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.
Another point of interest is a small ball court where a pool of mercury was found beneath a stone marker. The phrase “agony of defeat” takes on a whole new meaning here. Some believe the losing team was sacrificed to the gods.
The High Temple is where the spirit of the Maya is most palpable. Adventurous souls make the arduous climb to the pinnacle of the 11-story tall temple where they enjoy the same breathtaking view of the New River Lagoon as ancient Maya rulers who stood in the same spot centuries before.
A visit to the Maya ruins is just one of many shore excursions offered on Princess Cruises' Western Caribbean itinerary. Snorkeling, scuba diving, cave tubing and zip lining through the rain forest are also big hits.
For a less strenuous but equally memorable outing, join a shore excursion to Roatan Island that showcases the culture of the Garifuna people, descendants of the Black Carib Indians.
In an ancestral song and dance performance, barefoot young women swish sky-colored skirts to the hypnotic beat of drums and maracas. A joyful dancer breaks from the group for a hip-shaking solo, her wicked-fast moves punctuated by the blowing of a conch shell.
After the performance, passengers are invited to join the dancers and learn a few steps.
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Travel and accommodations provided by Princess Cruise lines.