** Originally published in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
MERIDA, Mexico -- Contrary to any Hollywood doomsday scenarios or a variety of less-than-optimistic New Age theories, the world will not end Friday, Mexican tourism authorities and Merida residents assure anyone who asks.
Yes, the end of the 13th baktun cycle in the so-called Long Count of the Maya calendar corresponds more or less with Dec. 21, this year's winter solstice.
But the event merely signals the "end of an era" and the start of a new one, locals and scientists say. Or, as some academic Mayanists have explained, the end of the 13th baktun — a date deciphered from totem glyphs and written numerically as 126.96.36.199.0. — is a sort of "resetting of the odometer" of time.
It has become reason enough for people of this flat, tropical region of Mexico to celebrate their Maya culture and history and make mystically minded calls for renewal and rebirth. Officials and residents have also expressed high hopes that foreign tourists will be inspired to visit the Yucatan Peninsula through Friday and beyond. (Assuming the world is still here.)
A handful of residents and officials from Merida, the capital of Mexico's Yucatan state, gathered Saturday at a small cenote, or freshwater sinkhole, for a "Blessing of the Water" ceremony. A man dressed in white and described as a shaman stood before an offering marking the four points of the compass, saying prayers in the Mayan language for Madre Tierra, or Mother Earth.
"We must reflect on how humanity has conducted itself, what we've done to the Madre Tierra during this cycle," said Valerio Canche, president of a local association of Maya spiritual healers.
Canche walked among the people, singing in Mayan in a low voice. He took a handful of herbs and dipped them in water drawn from the cenote, then splashed droplets on the heads of those gathered — a cleansing ceremony.
"Let us conduct ourselves, as brothers all, for the common good," Canche said. "Not only for the Maya people, but for the entire universe."
This cenote, in a community called Noc Ac about 14 miles outside the historic center of Merida, sits inside a dilapidated, unguarded government lot, little more than an opening in the ground shaded by a large tree.
A variety of New Age theories — espoused in hundreds of books, documentaries and Websites — warn that, among other potential scenarios Friday, the planets will align and spark a catastrophic recalibration of the Earth's magnetic field, ending the world as we know it.
The U.S. government has taken pains to debunk the theories as impossible, yet they persist in the popular imagination, thanks in part to such cultural offerings as the big-budget movie "2012" (released in 2009).
Geoffrey Braswell, a professor of Maya archaeology at UC San Diego, said the ancient Maya had even larger cycles of time than the baktun, which consists of 144,000 days. Some inscriptions that survive, he said, point to years as far ahead in our Gregorian calendar as 4772.
"There are two monuments that mention this date, the end of this cycle of the 13th baktun. But there is a very long inscription at [the archaeological site] Palenque that talks about events further in the future, and that would seem to suggest that the Maya did not think the world would end," Braswell said.
In Merida on Friday, Gov. Rolando Zapata presided over the official opening of an ambitious series of exhibits, seminars, performances and fiestas to mark the end of the 13th baktun. The entire festival is dubbed "Time."
"This is the time that unites all times," Zapata said. "It falls upon us to live in an era of change, and it falls upon us to accept the responsibility of a new beginning."
After the water-blessing ceremony at the cenote, Petitte Lizarraga, the city's deputy director of tourism, said she hoped that interest in the region's Maya culture would result in more visitors and tourism income. But she also warned against the potential harm that accompanies unchecked tourism in Yucatan, a touchy subject in a region with a string of environmental issues related to the industry, particularly in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo.
"The tourist who comes to this state is a cultural tourist, one who searches for these traditions, and respects all of this," Lizarraga said. "This shouldn't be considered only as promotion. We want people to know us, but respecting all the parameters, so that this will survive for many more centuries to come."