High atop the temple of Xunantunich, a tour group enjoys a breeze as it looks out at the humid Central American jungle below. Standing on a gray pyramid that's still the second-tallest structure in the country of Belize 1,200 years after it was built is the high point of this group's visit to these Mayan ruins: They must know there will be no better time to sheepishly ask a local about the end of the world.
"So, do you mind if I ask, what do you think will happen with the whole Mayan apocalypse thing?" asks someone in the group.
The guide seems to have anticipated this. He waits for a circle of pasty visitors to form around him before answering. A guy wearing a necklace made of climbing rope sits in rapt attention. "So what's, like, the last day?"
The guide pulls out a book adorned with drawings of the glyphs of the so-called Long Count calendar, soapstone versions of which are aggressively hawked by indigenous Belizeans in tents below. He sets about explaining a complex astrological calendar to a group of people who only know about it through a John Cusack disaster movie.
This conversation is playing out all over Mesoamerica right now. I witnessed it at least a dozen times over two weeks in three different countries, involving everyone from a 13-year-old boy ("I think we might lose power or something") selling carvings to tourists captive in a cafe to a 59-year-old shaman who will spend the weekend burning sacrifices at altars in Guatemala.
The tour guide at Xunantunich—like others of Mayan descent—seems totally stoked about Dec. 21. It's the dawn of a new era, he says, no scarier than New Year's Eve.
"On Dec. 21, there will be a lining of the planets, which breaks the earth and it starts back," says the guide. "It's not the end of the world."
"All the North Americans are freaking out," says someone in the group.
"What's hot will be cold, what's cold will be hot," says the guide.
"I remember Halloween and being in a snowsuit," says someone in the group.
"What will happen, we're going to find out," says the guide.
"I heard it could be, like, the start of the ice age or something," says someone in the group.
"Once you guys are ready to go down, we can go down," the guide says. "Ready?"
GO: The apocalypse is Friday, Dec. 21.
WEDNESDAY DEC. 19
THURSDAY DEC. 20
SATURDAY DEC. 22
MONDAY DEC. 24
TUESDAY DEC. 25