Lamanai is one of the more interesting and picturesque Maya ruins to visit in Belize. Set on the edge of the New River Lagoon, it is one of the largest Maya sites in Belize and features three large pyramids, a couple of residential areas, restored stelae, and open plazas, as well as a small and unique ball court that featured a large round stone set flush in its center. In addition, nearby are the ruins of two churches built by the Spanish during the 16th century; just off these ruins are the rusting remains of an abandoned sugar mill, which was set up and settled by U.S. Confederate soldiers who chose exile after the Civil War.

Lamanai was occupied continuously from around 1500 B.C. until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, and it supported non-Maya populations into the 19th century. Because it was still occupied by the Maya when the Spanish arrived, Lamanai is one of the few sites to retain its traditional name. Lamanai translates as "submerged crocodile" in Mayan; one of the principal rulers here was Lord Smoking Shell, who claimed he was the descendant of the spirit of a crocodile. Numerous crocodile images have been found in the stelae, carvings, and pottery here. And there are still plenty of live crocs in the lagoon.

Lamanai was an important and powerful Pre-Classic trading city. As at Altun Ha, relics here can be traced to various cities throughout the early Mayan, Aztec, and Olmec worlds. It's a steep and scary climb to the top of the High Temple, but the view over the treetops and the lagoon is well worth it. The site's most striking feature just may be the Mask Temple, which features a series of 3.7m-high (12-ft.) stone-and-mortar faces set into its sides. One of these faces is quite well restored and shows a distinct Olmec influence.

While many of the temples and ruins here have been cleared and restored to varying degrees, they are still surrounded by dense rainforest. The trails leading between temples offer excellent bird- and wildlife-watching opportunities.

There's a modern visitor center and museum here. The collection, though small, is quite interesting as it shows chronologically the distinct styles and influences present over the long history at Lamanai.

Lamanai is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission is BZ$10. Although you can drive or fly here, the most common and scenic way to reach Lamanai is via boat up the New River. A host of different boats leave from docks just south of Orange Walk. The trip on the river is an hour of naturalist heaven as you cruise between narrow and densely forested banks and alongside flooded marshes and wetlands. Eventually, the river opens on to the New River Lagoon, with the ancient Mayan city perched strategically atop some small limestone cliffs.

Most of the year it's possible to drive to Lamanai if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. During the heavy part of the rainy season, the road may become impassable. To drive here, take the Philip Goldson into Orange Walk Town. Turn left near the center of town onto San Antonio Road. Follow signs to Yo Creek and San Felipe. There's an intersection at San Felipe; follow the signs to Indian Church and Lamanai. The total distance from Orange Walk Town is just about 48km (30 miles), but it will take you at least an hour to drive there on the rough dirt road. There's also a small airstrip in the neighboring village of Indian Church, and charter flights can be arranged through Lamanai Outpost Lodge.

While most folks either go on a guided tour or have a reservation at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge, you can drive yourself to the boat docks, just south of the Toll Hill Bridge over the New River a few miles before Orange Walk, and pick up a boat there. Expect to pay around BZ$70 (US$35/£19) per person for a boat to take you upriver to the ruins and back. The boats tend to leave for Lamanai between 8 and 10am, returning between 2 and 5pm. Many are booked in advance by large tour groups, although it's almost always possible to find a few spaces available with a boat departing in short order. Parking is safe near the docks, and the boat companies will usually watch your car for free or a nominal fee. If you want to set up the trip in advance, I recommend you book with Jungle River Tours, 20 Lovers Lane (tel. 302-2293).

Take Your Time -- With the rise in cruise-ship traffic, many of the new operators run massive speedboats between Orange Walk and Lamanai. Not only are these noisier and more impersonal, but they also remove almost all of the opportunity to enjoy the bird- and wildlife-viewing along the way. Be sure to try to book a smaller, slightly slower boat -- you'll enjoy the trip much more.