Archeological evidence suggests that Maya peoples occupied Lamanai as early as the 16th century BC. By the 3rd Century CE, the city had grown to be one of the most prominent Mayan city-states of the early classic period — continuing to grow and evolve for a stunning three millennia and a half.
The ancient city of Lamanai is in Belize’s Orange Walk District on the banks of New River, also known as Rio Nuevo. The site is only accessible by motorboat, making it harder to get to than other sites in Belize like Xunantunich and Altun Há, but getting there truly is half the fun.
Unlike virtually all other Maya city-states of the classical era, Lamanai seems to have somehow “survived” the so-called classical era Maya collapse — at least to some extent.
In fact, Lamanai was apparently still running as an independent Maya city-state until the 17th Century, when Spanish invaders finally made their way into the deep Central American jungle.
Perhaps the success of Lamanai came down to its relative isolation from powerful competitors and an abundance of natural resources afforded to it by New River.
Laying near the beginning of the path when one arrives a the site is Lamanai’s Structure N9-56, better known as the Mask Temple.
Though the structures’ multiple masks have survived the ravages of time to some degree or another, the best-preserved of these is a 15-foot tall stucco mask of a local noble.
Several archeologists have noted that Lamanai’s stucco masks have features that could be interpreted as Olmec, namely the upturned lips and broad noses.
Though Lamanai has several pyramid-like temples of considerable size, the largest of these is the 109 foot / 33 meter-tall structure N10-43T, also known as High Temple.
Excavations of the High Temple suggest that work on this massive structure began sometime in the 5th century CE, with further modifications and additions being made for several hundred years until it achieved the basic configuration visible today.
The practice of building larger structures upon previously existing temples is quite common in the Mayan world and across Mesoamerica.
Across from the Hight Temple visitors to Lamanai can observe the city’s main ballcourt.
Though quite average in its size and design, Lamanai’s ballcourt is notable for the discovery of a small vessel containing jade, shell, and pearl offerings, atop a pool of mercury. This highly toxic liquid metal was also collected in similar containers at sites such as Copan and Quirigua, but in much smaller quantities.
Another of Lamanai’s most notable structures is Structure N10-9, a stepped pyramid known as the Jaguar Temple.
But as beautiful as the city of Lamanai is, the jungle that surrounds it is just as spectacular, full of towering trees, spider monkeys, and exotic flowers and orchids.
If you go
The only way to visit Lamanai is to arrive via motorboat as part of an organized tour. These tours vary in price but are about US$80 on average, per person. Though this is not inexpensive, the boat ride itself is pleasant.
The length of the ride varies, with the fastest route being at around one hour departing from the town of Orange Walk and close to two from Belize City.
The tour requires a reasonably decent level of physical fitness and is not wheelchair accessible.
Tours to Lamanai tend to be all-inclusive, meaning that the price covers everything including the boat ride, tour guide, tips, refreshments, and sometimes even a full meal. Make sure to clarify this point before booking.
Interestingly, the area surrounding Lamanai is today inhabited by a large community of Mennonites of German and Dutch origin. The 12,000 Mennonites make up 3.7% percent of Belize’s total population, according to the nation’s most recent census data.