The New River: A trip to an ancient world
Belize has many rivers and each is important to the growth and development of its region. In the northern region of Belize, snaking through the Orange Walk and Corozal Districts is the New River. The New River is essential to both districts and the entire country in a whole; it has carved its way through the Maya era and the colonial times, and shaped the north for a bountiful future.
The New River was a major trading route for the ancient Maya and enters the bay at Cerros which was their major trading center. Maya Temples are easily seen from the sea. When Belize was still known as the British Honduras the country depended heavily on the logging industry and the New River was a vital piece to the thriving economy. Loggers from the north utilized the New River as a means of transporting logs out to the Caribbean Sea where the British ships would be waiting to carry back the lumber to Europe. Massive logs were set adrift starting from the exotic forests of Orange Walk up to their destination at the Corozal Bay. This industry flourished for several years, but soon there was a new use for the New River, and the north became the land of sugar and molasses. Logs from time to time are still pulled from the river bottom.
Sugar cane was introduced to the north in 1848 by Yucatans who fled from the Caste War. It quickly became a thriving industry and soon a sugar factory was erected – first in Corozal, then moved to Orange Walk. The New River played a vital role in the growth of the sugar industry; it was the only means of transporting the unrefined sugar to large European vessels for export. Today you can still bear witness to the sugar barges as they meander from the Orange Walk Sugar Factory to the Corozal Bay, as they have for many decades.
Now that Belize has plunged into the tourism industry, the New River offers a less industrialized use: as part of the tour route to the ancient Maya city of Lamanai. Lamanai, pronounced Lama’an Ai, means “submerged crocodile” in Yucatec Mayan and was once a good-sized city of the Maya civilization.The 26-mile journey through the waters of the New River from Tower Hill Village near the Toll Bridge in the Orange Walk District leads to the one-time epicenter for Maya traders. The trip on the New River offers scenic views ideal for bird watchers, and is an exciting excursion all by itself. A variety of birds can be seen in their natural state, from the Boat-billed Herons, Egrets to the Jacana or Jesus Christ Bird (given this name as it seemingly walks on water), even Toucans to name a few. If you think that birds are the only critters you are going to see, then you are mistaken. Tucked away in the banks of the New River is a little island where the Spider Monkeys are not shy at all, and at the ruin site you will most likely see (and hear) the Howler Monkeys. Not to mention Morelets crocodiles you are bound to spot along the way; they are a true depiction of Lamanai living up to its Maya name!
Just as interesting is the botany along the river. Navigating through the river will bring you in contact with white delicate water lilies that carpet the water bank for miles. Similarly, all sorts of colorful orchids dangle from the trees bringing the greenery to life. It’s not uncommon to see flowering plants along the bank with strange fruits, often harboring dozens of birds. Part of the journey through the New River brings visitors through dozens of channels so narrow that trees tangle above as if it’s a tunnel. These tunnel-like channels give you the opportunity to enjoy snake like cactus curled around the branches and stretching to the water surface.