GALVESTON, TEXAS — A party of explorers penetrates the dense jungle of northern Belize, determined to reach the Mayan ruins of Lamanai.
Lamanai is a 950-acre archeological reserve on the edge of the New River Lagoon that was once home to a thriving Mesoamerican civilization that excelled at agriculture, pottery making, hieroglyph writing and pyramid building. There are many theories about its dramatic demise, such as endemic warfare, drought, and overpopulation, but the truth remains a conundrum to archaeologists.
What is known is that Lamanai (Mayan for submerged crocodile) was continuously inhabited from 1500 B.C. until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, making it the longest-occupied Mayan site in Belize. During its Golden Age, (A.D. 300-900) Lamanai was a mighty trading city.
Its powerful mystique makes Lamanai a popular shore excursion with Crown Princess passengers sailing round trip from Galveston, Texas, on an eight-day Western Caribbean cruise that docks in Belize City, Belize; Cozumel, Mexico; and Roatan, Honduras.
As an experienced guide leads the group deeper into the wilderness, the disconcerting growling of howler monkeys warns the interlopers they have been spotted. The mischievous primates compete with the voices of other jungle-dwelling creatures, like parrots and toucans, believing they alone deserve to be heard.
The jungle finally yields to a clearing that reveals the Mask Temple — still majestic despite centuries of deterioration. Built around 200 B.C. and modified several times, the temple is flanked by a pair of 12-foot-tall limestone masks. Each has a headdress adorned by a crocodile, a powerful symbol in Mayan culture. Inside the temple, archeologists discovered two tombs dating back to the 5th century — one containing the remains of a man, the other, a woman. The burial style suggests they were a succession of rulers.