THOUSANDS of mystics, hippies and spiritual wanderers will descend on the ruins of Maya cities today to celebrate a new cycle in the Maya calendar, ignoring fears in some quarters that it might instead herald the end of the world.
Brightly dressed indigenous Mexican dancers whooped and invoked a serpent god near the ruins of Chichen Itza late last night, while meditating westerners hoped for the start of a "golden age" of humanity.
"I see it as a changing of an energy, the changing of a guard, the changing of universal consciousness," said Serg Miejylo, a 29-year-old gardener originally from Connecticut.
Wearing sandals, smoking a rolled-up cigarette and sporting blonde dreadlocks, Miejylo is among those joining the festivities at Maya sites in southern Mexico and parts of Central America.
But while people here were celebrating, the close of the 13th bak'tun - a period of some 400 years - in the 5,125-year-old Long Calendar of the Maya has raised fears among groups around the world that the end is nigh.
A US scholar once said it could be seen as a kind of "Armageddon" by the illustrious Mesoamerican culture, and over time the idea snowballed into a belief that the Maya calendar had predicted the earth's destruction.
Fears of mass suicides, meteorites, huge power cuts, natural disasters, epidemics or an asteroid hurtling toward Earth have circulated on the Internet ahead of December 21.
Chinese police have arrested about 1,000 people this week for spreading rumours about December 21, and authorities in Argentina restricted access to a mountain popular with UFO-spotters after rumours began spreading that a mass suicide was planned there.
Maya experts, scientists and even US space agency NASA insist the Maya did not predict the world's end and that there is nothing to worry about.
New Age optimism, stream-of-consciousness evocations of wonder and awe, and starry-eyed dreams of extra-terrestrial contact have descended on the ancient sites this week - leaving the modern Maya bemused.
In Chichen Itza, below a labyrinth of gray and white Maya pillars, a circle of some 40 tourists sat meditating silently yesterday.
At one point, a woman in a pink shirt said "the golden age is truly golden" and asked the group to find a form of light to take them to another dimension. The meditation then resumed.
Moments earlier, indigenous dancers wearing white linen, bright feathers and beads shook maracas and the seed pod of the flame tree to the beat of drums at the foot of the Temple of serpent god Kukulkan, a focal point of today’s celebrations.
The Maya civilization reached its peak between AD 250 and 900 when it ruled over large swathes of what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. The Maya developed hieroglyphic writing, an advanced astronomical system and a sophisticated calendar.
There is a long tradition of calling time on the world.
Basing his calculations on prophetic readings of the Bible, the great scientist Isaac Newton once cited 2060 as a year when the planet would be destroyed.
US preacher William Miller predicted that Jesus Christ would descend to Earth in October 1844 to purge mankind of its sins. When it didn't happen, his followers, known as the Millerites, refereed to the event as The Great Disappointment.
In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult, believing the world was about to be "recycled," committed suicide in San Diego to board an alien craft they said was trailing behind a comet.
More recently, American radio host Harold Camping predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011, later moving the date forward five months when the apocalypse failed to materialise.
Such thoughts were far from the minds today of gaudily attired pilgrims to Chichen Itza seeking spiritual release.
"What I hope is that I let go of all the old belief system and all the past and I just enter into a new reality that is even better," said Flow Lesur, 48, a Frenchwoman now living in California who teaches underwater yoga in her spare time.
Faun Rouse, a 78-year-old visitor from Colorado, was thinking of a different kind of inner contentment when asked how she would mark the coming of a new epoch. "With a big steak and lobster dinner, then fly back on Saturday," she said.