Guest lecturer Sandy Cares’ animated and entertaining talks about people and events reveal colorful and unexpected aspects of the destination’s history, culture and traditions.
Whether you are heading out for an action-filled adventure or are just planning to “lime away” at the beach, she encourages you not to leave the ship without knowing the “story behind the story!”
Drawing from stories by local authors as she weaves in anecdotes from travel and life, Sandy combines meticulous research with effervescent enthusiasm and humor for a fresh and fun twist to understanding and appreciating Bermuda and Caribbean destinations. Sandy has been lecturing aboard Oceania Cruises ships throughout the Caribbean and Central America since January 2014 and hopes to meet you soon.
Below, Sandy shares her fascinating experience of the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich in western Belize while recently lecturing aboard Riviera.
“How do you say Xunantunich?” our local guide asks, teasing us as we settle in for our ride across Belize to visit this exquisite Mayan ruin.
“We just call it tuna sandwich,” she giggles. That works for us just fine.
Arriving at our first stop, the coach pulls off where our group will traverse the short distance across the Mopan River on an old hand-cranked ferry, a quick journey that adds lots of local color to our adventure.
Once on the other side, we ascend to the entrance of the Xunantunich ruins. The ancient Mayan world spanned the five modern nations of Southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize, and Mayan ruins abound throughout this realm. Belize’s Xunantunich, or “Stone Woman,” lies about 80 miles west of Belize City and flourished from about AD 600-750 when it was mysteriously abandoned. In its heyday, the population of Belize’s area may have reached 200,000 and Xunantunich served as an important ceremonial site for the region.
Xunantunich provides examples of some of the major Mayan accomplishments, particularly in architecture, astronomy and art. But before we arrive at the imposing El Castillo, our guide leads us past a small hill overgrown with grass and tells us about metaphorical daggers with which the notorious Thomas Gann explored this site in the mid-1800s. Thomas Gann was a physician by training but also a self-described archaeologist who used questionable methods to excavate archaeological sites. Specifically, dynamite! We can only wonder what treasures may have been lost forever.
The first sight of the imposing El Castillo takes my breath away. The photos I have seen only serve to confirm that I am actually looking at the selfsame site, but photos do not compare to the visual display impacting me now. The stark white of the famous Xunantunich Frieze stands out like brightly flashing teeth.
The frieze, or long band of deeply sculpted limestone, spans the entire length of the monument with stunning glyphs and clearly executed images. One of these depicts the Mayan Tree of Life, central to the Mayan world vision and their creation beliefs.
Another repeated pattern looks like stylized owl-eyes and I ask the guide if that symbol stands for the planet Venus, which he confirms. The Maya kept a “weather eye” on Venus, which portended war and death and other bad things in stark contrast to our own perception of Venus as the Goddess of Love, and bringer of valentines and cupid.
I walk up a flight of stairs to scan other temples and palaces of this ancient city center with the jungle of Guatemala looming beyond. It isn’t hard to imagine what power an ancient Mayan ruler would have felt – and exuded – from this privileged vantage point. Behind me little cubbies with shelves carved into the rock once served as royal beds mere steps away from a sheer vertical drop – unforgiving for a sleepwalker!
I have no intention of climbing to the very top of this incredibly high monument whose height of 130 feet makes it Belize’s second-tallest Mayan structure.
But an inquiry to the guide about what’s at the top stops me cold. “A corbel vault,” she answers casually. “A corbel vault?!” I echo excitedly. I am ignited. I did not come all this way to miss out on an up-close-and-personal encounter with an actual Mayan corbel vault, so up I go!
The corbel vault, also known as the Mayan Arch, is a narrow, peaked arch that was used to bear a great deal of weight over constricted interior spaces like tunnels and was created using nine stone layers to represent the nine levels of the ancient Mayan underworld. While the Romans made widespread use of the corbel arch, and it found its way into the European churches of the Middle Ages, the Maya came by this architectural “invention” in isolation of any knowledge from older European civilizations. The Mayan version of the corbel vault was as ceremonial as it was structurally useful.
After clicking my camera at every possible angle for that “perfect shot” of the corbel vault, I begin the inevitable descent and concede it will be trickier going down these steep steps than it was coming up. I approach the venture the safest way I know how in the absence of handrails: cheek-by-cheek and very slowly. The guide reassures me they do not permit visitors to ascend the monument on rainy days.
Crossing the Mopan River one last time on that quaint hand-cranked ferry, we stop to select a souvenir or two from the colorful vendor stalls conveniently situated on the riverbank. We board the coach for the ride back to the awaiting Riviera after spending a memorable January day at…how do you say? “Shoo-nan-too-nitch,” yes, Xunantunich.
But first we will stop for some well-deserved lunch. Tuna sandwich, anyone?!