spending some time on the Cayes by the Belizean reef, I travelled inland to the small town of Orange Walk in the country’s north. I’d heard that there were opportunities to see wildlife and Mayan ruins from the town but had failed to arrange anything in advance. Belize doesn’t generally work that way.
When I arrived at my hotel St Christopher’s Hotel, they had several tour options available and one immediately caught my eye. It was a tour that took you down New River to the Mayan ruins of Lamanai in the middle of the Belizean jungle. The next morning, I stood by the hotel’s river dock, which sounds fancier than it was. Soon a speedboat arrived and after one stop up-stream to collect the rest of the passengers, we sped off.
It wasn’t long before we started spotting wildlife on the banks of the river. Our boat slowed and our guide pointed out the soon obvious Green Iguana on a tree branch nearby. And yes, this Green Iguana is actually orange. During mating season between December and February, male Iguanas actually shift colour to orange. It was while we were stopped looking at the iguana that I (yes, 10 spotting points for me) noticed the small freshwater crocodile half basking in the sun down low by the water. Trust the Australian to spot the croc!
New River has its fair share of twists and turns but since the waterways were mostly empty we sped along, weaving our way up river at speed. Sitting at the front of the boat, I sat the highest in the boat but being able to look out front was worth it. I just had to pick my moments for taking photos where I wouldn’t get dislodged.
To this point the jungle had been quite sparse and we still passed hints of civilisation occasionally. First it was a rum distillery, producer of one of the nation’s popular spirits. Not long after we passed one of Belize’s Mennonite communities which was a big surprise to me. Turns out that various Mennonite communities moved to the region in the ’50s from other parts in the Americas. Our guide said that the locals often jokingly call them “Moneynites” as they are big players in the region’s agriculture industry.
Before this tour, I had yet to see any Capuchin Monkeys and even though they would soon become old news, this first sighting was exciting. Our tour leader had said that there were often several Capuchin Monkeys that hung around by the river banks and that we may get to see one. We did soon come across one little guy who edged his way down towards the boat to pry some fruit out of the tour leaders hand. The tour leader said that unfortunately many of the local monkeys are captured to be used for tourism or as pets. We would later see him getting food from another boat as we headed back so it seems like this is a pretty regular occurrence.
The river eventually widened out to a lagoon and before we knew it we were docking at the Lamanai site. Immediately it was obvious that we were in the middle of nowhere by the density of the jungle. What is surprising is that Lamanai is one of the few sites to not be abandoned by the Maya and was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived. It was later abandoned however and left to nature which helps you understand why it wasn’t “re-discovered” until the early 20th century. Heads up, there are plenty of bugs about so definitely bring and wear insect repellant.
Our first stop was at a small museum with several exhibits showing off artefacts uncovered during archaeological excavations. This was more just a brief introduction and we were soon on our way to our first ruin, the Mask Temple. The smallest of the temples at Lamanai, this temple earns its name from the carved mask of a face wearing a crocodile headdress found on the pyramid. As is the case with most Mayan temples in Central America, you’re allowed to climb to the top of the temple and enjoy the views they offer.
From the Mask Temple we continued on through the jungle and ferns to the largest ruin on the site, the High Temple. This temple dating back from 100 BC earns its name thanks to its height of 33 metres which may not seem like much until you’re standing at the top of it. Long way down! High Temple is the rare temple I can recall that had some form of barrier to stop you falling, even if it was a bit of yellow tape to stop you standing too close to the edge.
Even if all those stairs are exhausting, it’s worth it for the views you get from the top. High Temple lives up to its name as the views get increasingly better as you slowly rise above the canopy and look out over the vast jungle. Aside from the river that you can only glimpse, there’s only jungle in all directions until you reach the horizon where some settlements can be faintly made out. It’s just a sea of green and it’s an isolating and humbling feeling.
Once we had clambered down High Temple we made our way to the nearby Mayan Ball Court where the ancient game was played. I’ve heard so many different accounts of the ball game from my various tours of Mayan Ruins that it’s hard to tell what’s true: The winners were sacrificed; the losers were sacrificed, it was just practice for the afterlife etc. Regardless, it was still cool to see a clearly defined field.
Our last stop at Lamanai was the Jaguar Temple which we reached by going through some outer ruins first. It was here that we were treated with our first terrifying roar of the local howler monkeys. They were mostly well concealed as their howls echo about, but we did manage to spot one fella. Then it was on to the Jaguar Temple, which again we climbed to its tree covered top and got one last view through the treetops.
With the tour of Lamanai’s ruins over, we went back towards the boat, stopping first for a picnic lunch. Once we’d had our fill, it was back on the speedboat for 1.5 hour ride back to Orange Walk. We were back by mid-afternoon which felt about right given all the sightseeing and travel we had done that day. The ruins of Lamanai, not to mention the boat ride there, were most definitely a good reason to venture off the regular Belizean tourist trail.
- It’s a 42km boat ride from Orange Walk to Lamanai, so be mindful it’s a fair boat ride if you get motion sick;
- My tour cost BZ$100 (including BZ$10 entry, but not tips);
- Set aside the full day as travel times may vary;
- Again, bring insect repellant!
Have you visited Orange Walk or Lamanai in Belize? If not, what part of the tour most interests you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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