One of the most picturesque Mayan ruins in Belize, Lamanai features three large pyramids, various restored stelae, and open plazas as well as a small but unique ball court. Also, the ruins of two 16th century Spanish churches are nearby. The site enjoys an isolated location in the jungle on the banks of the New River Lagoon, a river with numerous crocodiles.
Since Lamanai was still occupied by the Maya when the Spanish arrived, it is one of the few sites in Belize to preserve its traditional name. According to the Spanish missionaries “Lamanai” means “submerged crocodile” although doubts have been expressed recently as to the accuracy of this translation. The less poetic “drowned insect” has been put forward as an alternative. Still, the large numbers of crocodile representations found in carvings and inscriptions suggest that, whatever the true meaning, the animal certainly had a very important role in the local mythology.
The High Temple, Lamanai, Belize. Photo credit: perny1
History of Lamanai
Lamanai has one of the longest histories of all the Mayan sites. It was continuously occupied from around 500 BC, for which there is ceramic evidence, until 1675 or perhaps even later. At its peak it may have supported up to 35,000 people.
It was both a ceremonial and a trade center, and many copper objects were found here that came from western and central Mexico and lower Central America. Less is known about what Lamanai exported. It is also uncertain why Lamanai continued as an important center while other Maya sites in the region collapsed during the Postclassic period.
Spanish attempts to convert the Maya to Christianity resulted in the construction of two Roman Catholic churches around 1570 AD. They were met at first with indifference and later with outright hostility. In 1640, the Maya launched a revolt, burning the churches down. The site was abandoned shortly afterwards and the city was gradually swallowed by the jungle.
Map of Lamanai
|The map shows the location of Lamanai. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.|
The High Temple is an enormous pyramid, rising 108 feet (33 m) above the plaza level. It was first built around 100 BC and modified several times but its impressive height was already reached in the initial construction phase. This makes it one of the largest securely dated Maya structures from the Preclassic period.
A short distance to the south of the High Temple is a ball court, the only one in Lamanai, dating to around 900-950 AD. It has a circular stone marker which covers a mysterious chamber where liquid mercury and several pieces of jade were found.
Structure N10-9, another of Lamanai’s massive pyramids, was initially constructed around 500-550 AD. Also informally referred to as the “Jaguar Temple” because of a jaguar mask found here, the structure is twelve feet shorter in exposed height than the High Temple. However a significant amount of this temple is under the ground.
The smallest of the three excavated temples at Lamanai is the Mask Temple, named after a 13 feet (4m) high carved mask. It represent a humanized face with a crocodile headdress and dates to the late 5th to early 6th century.
Visit the Lamanai ruins
A scenic 26 mile boat ride from Orange Walk Town up the New River is the easiest way to get to Lamanai. A small museum exhibits local artefacts and provides a historical overview. Tourist facilities and small shops are available.
The entrance fee is BZ$10.