Lamanai with the Occidental Tourist

By Jose Sanchez
Edited by Naturalight Productions

The God Huitzilopochtli had been smiling upon the scenic New River Dzuluinicob with humid orange-flavored sunshine since our departure from the northern town of Orange Walk. My wife, Debbie, and I sat coasting along on our safari, eyes focused and cameras on hand to capture the 400 species of birds, 36 species of bats, and 2 species of monkeys the guidebook had mentioned. Just as we were recovering from the 1 species of crocodile that wasn't mentioned, a sole raised and weather-beaten wooden pier set against a backdrop of trees and thatched roof structures signaled our arrival to our destination - or so we were informed by Errol, our tour guide.

Having successfully completed an Atkins and South Beach combo, I confidently swung my body unto the pier and proceeded up the walkway with the urgency of an archaeologist on the hunt for secrets that might become lost or stolen if we didnít press on. My quest would be to decipher the essence of the ancient empire of Lamanai that would make the Mayas refer to it as a croc down under.

The first stop was a small gift shop operated by the women from a cooperative in the nearby village of Indian Church. While Debbie was scouring the beaded jewelry pouches, inscribed stones, and pottery replicas of artifacts unearthed at Lamanai, her eyes zoned in on a small carved piece of black coral that was enamored with a bone white shell. Next a star shaped beaded necklace gleamed in her eyes. Then she moved on to its matching purse... By the time she had finally finished, the animal in me was growling. Errol was quick to respond, inviting us to lunch under a thatched roof structure which he called a palapa. While I was ravenously attacking the rice and beans and chicken platter, Debbie took bites from her vegetarian sandwich; Errol began his tour.

"The province of Lama'an'ain, translated from Maya as "submerged crocodile", is famous for being the longest occupied Maya city. The Mayas established the thriving metropolis as early as 1500 B.C. In the 1500 A.D. Spanish missionaries imposed their churches the ruins of which can be still be seen in preset day Lamanai. A century later, the English succeeded in colonizing the area, bringing the woodcutting trade and the sugar industry. The relics of an abandoned sugar mill stands as a testament of their fate."

I would have preferred a nap after lunch; but Debbie was excited to get started, so we made our way over to a small building, the museum, which housed some of the actual artifacts found at Lamanai. It was a bit anti-climatic compared to the Belize City Museum we had visited the day before. Once I entered the unassuming shed, though, an incredible collection, the first I ever bestowed my eyes upon, glistened like a treasure. Artifacts from as far back as 500 B.C. were set on shelves according to the periods in which they were fashioned by the artisans of that time. Grateful for the built-in flash on my brand new 6 mega pixel, 10x optical zoom, and 5x digital zoom camera, I snapped to my heart's content. I was really getting into it, when a familiar voice interrupted from outside:

"George, we're gonna leave without you!"

A few snaps later, I joined them on a path fringed by thick foliage. Errol pointed to a large, dark, mossy, pod-like growth clinging to the branch of a tree:

"That's a termite nest," he explained before attempting a demonstration that made my recently ingested rice and beans do somersaults in my stomach.

Using a long, slender blade of grass, he pierced the crusty, brown mass. Debbie's eyes widened as he showed her the termites marching on the piece of grass.

"Plenty of protein," he chuckled as he aimed the blade of grass to his mouth; the "morsels" fell in and Errol rubbed his stomach for our amusement.

"My turn!" Debbie said and before I could protest, she too was rubbing her tummy, proclaiming, "tastes like mint."

"Just don't try it at home," he warned. "These are jungle termites, not anything like the ones that live on chemically treated wood.

As we passed by a copal tree, Errol described how it was once used as incense in Maya ceremonial rituals; next we rounded a corner past a large fig tree where the path opened to reveal the first temple.

"Stela 9 sits on Structure N-10-27 where it was discovered. The rulers of Lamanai equated themselves with animal deities. This carving depicts Lord Smoking Shell. The inscription 'Wucub ahau ox popÖ macuch lakin LAMA'AN'AIN' dates his reign from 608 A.D. to 625 A.D. and states that he was descended from the sacred crocodile."

My ears perked. Could this be why the site is called submerged crocodile? I was slightly disappointed to learn that Errol didn't know; but this was short-lived because the next stop at Structure N-10-56 seemed like it would provide me with a life size clue.

At the base was an image I had seen in many magazine ads of Belize. Although Errol insisted that it was a face covered by a crocodile headdress, it looked more like a crocodile eating some poor person.

"The Temple of the Mask is a building that dates back to 500 A.D. As was the custom of the Mayas a structure was built on top of the mask and covered it up until it was excavated by archaeologist David Pendergast. A similar mask is believed to be buried on the other side of the stairs," Errol shared.

"Where's the structure that was built on top of the mask?" I wondered aloud.

"You're sitting on what remains of its walls," he smiled.

As Errol launched into a discourse on the Mayan calendar, I sprinted forward, paunch jiggling all the way, to join Debbie at the summit. So maybe I wouldn't figure out the Lamanai etymology, but I could at least savor the serene view of the rest of Lamanai along the New River Lagoon. We must have been up there for quite some time because Errol came to remind us that there were other temples to see.

I turned to Debbie and handed him my camera.

"Six mega pixels?" He asked.

"With a 1 gig card too!"

"Just take the picture," Debbie ordered as she hugged me.

Coming down presented an unexpected set of challenges. The steps were steep and, at six inches wide, not very accommodating of my size twelve shoe. The Mayas definitely had had tiny feet. By the time I did make it down, Debbie and Errol had disappeared down a path, their conversation about a ball court dribbling behind them. I caught up just as another temple stood looming like a giant in front of us.

"This one is called the High Temple. At 108 feet, itís the highest Pre-Classic structure in the area..."

From the corner of my eye, I saw Debbie take off and foolishly followed suit. With half my foot secured on the stairs and both arms clutching a rope, I made my way up the steep incline. Halfway up, I stopped to catch my breath. Debbie waved from the top. I'm looking at the masks, I motioned to her, in reference to a set of three masks on the wall of the High Temple. Being on top of the High Temple was like being on top of the world: unobstructed view for miles around.

Trees synchronized their motions to dance like puppets under the wind's control. Birds in lazy flight circled aimlessly without tiring. Parrots chatted happily as they foraged for fruits and from a distance came the resonating bellow of a troupe of black howler monkeys, their distinctive roar discernible within a five mile radius. At some point we could choose to complete the tour with a hike to the Jaguar Temple and the abandoned sugar mill or the Spanish Church, but as I watched a colorful bird resting in a nearby tree, it dawned on me: We could just sit up here on the High Temple at Lamanai and celebrate the suburbanite conquest of this ancient Maya site. Besides the trip down didnít look very appealing to me or my stomach.

To view artifacts recovered from Lamanai, click on the virtual tour below:
Lamanai artifacts

Special Thanks to:

  • Indian Church Women's Cooperative
  • The Institute of Archaeology
  • Images Courtesy of:

  • Tony Rath Photography
  • JC Cuellar
  • Dreddi

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