Maya Enjoy Tourism Boost From 'End Of The World' Travelers

Many say Dec. 21, 2012, is the day ancient Mayans prophesized the world would end, but scholars say that is not what the calendar said. The day is the end of a cycle in Mayan life, but not the end of the world.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If you're listening to me say this, then you've already figured out the world did not end today. It's been widely rumored that on December 21st, 2012, the world would cease to exist. Many point to a mistake in interpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar, as a source of that apocalyptic prediction that then caught fire on the Internet. Modern-day Maya scoff at such doomsday interpretations. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Merida, Mexico, they are enjoying a boost in tourism that's come with all the hype.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Mayan guide Gregorio Medina Contreras takes a small group of tourists from Washington, D.C., around the ruins of Uxmal, about an hour outside of Merida, in the Yucatan.

GREGORIO MEDINA CONTRERAS: OK, now look at the base of that building, in the body.

KAHN: The group stands at the base of the towering Pyramid of the Magician.

CONTRERAS: The legend says it was built in one night; in one night, by a...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Magician.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A child?

CONTRERAS: A dwarf.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A dwarf?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh.

KAHN: Medina jokes that the dwarf probably had magical properties. Tourist Adan Perez says the Mayas were amazing architects, but he's banking on them not being so good at predicting the apocalypse.

ADAN PEREZ: I've already made plans for next year, so I was hoping that I could live up to those plans.

KAHN: Tourists have flocked to Mayan hot spots in Mexico and Guatemala, in the run-up to today's date. Officials in Mexico say hotel bookings and flights are up substantially over last year. Anthropologist Rafael Cobos, at the University of Yucatan, says unfortunately, those hoping to see spectacular occurrences are going to be disappointed. He says today is just the end of an era; a 5,000-year era that the Mayas calculated in one of their many calendars.

RAFAEL COBOS: The Maya never said that the end - that the world was - is going to end on December 21st; nor the Maya - say anything about the apocalypses.

KAHN: Nor, says Cobos, was there talk of celestial catastrophes, or massive explosions of positive or negative energy. That part, he says, came later, interpreted by new age followers; many like self-proclaimed leader Star Johnson Moser. The Canadian, who calls the Yucatan her home, leads a group of 15 to experience what she says is the region's incredible energy.

STAR JOHNSON MOSER: And as we connect to places like this and open up our energy fields, and merge our energy fields and allow the ancestors to come, the ancestors are here; the etheric teachers and masters are here. They're waiting for us to open up to them.

KAHN: Then there are others here in search of end-of-the-world bargains. Beer companies have a running jingle on local media, urging all to drink up. And local used-car dealers have great sales, too.

VIRGINIA SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken) (LAUGHTER)

KAHN: Virginia Sanchez says she'll knock a couple hundred pesos off the price of a car, if you buy before the close of business today. The government of Yucatan has gotten into the spirit, too, presenting lectures, dances and concerts in cities across the state.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

ASIS VEGA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: In the main square of Ixamal, about 2 hours east of Merida, university students have set up giant telescopes for kids like 7-year-old Asis Vega. He's checking out the night sky.

ASIS: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (LAUGHTER)

ASIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Vega can't believe how big the moon is. His dad, Waylor, says he can't believe how much the Mayas knew about astronomy, all without high- power telescopes and fancy equipment, like we have today. Modern-day astronomer Dr. Isabel Hawkins, of San Francisco's Exploratorium, says her profession owes much to the Maya. She's in town to participate in one of the many state-sponsored lectures debunking end-of-the-world prophecies.

DR. ISABEL HAWKINS: The Maya are still out there, looking at the stars; predicting the movement of the sun and the constellations, to plant their corn. And I think that is a gift.

KAHN: She hopes all this doomsday hype has a positive benefit - to shine a light on the accomplishments of the Mayas' rich culture and people. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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