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Ruta Maya 3 – Orange Walk This Way

Thursday 10th – Friday 11th April 2014

We left Punta Gorda in the morning, a bit sad to leave. I didn’t really get a measure of the place when I visited for a few hours back in 2009; now I have a deep affection for the sleepy little town – incredibly friendly locals, great food, good times guaranteed. But I didn’t get two Guinness World Records by sitting on my arse.

I got them by standing and pointing at things.


As the crow flies... on the way back from the pub.
Off we jolly well popped on an old yellow school bus up through the new capital of Belmopan and then through the old capital of Belize City. Belize City was abandoned as the capital in the 70s after a particularly nasty hurricane that did its best to level the city in 1961. We arrived in the town of Orange Walk a few hours later.

Case and I quick-footed it to the nearest hotel that was within our budget – the Akihito, named – rather improbably – after the Emperor of Japan. After slinging our backpacks down, we headed out into the warm night air in search of a clever way we could get to the Mayan city of Lamanai the next day.

The first place we went to was just off the main square, a poky little office, narrow and covered in papers and trash. We knew that to get to Lamanai would require us to take a long boat ride down the river (Lamanai is inaccessible by road), and we really wanted to go with somebody it looked like we could trust. I’m not one to judge a book by it’s cover, but if the cover says ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ then I can hazard a guess at its contents. These guys would not be taking us to Lamanai, not if there was any other option whatsoever.

Happily, there was.

Our Lonely Planet was a good six years out of date, so we were taking everything with a pinch of salt, but there seemed to be another option on the road that ran parallel with the river. Only it was dark, not very well lit, and a bit off-putting.

I’m all for putting myself in ridiculously compromising positions, but I’ve got somebody else here to worry about, and worry I do. When a big fuck-off pick-up with blacked-out windows pulled up along side us, my Spidey-Sense started tingling.

“You looking for a tour?” asked the guy in the pick-up.


“Okay, come with me.”

Oh bloomin’ eck, now I’m in trouble.

The Englishness chip in my brain that forces me to not appear rude no matter how threatening the situation went into overdrive.

“Where are you going?”

“Just up this path here! Come on, get in!”

“It’s okay, we’ll follow you.”

So we didn’t get into the car, but we did walk down a long dimly lit pathway after the car. This kind of situation happens all the time when you’re travelling, the trick is to always have an exit strategy. For me, that’s usually RUN LIKE HELL! You can’t do that in a car.

Turns out Lance, the guy in the car, was the owner of the Lamanai Riverside Retreat, a gorgeous little hideaway situated right by the river. When we got to the bar, I soon realised we’d made a good call following him down that road (and possibly came across as a little rude for not getting in the car, but hey-ho). Lance sorted us out with tickets for the boat trip the next day, as well as (delicious) dinner and copious amounts of beer.

After we’d eaten, Lance came and joined us at our table overlooking the river below. He regaled us with tales of life in the jungle, as a guide climbing up mountains with suicidally stupid tourists. We laughed, we drank, it was good.

The next morning we were up bright and early and back to the Retreat for our drip down the New River.

But this was no standard jaunt down any old river… New River is home to some absolutely fascinating wildlife.

A tiger heron
A "Jesus" lizard
Spider monkey. The only acceptable kind of spider.
Look closer. There's a bat on that tree.
Northern jacana
Boat Billed Heron, Belize
Boat-billed heron
Jabiru bird in Belize
The elusive Jabiru - the tallest flying bird in Central America.
A submerged crocodile
When we finally arrived in Lamanai, the wildlife show was far from over – on the way to the ruins we met up with a gang of howler monkeys.
This one is keeping look-out
This one is in a grump
Best not to get too close. They like to throw things. And by 'things' I mean 'poo'.

At the end of the two hour boat journey (there were lots of stops), we arrived at our second complex of the Ruta Maya: Lamanai.

Mayan Site #2: Lamanai

Lamanai (from Lama’anayin, “submerged crocodile” in Yucatec Maya) is a Mesoamerican archaeological site, and was once a considerably sized city of the Maya civilization. The site’s name is pre-Columbian, recorded by early Spanish missionaries, and documented over a millennium earlier in Maya inscriptions as Lam’an’ain.
Lamanai was occupied as early as the 16th century BC. The site became a prominent centre in the Pre-Classic Period, from the 4th century BC through the 1st century CE. Lamanai continued to be occupied up to the 17th century AD. During the Spanish conquest of Yucatán Spanish friars established two Roman Catholic churches here, but a Maya revolt drove the Spanish out. The site was subsequently incorporated by the British in British Honduras, passing with that colony’s independence to Belize. Also the British has settled in Lamanai and made a sugar mill. The vast majority of the site remained unexcavated until the mid-1970s. Archaeological work has concentrated on the investigation and restoration of the larger structures, most notably the Mask Temple, Jaguar Temple, and High Temple.
The High Temple
(It's a bit of a climb)

The summit of the High Temple affords a view across the surrounding jungle to a nearby lagoon, part of New River.

When ginger scousers aren't getting in the way.
A significant portion of the nearby Temple of the Jaguar remains under grassy earth or is covered in dense jungle growth. Unexcavated, it would be significantly taller than the High Temple.
Jaguar Temple

In the jaguar temple there is a legend that you can find an ancient spear called the heart of the jaguar, even though the temple got his name from the jaguar faces on each side.

8-Bit Jaguar

The most interesting features on the Mask Temple, a short walk from the Jaguar Temple are (somewhat predictably) the two masks that decorate the west façade of the temple.

Mask Temple

The masks are 15 feet high and sit on two levels on the south side of a central stairway. They represent humanized faces and are bordered by decorative elements. The headdress of the left mask apparently represents a crocodile.

Also, Face of Boe
The masks are construed of stone armature covered with thick stucco into which the details are carved. They date from the late fifth to the early sixth century AD.
Mask Temple, Right Mask
At the large temple there was a single ball court, where an offering had been placed under its giant central marker. A lidded bowl contained 100g of crystalline hematite, 19 g of cinnabar in a miniature vessel, and other objects such as jade, shell, and pearl, all atop of a pool of mercury.
That'll do, Wikipedia. Now... back to Orange Walk!

That evening we returned to the Lamanai Riverside Retreat where over a few too many beers, Lance convinced us to stay an extra day in Orange Walk. Apparently, Lance also owns a private island, in the middle of New River. It’s called ‘Dead Man’s Island’ and we were invited to visit.

A fellow island owner? How could I say no?

All the best Bond villains have islands.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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