Is It the End of the World as the Maya Know It?

Is It the End of the World as the Maya Know It?

The end.

We interpret prophecy; we predict raptures and Armageddon; we plaster our doomsday forecast on T.V. and in papers across the globe--and wait.  

Some laugh and carry-on, while others stock food in their brand-new bomb shelters. We anticipate, with an almost warped fascination, our demise.

It passes. And so it goes.


Recently, I traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula to visit the Mundo Maya. The year 2012 is a special time to visit the sacred ruins, and more specifically, December 21st. According to the Maya Long-Count Calendar, this is the end of the 13th Bak’tun—the end of the current era.  

As I packed my suitcase for the adventure, I received phone call after phone call from friends going into great detail about body mutilations, severed heads, and ongoing drug wars.  “Are you crazy? Body parts are washing up on beaches there!” friends warned.

Eager to learn more about the Maya people and with enough sense to know I was traveling to one of the many incredibly safe places in Mexico, I politely fielded their disconcerting questions.  And to be on the safe side, I threw some Imodium in my suitcase and called myself prepared. (We all know our biggest threat in Mexico is Montezuma’s revenge.)

Do the Maya people, in fact, think that December 21st, 2012 will be the end of the world? Will I be walking down the beach and discover a severed body part wash ashore, tangled in seaweed?  The eight-ball says, “Most likely, No.”


Upon arriving to the Yucatan Peninsula, I had the opportunity to walk the grounds of the Maya ruins to witness them myself, and I was fortunate enough to do so while chatting with resident archeologists, Dr. Julia Miller and Alfonso Morales of Catherwood Travels.  We visited Chichen-Itza, Cobá, and Tulum of the Riviera Maya.

I couldn’t even begin to expect to absorb all of the knowledge they possess regarding the Maya people, but I was happy to get the bottom of this whole “end of the world” thing.  And what exactly is a Bak’tun, anyway?

A Bak’tun is a cyclic event occurring every 5,125 years: 13 periods of 144,000 days. The last Bak’tun ended August 11, 3114 BC. Today, one artifact remains known as the Tortuguero inscription that actually mentions the year 2012. This fact alone, I find astonishing. They knew we would be here. Were they optimistic? Would they like what we’ve become?


Walking among the ruins with a guide enhanced the experience all-together.  They pyramids became more than what met the eye. Behind every temple, hieroglyph, numerical symbol is a story—a piece to a puzzle that helps us understand and relate to a truly fascinating culture.

The Maya were farmers--hence, their need for accurate measurements of time. They had political councils, and large communities with city centers and rural areas.  They were immensely knowledgeable about how to use, and properly manage, natural resources.

They practiced sustainability before it was even cool. 

Most likely, this explains how they survived on such unforgiving land—areas that even now are less populated than they were during the Classic Maya periods. The Yucatan Peninsula housed and fed approximately 2 million Maya: nearly the same as today, but without modern technology and convenience.


I watched as sunburnt, bathing-suit clad tourists posed in front of sacred ruins. The occasional showoff would slip behind the rope and flash a rebellious grin to the camera. I even joined the herd of tourists climbing the crumbling temple, Nohuch Mul, of Cobá—still feeling a tinge of guilt despite visitors’ permission to do so.

To the Maya, one Bak’tun merely echoes the next, like a season, and like their crops. They come, they go. They live, they die,  and they come again. So it goes. In theory, what a pleasant way to live: not in fear of an inconsequential end. To lead an existence of ownership, responsibility, and the need to care for the Earth and its inhabitants for which we’re connected.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so concerned about the end, but rather be more concerned about other things—like no end.  We can learn a lot from the Maya. We marvel at what they’ve left behind and with good reason.

Maybe the world doesn’t slowly progress down the linear timeline of human existence. Maybe with the end of something, is the beginning of something—an opportunity to right our wrongs.

Maybe we should live like there isn’t an end too. And maybe the new beginning couldn’t have come at a better time.


Travel tip shared by Beth Yost for Travel Dudes