The eve-of-solstice scene atop Caana, or Sky Temple, in Belize, was solemn
There was reason to celebrate. 13 b’aktun, the long awaited “end” of an important Maya calendar cycle was a big deal. Most (but not all) Maya scholars acknowledge that an important cycle of the Maya Long Count does indeed have an end-date that correlates to December 21, 2012. Except that it’s not an “end-date” and the Maya never said anything about a 2012 apocalypse. So while the rest of the world joked and obsessed about “end-of-the-world” nonsense, the Maya region observed the cycle change in a variety of ways.
The cycle is 13 b’aktuns, as December 21, 2012, is called in Mayan, the end an exact measure of 1,872,000 days, or 5,125 years. [Related article: “Maya Calendar 101: What does “December 21, 2012″ really mean?”]
No matter what people believed regarding the significance of 13 b’aktun, it seemed like a fine excuse to travel to Mesoamerica, where the ancient calendar keepers lived and built their thriving yet competing city-states. Most of the region is covered by forests today — and villages, towns, cities, and archaeological sites scattered across southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
I reached out to a few footloose friends, archaeologists, and photographers and here’s the round-up of reports I’ve received so far. It is far from complete, so I invite you to add your own 12.21.2012 travel stories in the comments section below. In the meantime, Feliz B’aktun!
I chose to travel to the top of Caana, Sky Temple, at Caracol archaeological site in western Belize. Caracol is one of the region’s more remote, overlooked sites. This attracted me. Then I heard that the Belize Institute of Archaeology was going to issue special camping permits, giving rare off-hours access to visitors on December 20, 2012, the night before the solstice, and I was sold.
I reported on the experience with an article and photographs for the National Geographic Intelligent Travel blog: “A Night on Sky Temple: Honoring the Long Count at Caracol.”
Elsewhere in the country, things were different. Tony Rath, a photographer from Belize (the same maestro, incidentally, who shot the covers of both my books to the region, Moon Belize and Maya 2012), was invited to the country’s Toledo District by the Maya Leaders Alliance and the Q’eqchi Maya Healers Association to document the events in the village of Santa Cruz.
Rath described the women forming an assembly line to make corn tortillas while the men butchered four pigs for the village. His images of the scene are breathtaking. “I chose to go to Santa Cruz because it was a local celebration,” said Rath.
“Things started at five o’clock with talks and music and food, and lasted through the night till dawn when we went to Uxbenka for the Mayejak ceremony, then back to Santa Cruz for the full Cortez Dance.”
He continued, “I had a long chat with Victor Cal, a leader of the Q’eqchi Healers Association. They are celebrating the end of the 13th b’aktun and the beginning of the next. They think the whole ‘end of the world’ thing is a travesty to their beliefs, and the commercial activities at other sites, with robed hippies and faux ceremonies are a shame.”
Farther west, on a hilltop looking over the town of San Ignacio, Cahal Pech archaeological site once served as an elaborate royal residence of Maya rulers and priests. On the evening of December 20, a hundred or so people from town wandered up the steep hill to the site, not knowing what they would find there.
Matthew Boling, an archaeologist and Anthony Pereira, a visual anthropologist, both from California, were among the crowd. Boling said they’d traveled to the Maya region to see “how the local Maya were going to bring in the new b’aktun and end their great cycle. I wanted to see first hand.”
“When we first arrived [at Cahal Pech archaeological site], there were no lights, there was nothing, we wondered if anything was going on – then we found the royal plaza, where Maya elders were preparing the fire ceremony. They spent more than two hours painstakingly preparing this elaborate fire pit with incense, colored candles, honey,” and other symbolic offerings.
Boling continued, “At first there was a lot of flash photography, talking, drinking, cellphones — people were expecting a party, but as the night progressed and the priest kept talking” (in Mayan and Spanish with little translation to English), many people drifted off, he said. After midnight, the remaining crowd consisted of about half indigenous Maya and half curious tourists from all over.
Pereira said someone distributed candles to everyone in circle. “We added them to fire, but first there was a last goodbye, and everyone was hugging each other. Afterward, there was this euphoric feeling – everyone focused on the fire. There was this sense of peace between total strangers. It was communal and warm.”
He and Boling described the early-morning scene as a trance-like state, and they were finally awoken with a round of good morning hugs, and then someone was passing out corn tamales and cups of sweet, lukewarm coffee.
At Chichen Itza, a major archaeological site near Cancun and the Riviera Maya (and some 60,000 hotel rooms), it was no surprise that tens of thousands of people arrived to mark the day. Traffic was backed up for miles around Chichen Itza and makeshift parking lots appeared along the roads.
In the neighboring village of Piste, outside the Chichen Itza gates, “Synthesis 2012” was one of several area productions and events. This four-day gathering hosted musicians and spiritual leaders for “an unprecedented celebration to welcome a dawning of a new era of renewal, balance, and harmony.”
Sandy Azancot, a tourist from Belize, spent the day of December 21 at the Chichen Itza site. “It was a mixed bag of people there,” she said, “the usual tour groups, individual sightseers (like us) and lots and lots of New Agers and hippies! People were periodically joining hands and encircling El Castillo (the big pyramid), dancing around it in a clockwise fashion and cheering.”
Father to the southwest, Dr. Edwin Barnhart, Director of the Maya Exploration Center and Palenque mapping project, said a torrential rain fell for most of the day at Palenque.
“After having devoted years of my life to creating the map of Palenque,” said Dr. Barnhart, “it felt right to spend the first day of the new bak’tun strolling through its rain-soaked plazas. The mist hung on the site most of the day and made for beautiful photos, albeit no visible sunrise. There weren’t many people there, less than a thousand peeking out from inside the temples as the rain fell.”
Meanwhile, he reported, “About noon, thousands of Zapatistas marched through the streets of Palenque in black masks. It was a peaceful march for indigenous rights, but I’m sure it freaked a number of tourists out.”
PHOTO BY James Rodriguez, mimundo.org
Photojournalist James RodrÃguez reported from Huehuetenango, in western Guatemala. He posted a stunning article and photo essay entitled, “2012-12-21. Mayan Oxlajuj Baktun: End of an Era, More of the Same” in which he writes, “Events in the Guatemalan northern city of Huehuetenango during the much-awaited end of the Mayan Oxlajuj Baktun, provide a clear reflection of the divisions and challenges faced by Mayan communities today.
“The media exploited erroneous apocalyptic rumors, the government and business sectors viewed it as an opportunity to gain economically through tourism, and progressive groups seized the opportunity ‘to strengthen ancestral wisdom and never-ending search for balance’ while vindicating what seem never-ending struggles for justice, inclusion, and self-determination.”
At Tikal National Park and archaeological site, the enormous production among the ruins was either a huge success or a disrespectful racist fiasco, depending on who you ask. Massive stage productions, cultural reenactment shows, international television coverage, presidential visits, accusations of tourist-caused temple damage — these are the topics dominating the headlines and social media chatter I’ve seen out of Guatemala so far. Were you there? What did you see?
Copan — the artistic jewel of the Maya world, known for the intricacy of its carvings, and the multi-tiered methods one king would bury the previous city before building his own monuments anew.
Copan was the site of “The Great Return,” a special tour and gathering of some of the world’s top Mayanists and 2012 scholars: Barbara MacLeod, Michael Grofe, David Sedat, John Major Jenkins, and a handful of lucky tour members rose and entered Copan archaeological site before sunrise.
“We began the day with a sunrise meditation,” said Shannon Kring Buset, organizer of the Great Return Tour and Director of the film 2012: The Beginning, “entering the park in the dark, and standing before the stelae in awe as their detail began taking shape in the early morning rays.”
“There were very few people around,” said John Major Jenkins, author and scholar on the 2012 phenomena. “We first went to Stela C, where we encircled the stela and did a breathing meditation, feeling the centering of the world axis, the sun in the highest center of consciousness, and the alignment of ourselves with the larger cosmos.
“The daylight grew as anticipation grew. Stela C was a most appropriate location for this sunrise meditation, because it was dedicated on 126.96.36.199.0, a date that placed the sun right at the Crossroads of the Milky Way and ecliptic — where the sun also is located on December 21, 2012. Amazing!”
Buset said that all around Copan Ruinas, “The atmosphere was positive, the weather perfect. We all remarked about how small the numbers were. In the evening, I was a guest at an amazing, open-air philharmonic orchestra concert, including opera singers, dancers in full body paint, and a very emotional speech by Honduras Vice President Maria Antoinette. We all sat in the rain. That’s how good it was!”
Most amazing, continued Buset, “was the turnout for our film screening. It is estimated that 2,000 locals and tourists were in attendance, with local Maya Chorti’ families walking four kilometers from their village to the screening. People of all ages, even small children, sat riveted. All seats were filled, and people sat on the concrete walls and on the grass. At the end, many Maya embraced me.
“One elderly man said to me, ‘You have made our hearts and the hearts of our ancestors proud. We are grateful.’ He wept, and I lost it, of course. It was one of the best nights of my life. I made this film to honor Copan, and in the end, they honored me.”
What did you do to mark 13 b’aktun — winter solstice 2012? Tell me a story in the comments below.
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Joshua Berman is the author of “Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras.” His website is JoshuaBerman.net