Northern Belize Lamanai: Jungle Cruises, Mayan Ruins and Bamboo Chicken
My husband Gustavo stares at me, not laughing. "Turkey? I didn't say turkey. How'd you come up with that? I said toucan." He continues, in his thick Spanish accent, somewhat irritated. "I wondered why you were looking down at the ground." I should have known better. There are probably zillions of tucans here in Belize, since that's the country's national bird, but probably not too many turkeys. Doubtful they would be on the menu, anyway. Bamboo chicken might be, though.
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"We only eat the green ones, because they're vegetarians." Herbivores who like leaves and berries. "We don't eat the spiny-tailed iguanas. They are meat-eaters." Simple as that. And, based on this succulent specimen gorging himself on yellowish pulp and black seeds, it appears that this beautifully-patterned reptile with the muted grey striping across his belly and backside just might be enough for a feast.
Wildlife on the RiverOur minivan roars to a stop along the banks of the New River and we shuffle down the steps, single file. Heading towards the jungle boat. "Get a bottle of 'wata' outa the cooler. It's a long 'riva' ride. We got plenty," our guide assures us in his native dialect of Creole, which he has already explained is easy enough to learn. "Just replace the 'er' in any English word with an 'a' and you can talk like me." We settle into the front row seat, mash our safari hats down on our heads, adjust our sunglasses, and head upstream.
At first the vessel slowly glides through the olive-colored water, like a knife pulled through butter, easing alongside a fallen tree dangling precariously close to the edge. He waggles his finger. A spider monkey hovers on a sagging branch, nibbling on a bite of banana. After the assorted oohs and ahhhs and "isn't he cute?" have played out, the captain steers us into the main channel and hits the throttle. Past blossoming lily pads we fly past dozens of giant mahogany trees past a pair of tropical cormorants straddling a decaying tree limb, drying their wings. "Reminds me of those anhingas at the lake back home," I comment. My words trail off, caught in the breeze.
The river zigzags back and forth, with dozens of canals veering off in all directions. A startled black-bellied whistling duck flaps wildly, frantic to get out of the path of our cutter. Refreshing spray flings backwards, into our faces. The wind, rapacious as the fingernails of a snaggletooth witch, snatches at our hair. For me, it's the perfect day just riding the river, surrounded by the rawness of nature. And the sound of chattering birds.
Soon, however, our journey along this tributary ends, dumping us out on the banks of the New River Lagoon - the entrance to Lamanai. Translating to 'submerged crocodile' in the Yucatec Mayan language, this incredible archaeological site yawns in the jungle ahead. Nine hundred fifty acres of pristine forest more than 700 structures undeniable proof of a thriving ancient metropolis, inhabited around 1500BC.
We begin our trek through the woodlands. En route to the ruins, we hear the frenzied rustling of tree branches. In the cloying heat of the rainforest, the cedro (British Honduras cedar) showers us with falling leaves, thanks to the crazy antics of a Howler monkey convinced he's a gymnast. With a vociferous bark that sends the hairs bristling on the nape of our necks, he catapults himself onto the far-flung limb of a wild coffee tree. "He doesn't sound any too friendly," I note as we hasten along the cobbled path.
Mayan Mask Temple with Crocodile Headdress"Mask Temple," a tourist leading the pack announces. In the clearing, a spectacular burial site, dating back to 200BC, fans out; a pair of masks decorates the western facade of the temple. Cut from limestone block, the gargantuan humanoid face is sculpted using Olmec details (notably the upturned lip and broadened nose). More than likely the visage of a Mayan king, the relief is adorned with a headdress carving of a crocodile, thus lending credence to the name of the site, recorded by Spanish missionaries in the early 17th century. We opt for our own Kodak moment, dwarfed beside the monumental colossus.
I try to imagine that 40,000 to 60,000 Mayans once lived inside the walls that make up this now-defunct and abandoned city which lies in ruins. Cultivating maize as a sacred duty, the People of the Corn offered thanks to their deities for this hallowed gift of sustenance. As I tread across the grass proliferating in the foundation cracks, I realize that I'm treading on an ancient, and highly-advanced, civilization, known for their achievements in architecture, math and astronomy.
Scaling the Staircase of the High TempleWe continue through the jungle, towards the High Temple where these early Mesoamericans managed to construct a ceremonial sanctuary destined to touch the heavens; intended, perhaps, to reach the divinities they worshipped, perhaps merely to caress the sky. "Come on you can do it, mama," my son Nicolas encourages me from the summit, 33 meters (108 feet) up. I wrestle with the rope -- and my balance -- to climb the ledges, without falling.
I clamber the last few meters to the top. I have to bite my tongue to refrain from reminding my 15-year old NOT to get too near the edge. There are no safety rails here to guard against the sheer drop-offs or protective scaffolds over eroded rock. The High Temple has been excavated to near perfection, just as it was before the birth of Christ. I stand on the threshold of two worlds -- the ancient juxtaposed against the modern -- and am awed by the perfect symmetry of the stones. Hewn by the rugged hands of Pre-Columbian stonecutters. Laid into precise position by the sturdy arms of Mayan laborers two millenniums ago. From this lookout point, I have a 360-degree panorama all the way to the New River Lagoon. Higher than the canopy of the rainforest. Higher than the jewel-toned toucan lighting on a distant tree limb, in search of fruit.
In Search of One More Bamboo ChickenWith a last glance out across the verdant arbors of the jungle, we hastily make our way back to the security rope, to begin the long rappel to the ground. Once again on terra firma, we re-trace our footsteps through the forest, ambling by coconut palms, mahoganies and a particularly ravenous matapalo (strangler fig) devouring a Guanacaste tree. "Grab your postcards," one of the guides recommends, indicating the tiny souvenir hut next to the bathrooms. He follows it quickly with a "time to go" warning. We herd toward the waiting skiff. After all, most of us have an afternoon cruise ship to catch.
Without further ado, our tender skims the surface of the water, weaving its way back to the New River Bridge. A black-and-brown jacana wades amongst the lily pads, stopping for a second to forage in the vegetation. "Jesus Christ bird", our guide explains. "Can walk on water." Indeed, this lily trotter appears to amble completely unhampered atop an aquatic shroud of green. He stops to eye our intrusion, the saffron-colored wattle on his head disheveled in the wake of our slowing. As for myself, I keep searching the shoreline, looking for another bamboo chicken.
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Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based travel writer, multi-lingual, and an avid adventure traveler who appreciates meeting new people and experiencing new cultures from around the world. She is proud to say that she has already given the gift of the love for travel to her 13-year old son.
Photo by Gustav Lillo