End of the World? Not for the Maya of Belize

In Belize, the end-of-the-world hype is being used as an opportunity to offer experiences that give visitors a more accurate understanding of Maya culture

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Much has been made about December 21, 2012 by doomsday prophets, busily proclaiming that the end of the world is upon us. But archaeologists and scholars of Maya culture explain that the mystical date of 12.21.12 will not be the catalyst for apocalypse. The Maya’s long-form calendar will end, but not the world itself, which will simply enter a new period.

In Belize, the end-of-the-world hype is being used as an opportunity to offer experiences that give visitors a more accurate understanding of Maya culture. The most significant of these is a once-in-a-lifetime event held at Caracol, one of Belize’s most important Maya archaeological sites. The National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) will be holding the last of four overnight camping trips at Caracol on the “end of the world” date. The trip will be led by the NICH’s most prominent archaeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe, and is limited to 200 participants, who need to bring their own camping gear. The $150 cost includes a traditional Maya dinner and fire ceremony. Members of Belize’s roughly 40,000-storng Mayan community will prepare the meal, build the fire and lead the prayers and chants.

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The highlight for many previous campers has been Dr. Awe, who gives a 2.5 hour long guided tour of the Maya site during the camping trip. In the 1970s, Awe led the first official excavation of Caracol by a Belizean team (some exploratory excavations occurred in the 1950s, headed by an American archaeologist). Today, Awe is considered to be the site’s greatest authority and remains at the forefront of archaeological excavation and preservation in Belize, where it is thought that more than three-quarters of Mayan sites have not yet been discovered or excavated.

During a spring equinox camping trip at Caracol, Awe explained that the site was discovered in the 1930s by loggers who literally stumbled upon it. Since the 1970s, when he began his archaeological work there, Awe and his colleagues have discovered more tombs—200—than have been found at any other site in the Mayan world. Awe expects there are many more, but NICH simply has not had the financial or human resources to expand its work.

Limited funding is an ongoing challenge for archaeologists throughout Mayan regions, though it may be especially acute in Belize, which has attracted less attention for its Maya sites than, say, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala’s Tikal. Nonetheless, 2012 has been an exceptional opportunity for Belize, says Awe, because it has allowed visitors to Maya sites like Caracol to become ambassadors, “taking this [experience] to the world.” In so doing, they’ll be helping Maya culture enter a new era—exactly the opposite of what the doomsayers predict.

MORE: Found: The Oldest Maya Calendar (and No, the World’s Still Not Ending)