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Ascending the High Temple of Lamanai in Belize

“Look there!” Elito shouted, his voice barely audible above the roar of twin outboard motors. He pointed into the jungle. Sixteen heads turned in unison, following the guide’s outstretched arm.

There it was! Emerging from the tops of trees, a tall stone pinnacle — The High Temple of Lamanai!


Where can you climb a Mayan temple, eat termites and drink homemade cashew wine? Follow me to the jungles of Belize!

Indiana Jones would feel at home here. Thick groves of red, black and white mangroves poke their snorkel roots into lazy lagoons. A snowy egret rests on a partially submerged log, regarding our noisy boat with regal disdain. Monkey vines as thick as a person’s wrist coil twenty feet or more down to the jungle floor, heavy with fallen leaves. In the distance, a male howler monkey roars his disapproval at our presence. The heat and humidity are stifling, even in September.

But we don’t care. We’re exploring Mayan ruins!

Where is Belize?

This tiny Central American country, formerly British Honduras, faces the Atlantic coast just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It’s an outdoor adventurer’s paradise: diving, snorkeling, cave tubing, parasailing, jet skiing—and magnificent Mayan ruins preserved in national parks. One such is Lamanai, on the western shore of New River Lagoon, accessible only by boat.

Lamanai is the Spanish corruption of a Mayan word meaning “Place of the Submerged Crocodile.” Elito points out a baby croc, only his nose and head poking out from the brown water. As eager photographers jostle for a shot, Elito warns, “Don’t tip the boat. We don’t want to be his mama’s lunch!”

Tombs, temples ...

Onshore, we follow Edward, our archeological guide, past giant stone temples, tombs and steles. “A temple is a solid structure, a tomb is hollow, and a stele is like a giant stone totem,” explains Edward. Mayans covered tombs, temples and steles with elaborately carved glyphs—picture writings.

Tracing with a branch, Edward deciphers, “This is a date in the reign of Lord Smoking Snail Shell and this is his face.” What appears to an untrained tourist’s eye as a jumble of twisted curves becomes a profiled head covered with a feathered headdress, two crossed arms, one holding a weapon, and the faintest outline of a shell with smoke swirling from it.

... termites and ...

“Anybody want a snack?” Edward pokes a twig down a hole in the dirt, twirls it and pulls it up. It’s covered with little dark spots. He knocks the dark “spots” into his hand and licks them up. “Yum, good. Anybody want to eat a termite? They taste like mint.”

We Americano turistes look at each other. Two guys reach for the twig and crunch down a couple of bugs. We watch their faces. “Not bad, but not really minty, either,” one admits. “Try one.”

No way!

... jaguar tracks!

Along the path to another temple, Edward stops abruptly and points to something in the mud.

“Jaguar track!”

We crowd around it, cameras flashing and whirring. He kneels down and touches it. “Fresh.”

The cameras stop. We creep away. No one lags behind.

High on Lamanai

Stumbling over roots and peeking over our shoulders for imagined jaguars, we trek past Mask Temple, Jaguar Temple, the Ball Court and Royal Residences to the High Temple of Lamanai.

“Anyone want to climb to the top?” invites Edward. “It’s only 108 feet. Great views.”

An immense stone building juts above the jungle canopy. We stare at its steps — huge stone blocks, each sixteen inches high and six inches wide, angled steeper than 45 degrees. By contrast the average American household step is a comfortable eight inches high and eleven inches wide.

Undaunted by the jungle’s suffocating heat and our damp clothes, several of us tackle the steep slope. Reaching with both hands, we clamber up the tall steps as if rock climbing.

Up, up, we climb. Before you can catch your breath, you’re there!

High Temple of Lamanai c. Lanelli 2004

“Look!” our companions gesture, arms outstretched. What a view! We can see over the tops of the trees all the way to New River and beyond.

Heat and humidity are forgotten as we swap cameras, recording ourselves with river and treetops in the background. I wave to my non-climbing, picture-taking companion below. She waves back and snaps a photo.

Remember to drink a lot of ...

Our return trip takes over three hours, first in a canoe, then a bus, then a motor launch. Elito opens ice chests and passes around water, sodas, rum punch and Belikan, the local beer.

When the ice chest runs dry, Elito merely smiles. “I have a surprise.”

The driver stops at a small hut. We wait as a grizzled, skinny man scuttles out. He carries two gallon plastic jugs filled with a brown liquid. The driver passes over some bills in exchange for the jugs. Elito announces, “Homemade cashew nut wine,” and passes around the jug.

Hooray for Mayan moonshine!

If You Go...

If you’d like to climb a temple, swill Mayan moonshine or munch termites, it’s easy!

You’ll find magnificent Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza, Tikal, Copan, Lamanai, or many others all through Belize, southern Mexico and other Central American countries.

American, Continental and America West airlines fly there daily. Your travel agent, the Internet or the local library can direct you.

Click on www.AA.com, www.continental.com, www.americawest.com, www.Belize.net or lamanaidirect@yahoo.com.

Because Belize is a former British colony, English is the official language.

Hint: Jungle heat and humidity can overpower those of us used to a dry heat. Protect yourself with a brimmed, ventilated hat, sunscreen, and insect repellent. For climbing ruins or jungle trekking, wear sturdy shoes or boots, not sandals or flip-flops.

And drink lots of water! (Save the Belikan beer and cashew wine for sundown.)

c. "Follow Me!" Alamogordo (NM) Daily News 2004

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