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Monday, July 4, 2022

Lamanai: The riverbank city of crocodile and jaguar lords

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture deep into the jungle of Belize via motorboat to discover the secrets of the ridiculously long-lived ancient city of Lamanai.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

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. 

Despite making itself prosperous through trade and building many great monuments, Lamanai appears to have largely stayed out of most major ancient Mesoamerican conflicts. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

A view of New River from the top of Lamanai’s structure N10-43T. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Lamanai or Lama’anayin translates from ancient Yucatec-Maya as submerged crocodile, an animal heavily featured in several of the city’s artworks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Because of Lamanai’s extraordinarily long period of Maya occupation, a wide array of artistic and architectural styles can be seen at the site, though influence from the Peten basin is dominant. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

As the nickname implies, the most striking feature of the Mask Temple is its impressive decorative stucco masks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Lamanai’s famous stucco masks date to sometime in the 5th century AD and are adorned with a headdress representing a crocodile. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Several archeologists have noted that Lamanai’s stucco masks have features that could be interpreted as Olmec, namely the upturned lips and broad noses. 

Inside Lamanai’s Mask Temple, archeologists discovered a tomb containing the skeletal remains of a man adorned with jade and shell jewelry. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Architecturally, Lamanai’s high temple fits a pattern of similarly designed large temple-like pyramids found in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, dating to the high Classical Period. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Visitors to Lamanai descend High Temple with the assistance of a rope. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Across from the Hight Temple visitors to Lamanai can observe the city’s main ballcourt.

Better described as a ritual, the ancient Maya understood the so-called Mesoamerican ball game as being symbolic of the battle between life and death. Photo: Carlo Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

A large central ballcourt marker, below where several ritualistic offerings were discovered. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Another of Lamanai’s most notable structures is Structure N10-9, a stepped pyramid known as the Jaguar Temple.  

Though Lamanai’s Jaguar Temple is 97 feet tall, a significant part of the structure has been buried underground, making its front side appear to be smaller than it really is. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
The Jaguar Temple is adorned with several blocky jaguar heads, which during antiquity were almost certainly painted and covered in stucco — giving them a more stylized appearance. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
As is the case in most other Mesoamerican cities, the areas on the periphery of Lamanai’s main ceremonial centers are full of the ruins of residential complexes for the city’s elite. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht. 

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. 

Several species of splendid orchids spanning virtually every inch of the color spectrum can be found growing wild in Lamanai. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

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.

A sign on the road near Orange Walk advertises a tour to Lamanai. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

On your way to Lamanai along New River, you can spot several species of birds and other exotic animals, so keep alert. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

A map shows the location of Lamanai in Belize, Central America. Image: Google Maps

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.

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