ALONG THE RIO DULCE, Guatemala — Two Maya Q’eqchi Indians in a small cayuco paddle forcefully toward our white-canopied panga, as we motor up the broad Rio Dulce in eastern Guatemala. Their strong, rapid strokes churn the jade water, leaving a serpentine wake that crackles the mirror-like reflection of thick jungle vines draping steep cliffs. A spear gun lies in the bow of their hand-hewn wooden dugout.
In ancient times, these two Maya might have been fierce warriors advancing on a phalanx of 12 intruders from a warring city-state, ready to do battle. Today, they come peacefully, as residents of the Maya Q’eqchi indigenous river community living along the flooded banks of the Rio Dulce. Drawing alongside our launch, the older man and his son proudly display the day’s fresh catch: two glistening, 25-inch-long robalos, a white fish found in tropical waters. They accept our gifts of orange soda, dried soup, and cookies before setting off.
We have come to the Rio Dulce for the day to meet the modern descendants of the ancient Maya who centuries ago built massive temple complexes and sprawling cities throughout Mexico and Central America. Their highly advanced civilization extended from the Yucatan Peninsula in the north through neighboring Belize and Guatemala to Honduras in the south. Today, nearly 12 million Guatemalans trace their roots to this lost empire and embrace the legacy it left for subsequent generations.
We continue motoring upriver and tie up at the wooden-plank dock in front of a thatched-roof, open-air house on stilts. Inside, a short, dark-haired woman, encircled by a smoky haze, kneads tortilla dough in a small bowl near a rustic wood-fired stove. Our tour guide, Chico, whose parentage is a mix of Maya and Italian, gives each of us a small dollop of the sticky dough. We flatten it with our hands and then toss it onto the blackened sheet metal suspended on stone blocks over burning wood. The woman flips the tortillas until they are golden-brown and then piles them on a plate alongside a bowl of homemade tomato-pepper salsa.
Last stop is the Ak’ Tenamit, a Maya Q’eqchi community development on the Tatin River, where nearly 500 children from poor rural families attend school and receive vocational training. A gentle rain pelts our ponchos, and viscous mud tugs at our sneakers, as we thread among thatched-roof classrooms to a large cafeteria-style enclosure where students are eating their lunch of tortillas, soup, and bananas. The girls giggle at our broken Spanish. We pass out food gifts before sloshing back to the launch.
The return ride to Livingston, a fishing village where we had stopped earlier, is bone-chillingly wet. At the Hotel Villa Caribe, we warm up with grilled fish, shrimp, chicken, beans, and rice, accompanied by energetic Garifuna drumming and punta dancing, an echo of West African influence in the Caribbean. Another hour of thumping over the heaving waters of Amatique Bay takes us back to the cruise pier at Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala’s bustling deep-water port, where the tour began.
Our adventure on the Rio Dulce is one of the highlights of our 10-day “Mayan Mystique” cruise on Oceania’s newest flagship, the Riviera. The round-trip sailing from Miami features popular ports-of-call in the western Caribbean that are gateways to well-known Maya ruins, including Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras, and off-the-beaten-track sites, such as Belize’s Dragon’s Mouth, the ceremonial entrance into Xibalba, the Maya underworld. Lively shipboard lectures and knowledgeable Maya tour guides on shore provide insights into the extraordinary culture and architecture of this storied Mesoamerican civilization.
“This cruise itinerary offers an excellent opportunity to see Maya ruins during five to seven days of shore excursions and to explore the area from a historical perspective,” says Sandy Cares, Oceania’s guest lecturer. “Much of this history is not taught in our North American school curriculum. A lot of our information on the Maya comes from Hollywood.”
Archeologists believe the Maya arrived as early as 1500 BC at some sites in Mexico and Central America. During the golden age, roughly 300 AD to 900 AD, their kingdoms flourished, and workers used stone tools to build elaborate palaces, ceremonial pyramids, citadels, plazas, and dwellings for thousands of people. Priests and scribes developed the complex Maya calendar, used hieroglyphs to record events, tracked celestial movements, and invented the concept of zero. In the 10th century AD, Maya civilization began to collapse, and people abandoned their cities, which were engulfed by the encroaching jungle. Some Maya ruins, such as Kohunlich on the Yucatan Peninsula, were not excavated until the mid-1970s, and others remain buried.
Tales of the Maya’s clandestine rituals, human sacrifices, and lost gold have piqued the curiosity of treasure hunters, authors, film writers, and movie directors. Filmmaker George Lucas shot his first “Star Wars” movie at Tikal, in 1977. The Indiana Jones movie, “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” was inspired by the mystical crystal skull purportedly discovered in 1924 by Anna Mitchell-Hedges on an expedition to the lost Maya city of Lubaantun in Belize.
Hollywood’s fascination with the Maya has sparked efforts to preserve and promote the mysterious civilization and culture. At Mexico’s Puerto Costa Maya cruise terminal, we are greeted by Maya warriors, straight out of central casting, who wear elaborate war paint, immense feathered headdresses, and animal bones in their pierced ears. A two-hour bus ride takes us to the Kohunlich Maya ruins, where we stroll through a serene, manicured park, shaded by rustling cohune palms, to the Temple of the Kings, the acropolis and the Palace of the Stelae. At the Temple of the Masks, archeological workers are busy repairing large face-like images honoring the Sun God. Our guide, Luis, asks us to close our eyes and imagine we are back in 514 AD as he blows into a conch shell, which was used to signal the naming of a new king.
At our port-of-call in Belize City, the Youngbloods join our 20-person tour group on a high-speed motorboat at Orange Walk Town. Freddie, the boat captain, takes us careening through the labyrinth of mangroves in the New River Lagoon to the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve. Lamanai, meaning “submerged crocodile,” is one of the few Maya sites in Belize that was still occupied when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Howler monkeys roar from the treetops as Gilberto Cocom, a Maya descendant, guides us to the Jaguar Temple, a sprawling complex glistening in the sunlight.
We pass through the ancient ball court and approach a grove of spindly palm trees. Unexpectedly, the towering Temple of the Rain God erupts from the jungle floor like an apparition from Xibalba. We ascend a wooden staircase and then scramble over jagged limestone to reach the top of the temple where the lush tropical canopy and placid lagoon unfold at our feet. The view is both exhilarating and dizzying. It is easy to imagine all-powerful Maya rulers surveying their kingdom from this lofty pinnacle.
Once again on solid ground, we continue walking to the Mask Temple, where one-story-high countenances of Maya kings gaze stoically from their eternal resting places in the limestone walls. The crumbling bones of their predecessors lay buried in tombs somewhere deep within the imposing pyramid.
“I’m proud to be a Maya and to have known three generations of my parentage who were full-blooded Maya,” Gilberto tells us. His broad features break into a smile, as he adds: “It’s good for you to come and see these ancient buildings and to understand the culture of a race of people who are still living.”
OCEANIA CRUISES Mayan Mystique 10-day cruise round-trip from Miami, with 2015 departures on Nov. 29 and Dec. 12, and 2016 departures on Jan. 13, Feb. 2, March 3, and April 2. Prices per person, including airfare, $2,299 to $13,499. 800-531-5658, www.oceaniacruises.comClaudia Capos can be reached at email@example.com.