Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize:  Photo Tips and Guide

Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize: Photo Tips and Guide

My wife loves to cruise.  I love my wife.  So I go on a fair number of cruises:)

Tourists climbing the High Temple at Lamani Belize
High Temple at Lamani

But, as a photographer, I find cruising can be a bit frustrating.  I mean, you get to travel to some beautiful, exotic and incredibly photogenic locations, BUT…you rarely have much time in port, you miss the best light (arrive after sunrise, depart before sunset) and the standard shore excursions are rarely oriented toward the photographer. To make things even more challenging, there is precious little info available to help you plan how to make most of the limited photographic potential you do have.  For example, go ahead and Google:  “Yosemite Photo Tips”.    Instantly you are rewarded with PAGES of hits that can help you plan a photo trip.  However, when you Google: “Jamaica photo tips”, or “Cozumel photo guide” or “Mayan Ruins at Lamanai photo hints” you won’t find a lot of help out there….

So if you happen to be a photographer on a cruise boat that is going to stop in Belize City, then I hope you will find this article to helpful.  Your ship will likely have a shore excursion to the Mayan Ruins at Lamanai.  Now you could go on a city tour, snorkel, zip-line or drive ATVs…but you can do those things at any of the other stops.  As a photographer, trust me, you want to book the Lamanai tour.  Even if you aren’t a photographer, the Lamanai ruins are unique because you are actually allowed to climb them…which hasn’t been the case at any of the other ruins I’ve visited over the years.  C’mon…this is one of those “bucket list” memories that you really need to experience!

History and Location


HDR of the Jaguar Temple

Tour Overview & Helpful Hints:

  1. The cost for a cruise-line sponsored tour (in March 2013 on Norwegian Cruise Lines) was $109 per person…you can get a similar non-cruise line sponsored tour for about $75 (keep in mind, however, if you are on a non cruise-line sponsored tour and it is late getting back to the dock, the ship will leave without you.  If you book your tour thru the cruise line, they guarantee that the boat will wait for you…easily worth $35 to me!)
  2. From start to finish, the tour takes about 6 hours.
    • The trip to the ruins takes about two hours (split between an hour on a bus and an hour on a river taxi).
      • The bus ride is pretty boring and the landscape is not photogenic.  The guide will talk for about 45 minutes and share details about Belize…it was interesting, but bring a book, he doesn’t talk much on the way back and you will get bored.
      • You won’t need your book on the New River water taxi.  There is 26 miles of wildlife…crocs, bats, howler monkeys, iguana, herons, etc.
        • You even pass by John McAfee’s compound and a Mennonite community.
  3. You get only about one hour actually atLamanai.
    • Our guide was very knowledgeable and maintained a running monologue about the Maya.  In fact, he had been one of the laborers employed by  Dr. Pendergast during the excavations back in the 1970s!
    • The guide takes you to three separate temples:  The Jaguar Temple (N10-9 Complex), the High Temple (N10-43)  and the Mask  Temple (Structure N9-56)
    • You also pass thru an excavated Mayan Ball Court between the Jaguar and High Temple.
    • None of the Temples are more than a five minute hike from each other.
  4. The High Temple is the one the guides usuallyencourage you to climb.  It is the tallest of the three (99′ tall) and there is a rope installed down the center of the stairs to give the tourists something to hold on to.  The view from the top is mesmerizing.  Nothing but green jungle as far as the eye can see and a killer view of the New River to the east.
    • WARNING:  This is not something you want to do if you are not fit.
      • Let me be clear:  You are not in the States…OSHA would totally freak out at this place.
        • There are no handrails, no safety equipment of any kind.
      • The steps are tall and they are STEEP.  Really steep!  It is more like climbing a ladder than stairs.
      • This isn’t for the faint of heart. I’ve done acrobatics in warbirds, ran class 5 rapids, scuba’d around sharks…but this climb (and the trek back DOWN), really got my heart pumping.      Know your limits.

        View from atop the High Temple at Lemanai Belize Photo tips and photo guide
        This is your vista if you make it to the top! 180° three frame panorama merged in Photoshop.
  5. Bring some snacks…we didn’t get lunch until about 2pm, you will be hungry long before then
  6. Bring some water.  They do have drinks available, but not when you are actually at Lamanai.
  7. This is the tropics…
    • It is hot, even during the winter.  I’m a Florida boy…I’m used to heat, but Belize was a good 20 degrees warmer than Orlando during March when I visited! You will want a hat and cool clothes.
    • Wear hiking boots.  You will be walking over uneven terrain covered with roots and rocks.  I saw one lady trip and bang up her head.  This isn’t Disney.
    • If you come during the rainy season (June thru October) you should expect a shower in the afternoon, so bring raingear.
    • The rainy season also breeds mosquitos and other annoying pests, so pack your bugspray (get the good stuff with a high percentage of DEET).

Tips specifically for my fellow photographers:

  1. You will want a long zoom lens for wildlife.  300mm minimum.
  2. A wide angle lens is very helpful for the temples.
  3. I regretted that I didn’t bring a fisheye.  I think you could have fun with one here.
  4. Bring your polarizer filter.  It will allow you to maximize the rich blue sky…which will help give you contrast against the jungle and the temples.
  5. Once your water taxi gets to Lamanai and the guide leads your tour to the first temple, you need to break away from your group.  Everyone else will be staying within ten feet of the guide to hear his monologue…if you do the same you are going to severely limit the variety and quality of your shots.  Just keep them in sight as you work around the area.  It is also a good idea to tell the guide ahead of time what you are going to do and find out exactly when they plan to get back on the boat.  If you somehow loose track of your tour group, just make sure to make your way back to the boat on time.
  6. Make an effort to include people in some of your shots.  They can really add scale to the scene.
  7. Actually, the real problem is getting a shot without mobs of people around the pyramids.
    • The best way to accomplish this is to stay well in front of your group.  This way you get to the next temple before your tour does and hopefully just after the previous one has moved on.  If you talk to your guide ahead of time, he will gladly share with you details of the route he will take so you can anticipate their movements.
  8. I found a tripod to be critical.  Straight on shots of the temple are pretty unexciting.  My best shots were ones in which I positioned myself on the edge of the treeline and incorporated some of the native flora in the foreground.  To keep everything in focus, you need to use a really small aperture…which is going torequire a long shutter speed and that’s where the tripod will come in handy.
    • If you want to shoot a panorama from the top of a temple, then your tripod must be light and equipped with a strap that allows you to carry it on your back without throwing you off-balance.
    • Unlike Mexico, Belize has no restrictions about having a tripod at the ruins.
  9. If you do shoot from the edge of the jungle, the dynamic range will likely be too much for your sensor.  Try HDR to get the full dynamic range (you will thank yourself again for having  your tripod).
  10. Jaguar Temple
    • There is a wide, treeless field between this temple and the ball court.  You can get some dramatic shots by climbing the entrance to the ball court and getting a shot of the temple across the lawn
    • Try some shots from the jungle’s edge framing the temple with trees.
    • There are some spectacularly carved stelae (stone pillars) near the Jaguar Temple.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know about them until I got home and was doing research for this article.  They are located near the base of the temple.
  11. Ball Court
    • I didn’t find the ball court to be very impressive or photogenic.  If you find an angle, perspective or technique that results in an impressive image, let me know so I can try it next time!
  12. The High Temple
    • If you climb this, then a panorama from the top is a must (see shot earlier in the article)
      • I didn’t take my tripod to the top of the temple…now I wish I had.  I had to hand hold my camera and the quality of the resulting panorama suffered as a result.
    • Take some photos of folks climbing the steps…this is impressive from both ground level and from the top.
    • Tourists climbing steps of the High Temple at Lamanai
      This gives you a perspective of how tall and steep these steps are!
  13. Mask Temple
    • My favorite.  This structure is flanked by two huge 12′ tall sculpted ‘Olmec’ heads!
    • Shoot from an angle to capture some side-lighting which will highlight the features
    • The head on the left (east) is damaged (the end of the nose is missing).  The one on the left is perfect (see below)
    • Of course, have someone snap a shot of you next to the head for your “I’ve been there” wall.Olmec Head detail on Mask Temple at Lamanai Belize
    • Incredible

Final Thoughts

Even if you don’t have a fascination with photography, archaeology or history, I’ll bet that a trip to Lamanai will be one that you remember long after you’ve forgotten those other typical shore excursions.  I found something haunting and deeply stirring as I strode about this site.  I think you will too.



 Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize: Photo Tips and Guide

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. This is the best guide to photography of anything in Belize I’ve read. Thanks for the practical tips like water and snacks, and the tripod +lens guidance. It’s too bad you didn’t spend more time in Belize. I could use some more intel like this for our week-long trip!

    1. I’m glad you found the blog helpful. I too, wish I had been able to spend more time in Belize. Let me know what photographic gems you run across on your trip!

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