The great Mayan empire once covered a vast stretch of Mexico and Central America, and thousands of tourists come each year to explore the mysteries of its great cities: Chichen Itza, Tulum, Palenque, Copan. But there are other cities we never hear of — places like Lamanai, Belize, where great temples loom out of the jungle, bearing mysteries of their own.
Most people don’t think of Belize as a major part of the Mayan world. But in fact, it was home to great kingdoms, and a huge population: one aerial survey identified more than 600 Mayan sites in the Belizean jungles. Of those, the most impressive, with a population of 35,000 and a history stretching back more than 3,000 years, is Lamanai.
Set on the banks of the New River, Lamanai — whose name means “submerged crocodile” — was located on the trading route from the Caribbean to the lowlands. And it was inhabited from 1,500 B.C. right up to the time of the Spanish, who set up a Christian mission and converted the Mayans (they later revolted and burned it down).
Happily, you can visit the ruins of Lamanai by taking a boat cruise down the New River, and it’s a wonderful trip, as I wrote here. And while many tourists come — cruise ships now send excursions from Belize City — Lamanai isn’t as overrun as the other major sites. With its shady forest setting, it’s a pleasant, relaxing place, and a visit is a great experience.
In fact, the jungle that has overgrown much of the city is the first thing you see entering the site, and it’s almost as impressive as the ruins. Huge guanacaste trees rise to the sky, cloaked in strangler figs. There’s also soursop and allspice trees, rhododendrons and the beautiful pheasant-tailed black orchid, Belize’s national flower.
But it’s only a short walk to the ruins themselves, and our tour started at the Mask Temple, fronted by two huge masks of men wearing crocodile headdresses. There were originally four masks, but the two on the level above didn’t survive: even the ones that exist now look to be heavily restored or rebuilt. With their broad features, the faces are oddly reminiscent of the Olmec statues of Mexico.
The original archaeologists who excavated Lamanai were from the University of Toronto (home of the Travelling Boomer). And under the Mask Temple they found the tombs of a man and a woman, adorned with jade jewellery and buried with textiles, mats and other grave goods. They were likely rulers, possibly sister and brother or husband and wife, though no clues exist that could identify them.
The Mask Temple is beautiful — and an easy climb, if you’re the nervous type. But it was only a warm-up for the sight of the nearby High Temple, a grand structure soaring 33 metres (108 feet) above its broad plaza. The ceremonial temple, the largest Pre-Classic structure in Belize, was built in 100 B.C., around the time of Lamanai’s rise to prominence, and was modified right up to 700 A.D. A jaguar mask adorned its face — you can see a hint of it here, between the two staircases at the bottom.
The High Temple looks impossible to climb, but in fact, there’s a sturdy wooden staircase up one side. Reach the top, however, and you need to climb a steep stone staircase to get to the platform where the Mayan priests carried out their ceremonies.
Today, the only activity on top is tourists getting their pictures taken. But there is a grand, panoramic view of the jungle that stretches from Lamanai all the way to Guatemala and Mexico.
At the foot of the High Temple is one of Lamanai’s unique and fascinating features: a ball court like those found in most Mayan cities, used to play a game where teams of men volleyed a hard rubber ball using their hips, shoulders, arms and legs. It was a game with big stakes: the leader of the losing team was often sacrificed to the gods.
The ball court at Lamanai, however, is so small it’s hard to imagine anyone playing a game on it. And in the centre stands a greater mystery: one of the largest marker stones found in a Mayan city. Underneath the stone, archaeologists found a ceremonial bowl filled with mercury. No one knows its origin or its purpose, and we likely never will.
Lamanai is one of the Mayan cities that feature stelae — tall, flat carved stones erected to mark events such as the coronation of a new ruler or victory in war. The most significant one at Lamanai commemorates the accession of a ruler called Lord Smoking Shell in 625 AD. Today the original stela, which shows Smoking Shell in an elaborate headdress, carrying a staff shaped like a serpent, is in the site’s museum: a replica stands in its place.
There’s a mystery about this stela, too. Buried beneath it, archaeologists found the remains of five children, ranging from newborn to age eight. Who were they? No signs of violence were found on the skeletons, so they likely weren’t sacrifices. Were they Smoking Shell’s children, or his relatives? Another secret the silent stones may never tell.
The next stop was a long plaza surrounded by what were once the residences of Lamanai’s aristocrats. While we admired it, guttural noises echoed down from the nearby trees. We looked up to see a small troupe of black howler monkeys, with their thick bodies and gorilla-like faces, climbing through the branches. The spine-rattling roars from these monkeys can be heard across the forest for kilometres, but these ones were quietly munching on leaves. And they didn’t mind giving us a great photo opportunity.
The last major excavated structure to see was the Jaguar Temple, built in the 6th century A.D. and modified right up to the 1400s, just before the Spanish arrived — you can see it at the top of this post. The temple is fronted by a huge plaza and decorated by two stone jaguar masks. Today just the bones of the jaguars are left, dating from the original construction. But they’re a fascinating look at how the Mayans built their monuments, covering stone structures with plaster and often painting them in bright colours.
Lamanai isn’t the biggest or more elaborate Mayan site in Latin America, and it doesn’t boast the great artistic achievements seen in places like Copan. But it’s an impressive sight nonetheless, evidence of a sophisticated society existing for thousands of years in a region once considered wilderness.
And what we see when we visit Lamanai is just the tip of the iceberg — the bare bones of great buildings that once had painted stone or plaster surfaces, and mere hints of the others that still lie buried beneath the forest cover. In fact, the structures visible today are just a part of the city’s central core: archaeologists estimate the entire city had somewhere around 800 buildings.
Just as remarkable is that while other Mayan cities had already declined before the Spanish arrived, Lamanai continued to flourish. And even after the conquest, the Indians continued to return to the city to perform rituals and erect new monuments to their gods. Perhaps, despite the grand buildings and the artistry, that’s the most impressive thing of all.