* End of a 5,125-year cycle in Maya Long Calendar
* Majority of today's Maya people are Roman Catholic
By Alexandra Alper
IZAMAL, Mexico, Dec 19 Thousands of mystics, New
Age dreamers and fans of pre-Hispanic culture have been drawn to
Mexico in hopes of witnessing great things when the day in an
old Maya calendar dubbed "the end of the world" dawns on Friday.
But many of today's ethnic Maya cannot understand the fuss.
Mostly Christian, they have looked on in wonder at the influx of
foreign tourists to ancient cities in southern Mexico and
Central America whose heyday passed hundreds of years ago.
For students of ancient Mesoamerican time-keeping, Dec. 21,
2012 marks the end of a 5,125-year cycle in the Maya Long
Calendar, an event one leading U.S. scholar said in the 1960s
could be interpreted as a kind of Armageddon for the Maya.
Academics and astronomers say too much weight was given to
the words and have sought to allay fears the end is nigh.
But over the past few decades, fed by popular culture,
Friday became seen by some western followers of alternative
religions as a day on which momentous change could occur.
"It's a psychosis, a fad," said psychologist Vera Rodriguez,
29, a Mexican of Maya descent living in Izamal, Yucatan state,
near the center of the 2012 festivities, the site of Chichen
Itza. "I think it's bad for our society and our culture."
Behind Rodriguez, her two children played in a living room
decorated with Christmas trees and Santa Claus figurines.
Mexico's government forecast around 50 million tourists from
home and abroad would visit southern Mexico in 2012. Up to
200,000 are expected to descend on Chichen Itza on Friday.
"It's a date for doing business, but for me it's just like
any other day," said drinks vendor Julian Nohuicab, 34, an
ethnic Maya working in the ruins of the ancient city of Coba in
Quintana Roo state, not far from the beach resort of Cancun.
Watching busloads of white-haired pensioners and dreadlocked
backpackers pile into their heartland, Maya old and young roll
their eyes at the suggestion the world will end.
"We don't believe it," said Socorro Poot, 41, a housewife
and mother of three in Holca, a village about 25 miles (40 km)
from Chichen Itza. "Nobody knows the day and the hour. Only God
Tracing its origins to the end of the 4th millennium BC, the
ancient Mesoamerican civilization of the Maya reached its peak
between A.D. 250 and 900 when they ruled over large swathes of
southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.
Famed for developing hieroglyphic writing and an advanced
astronomical system, the Maya then began a slow decline, but
pockets of the civilization continued to flourish until they
were finally subjugated by the Spanish in the 17th century.
Today, ethnic Maya are believed to number at least 7 million
in Mexico, Guatemala and other parts of Central America.
The vast majority are nominally Roman Catholics, though many
still uphold elements and rites of their old beliefs. According
to a 2000 Mexican census, there were also a few hundred Jews and
handful of Buddhists among the Maya.
Tales of human sacrifice, pioneering architectural feats and
an interest in the stars burnished the Maya's supernatural
reputation. So too, say experts, has the misguided notion that
the Maya died out with the arrival of the conquistadors.
"That idea that they disappeared culturally back in the deep
past is one of these things that feeds into this idea that they
are mysterious, that they are otherworldly," said David Stuart,
a Maya expert at the University of Texas.
The reality is that many Maya live in rural areas where
water can be scarce, communications poor and education patchy.
Even as some shrug their shoulders at the awe and reverence
December 21 has inspired, others worry it has become a free meal
ticket for sharp-witted businessmen.
"There's the legend and there's the reality," said Yolanda
Cornelio, 21, a tourism official in the city of Merida, whose
mother speaks Maya at home. "Some people take the legend and
abuse it, using it to make money. There's a lot of con artists."
With scores of old Maya ruins, temples and monuments dotting
the landscape between southern Mexico and Central America,
locals have plenty of opportunities to impress foreign visitors.
One of the most popular attractions lies in a leafy grove
near the crumbling pyramids of Coba, where a large stone tablet
records the Maya creation date of August 13, 3114 BC - quite
literally the cornerstone of the 2012 phenomenon.
"This is a very powerful, sacred place," said Jonathan
Ellerby, 39, a writer from Canada. "I feel something energetic,
emotional, and I feel I'm in the right place. I really do."