Monday, July 19, 2010


One of the tours Tom and I have been meaning to do ever since we visited Belize for the first time is the Lamanai Archeological Site and River Tour.

Lamanai is in northern Belize, near Orange Walk, and the archeological site is best accessed by boat via the New River Lagoon, which makes for a very interesting tour since it combines archeology and natural history. A few months ago, Tom was chatting with our friend Becky, an archeologist who spends a few months a year working in Belize, and found that she also wanted to see Lamanai and had never been there. So, we picked a date and decided that we would definitely go to Lamanai while Becky was working in Belize this summer.

Saturday was the day, so Tom and I left here at 5:30AM to meet Becky, Gonzo, and Iasa, another archeologist, in San Ignacio. We were out of San Ignacio by 6:15AM, and on our way down the Western Highway. We made a stop at Westar in Roaring Creek for caffeine and snacks, and then drove the rest of the way to Orange Walk, arriving at the Lamanai Riverside Retreat about 8:30AM.

Gonzo arranged for a boat to pick us up at the Riverside Retreat’s dock, so we were on our way down the New River Lagoon towards Lamanai in a motorboat with nine other people by about 9:15 after a quick stop to pick up lunch at a nearby dock. It was raining off and on all day, and while it would have been a little more pleasant not to have the rain stinging our faces as we made our way up the New River Lagoon, the tour company provided us with yellow rain slickers so we managed to stay mostly dry for the day.
The riverboat tour is fun. The New River Lagoon isn’t very wide, and it twists and turns through mostly uninhabited swampy land. Our tour guide/captain Melvis and his assistant Gregory kept it interesting, alternating zooming along and sliding around the turns with slowly putting along looking at the flora and fauna on the banks. We saw lots of ahingas and other birds, a few iguanas, termite nests,
and a variety of trees loaded with orchids, bromeliads, and snake cactus (known around here as devil’s guts).

We also saw fishermen in small dugout canoes,
who were delighted to show us their catch.

The highlight of the riverboat tour was probably the visit by the spider monkeys. While we don’t condone people training wild animals to interact with them for the sake of amusing the tourists, we had to admit that there is something almost magical about pulling up to a bank of trees and having a spider monkey board the boat to collect her banana from the captain.
Melvis warned us not to touch her, but she had no hesitation about touching us as she jumped on the bow of the boat,
made her way down the center aisle using our knees as support with her hands, collected her banana,
and then proceeded to sit on the stern of the boat next to Melvis to eat it, obviously hoping that when she finished that one a second banana would follow – which it did. Melvis also allowed the boat passengers to hand bananas to the less-bold monkeys in the trees who declined to board the boat, and we all thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to interact with the monkeys.

The New River Lagoon also winds past the cane mills, which were able to identify because we could smell the molasses.
In fact, on the way back, we had to pass a tandem molasses barge being towed by a tug, taking the molasses from the cane processing plant up the New River Lagoon to Corozol, where the tug would tow the barges into the Caribbean and head south towards the sugar refineries in Belize City. We also saw the distillery where Old Master Rum is made, as well as the backside of the Shipstern Mennonite Community.

After about two and a half hours, we arrived at the Lamanai Archeological Site. We docked and proceeded to the pavilion where we enjoyed a traditional Belizean lunch of chicken, rice and beans with green salad, potato salad, and fried plantains. After lunch we visited the Lamanai museum, which is quite interesting with many artifacts, stelaes, and information material. We then toured the site. The site isn’t large, but it is interesting and Melvis provided a very informative and interesting tour. We saw all the major temples, and enjoyed the stunning view from the top of the High Temple, which is visible above the tree tops from the water.

After touring the site, we made our way back to the pavilion area and had a chance to poke around in the gift shops. We then reconvened in the boat and zoomed back to the Riverside Retreat. We arrived just before 4PM, with the return trip taking only an hour, but it seemed like even less time as we enjoyed whipping along the river with the banks close on either side, and sliding around the turns, sometimes thinking we were going to drift sideways into the banks, but never really coming close with Melvis’s excellent driving.

When we returned to the Riverside Retreat, Bob the crocodile was waiting for us, just as Raul had promised in the morning. Bob is an ancient river crocodile, estimated to be 80 years old, blind in one eye and toothless. He comes to the Riverside Retreat dock so Raul can feed him chicken, and he was happy to eat while we were there. I asked Melvis if Bob would be able to survive if Raul wasn’t feeding him, and Melvis said he thought so since there are many small animals along the riverbank (including dogs, unfortunately) which Bob is able to grab, drown, and eat.

We had a couple of beers and a snack of excellent shrimp ceviche before getting back in the truck and heading back to San Ignacio. We were back in San Ignacio around 8PM, still early enough for dinner.

We would highly recommend this tour to visitors. It’s a great combination of archeology and natural history, and it’s fun and interesting. However, we don’t think we’d recommend that our guests do it as we did and try to do it in a day, for a few different reasons. First, it’s a really long day. We left home at 5:30AM, and didn’t get back home until after 11PM. Of course an hour and a half break drinking beer, eating ceviche, and watching an ancient crocodile eat chicken doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the tour, nor does a relaxed dinner in San Ignacio, but still, you have to take the time to eat, and there’s no shortening the five or so hours of driving time. Second (and we wouldn’t have known this if we didn’t go with a tour guide friend), we didn’t really see the whole archeological site. In addition to the Maya site, there’s an old sugar mill and some old Spanish churches which can be toured, although we didn’t see them except as diagrams on the site map. If we were to go and stay overnight, we could take a longer tour, and see more of both the Lamanai site and the nature in the area. As it is…I guess we’ll just have to go back some time and see more of the area!

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