Lamanai lies along the shores of the beautiful New River Lagoon in the Orange Walk District. It is one of Belize’s largest and most important ceremonial centers. ‘Lamanai’, which means ‘submerged crocodile’, features monumental architecture of temples and palaces dating from the Classic and Pre-Classic Periods.
Lamanai is one of the few areas noted with continuous occupation throughout its history, surviving through the centuries from 1500 BC to 1780 AD. Because of their extended reign, even after the Europeans descended upon the land, Lamanai is the only city that was able to maintain its original Mayan name.
The central area of the site covers approximately half a square mile. The central area plus the residential and other minor structures are spread over a vast 950 acres, which is the present size of the official archaeological reserve. The enormous main temple is the largest Preclassic structure known in the entire Mayan world.
The top of this temple peaks out of its forest cover, stirring excitement in visitors as they glide along the New River Lagoon. The site’s most famous structure however, is the Mask Temple. Here, the exposed mask rises 13 feet high, and was intricately carved out of the front of a limestone temple. Several artifacts were also discovered including stone, clay, wood, bone, shell, jade, gold, copper, glass, iron and even liquid mercury. Apart from the many Mayan treasures, the site is also commonly known for the remains of two 16th century Christian churches and a 19th century sugar mill, all evidence of the encroaching European influence.
Archaeologists first visited the site in 1917, and then in 1974 the Royal Ontario Museum began a long-term project to excavate and preserve the site. Today, visitors can access the site by road or river. With a four-wheel drive vehicle, visitors can travel through the village of San Felipe or via Shipyard. The more popular route is down the scenic New River from Tower Hill in Orange Walk.