Thought to be a peaceful star gazing people centred around religion, the Maya left written history in their glyphs and sculptures. When archeologists finally deciphered this ancient code they found a gory past fraught with deadly battles, sacrifice and dark bloodletting rituals. Their history is told in cycles of rise and fall, independent city states coming into prominence then crashing into disrepair and decline, only to be replaced by another. Belize is thought by some to be the centre of this fascinating culture so I was eager to sink my teeth into my first bite of the Mayan culture in this beautiful Caribbean paradise.
After my love affair with the different pre-hispanic cultures and history of South America, I was practically salivating over the prospect of exploring the sites of the Maya throughout Central America. Belize is thought to be the centre of this ancient civilisation and during its peak the Mayan population outnumbered the current population by around 1 million, so what better place to start? Short on time we chose 3 unique sites to visit, the 1st of which was Lamanai.
Our first stop was Orange Walk, an hour away from Belize airport our merry band of five jumped in a taxi with a cool Creole cat called John. He floated us to our hotel in style in his luxurious Lincoln and when we paid his asking price of $100 dollars in greenbacks, the sneaky bugger failed to let us know the price was actually in Belize Dollars not USD (so we paid $132aud when it should have been $65aud). Orange walk is a small town with delicious, cheap taco stands on the side of the road and is famous for its sugar mill and rum factory. To get to the ruins of Lamanai from here we had 2 choices, take the terrible unpaved, pock marked road, or take a boat and float blissfully past animals and sights along the New River.
So, I spoke to the owner of the Akihito Hotel who put me on the phone to the tour operator and I was able to negotiate a pretty good price for a group. $80 BELIZE dollars ($52aud) per head for a full day. This included the boat ride there and back, a tasty traditional iguana lunch (which thankfully turned out to be chicken), a guided tour of Lamanai AND Rum Punch on the boat on the way back. Considering we have paid more just on entry to other sites this was a very fair offer. The boat trip was around an hour and a half there and 40 minutes back because on the way there our guide Junior had his super human eyes peeled and kept stopping the boat to show us animals and birds along the way.
The river took us past the sugar mill, then as we floated past the rum factory we were able to ponder how the sugar is turned into the deliciously cheap Carribean Rum. Ironically we then saw where drinking too much rum will lead as we ended up outside the rehab centre, and the cycle was complete. This was the highlight of the river trip for me, because this is where we met the charming Mr Spider Monkey who joined us on our boat for a banana snack. The Lamanai site also has another species of monkey who you will hear long before you see! The howler monkeys call has been used in Game of Thrones as the dragons call and can travel over 2kms. It’s very impressive.
Lamanai is thought to have been named after those toothy creatures lurking in the New River, translating directly from Maya to ‘Submerged Crocodile’. The thing that makes Lamanai really special is the lengthy duration it was populated as a city. There is evidence of continuous inhabitation from 1500BC to 900AD and in fact there were still Maya living there during the Spanish conquest of Yucatan, which would suggest an occupation of over 3000 years. Records kept by early missionaries suggest that Lamanai may have even been its original name. The Spanish friars went on to build two churches here but the Maya successfully drove them out. The British subsequently absorbed the area into British Honduras which is when the sugar mill was erected.
With a population of over 35,000 at the height of its power, Lamanai was a big city and throughout its lifespan was actively trading with other Mayan cities crossing modern day borders of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Of the several hundred buildings that made up Lamanai only 5% have been uncovered while the rest are barely recognisable as densely forested hills. The most impressive and noteworthy would have to be the “High Temple” with its highest exposed point reaching 33 metres (or 108ft). While still 100ft shorter than nearby Tikal this is the highest Mayan structure in Belize and the reward from the top is a spectacularly knee weakening view over the treetops into Guatemala and Mexico.
The next note worthy structure is the temple of the Jaguar which was originally built in the 6th century. It takes its name from two symbolic stone faces on either side of its main staircase which represent the sacred jaguar. In its hay day it was supposedly taller than the High Temple, but today its base is concealed by earth and jungle. Nine levels still protrude 20m (65ft) above ground and the two box shaped jaguar carvings remain visible.
My favourite thing about the Mayan culture is their art, the symbolism and picturesque glyph writing system adds a certain flair to their culture. With two giant masks that have been carved from limestone to represent one of the earlier leaders wearing a crocodile headdress flanking either side, the Mask Temple at Lamanai is a fine example of their skill. This temple is my personal favourite and while the earliest phase of construction is thought to have been between 200BC to 200AD there is evidence suggesting it was demolished then rebuilt as a mortuary temple in the mid 5th century. Archeologists discovered the remains of a female and a male buried with a large number of jade artefacts, further indicating a trade route with Copan or Quirigua.
The Mayan ball game Poc-ta-Poc was a very important part of high society and was used to decide who would be sacrificed to the Gods to ensure continued survival of the city. One thing that differs depending on who you ask is which team would be sacrificed, the winners or the losers? According to some being sacrificed was a great honour, so a good game of Poc-ta-Poc would sort the worthy from the losers honouring the head of the winning team by sending him heroically to the afterlife. Others argue that to be sacrificed was actually a rather severe punishment for those less gifted on the field. For a reenactment of the way the game was played check out this link. Every ball court is slightly different, the one here at Lamanai is quite small and has a hollow centre marker under which a vial containing a ceremonial mixture was found. One of the ingredients in the mix was liquid mercury believed to have come from modern day Honduras. This is the only finding of liquid mercury in the Mayan lowlands, another indicator of trade and commerce.
The entire history of the city cannot be fully known but we do have an overview based on the clues that have been revealed. One of the major clues was uncovered in 1983 when a team started to excavate structure N10-27, barely had they scratched the surface when they discovered a well preserved stele. The stele was covered in perfectly legible glyphs as it had fallen face down and landed on earth that had already settled on the steps beneath, thus preserving its fine carvings. However the clues this stele offered went beyond the pictures and glyphs when its original base was unearthed. Still in its original position away from where the stele had landed, inside a smaller temple on the same site. Both temple and base had been badly burnt leading to the opinion that it had caught fire during a ritual and the stele was purposely discarded. Because of the layer of earth already formed on the steps, archeologists believe the site was being used ritualistically even after its decline and subsequent disrepair, filling in some of the blanks regarding the post-classic history of Lamanai.
Lamanai is a fantastic example of Mayan creativity and was hugely significant in the history of this culture, when you couple this with the epic journey to get here you have yourself quite the day out.