To Wrestle a Submerged Crocodile

Lamanai Travel Blog

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Sunrise over Caye Caulker

We woke up before sunrise, and I actually made it out to the pier to watch it happen. It was about 5:30 in the morning and while there were a handful of locals out and about (and a few partiers from the night before), I was all alone on the pier as the bright white disc emerged from under the sea. It's rare that I muster enough energy to get up to see the sunrise, especially since it would take hours to go to a place where I could actually see it happen, but here facing the ocean, it's pretty hard to miss. The thin clouds perfectly veiled the sun enough to minimize the blinding factor and maximize viewing clarity. A sailboat--one of the Raggamuffin boats from the snorkeling adventure--slowly rocked in the sea as the sun poked out of the clouds and continued its slow ascent. Within 20 minutes it was fully emerged and the sky became as bright as midday soon thereafter.

Sinking suburbs

Despite the presence of people, nothing seemed to be open. Mark and I searched for food, but there was only coffee. Finally, almost seven blocks away, we saw a group of people huddled under a palm tree in front of what looked like a cart. Sure enough, it was a lady selling something. I knew there had to be something open to serve passengers for the early ferry as well as other early birds. When we approached, the woman was selling johnnycakes and bottles of horchata, supposedly all homemade. We'd never had johnnycakes, so we bought four of them and headed back towards the ferry stop, grabbing coffee at another local foodstall (which, incidentally, did not sell food until after 8). The first ferry from the island left at 6:30 and we were not the only passengers. I wondered where they all had descended from.

Curious Georgette
We saw the girls again, this time they were with backpacks, clearly bound for the mainland.

The ferry ride was uneventful and relatively short. Our tour guide Jorje met us at the dock and whisked us away in a real tour bus with air conditioning and at least 30 seats--all of them empty. It was a little odd to be the only two on the bus besides the driver. As a result, even the smallest pebble caused the bus to bounce and sway as we careened through town. Jorje gave us a tour of Belize City, which I didn't realize came with the "package." Not that there's a whole lot of sites to see there, but we were notified that a section of the land where we were presently driving was reclaimed from the sea, similar in fashion to the Netherlands polders.

Snake cactus on a tree
We passed hospitals, schools, a former port (now several hundred feet inland), and a couple bridges. As we headed out of town and through disparate suburbs, Jorje pointed out a poorly developed neighborhood that was beginning to sink. Obviously the developer hadn't done his homework and now these concrete-pillared structures sat lopsided and vacant, some less than a year after having been built. Some were still inhabited, but with the swampy ground (it was clearly visible from the road), the longevity of anything built here would be tested.

Eventually we came to a bridge and turned on a hairpin dirt road just after crossing it. Here we waited to board a small motorboat that would take us up the New River to Lamanai.

Entrance to Lamanai
We met a German couple and a Swedish couple who had traveled there independently, probably saving enough for a night's hotel room compared to what we paid for the luxury of the desolate tour bus. Part of the water version of the tour featured exotic wildlife, and it didn't take long before we were watching spider monkeys resting on the tree branches not very far from the boat. I was a little concerned that perhaps one of them was going to jump across and attempt to steal my camera, but they just sat as transfixed on us as we were on them. Nearby we saw what the boat operators and new tour guides described as Jesus Christ birds, or more officially, the jacana. These birds were skinny-legged with a tuft of red hair and sleek black bodies.
A funky caterpillar
People called them Jesus birds because they appear to walk on water, but really they just use lilypads.

Other highlights up the river were termite nests in the trees, a rum distillery next to a rehabilitation center, snake cacti ("air plant") growing like tentacles from tree branches above the water, and a small Mennonite village called Shipyard. Mennonites in Belize? Yes indeed! I tell you, Belize is a cultural melting pot of diverse proportions.

Due to recent heavy rains, the water level in the river was some 4-6 feet higher than normal, and as a result, there were no crocodiles, turtles or some species of birds because they had fled the area in search of a shallower refuge.

The Mask Temple
Before docking at Lamanai, we stopped in a small mangrove inlet and I squinted desperately to see what the guides were trying to point out. Then, as they actually scattered and flew away, I saw them: tiny creatures the size of a moth, but they were actually tiny little bats. I thought they said they were "magonian bats," but I can't locate anything by that name. They flew away quickly and together, like a rabble of butterflies.

The parade of flora and fauna continued on land with sightings of cormorants, flycatchers, heliconia (lobster-tail), stemadamia (horseballs), bay cedars (crudely nicknamed "tapaculo" in Spanish for the laxative functions of its seeds), strangler figs, pheasant tail plants, wild coffee, black orchids (the national flower), guanacaste, sapodilla and cohune palms.

Climbing up the High Temple
We also saw an army of leafcutter ants marching with their wedges of green leaf on their back like sails.

So, Lamanai is actually a Mayan site, which means "submerged crocodile," a pretty cool translation if you ask me. Aside from the wondrous tropical life we encountered, there were some seriously amazing ruins and views here. There were also vicious and voracious mosquitoes. I emptied a cannister of DEET on my clothes and any remaining exposed skin. As it was, I had planned for this and wore long sleeves, long pants and had already wiped down with Deep Woods Off and sprayed Bullfrog mosquito repellent, neither of which did anything to ameliorate the mosquito bloodlust. The DEET was more or less effective, albeit caustic and nearly gag-reflex-inducing. It was also about 400 degrees and the sweat kept washing the repellent off my face.

The New Lagoon from atop the High Temple
It's a wonder I wasn't poisoned on the spot. Despite all the mosquitoes and bug spray, it was a fascinating site and one of my favorites. It was also quiet--not as desolate as Caracol, but low-key enough to allow us ample time for exploring without battling the handful of other tourist groups.

Before we actually began the trek through the ruins, we sat down at the picnic area to have a splendid homemade lunch of chicken, vegetables, mashed potatoets and rice & beans. It was a delicious meal; by far the best meal we'd had on any tour. Full and ready to go, we headed off through the jungle trail to the first site, the Mask Temple. So called because of the intricate mask carving that had been found on its facade. Unfortunately or not, the original carving had been removed and placed in a museum, and a replica placed where it had been.

My favorite view, Royal Complex
While I understand this, there is something disappointing about not seeing the original, even if it were crumbling and barely recognizable. In any case, we enjoyed climbing around the temple before spotting some more spider monkeys sleeping on branches high above.

Structure N10-43, better known as the High Temple, and just as aptly named, was our next stop. This was the tallest temple at Lamanai, and had been one of the tallest in the Mayan civilization, at least during Preclassic times. The climb up wasn't as horrendous as it first appeared. They had placed a rope in the center of the steps as an aid to climbing, and while the steps were much taller than the other sites and certainly steep, they were not the most arduous, and most definitely not as steep as Temple V in Tikal. Still, at the top we were gasping for breath.

Temple of the Jaguar
Also breathtaking was the view. Vast rainforest stretched for miles and the New River lagoon loomed in the foreground to the east. Apparently there were other Mennonite villages to be seen nearby, but honestly I missed the detail for the grandeur. I'm a sucker for vistas, and each one leaves me a little closer to God than the last. I swear I would get more exercise if my daily commute involved climbing clock towers, steep mountains or dark minarets.

When we were all at the top, an intriguing bug landed on the rear pocket of the Swedish guy, Jens. For a moment, all eyes were on his butt, watching as the bug twirled and paced before finally flying off into the blue sky. After everyone else descended, Mark and I remained for some photo ops, realizing that this would be our last ascent, aside from the mid-morning flight the next day.

Brown grasshopper
With a sigh, we climbed back down the steep temple steps, gulped down some tepid water and marched on to Stela 9. At this point, it was hard to focus on the detail of the temples, as they were starting to blur.  However, turning around to behold the Royal Complex redeemed all of that and it turned out to be my favorite view in the country.

What made the view special was not as much the temple as the scene from where we had approached it. Imagine the picture: a beautifully buttressed tree to the left, labyrinthine foundations of dwellings in the foreground, and the bulk of the Temple of the Jaguar in the distance, all surrounded by lush green. Sunlight streaming through the leaves, the occasional butterfly fluttering by, the scent of palm fronds and humidity, and the soft, mulchy earth below our feet.

Leaving Belize City by ferry
It was a winner. And to top it off, the jaguar carving on the temple's facade was original and quite well intact. Fuzzy moss grew atop the jaguar, as hair and eyebrows.

Thus concluded the tour of the ruins, so we ventured to the museum to see the original carvings as well as many artifacts, plaques about the history, interesting maps and a really large brown grasshopper that I initially mistook for a wooden artifact. After perusing the museum, it immediately began to rain. We had a minute to check out the gift shops, which had really nice merchandise that I hadn't seen elsewhere, but we were low on money and I had maxxed out my allotment for t-shirts, so we headed back to the boat. By then it was really coming down. We ducked under another boat's canopy until the rain subsided. Halfway back to the river pier, it started to rain again and this time getting wet was unavoidable.

Lobsterfest rescheduled for our last weekend!
It was as if buckets of water were being poured down my right shoulder, since it was exposed to the open side of the boat. The best we could do was huddle in the middle and wait it out.

Despite being soaked, it was refreshing and did wonders to drive away the mosquitoes. The rest of the trip was fairly quiet, as we were all tired. We picked up the Swedish couple for a ride back to the city, since we clearly had the room. Our driver stopped at his house where we met his sister and nephew, and they handed us brochures and leaflets about other tours they offered. Apparently this was Jorje's first time to Lamanai, which is why we actually had a different guide taking us through there. Essentially, he just drove the bus for his brother-in-law, who normally did the tours. Still, we felt that we had a good time and were able to fit it all in within the confines of the ferry schedule.

Beautiful sunset
Furthermore, we made it back to Caye Caulker while it was still daylight.

Postponed from two weeks prior due to a tropical storm, the Lobsterfest had been moved to this weekend and from the looks of things must have kicked off sometime earlier in the afternoon. There were throngs of people, food stalls and vendors. One guy was selling all sorts of wine from various plants and fruits, like banana, avocado, starfruit, asparagus, and other unrecognizable things (assuming they were actually fruits). Mark and I returned to the room to take a shower, and then headed to the western part of the island to a deserted cargo dock, where we watched the sunset over the ocean. It was idyllic; a fitting way to end a day that began with watching the sunrise.

Cargo ship logo

Mark and I grabbed another meal from one of the Lobsterfest vendors, a few beers from the grocery store, and headed to the benches next to Raggamuffin to dine to the sound of the distant waves and the partygoing crowd in the distance. We walked around a bit, passing by a soccer field to see if we could see the boy that we'd talked to on the ferry ride who said he was playing a match. There was a sizeable crowd, full of families and random spectators cheering. 

We found ourselves in a rather remote beach-side bar called Havana Nights, far removed from the action of Lobsterfest that it was inaudible over the Cuban music. Actually I had seen this bar when I ate my lunch the other day and made a point to come back. The roast pig in all its anatomical glory adorned a ledge that also featured a fan on high, ostensibly blowing flies away.

Our capable bartender
This did not deter us from ordering two of the finest mojitos we'd had in Belize while we relaxed in a mixed state of pleasure and despair that it was our last night here. I tried to keep up the mood. What really helped (besides the mojito) was the funky chair. It was like a rocking chair but without the curved feet. The rocking mechanism was built into the chair part so that its base was stationary. It also gave with the weight of whoever sat on it, much like a hammock, but it was still made of wood. It was tempting not to ask the bar owners how much they'd be willing to sell it and ship to Maryland for.

As we ordered our second mojitos, a group of very young (possibly teenagers) came in. We'd seen several teens earlier all wearing the same shirts. I think they were from a bible camp or mission of sorts, but here they were ready to party.

Havana Nights bar, the perfect Caribbean nightcap
A Cuban Tom Cruise a la Cocktail emerged from his duties and immediately commenced an impromptu salsa dancing lesson for the youths. It was quite the spectacle. And we thought his rhythmic drink mixing was impressive.

Reality set in and it was time to head back. We made one last stop at the Cake Lady's for some treats for the road, passing by all the revelers in the street. As difficult as it was to accept the vacation was over, I realized we had done quite a bit and it truly felt like the kind of traveling I would undertake if I were on the road for months. Luckily, the ability to pack in such a rich travel adventure in a short time gives me hope for keeping my wanderlust and employment peacefully and appropriately intertwined. In short, I won't have to quit my job again to have an adventure!

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Sunrise over Caye Caulker
Sunrise over Caye Caulker
Sinking suburbs
Sinking suburbs
Curious Georgette
Curious Georgette
Snake cactus on a tree
Snake cactus on a tree
Entrance to Lamanai
Entrance to Lamanai
A funky caterpillar
A funky caterpillar
The Mask Temple
The Mask Temple
Climbing up the High Temple
Climbing up the High Temple
The New Lagoon from atop the High …
The New Lagoon from atop the High…
My favorite view, Royal Complex
My favorite view, Royal Complex
Temple of the Jaguar
Temple of the Jaguar
Brown grasshopper
Brown grasshopper
Leaving Belize City by ferry
Leaving Belize City by ferry
Lobsterfest rescheduled for our la…
Lobsterfest rescheduled for our l…
Beautiful sunset
Beautiful sunset
Cargo ship logo
Cargo ship logo
Our capable bartender
Our capable bartender
Havana Nights bar, the perfect Car…
Havana Nights bar, the perfect Ca…
5,821 km (3,617 miles) traveled
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photo by: sayohat