The first thing to understand about this tour to Lamanai is that it is not just about the ancient tombs and temples of Orange Walk, in the heart of Belize. The journey that you will take on this trip, and the guides who accompany you along the way, give an incredible insight into the ‘real’ Belize, away from the golf carts and resorts of San Pedro.
The excellent Seaduced By Belize guides Ricky and Leon took us out for the day, starting at 7am with a boat ride across the sea to the mangrove swamps of the mainland. The small craft was expertly steered through narrow channels of Red Mangrove, with the occasional stop to for points of interest, such as the smallest bat in the world (see below). Ricky explained the importance of the mangrove to the area, particularly its roll in breaking up the force of tropical storms.
After winding through the dense mangrove, the boat arrived at the remote village of Bomba (population: <70). Supposedly, its only connection to the world outside Belize were the tour groups who came through as a result of the trips to Lamanai, and had taken advantage of this by selling local crafts to us tourists. However, Bomba is largely self sufficient, and locals still hunt for their food in the surrounding forest. The nearest shop is 3 miles away down a dirt road, in the village of Mascal, as is the local school. There is no police, and a village chairman presides over dialogue to resolve any issues. We were also told about Bushdoctors who still practiced their ancient craft, prescribing herbs, barks and ganja for various maladies. Our guides pointed out that while an inhaler costs around $100, local remedies can be gained for next to nothing.
After breakfast (locally sourced from Ruby’s) at Bomba, we hopped on an ancient school bus and headed down the dirt track towards the “Pan American Highway”, which was also a dirt track.
As we passed through the various villages and farmland, the vast knowledge of our guides became apparent. They knew the land, its animals, its plants and its people. We were told about everything from local agriculture techniques (“slash and burn . . . no chemicals”) to a falcon which dwells in the forest and has the call of a crying baby leading to hunters to loose their way in search of the phantom child. In distinct contrast to many tours, the guides encouraged interaction with the locals, and were keen to inform us of the various ways of life of the many different peoples that inhabit this part of the world. Mestizo, Mennonite and Creole, among others, have all made contributions to create a unique nation in Belize.
We arrived at Tower Hill, and hopped on another boat, up the winding New River. Within minutes of being on the boat, our Lamanai guide Eddie pointed out a young freshwater crocodile, a Spider Monkey, an Iguana and a Nighthawk, as we wove our way upriver towards the lagoon by the ruins of Lamanai.
After lunch on the edge of the jungle, we moved onto the museum, which displayed the basics of Mayan history. From there we were whisked to the awesome Jaguar Temple, built around 625 AD and thought to have been used primarily for worship (although no evidence of human sacrifice). Eddie showed us a picture of himself wrestling a giant Boa Constrictor.
From there, after a brief stop for Eddie to play with a tarantula, it is into the jungle to see the Ball Court, where human sacrifices did take place. It is thought that the players of this ancient team game were conditioned from a young age to take part, and it may even have been the winner who was killed.
From the Ball Court it is only a short stroll the the main attraction: the High Temple, 33 metres tall and the highest structure at Lamanai. Construction was thought to have begun around 100 BC.
It is a slight anticlimax to go from the High Temple to the Mask Tomb, but it is very cool all the same, and made more interesting by the guest appearance of a pair of (deceptively loud) Howler Monkeys.
The action wasn’t quite over however, and as we made our way to the gift shops we spot a luminescent green Grass Snake, slithering up towards the open window of the shop. “Yes, they are aggressive” says Eddie, while prodding it with his folder.
Then it was back to the boat for Belikins and Rum Punch. Cheers!
*It is worth mentioning here that part of what made this trip was the guides that showed us the way. Both Ricky and Leon from Seaduced and Eddie from Eco Tours played a vital role in what making this tour what it was. Taking people leisurely through the country via a couple of different modes of transport meant that we were able to see much more of the ‘real’ Belize than I had expected. Adding to this all the guides seemingly endless informative commentary about every aspect of the land we were passing through, Mayan culture and history, along with their frank individual views on progressing Belize, gave the tour a distinct personal touch.*