I was up at the God awful time of 5:15 a.m. (on a Saturday morning no less) for our 6:00 a.m. departure to Orange Walk Town where we would take a one hour boat ride up river for our hike of the Lamanai ruins. Odilia was right on time with a plan that we would stop first in San Ignacio Town for some breakfast. She suggested we stop at the market, which apparently is up an running by 4:00 a.m. Don’t ask me why!
So 20 minutes later we were parking the car and walking into the already happening Saturday morning market. Men were unloading trucks of produce and entire families were manning grills and cooking up tortillas, tamales and various other concoctions. We ended up stopping at tortilla/pupusas stand that was run by a family of women. (A pupusas is a stuffed tortilla.). The ladies had prepared the masa dough the night before, cut up cheese, made the bean mixture and stewed the chicken. All that was left was for the fillings to be added to the tortilla.
It was fascinating watching one woman pull off a piece of dough, roll it in her hands, pinch the middle and fill it with cheese, bean paste and chicken. Then she would slap the ball back and forth in her hands to make a flat stuffed pupusa, which was placed on the grill and cooked to golden brown on each side all at a cost of $1 USD. The result was sheer perfection. I only had one, but later in the morning, I wished I had eaten more. The stuffed tortillas were superb.
After breakfast, we meandered through the market taking a look at all the fabulous produce. I ended up stopping and buying a bottle of fresh watermelon juice, which I drank on the three hour ride to Orange Walk Town.
By 7:30 were on the road again heading back towards Belize City on the same route I had come two days earlier. However, only about an hour and a half into the drive, we turned off the road and headed north towards Orange Walk Town. By now we had left the rolling hills and jungle like vegetation that surrounds San Ignacio Town and were back into the flat lands with small tropical vegetation.
We passed through a myriad of small little villages and all along the route we saw little food stands with women selling home made tortillas and tamales. There were also produce stands with fresh fruits and vegetables in every village.
Shortly before 10:00 a.m, we arrived on the outskirts of Orange Walk Town. We made a quick stop at the boat dock to confirm that we were actually being picked up at the dock in town and not at the boat dock. When we got out of the car, the heat of the day hit me. Uh oh. Now the day before, I had lucked out because it had been overcast, and while still very warm, there was no sun beating down to really suck the life out of you as you climb to the top of the ruins. Today was going to be very different. There was only a few puffy white clouds in the sky and while it was only 10:00 a.m., it was already very, very hot.
Anyway, once Odilia confirmed the pickup spot was in fact in town, we got back in the car and drove the last twenty minutes or so into Orange Walk Town. We parked at the hotel and immediately ran into Amir our boat driver/guide. He was definitely anxious to get going so we only took a few minutes to load on the sun screen and bug spray before we climbed aboard his little skiff for the ride up the New River (yes that is the name of the river) to Lamanai.
We had no sooner climbed into the boat and headed upstream than we were pulling over to take a look at an orange iguana and its mate. Now I have no idea how Amir spotted the iguana because it took me a good minute to finally zero in on the correct branch of the tree where the two iguanas were hanging out. It never ceases to amaze me how good some people are at spotting animals, reptiles and birds in the trees.
And this pattern continued for the next half hour or so with Amir pulling over periodically to point out various heron, two different kinds of crocodiles, a myriad of little birds (the names of which I have forgotten), a Laughing Falcon sitting high up in the trees, a kingfisher, a salamander, bats in a log, and a Boat Billed Heron. It was a veritable smorgasbord of birds and reptiles.
Along the way, we made a stop at a restaurant to pick our lunch, passed a sugar cane factory and a Mennonite community known by the curious name of “Shipyard”. We even saw three young boys in traditional Mennonite clothing fishing along side the river bank. It was a glorious trip with the sun shining and enough of a breeze from the speed of the boat to keep us cool.
We finally reached the dock at Lamanai just before noon. Once docked, we walked up through the entrance and wandered around the little museum that is part of the site. The artifacts in the building were pretty impressive with some pottery dating back to 600 BC. Yowza. It soon became clear that Amir knew a lot about Lamanai and took it upon himself to provide me with as much information about the site as he could. He also proudly showed me an urn he had recovered from the river that now sits in the museum. Apparently, the river is teaming with Mayan artifacts and people regularly recover jewelry, pottery and the like. Now I have no idea how these recoveries are occurring, but after seeing first hand that the New River is croc infested, there is not enough money in the world that could get me to venture into those waters treasure hunting.
Anyway, after the walk through history, we found ourselves a nice covered picnic area to enjoy the lunch we picked up on the boat ride. There was delicious grilled chicken, red beans and rice, and potato salad. All were very good, but the highlight was desert. Amir’s wife had made pineapple stuffed donuts and OH.MY.GOD. were they ever good. I could have scarfed down a couple of them, but decided one was plenty given that we still had to actually hike the site.
Now a little bit about Lamanai. Lamanai is the Mayan word for “submerged crocodile” and after seeing the croc infested waters of New River, I have no doubt where the name came from. Lamanai was first occupied by the Mayans some time between 1500 and 1000 B.C. and was continuously inhabited by the Mayans until the 17th century. Some time between 200 and 100 B.C. construction began on two of the most famous ruins at the site: the Mask Temple, which features two mask carvings on either side of a stairway each reaching approximately 14 feet, and the High Temple, which is the third tallest Mayan ruins in Belize standing approximately 100 feet high.
So with lunch done, we set off from the waterfront heading to the Mask Temple. The rocky path took us up through the jungle that now envelopes the site. We kept a lookout for birds and monkeys as we walked, but initially did not spot any. The walk took about 15 minutes and was slightly uphill. Fortunately, the canopy of trees shielded us from the sun so the walk was not overly hot.
As we walked the last few feet, the Mask Temple came into view and all I can say is wow! It is believed the Mask Temple was constructed by one of the early Mayan rulers who was buried in the temple as remains were found inside the temple along with jade jewelry and pottery. The large limestone masks that dominated either side of the temple stairs are believed to have been added to the temple around 400 A.D., about 600 years after the original construction. And of course, the masks featured … crocodiles.
Now the funny thing about the Mask Temple is that a later ruler built a new temple over the top of the Mask Temple hiding the masks from view. However, over time the second temple crumbled giving way to the original, magnificent Mask Temple…. That’ll show him for trying to cover up history.
I, of course, had to have my picture taken with one of the masks, and then made the climb up to the top. The ruins were really very, very different from what I had experienced the day before. The ruins from yesterday were were mostly devoid of carvings which really contrasted with what I was seeing today.
Anyway, after sitting atop the Mask Temple for a bit, it was time to climb down and head a couple minutes down the pathway to the High Temple. And while High Temple ruins weren’t as tall as El Castillo from the day before, the pitch was much steeper so the climb up the High Temple seemed much harder.
Now the unique aspect of the High Temple is that it too features mask carvings, but on a much smaller scale. And like the Mask Temple, the High Temple had also been covered up with a second temple. Today, much of the second temple has deteriorated allowing the masks of the first temple to be visible once again. However, there is a catch. The only way to see the masks is to hike up about 30 feet to see them. So … when in Rome.
Unfortunately for me, the High Temple was in full on sun so the hike up was brutal. We initially climbed up the stone façade to see the masks before moving around the back to hike up the new wooden stairs that took us to the next level. On our hike up, we encountered some beautiful birds (the names of which I have forgotten) and … the ghost like roar of the howler monkeys. And while we could not see the howler monkeys, the noise they created was unmistakable.
When Odilia and I reached the top of the stairs, I immediately took a seat at the front of the temple with the top of the temple behind me. Now while I thought we were done, Odilia told me we could climb the rest of the way to the top using the stone stairs again. And while I was absolutely soaked from sweat and completely exhausted, Odilia promised the view from the top was worth it. So I crawled up the stone steps to the what I thought was the top only to discover I had to go around the back again and climb up one more small set of steps.
Once at the top, I realized Odilia was spot on. The view was magnificent. We could see over the entire site and all the way to the river. The only down side … the sun was brutal. So after 5 minutes at the top, we descended with the howler monkeys serenading us.
Next stop was the Ball Court. Yep that crazy game with the 9 pound rubber ball was played here as well. However, before we hit the Ball Court, Amir spotted a toucan. And of course, I could not see the damn thing to save my life. I looked and looked and could not see the bird, although I did see the rustle of the leaves when it took off.
So after passing by the Ball Court, we walked to Stelae #9, which pays tribute to one of the most revered deities of all: Lord Smoking Shell who became a Mayan King in 608 A.D. And with a name like Lord Smoking Shell, who would deny him his kingdom?! Anyway, the Temple features a large stelae with a carving of the deity with, what else, a crocodile for a headdress. Now the original of the stelae was moved into the little museum (which we saw when we walked around), so a copy now sits in place of the original.
After Stelae #9, we began to move on to the Royal Residences, but not before we spotted howler monkeys in the trees above us. We spent a bit of time trying to get a good look at the monkeys, but they were not cooperating. One male howler refused to turn around so the result was that I took a bunch of pictures of his backside with his rather large balls hanging out. I actually didn’t realize that the pictures I took were “X rated” until I took a look at the pictures later and laughed my butt off. (Check out the picture. I am sure it will have you laughing too.)
Anyway, we walked through the large stone rooms and walls that made up the Royal Residences before ending up in front of the last ruins, the Jaguar Temple. The name comes from the block formations at the front of the step temple which gives the appearance of a jaguar. The temple is 12 feet shorter than the High Temple, but a large amount of the Jaguar Temple remains underground and not excavated.
By now, I was exhausted and really, really hot. Fortunately, the one hour boat ride back to Orange Walk Town was just what the doctor ordered. Lovely river breezes from speed of the boat helped cool me down and by the time we reached Orange Walk Town, I was no longer close to heat stroke.
It has been a very long day, but so much fun. Tomorrow we are off to the north to visit the ruins of Santa Rita and Cerros and another hand cranked ferry ride!