Escapes: On the trail of ancient Maya temples in Belize
By CHERYL BLACKERBY
ORANGE WALK, Belize — A white-hot sun bore down on the small boat as we rode upriver through the thick jungle of northern Belize.
We were headed to the ancient Maya city of Lamanai. It’s a place of dark secrets, not the least of which was the cause of its demise. The city, which once had a population of 50,000, was buried by dirt and foliage for four centuries until archaeologists started an excavation in the 1970s.
Only five buildings have been uncovered. About 732 buildings remain hidden in the firm grip of the jungle, an entire city never seen by modern eyes.
The boat cruised up the New River past crocodiles resting on the muddy banks, seemingly immobilized by the tropical heat. One of them came to life and slid into the river, his ridged tail propelling him swiftly across the surface, his eyes locked on the boat. Just when I thought he was going to come aboard, he dropped like a stone to the river bottom.
The commotion startled a roseate spoonbill, which flew across the river to a high branch, its 4-foot hot-pink wingspan and spatula-shaped bill a sight to behold. A red jacana’s long toes allowed the bird to spread its weight and run across the water on lily pads. Bats napping on the shady side of a tree trunk below stalks of banana orchids didn’t budge.
As the boat slowly rounded the next bend in the river, we were in for another surprise, a half-dozen naked Mennonite farmers cooling off in the water, their pale skin — except for sun-reddened forearms, necks and faces — clearly visible in the shallow water. Straw hats, blue work shirts and overalls were piled on a pier.
Not shy, they waved enthusiastically. I automatically waved back, but my eyes were busy scanning the water for submerged crocs. The Mayan word “Lamanai,” by the way, means “submerged crocodile.”
Two hours into the jungle from the town of Orange Walk, we finally tied up at a pier, and walked up the hillside toward the ancient city. The dense canopy of trees filtered the sunlight down to an eerie twilight.
A hairy tarantula, as wide as a man’s splayed hand, scurried across the dirt and into a burrowed hole. A troop of endangered black howler monkeys followed us, swinging from the treetops. Suddenly, the unearthly quiet was pierced by a monkey’s fierce roar, a blood-curdling howl that can be heard for 20 miles.
The monkey, I thought, was warning us away, but we soon saw the High Temple through the mahogany and strangler fig trees. At 108 feet, it is the tallest of the city’s four temples. From the top, you can see the New River Lagoon, the largest body of fresh water in the country, and the mountains in the distance.
The three of us, the guide and a friend, automatically halted as we stepped from the jungle and stood transfixed in front of the temple. A breeze brought the heady fragrance of allspice, bay leaves and the seeping resin of the copal tree, which was made into an intensely aromatic incense burned at the temple long ago. With no other people on the paths, it was easy to imagine the ancient civilization that lived in this jungle.
Nearby was the Mask Temple with 9-foot stucco masks flanking the entrance. It is one of the country’s most significant ceremonial monuments.
Continuously occupied for 3,000 years until the Spanish came in the 1500s, the city had eight major plazas. An ancient port on the lagoon was nearby. A huge platform about 270 feet by 330 feet once supported several large buildings standing about 84 feet tall.
Belizeans like to joke that their history is right under their feet, which is true. Pieces of painted pottery and obsidian, which the Maya used for tools, are everywhere on the walkways and more appear after every big storm.
Ancient people have left the remnants of their civilizations scattered throughout Central America. But nowhere in the hemisphere is there a more intense concentration of Mayan archaeological sites than in Belize, which is tucked between Mexico and Guatemala on the Caribbean coast.
About 1,500 years ago, more than 1 million Maya are believed to have lived in Belize, roughly four times the country’s population today. Archaeologists have uncovered more than 35 major sites, many more smaller ones and hundreds more that are still mostly hidden by the jungle: evidence of a complex and enigmatic civilization’s development through the centuries.
Consider this: The country’s largest man-made structure is not a high-rise in Belize City but the Canaa (Sky Place) pyramid in Caracol, an ancient Maya city built deep in the Chiquibul Forest near the Guatemalan border. More than 200,000 people lived there at its peak.
So what happened to the people of Lamanai?
Scientists now believe it wasn’t disease or Spanish conquest that brought down this great civilization. The current theory is that the Maya did themselves in by cutting down trees, slashing and burning, wiping out animal habitats, and devastating the land around them. Sound familiar? It is a warning from the ancient past that we might heed.
By late afternoon the monkeys’ howls became more urgent, and it was time to go.
Two eco-resorts popular with archaeology buffs and birdwatchers are near Lamanai:
* Chan Chich Lodge has 12 cabanas; call (800) 343-8009 or (011) 501-223-4419. Rates range from $530 to $610 for two depending on the time of year. Rates include all meals, Belikin beer and sodas, taxes, daytime walks and vehicle tours. Visit chanchich.com.
* Lamanai Outpost Lodge has 20 cabanas; call (888) 733-7864 or (011) 501-672-2000. There are a number of room and activity packages. Visit lamanai.com.