One of the most renowned Mayan archeological sites in Belize, Lamanai is a 5-minute boat ride from the eponymous next-door lodge. A day trip from Belize City is another possibility, one often taken by cruise passengers.
A museum detailing the archeological work and Mayan history of Lamanai exists steps from the dock, but it was closed when we arrived at 4pm in off-season September. We would have to rely on our guide, Ruben, and signs marking the Mask, High, and Jaguar Temples for historical tidbits.
On the winding rock paths to the first, Mask Temple, Ruben bent to extract a chunk of pottery. The container it belonged to would have been used to store water, he tells us, observing the thickness of the remnant. As is the rule, he placed it back in the same spot of dirt. Then a musty smell struck him—howler monkeys. My inexperienced nose couldn’t detect a thing, but a few feet away, we spotted a dominant male Yucatan black howler watching his two offspring hang and swing among the branches.
Apparently not a creative bunch, the archeologists named each temple by an obvious feature. Therefore, Mask Temple has a face sculpture at its base, almond eyes seemingly shut, mouth parted open. Ruben estimated that the mask will be intentionally buried within 3 years to prevent further erosion: only a replica will be exposed to the jungle heat and humid air. Steps fairly intact, a few of us bound up the temple—at least halfway. Towards the top, we had to ascend sideways, the steps thinner and more perilous.
I gasped and stumbled when nearing the High Temple. A howler monkey scream, a deeper, darker Darth Vader exhale, had penetrated the site from above. Up front on the trail, Ruben answered the call with a human version. The male howler roared back, and Victoria warned that Ruben risked being kicked out of our female pack by his agitated competitor.
Atop the High Temple, a canopy of jungle opened before us. This temple is one of the tallest in the area, and the highest at Lamanai. As we walked towards the third, we passed a narrow ballcourt, created for symbolic purposes, since the Lamanai Mayas never played here. If they had, the winner or loser would have been sacrificed to the gods—the players weren’t told beforehand which it would be. If it was the winner, the Mayas’ need of the gods was great; if the loser, not so much. Talk about a confidence blow.
The sunlight dimming in the sky overhead, we approached the Stela, a tall stone slab with a faded carving of a ruler. Only part of his face remained, the rest chiseled away by past farmers angry with the rulers, even dead ones. Moving on, a wide residential plaza opened before us, and at the opposite end stood the Jaguar Temple.
The moon had carved a place in the darkening sky, and stars sparkled against the deepening grey. At the bottom of either side of the temple, jaguar carvings jutted out from the wall. Invisible when standing directly in front, they took shape once viewed from the side. Ruben asked whether we wanted to climb these last steps. Well, yeah. Beside the tree on top, I looked up, absorbing the evening sky that once belonged to the ancient Mayas.