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Central America Group Travel

Amazing Lamanai Ruins of Belize – An Unmissable Hidden Gem

Last updated on May 28th, 2024 at 09:47 am

The Lamanai ruins should definitely be on your Belize bucket list! When you think of Belize, you might automatically think of white sands, the Caribbean Sea, coral reefs, diving and/or snorkeling but Belize, like much of Central America, is also home to various ancient Maya sites left behind by the Mayan people.

Today, much of what was left behind by the Maya world remains shrouded in jungle, but there are some places, such as the Lamanai ruins, where visitors can see the structures they built and learn about their culture and rituals. There is also a hint of the Indiana Jones about the whole site!

My visit to the Lamanai archaeological site was an included excursion in an 8 day group tour of Belize. Most visitors to the Lamanai ruins will experience it much in the same way as I did however, so in this post I’ll share my experience, give you some options for guided tours and offer up some tips and advice so you too can enjoy this hidden gem!

Image shows one of the masks on the Mask Temple at the Lamanai Ruins.

What are the Lamanai Ruins?

Lamanai is an archaeological reserve which was once a major Mayan city. Located on the western shore of the New River Lagoon near the village of Indian Church in the Orange Walk District, Lamanai had the longest known period of occupation – the Mayan people are believed to have settled there by or before 1500 BC. When the Spanish arrived more than 3,000 years later in 1544 they found an active community.

The Spanish remained in Lamanai for nearly 100 years until the Maya rebelled, renounced their forced Christian beliefs and burned the two Catholic churches built nearby. These churches had been built using stones from existing Mayan structures.

It is not known for sure how long the Maya remained at Lamanai, although it is likely they were still there into the early 1700’s.

A sugar mill was built at the southern end of the site in the 1860’s by a British company during the period when Belize was a colony and known as British Honduras. The mill was abandoned in the 1880’s.

The majority of the site remained unexcavated until the mid-1970s when the Royal Ontario Museum began excavations which carried on to 1986. I understand that today, archaeological and conservation work at Lamanai is undertaken by the Belize Institute of Archaeology. That said, most of the structures remain covered in jungle vegetation.

Lamanai is home to a lot of local flora including the National Flower of Belize, the Black Orchid, and the Sour Sop plant. Lamanai is also home to many vocal howler monkeys!

What Does Lamanai Mean?

Lamanai means submerged crocodile. Excavations on site have revealed representations of crocodiles on pottery, buildings and figures indicating the importance of crocodiles to the Maya.

Image shows the Welcome to Lamanai sign visitors see as they arrive at the site. It states that Lamanai means submerged crocodile.

The Best Way to Visit the Lamanai Ruins

The Lamanai ruins are located on the banks of the New River and therefore the best way to access them is by water. In fact, the journey to the site is half the fun!

My visit to Lamanai was by speed boat. A boat ride was both a great and unique way to see some of the flora and fauna of Belize and to learn about local history. I was not aware, for example, that the Orange Walk District is home to Mennonite communities until we passed one such community during the journey along the river. The boat trip takes just over an hour, our guide slowing and stopping the boat if there was interesting wildlife to see.

Lamanai is about an hour from Orange Walk Town and is accessible by road. I understand however that it’s a gravel/dirt road which isn’t the smoothest of rides and can be problematic in the rainy season. A four-wheel drive is recommended!

I would therefore recommend taking a guided river tour to visit the Lamanai archaeological reserve. These are some popular options leaving from Belize City:

If you are in San Ignacio, then consider this day trip to Lamanai.

How Much Does it Cost to Visit the Lamanai Ruins?

The entrance fee to visit Lamanai is $10 Belizean dollars ($5 USD) for non-residents. Residents pay $5 BZD. If you book an organised tour however, this should be included in your tour price.

Lamanai is open from 8am to 5 pm daily.

Image shows a sign listing the rules and regulations relating to visiting Lamanai along with entrance fee information

Best Time to Visit Lamanai Ruins

The best time to visit Lamanai is in the dry season, roughly late November to end of May. You can read more about the weather generally in my Belize post here.

Most guided tours will likely include lunch so you will be visiting in the morning.

Overall, Lamanai did not feel crowded. We did encounter what I understand was a cruise ship contingent at one point, but Lamanai is a very large site and so this wasn’t particularly problematic.

How Long Does it Take to Visit the Lamanai Ruins?

The time spent at Lamanai will be around 2-3 hours. It’s a large site and although much of it remains unexcavated, there’s still enough to see to take this amount of time. You will need to walk between the structures spread across the site but the ground is generally flat.

In addition to seeing the sights at Lamanai, your organsied tour will likely include lunch. This and the return journey by boat will make for a good half a day outing.

Image shows a sign with a map of Lamanai. This site map is on display in the Lamanai grounds.

What is There to See at the Lamanai Ruins?

Lamanai’s core is comprised of 8 plazas or groups of large structures. The main main ones visitors will see are:

1. Mask Temple

The Mask Temple is located in the northern part of the site. Construction had begun by around 200 BC, however the 4 metre tall masks were not added until around 400 AD. The masks are unusual in that they are cut from blocks of limestone rather than sculpted from plaster. They are thought to represent an earlier Lamanai leader and are each crowned with a crocodile headdress.

A tomb found inside the Mask Temple contained the remains of a man with shell and jade objects. A second tomb containing the remains of a woman was found nearby. Their identities or relationship are not known.

At 17 metres tall, the Mask Temple is the smallest of the three excavated temples but climbing it is permitted and you still have great views of the surrounding area.

2. High Temple

The High Temple, at 33 metres tall, is the tallest temple at Lamanai. Construction on this temple began in 100 BC.

It used to be possible to climb the High Temple but not anymore. Apparently, a tourist suffered a very serious injury and climbing is now no longer permitted. At that height you can only imagine the amazing views!

Image shows the High Temple at the Lamanai Ruins in Belize

3. Jaguar Temple

The Jaguar Temple is located in the southern part of the site. It has a pyramid shape with seven levels extending up for about 29 metres. Two jaguar masks flank the lower platform stairway. Large parts of the Jaguar Temple remain unexcavated.

4. Ball Court

Ball Courts were used for the playing of the Ball Game by Mesoamerican societies. It is thought that the Ball Game combined both ritualistic and sporting elements. The rules of the game are not known, however it’s believed that the aim was to keep a rubber ball in play using only hips and thighs. The number of players, scoring system and how the winner was decided are all unknown.

Human sacrifice is also associated with the Ball Game, particularly in the Maya culture. It’s not known however who was sacrificed, perhaps the captain of a losing team.

The ball court at Lamanai is quite small, however it’s particularly significant for the discovery of liquid mercury beneath a marker on the court.

Image shows the ball court at Lamanai. It's a much smaller ball court than those seen at other Mayan ruins.

If you want to see images of a much larger ball court, read my post on the Best Way to Visit Chichen Itza – the ball court there is enormous!

Tips for Visiting the Lamanai Ruins

To help you get the most out of your visit, here are my tips:

  • take some time to visit the small museum on site
  • be sure to use the bathrooms after getting off the boat. There are no toilets at the ruins
  • stay hydrated. It’s hot and humid so you need to carry water
  • wear bug spray. I was told the bugs weren’t that bad in March but they were around and keen to feast on new blood!
  • wear sunscreen
  • wear a hat – the added shade is welcome
  • you’ll be walking a bit so wear comfortable shoes and be aware of some uneven surfaces, especially when climbing the permitted temples
  • keep a look out for the resident monkeys and don’t stand under the trees they’re in for long!

Image shows a howler money in the trees at Lamanai Mayan ruins

Best Places to Stay Near the Lamanai Ruins

If you want to stay close to the ruins then the best option is the Lamanai Outpost Lodge. Although it is often touted as the place to stay, I did not stay there – you can read the reviews of those who did however on Tripadvisor.

If you are looking for accommodation in Belize City or elsewhere in Belize, then you can review all options and book here:

Final Thoughts

The Lamanai Mayan ruins of Belize, although in a somewhat isolated location in the jungle on the banks of the New River, are definitely worth visiting, especially if you take a speed boat to get to them! The enormous structures and their decoration, the history, jungle environment and the wildlife all make Lamanai a really interesting place to visit.

The best way to visit the Lamanai ruins in my view is on an organsied guided tour. With transportation by speed boat, a knowledgeable guide and lunch all included you can’t not have a great time exploring this hidden gem!

If you are looking for further things to do in Belize, be sure to read my posts on creating your own awesome Belize Travel Itinerary, the astonishing ATM Cave and the Caribbean paradise that is Caye Caulker.

If you need any general assistance with planning a trip to Belize, then check out my Resources page.

Image shows a frontal view of the ask Temple at the Lamanai Ruins of Belize

Disclaimer – Information correct at the time of writing but do check before visiting

Disclosure – This post may contain affiliate links. That means that if you book something using them, I will earn a small commission but you will not pay anything extra. Thank you for supporting my blog.

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