Lamanai, Mayan city

(continuer en français) – Last updated: December 20, 2022

Lamanai is located in the north of Belize near Orange Walk, in the continuity of the Mexican Yucatan where the Mayan civilization thrived around large cities. Lamanai was one of them and although it has had its ups and downs, its existence covers 3,000 years of human occupation. It appeared as early as the preclassical period, around 1500 BC, and continued to function after the arrival of the Spanish and until 1680, unlike most other Mayan sites. This exceptional longevity could be explained by its location on the bank of the New River, reducing the impact of droughts.

The river is inhabited by an abundant fauna that can be seen when choosing to travel to the site by boat. In particular, there are always the submerged crocodiles from which Lamanai takes its name.

The archaeological work only began in 1974 and to date only concerns the main monuments, many structures remain buried under the rainforest. Visitors are relatively few in number compared to sites such as Tikal or Chichen Itza, so it is possible to visit quietly without having to deal with the same limitations.

Mask Temple

Although modest in size, it is probably the most interesting temple that can be seen in Lamanai. Two giant faces at the foot of the pyramid have survived in good condition as they were covered by a later enlargement of the structure. The central part of this addition has been left in place to reveal only the two lateral faces.

The practice was common among the Maya, an old building was used as a foundation for the next one, rather than destroying it, they simply built on top of it, burying and thus preserving the part of the decoration that was not recycled.

The two masks over 4 metres high date from the 4th or 5th century and represent the face of a king or god. They are sculpted in stone and then a coating covers them in which the features are refined, accentuating the realism of the morphology.

Jaguar Temple

Archaeologists call it this way as it seems to bear the stylised face of jaguars at the base of the pyramid. Given the Maya’s usual reverence for this animal, it is not out of place to dedicate a temple to it, even without much historical foundation.

Its pleasant proportions make it a good representation of Mayan architecture. A series of narrowing terraces is preceded by a monumental staircase. Looking at the temple from the side, curves appear, breaking with the initial square effect. The rear side has not yet been cleared.

On the esplanade in front of the temple, one of these famous Mayan calendars was found, cutting the time into increasingly long periods, one of them ending on 21 December 2012. It was the object of misinterpretation, turning into a prediction of the end of the world.


Starting in 1974, Lamanai was gradually cleared of vegetation by teams of Canadian archaeologists. Coming to explore what could be a royal palace, or at least the residence of the elite, they named it after the Canadian capital, Ottawa. The dwellings stood on terraces surrounding an open area where ceremonies, performances and celebrations could take place.

Nearby, a ball court shows its two typical parallel flanks. These sports fields can be found in all Mayan cities, but strangely enough, there is no uniformity of dimensions.

Stela Temple

At archaeological sites, guides always spend a lot of time explaining what can be deciphered and interpreted from the stelae. For the visitors, the passion is less obvious, as these stones worn down by time only let us guess esoteric representations, which are not very spectacular.

Stele 9, dated 625 A.D., may represent a king in ceremonial costume, but this is not very telling. However, attention increases when it is revealed that the corpses of five young children were found buried at the foot of the stele. The horror of the human sacrifice immediately makes everyone shudder; it took a very difficult time to organise this macabre presentation.

El Castillo

The High Temple, or El Castillo, is the most impressive monument on the site. At more than 30 metres, its summit is higher than the treetops of the surrounding tropical forest. The New River, which forms an elongated lake, can also be seen from the top. In order to preserve its monumental, almost vertical façade staircase, the summit is now reached by a modern staircase hidden at the back of the monument.

Although El Castillo emerges from the jungle, the other monuments are hidden by the abundant vegetation. Not only does it provide welcome shade for visitors, but it also serves as a habitat for several species, monkeys and birds.

Spanish Church

After the Spanish conquest, Lamanai continued to be inhabited. The time of splendour had passed and most of the monuments were no longer maintained. In an attempt to evangelise these populations, as early as the 16th century a church was built on the ruins of an ancient temple. The Maya rebelled and burnt the church down shortly afterwards. These ruins stand at the land entrance to the site.

Access to Lamanai

Orange Walk is the nearest town to Lamanai at 35 kilometres / 21 miles, with all accommodation and dining options. Given the modest distances in Belize and the good condition of the main roads, it is possible to visit Lamanai from other places frequented by travellers, such as Cayes or San Ignacio. Many cruises also make a stopover in Belize City, where an excursion to Lamanai is usually offered.

By River: As Lamanai is on the bank of the New River, most visitors come by motorboat, departing from Tower Hill Bridge south of Orange Walk. This usually allows to see crocodiles on the way.

By Road: It is also possible to reach Lamanai by car by taking the small dirt roads through the agricultural countryside around Orange Walk, there are no directional signs.

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Lamanai, Mayan city

Lamanai is located in the north of Belize near Orange Walk, in the continuity of the Mexican Yucatan where the Mayan civilization thrived around large cities. Lamanai was one of them and although it has had its ups and downs, its existence covers 3,000 years of human occupation.

Jaguar Temple, Lamanai, Belize
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Caracol, Mayan city

Only rediscovered in 1937, the Mayan city of Caracol remains isolated in a vast uninhabited forest in Belize. The site was occupied for more than two millennia, often in rivalry with Tikal only 45 miles, 70 kilometres, away.

San Ignacio

San Ignacio is a small, quiet town in the northwest of Belize, located on the banks of the Macal River at a slight elevation, which allows the town to escape the heat of the coast. It has a population of about 20,000 and is at the centre of a growing tourist destination.

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Discovering Orange Walk

Orange Walk is unlikely to be familiar to most travellers until they discover its name on the map of Belize, in the north of the country near Mexico. There is nothing remarkable about the city, but it is the gateway to Lamanai, one of the great Mayan cities of the past.

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  1. Lamanai is stunning and the stone faces are incredible! It seems the staircase of El Castillo is even more angled than most found at Mayan sites. Ideal location on the river, as well, despite the crocs. I’ll share this post tonight for anyone interested in reading about another Maya site. Thanks, Lookoom! Great read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh thank you for your encouragement, very kind of you. I also found these faces quite striking as they are very realistic. The staircase is indeed very steep, the hands were touching the steps without having to bend over.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It is true that the Maya are rather associated with Mexico, but there are also big cities in Belize which are less frequented and more pleasant to visit. There are also Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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