We always enjoy seeing new birds whenever we go anywhere outdoors, and we knew we'd probably have the opportunity to add to our life lists on this trip to Lamanai. Sure enough, we did.  In fact, both of us went over 200 species on our lists on this trip.  Not a huge number to experienced birders, but we are happy with it. Unfortunately, we were unable to capture photos of all of them, but Barry got most.  Isidro, our tour guide, carried a bird book with him and did a great job identifying the birds we saw -- much better than we could have done on our own.  

I had my most exciting siting of the day when I saw a Keel-Billed Toucan, the national bird of Belize, way up in the trees of Lamanai park, in my binoculars.  Very few others in our group were able to see him, even Isidro, as he was up very high, and he flew away quickly.  Barry caught a glimpse of him flying away. He was just as exotic and colorful as any pictures of toucans I've seen.  Awesome!
Here are the new birds we saw along the way, either alongside the New River or at Lamanai park itself, and added to our life lists: 
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Male Snail Kite
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Female Snail Kite
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Mangrove Warblers
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Limpkin
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Collared Aracari
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Mottled Owls
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Ruddy Ground Dove
(No photos): Neo-Tropic Cormorant, Ringed Kingfisher (and Keel-Billed Toucan, mentioned above).
 
We arrived at Lamanai Maya site at the perfect time to eat a delicious traditional Belizean lunch that Allan set up on a picnic table for our group.  Most of us also enjoyed our first Belikin of the day along with lunch.  
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Entering Lamanai
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Our group heading to the lunch palapa
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Stew chicken, coconut rice & beans, cole slaw, salad, fried plantains, and hot relish
The park was absolutely beautiful, with towering trees and lush green foliage everywhere.  There were also a few gift shops and a museum.  Unfortunately, time was tight due to the travel involved getting there and back, so Barry and I didn't actually make it into the museum, which was disappointing.  I looked very briefly in a couple of gift shops but didn't buy anything.  I knew we'd want to tip our guides at the end of the tour, plus pay for the water taxi back home, so I didn't want to overspend.  One key I've found to sticking to our retirement budget here in Belize is simply not to take too much money anywhere, just a little more than the minimum needed.  Since Belize is primarily a cash-based economy, I don't even bother carrying a credit card along in most cases, which makes it much easier to resist temptation than in the US!
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Lamanai Museum
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Looking back towards the dock where we entered
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Black Orchid -- the national flower of Belize
After lunch it was time for a short walk to the first two structures we would see on the Lamanai site: the Jaguar Temple and the Royal Palace.  Isidro, our tour guide, did a wonderful job at explaining how the structures were excavated.  One of the most interesting facts he told us was that the Maya built most of these structures on top of previous structures that now lie below the grass and topsoil.  So if one were to continue digging down, an entirely different, and more ancient, structure might be found below some of the behemoths that have already been excavated.  Mind boggling!
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Jaguar Temple
To a person, our group could hardly wait to start climbing the many stairs of the Jaguar Temple to reach the top.  From young to old, slim to heavy, every single one of us wanted to do it.  I was really impressed with our group as I am sure not all groups are so adventurous!
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Barry makes his way to the top -- and yes, I was already there taking the shot!
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At the top of Jaguar Temple
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One last view of Jaguar Temple
Our next stop was across from the Jaguar Temple and was called the Royal Palace.  Apparently this was where the royalty would speak to the peasants, who would gather in the large field below.  I believe Isidro also told us that human sacrifices would have been chosen at this site, though actually made elsewhere.  It wasn't as impressive as the other structures nor nearly as high, so we didn't spend a lot of time on it.  We wanted to climb!
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The Royal Palace
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Interior of Royal Palace
Isidro made all the women in our group come up and try out the "tools" for grinding corn and making tortillas.  Yes, it was sexist, but I guess that was the way it was in those days.  Because the corn grinding involved moving a heavy rock over the corn kernels, I think I'd assign this job to Barry!
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Emily crack corn...
On the walk through the jungle on the way to the next structure, Isidro heard something up high in the trees and sure enough, there were Howler monkeys!  We only saw one adult and one younger, smaller monkey at the time, but when Barry and I blew up this photo, there were three monkeys in it!  Unfortunately, they never did howl for us.  
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Howler Monkeys
The walking portions through the jungle were absolutely breathtaking; I could have hiked there all day.  Based on research I did after the trip, I think these have to be Cohune Palm Trees, which can reach heights of 90 feet tall, and these had to be close to that.  The pictures don't begin to do them justice; they are truly majestic.  One of the guys on our tour said "Jurassic Park", and I thought, "Yes, that is exactly what this feels like"!
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Lamanai Park jungle walk
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Cohune Palm tree "grapes" contain nuts that are used for making cooking oil
The next structure, to the top left in the photo below, is the Ball Court.  This is where the Maya played a deadly game -- we were shocked to hear that the winner of the game was beheaded.  Isidro explained that this was because the Maya believed it was such a high honor to go to be with their gods that death was welcomed.  This was definitely a game I would want to lose.
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Ball Court ahead
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Walking through the ball court
Just when I thought we had already seen the most impressive of the structures at Lamanai, we walked from the jungle out into another field, and there it was, the High Temple.  It is the highest structure in the park at 108 feet, and took my breath away at first sight. The panoramic view from the top is the best in the park, so of course our entire group was determined to climb it.  It was also the most difficult climbing as the stairs are very steep.  There is a rope down the middle of the stairs to assist in climbing and descending.  I am pleased to say everyone in our group made it, even people who had fear of heights, and it was a real thrill!
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The High Temple
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These stairs are steep. I didn't use the rope but just my hands to scramble up.
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I am at the top on the right side.
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Exhilarating!
Fancy seeing our friend Dale, who runs the Funky Monkey restaurant in San Pedro, here with another tour group!
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Dale made it to the top too
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Now it's Barry's turn. This shows you how steep it is.
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I'm waiting and watching him climb up
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View of New River Lagoon from the top of High Temple -- this is how we came into Lamanai by boat
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Barry took a photo of me taking a photo of the family group on our tour
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Happy at the top of High Temple
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Everyone had their own techniques to climb back down. Mine was butt-scooting!
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Side view showing steepness of the descent
After everyone made it down off the High Temple, we proceeded through the jungle once more to our final structure, the Mask Temple.  Isidro explained that the masks on either side of this temple are reconstructions, as the originals became too eroded.  This temple wasn't nearly as high as the last, but I still decided to skip climbing it as I was afraid my legs were going to really be feeling it in the morning.  Only a couple from our group decided to climb this one.  I think we were all getting pretty tired by this point.
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Mask Temple
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You can see where the original's nose broke off above the lower reproduction mask carving.
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Yep, that's Barry up there on top -- he was one of the few who couldn't resist one more climb!
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That's my guy!
Finally it was time to bid our goodbyes to Lamanai and make the arduous journey back to San Pedro in reverse of our morning's travels.  We took very few photos on this leg of the trip since we'd been there, done that before, just a couple of notable ones.
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Relaxing with Belikin #2 on the return leg
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Local fishermen on New River
On the bumpy bus ride back from Lamanai Outpost to Bomba Village, which felt even longer than the first time, we were served a delicious and ice-cold rum punch.  Fortunately, Allan had huge cups to serve it in and only filled them half-way; otherwise, punch would have been flying everywhere with the bumpy ride.  It was still a slow process to drink it, but we managed somehow!

When we arrived back at Bomba Village, I paid for and picked up my painted sun.  Here's the Suya Tours boat we took for the last leg of the journey on the North River back to San Pedro.  
And here's a not-so-friendly fellow we saw peering out of the brush at us along the way.  
Allan was kind enough to take Barry and me all the way back to the Coastal Xpress water taxi dock.  I had noted that we would probably miss the northbound taxi by five minutes, were it right on time leaving, and end up having to wait nearly an hour for the next one, or walk home.  Fortunately, the boat had not left yet, and Allan called over to the captain to hold it for us.  We quickly jumped off the Suya boat, paid for the water taxi, and boarded.  That was a real stroke of luck and got us home earlier to take Paisley out and for some playtime after a long day inside. 

What an amazing and unforgettable adventure we had!  The Lamanai trip is a must for anyone visiting Belize, and we can highly recommend Suya Tours.  They were extremely professional, and we thought they had more interesting, authentic food and friendlier guides compared to some of the others we noticed who were at various spots at the same time as our group.  They were a class act!

Tomorrow: Birds of Lamanai (unfortunately, we saw a lot more than we got photos of, so it will be a short post).
 
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Map showing Belize, San Pedro (where we live), and Lamanai in Orange Walk district
I won a trip to Lamanai for two from Suya Tours in the Saga Humane Society's silent auction back in the fall, but we wanted to wait until January to go, since the odds of getting rained on and eaten alive by mosquitoes would be less.  We finally had the opportunity to go on Monday, and it was an amazing trip.  A very long day and occasionally uncomfortable, but definitely unforgettable.  

Since Suya Tours is located south of town as well as all the tourists joining this tour with us, they couldn't come all the way to Grand Caribe's dock to pick us up, but they did agree to pick us up at the SunBreeze Hotel dock in San Pedro at 7 am.  That's my usual waking up time, so this would be an early morning!  

In order to get there on time, we had to catch the first southbound Coastal Xpress water taxi of the day at 6:25 am, then hike a short ways down the beach to the Sunbreeze dock.  I set the alarm for 5:25, but we both woke up quite a bit before that.  We had gotten our packs ready the night before so didn't have to do too much in the morning other than dress and take Paisley out.  We also ate our usual cereal with fruit and nuts, since I'd overlooked the fact that we'd be served breakfast on the tour.  Still, I am glad I ate because boat rides on an empty stomach aren't always too wise, and we weren't served breakfast until we'd been on the boat over the open waters for quite some time.

The sun was just rising as we caught the water taxi; unfortunately, the cloud cover made for a less than stellar sunrise.  There was a nice pink glow on the horizon, though, and the clouds soon burned off.
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Waiting for the water taxi
We made it down to the Sunbreeze dock by 6:45, just as our captain for the day, Allan from Suya Tours, was pulling alongside.  Great timing.  After we boarded, Allan guided the boat down a bit south to the Caribe Island dock to pick up a couple vacationing from Los Angeles.  We also happened to notice one of our very favorite bloggers, Rebecca, taking photos for her "San Pedro Scoop" in front of Caribe Island and called to her.  She walked out onto the dock to say hello.  It's always a pleasure seeing her when we are out and about.
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Allan in rear, Rebecca pretty in pink
Our next stop was at a dock at a private residence even farther south, where a family of six vacationing from Tennessee climbed aboard.  We were lucky to have such a nice group of people to join the tour with; everyone was friendly.

The boat ride continued southwest across the open water at a high speed.  It was somewhat choppy, making for a bit of a rough ride.  I was glad for the food in my belly as I might have gotten a bit green otherwise.  
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Leaving Ambergris Caye in the distance
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Emily and Barry
After an 18-mile ride at high speed, we arrived at the mainland and entered the North River.  Here is where the trip started getting more interesting, and my stomach started settling since we were no longer pounding in choppy waters but gliding on flat water.  Allan occasionally slowed the boat to point out things to us; he had great local knowledge and was an excellent boat captain and guide.   
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North River ahead!
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Ah, the flat water of the North River...my tummy is feeling better already
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Emily enjoying the boat ride
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Allan told us that snake cacti are very common on trees here
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Mangroves
At some point Allan slowed the boat and set out our breakfast on the bow.  All the food we were served on the tour was made by a local Belizean lady, and it was authentic and delicious.  Even though we'd already had our cereal earlier, we had no trouble putting down one of these delicious warm chicken and refried bean burritos with some Marie Sharp's hot sauce, a traditional Belzean breakfast.  The tortillas were homemade, thick and yummy.  We skipped the fresh pineapple slices as we'd already had quite a bit of fruit that morning, but it smelled great.
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Delicious burrito!
Our first stop after traveling the North River for roughly five miles was Bomba Village.  This tiny village of only about 60 local people has no electricity or other modern amenities.  Villagers make a living by selling wooden carvings, bowls, and other locally made art.  
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Approaching Bomba Village
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We saw lily pads all over the rivers, much to my surprise. These were by the Bomba Village dock.
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Bomba Village
We had a few minutes to shop and use the rest rooms, so I made a beeline to the facilities first.  They were quite unique, and I was just glad to find a flush toilet (only one of the two "girls" toilets actually did work, however).  The men had open-air urinals that didn't provide a lot of privacy but made for a good photo op. 
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Yes, the guys on the left are using the open-air urinals
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Yes, we did take a photo -- you wanted to see, didn't you?
I have been seeking out colorful decorations for our condo since there are already a lot of wood and brown tones in its "bones" (cabinets, doorways, tile, furniture, and countertop), so I decided to forgo the wood pieces and purchase a painted sun in cheerful tones from one of the small stands in the village.  The shop proprietor would hold it for me until our return trip, when I could pay and pick it up. 
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Typical Bomba Village "shop"
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El Sol
We then piled into a brightly painted bus, similar to the school buses I rode in my youth in North Carolina, but a bit smaller, and with higher-backed seats, making it difficult for a height-challenged person like myself to see out the front.  Because of this, and the bumpiness of the ride down the old Northern Highway (which was unpaved off and on and pothole-ridden) towards Orange Walk, I felt a little car sick during this phase of the trip.  It was an interesting ride, though, with small villages, sugar cane fields, and cattle grazing pastures alongside the roadway.  And there certainly wasn't much traffic!  Interestingly too, when we did hit the rare straight, paved stretch, it felt as if we were going SO FAST.  It hit me that this was because I haven't been in a vehicle faster than a golf cart on a road in months.  Barry caught a glimpse of the speedometer and informed me the bus was traveling no faster than 40 mph!  
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Our bus
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Our driver -- I missed his name, but he never said a word.
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View out broken side of bus windshield, if you stood up to see over the seatbacks
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Like a schoolgirl again
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We got onto the old Northern Highway here -- the good section. It got a lot worse.
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Sugar cane field
After what seemed like all day, but was really only a little over an hour of bumping down the partially paved old Northern highway, we turned onto the current Northern Highway, a fine, paved road.  We were only on it for a minute or less, though, when we arrived at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge boat launch, a well-groomed park with much nicer rest rooms than Bomba Village. I was happy to notice that once we were through with the bumpy bus ride, my stomach settled again.  
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Lamanai Outpost and Northern Highway
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Lamanai Outpost - another rest stop
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25 miles to go!
From here, our group hopped on another boat to take us the rest of the way to the Lamanai park itself, about 25 miles away.  Our captain and guide for this stage of the tour was Isidro.  He was incredibly informative, with amazing knowledge of flora, birds, wildlife, and Lamanai itself.  He also had a great sense of humor and a winning smile.  

We started out heading slowly up the river towards Lamanai.  This was a beautiful part of the tour with many interesting sights along the way.  We got to see some great wildlife.  I'm saving the bird photos from this entire trip for a separate blog entry, as this is going to be long enough as it is, but we did get to see some wonderful birds on this trip, including several for our life lists.  
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Isidro at the helm and helper to left
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Large male iguana in the tree
Isidro pointed out Cuello's Distillery, where our Carribean White and Gold (and other) rums are made.  He also noted, with a sly smile, that there was a rehab center just next door!
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Cuello's Distillery
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Rehab center to the right -- very pretty place
We also got to see both a baby and a full-grown American Crocodile.  These are creatures I want to stay plenty far away from. 
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Baby croc
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Big croc with open jaw
One of the many highlights of the day was seeing spider monkeys, one of the only two species of monkeys in Belize (the other being the Howler monkey), up close.  We pulled alongside to see these two playful creatures, and before I knew it, they had climbed onto our boat, completely fearlessly!  This must be a regular part of the tour as they were super tame.  I'll confess, I like my wildlife best at a little bit of a distance, so I stayed as far away from them as I could get on a small boat, but they were super cute to watch.  They enjoyed a taste of papaya Isidro served them, then swung back into the branches and on their merry monkey way.  
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This monkey did a little prancey dance for us before coming onboard
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Monkey had rhythm, yo!
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Monkey on boat eating papaya like a little gentleman. Note tale wrapped around bimini line for safety.
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Is this my seat?
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Finishing his papaya as he says so long
Alas, we had to leave those funny fellows behind and move on....
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Isirdro called this part of the river "Snake River", but we didn't see any snakes, fortunately.
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Just a lot more snake cacti.
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Termite nest in tree -- the termites eat the dead wood, so are actually a positive thing here in Belize!
Another sight along the way was a working Mennonite farm, with a horse and buggy in the distance, just like in Amish Country in Ohio.  
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Mennonite horse and buggy
Finally, our anxious crew arrived at our ultimate destination, Lamanai, excited about what was to come.  

To be continued in Part 2...