A Mexican man wearing a pre-hispanic costume performs at a tourist area of Playa del Carmen in Quintana Roo state, Mexico, on Tuesday during preparations for the celebration of the end of the Maya Long Count Calendar.(Photo: Pedro Pardo, AFP/Getty Images)
FELIPE CARRILLO PUERTO, Mexico -- Mayan pilgrims often come here to a simple church with a thatched roof to venerate the Cruz Parlante, or Speaking Cross, which gave their forefathers guidance during a 19th-century rebellion.
priest Alfonso Ek says lately he's being asked by curious non-Mayans
about something he says has nothing to do with his people or their
beliefs: the end of the world.
His response: "The world will not end."
seekers, partyers and folks seeking spiritual experiences are pouring
into the Yucatán Peninsula for the end of the centuries-long Mayan
calendar that some believe predicted the end of the world Friday. The
Mayan people here appear to be greeting the event serenely, with a sense
of humor and bemusement.
ancient Mayans, who ruled throughout southern Mexico and Central
America until about 900 A.D., used three calendars, one of which was the
Long Count Calendar that completes a major cycle on Dec. 21, 2012. Some
today have claimed that the date signifies the end of the world, while
scholars say it is merely the beginning of another cycle.
The Mayas still exist today as a diverse number of indigenous peoples, some of whom still speak the Maya language.
end of the Mayan calendar put the spotlight on a people known for human
sacrifices but celebrated for their past prowess in subjects such as
math and astronomy. Today they live largely on the margins of the lands
conquered by the Spaniards beginning in the 16th century.
Mayans across the Yucatán Peninsula were in rebellion throughout the
later half of the 1800s, angered at discrimination and being treated as
slaves by those of European descent. At the church here, they looked
upon the "Speaking Cross" as an oracle in what is known as the War of
the Castes. The Mexican army ended the uprising in 1901.
conducts a Mayan form of Mass at his church, plans to mark the new
calendar with prayer and traditional ceremonies, which he says many Maya
have abandoned for other faiths, along with their language. He says
this rejection of their culture might bring plagues, disease and
Yet most people, says local museum guide Karla Chan Poot, "are receiving Dec. 21 with calm.
believe that they're going to see a change, in humanity, in our
thinking, that there should be a return to nature," Chan says. "This
won't be anything like the world ending, or a meteor crashing, or
extraterrestrials arriving," or anything depicted in the popular culture
News of the pending end has reached people here, like
aspiring Mayan artist Marco Poot Cahun, who incorporates doomsday talk
into his monologues - which he delivers in Maya.
"If I ask (an audience) if they believe the world will end, no one will raise their hand," he says.
the idea sprouted that the Mayans predicted the end of the world
remains a mystery to many. José Manuel Ochoa, archaeologist and director
of the Mayan Ruins at Cobá, says the Mayans were known for their
ability to measure time, and the Mayan calendar has been interpreted
many different ways.
He says the Long Count Calendar lasts 5,125
years, and that it began sometime in mid-August, 3714 B.C. On Friday,
it concludes the third cycle, each one marked by men created by Mayan
gods from various materials: mud, wood and, most recently, corn. What
comes next is unknown, he says - "maybe men of plastic," he jokes.
The Maya built impressive monuments, temples and cities and even a system of pre-Hispanic stone paths known as "sacbes."
Maya suffered under Spanish rule and were treated "almost like slaves,"
harvesting henequin, a plant with sword-shaped leaves, for making rope,
Many modern-day Mayas in the Yucatán live better,
although poverty persists. Some still reside in villages where only Maya
is spoken and live in traditional houses with thatched roofs.
Traditions such as white clothing and taxi service with tricycles are
In the traditional settlements, "the grandmas there won't
drink Coca-Cola. They prefer their atole," a corn gruel beverage, Poot
Others earn livings in tourism, which began in Cancún
only in the late 1970s. Ochoa says each of the 150 Mayans living on a
collective property near Cobá earn $1,200 every two months by offering a
tricycle taxi service at the ruins.
Chan says tourism draws many, although wages are often low.
in the north (of Mexico) have the American dream," she says. In the
Yucatán Peninsula, many Mayans dream of tourism jobs, Chan says - even
though their language, which is widely spoken in smaller settlements, is
unwelcome and can lead to discrimination.
have changed names, she says - Ek, for example, was once "Estrella"
(star) in Spanish. Despite ignorance of their culture, many Mayans see
an upside to the erroneous interpretation of their calendar.
"People in faraway places didn't know we existed," Ek says. "Now they're coming here."