Extensive restoration, a spacious museum and a stunning jungle setting make Lamanai (Mon–Fri 8am–5pm, Sat, Sun & holidays 8am–4pm; Bz$10) the most impressive Maya site in northern Belize. It is also one of the few sites whose original Maya name – Lama’an ayin (“Submerged Crocodile”) – is known, hence the numerous representations of crocodiles on stucco carvings and artefacts found here. Lamanai, however, is a seventeenth-century mis-transliteration, which actually means “Drowned Insect”. The site was continually occupied from around 1500 BC up until the sixteenth century, when Spanish missionaries built a church alongside to lure the Indians from their “heathen” ways.
Today the site is perched on a bank of the New River Lagoon inside a 950-acre archeological reserve, where the jungle surroundings give the site a feeling of tranquillity. Before heading to the ruins, visit the spacious new archeological museum, which houses an impressive collection of artefacts, eccentric flints and original stelae. Within the site itself, the most remarkable structure is the prosaically named N10-43 (informally the “High Temple”), a massive Late Preclassic temple over 37m tall and the largest from the period in the Maya region. The view across the surrounding forest and along the lagoon from the top of the temple is magnificent, and well worth the daunting climb. North from here is N9-56, a small sixth-century pyramid (often called the “Mask Temple”, for its exceptionally well-preserved 4m-high stucco mask of a ruler represented as a deity, probably Kinich Ahau, the sun god). At the southern end of the site, on a grand plaza, is another sixth-century pyramid, structure N10-9, known as the Jaguar Temple for the two large, stylized jaguar masks adorning its lowest level.