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The vast, mysterious night sky silenced every thought in my head as I marveled at the dazzling blanket of low-hanging stars that lit our course across the New River, the longest river in Belize, to our first port of call. The 90-minute river ride is the most exhilarating route to Lamanai Outpost Lodge, an eco-friendly sanctuary with 17 rustic cabanas nestled in a vibrant habitat teeming with wild black howler monkeys, crocodiles, and more than 250 species of vivacious birds. The thatch-roofed structures receive crisp surround-sound of the restless wildlife. The lodge is named after the region, which translates to “submerged crocodile.”
There are eight in our group of bird watchers, novice hikers, and seasoned thrill seekers who have ventured to a destination where roughly 50,000 Mayans lived between 1500 B.C. and the early 1700s. Situated north of Belize City, it’s the jewel of the Orange Walk District, which offers wilderness adventure and archaeological expeditions.
In the 20th century major excavations of the area unearthed temples of an ancient Mayan civilization that survived the Roman Empire. Hieroglyphic decoders believe the site carvings record sensational stories of war and peace.
The trails to the Mayan ceremonial site at Lamanai are swarming with ruthless mosquitoes that laugh at repellent, but the view from the summit of the High Temple will take your breath away. There are other excursions: At daybreak bird watchers in our group set out to scout for gray catbirds, great kiskadees, and mangrove swallows. After dusk they revisited the riverbank to stalk nocturnal birds, while the rest of our group went crocodile hunting. Well, we accompanied the guide who caught (and released) the toothy reptiles.
Leaving Lamanai we traveled by river, highway, and rugged dirt roads to our lunchtime pit stop at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, a haven for migrating birds. Crooked Tree is noted for its abundance of cashew trees, which fuel a fledgling cottage industry. Verna Samuel served a sampling of her cashew creations after lunch at Bird’s Eye View Lodge (www.birdseyeview belize.com). The forested Cayo District, 90 minutes southwest of Belize City, was our next overnight destination. This region offers cool creeks and the dramatic Thousand Foot Falls that plunge 1,400 feet.