Looming over the west bank of the New River Lagoon, Lamanai, or "submerged crocodile," is off the beaten track-perhaps the reason why it thrived for over 3000 years. The city of Lamanai began its regional supremacy around 1500 B.C. Extending from the formative years of the Mayan world to the preaching friars of Spanish colonists, Lamanai flourished and supported a vast community of farmers, merchants, and traders.
Named for the thriving crocodile population in the nearby New River lagoon, Lamanai's main structures and excavated artifacts exhibit many representations of the famed reptile. Because some of Lamanai's ruins are some of the oldest in Belize dating back to 700 B.C., the site has received more attention than other archaeological sites in the country. Still, of the 700 buildings within the complex, less than five percent have been excavated and explored. Aside from the central pyramid, thick forest has consumed many of the limestone mounds that housed the thousands of Mayan inhabitants. With a population exceeding 35,000 at the height of the city's power, Lamanai's trading influence extended over the borders of present-day Guatamala, Honduras, Mexico, and Belize.
Abnormally high concentrations of corn pollen scattered throughout the area indicate Lamanai originated as an agriculturally based settlement. As the Classic Period came to an end in the ninth and tenth centuries, many of the neighboring Mayan cities proceeded through a period of decay to final collapse. Lamanai survived this time of upheaval and continued trade with sites in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula on into the Post-Classic Period. Copper, tin, and bronze objects flowed into Lamanai from sources in west Mexico, the Oaxaca Valley, and probably middle Central America. Lamanai also profited from intense immigration from the fringes of nearby cities that were undergoing gradual abandonment.
Main Temple at Lamanai Under Reconstruction
The Spaniards first arrived in the middle of the sixteenth century. The European presence immediately began a series of changes that predominantly focused on Catholic conversion. Missionaries erected Christian churches and related structures into the indigenous settlement pattern. For nearly a century the Spaniards controlled the region despite the fact that their friars and missionaries rarely inhabited Lamanai or its surrounding villages. The church offerings of the time show a resurgence of Maya iconography, which had never been fully suppressed at the time of Spanish contact.
Old Spanish Church at Lamanai
In 1640, the Mayans rebelled against the Spanish influence in much of the region and burned the churches to the ground. After the Spanish were eradicated, a series of epidemics eventually weakened the city and finally put an end to 3000 years of social, political, and cultural dominance within the region.
Although Lamanai is accessible by road, most visitors prefer to travel by boat along the New River and witness the same flora and fauna ancient Mayan traders observed on the way to the city. The river twists and divides its way through the forest en route to the New River Lagoon, a body of water more than a mile wide sitting on the fringe of the ancient city.
Lamanai is also a botanical and wildlife reserve and showcases many native exotic birds and plants used for medicinal and commercial purposes. Most trees are labeled along the trails for easy identification. Visitors can arrange boat trips through local hotels, travel agents, or tour operators at a moments notice or as a pre-planned package.