Lamanai is in Belize’s north, about 40 kilometres south of Orange Walk town. Like Caracol, it’s in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by jungle. It’s also on a long dirt road (although there are several small villages along the way, so the area isn’t quite as deserted as the road to Caracol). You can drive yourself, but the much better option is to join a tour from Orange Walk – not only do you get the previously mentioned benefits of the tour guide, but, instead of going overland, the trip is done there and back on the New River, a welcome alternative to the ‘road’ (notice the ironic quotation marks), and one of the best river trips in Belize.
The trip takes over an hour and passes through the dense jungle and wide lagoons of northern Belize, home to countless colourful avians – if you’re a birdwatcher, you’ll be in Twitcher’s Heaven. The guides are knowledgeable in wildlife as well as archaeology and history, and regularly stop or slow down to point out everything from toucans to crocodiles.
Lamanai’s setting, on the New River Lagoon, gives it a peacefulness that’s lacking in the sites on or near the main highways. Plus, its distance from Belize City and the time it takes to get here means that, like Caracol, it’s not overrun with cruise ship tourists (Belize receives over 600,000 cruise ship passengers every year – typically, they’re in the country for less than a day, and they all pass through Belize City, mainly on organised tours going to the zoo, or doing cave-tubing or zip-lining, or visiting one of the cayes).
Like Caracol, Lamanai has an informative visitors centre, and after wandering round it and eating lunch, your guide takes you through the site. Like Caracol, Lamanai covers a large area and contains plazas, ruins, and ball-courts (the ancient Maya played a game with a rubber ball so hard and heavy that early Spanish visitors described regular players as being “perpetually bruised”. And that’s before they lost the game and were sacrificially killed!).
And like Caracol, many of the buildings are still unexcavated, buried under mounds of earth and grass, and covered in dense jungle growth after being left to nature for hundreds of years. But there are still over thirty structures to see. They include the Mask Temple, a sixth-century pyramid with two large carved faces at its base representing Kinich Ahau, the Maya sun god. South of it is the 35-metre High Temple, the largest structure in the Maya world at the time of its construction in around 100 BC. The view of the forest, lagoon and river from the top is well worth the steep climb (so steep that the park rangers have installed a rope to help the elderly, clumsy, or vertigo-stricken tourists).
Also like Caracol, the excavated area around and in between the ruins is full of tropical flora and fauna, from noisy black howler monkeys to give-and-take palms, their trunks covered in razor-sharp poisonous spikes (nature clearly has a sense of humour, as the only known antidote to the poison is found in the tree’s sap!).
Whether you’re into nature, architecture, or history, Caracol and Lamanai are the two premier Maya sites in the country, and two of the best days that out you can have in Belize.