December 21 marked the end of an era that lasted 5,200 years, according to the Mayan “Long Count” calendar.
Some believe the date, which coincides with the solstice, marks the end of the world as foretold by Mayan hieroglyphs.
But “No, no,” scholars and native elders said — it just marks the end of the old Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new one.
That didn’t stop thousands from gathering at this ancient Mayan stone pyramid in the Guatemala jungle, where actors in costumes and head-dresses staged elaborate dances to a mournful pan-pipe tune.
Native Maya priests then lit fires as the first rays of the new day’s sun appeared through the jungle canopy.
The ceremony was held to mark a new era, but critics complained that it was really for tourists and had little to do with the real Mayans, who reached their peak of power in Central America between the years 250 and 900 AD.
“For us this isn’t a show and isn’t about tourism, it is something spiritual and personal,” said Sebastian Mejia, a Maya spiritual guide who was at Tikal with several colleagues to celebrate a more serious parallel ceremony.
Alberto Marroquin, a community elder, said that the Mayas felt they were marginalized at the official event.
“This is illogical,” Marroquin told AFP. “This is like celebrating something when the main person has not been invited.
“We are not magicians or warlocks … we are scientists with our own way of thinking,” he said.
Forty percent of Guatemala’s 14.3 million residents are indigenous Mayans, and most live in poverty.
The region where the native Mayans live saw a tourism bonanza in the run-up to the fateful December 21 date, with tourists snapping up all-inclusive excursions to Mayan archeological sites.
A similar ceremony was held for some 30,000 visitors in Chichen Itza, a major ancient Maya site in south-eastern Mexico.
“This is a very special day,” said Norwegian tourist Ann Silje, who was dressed in white and carried a silver cross with turquoise stones marking the points of the compass.
“The Mayans were the repositories of the wisdom of all that is happening now,” she told AFP, adding that a “cosmic alignment” that had taken place is a harbinger of a “a better world.”
Elsewhere, doomsayers hunkered down to prepare for The End, but most took a lighthearted view of the Mayan “prophecy” of the world’s destruction.
“If you’re in an underground bunker with a lifetime’s supply of baked beans how stupid do you feel now?” asked one person on Twitter, which saw dozens of posts every minute joking about the failure of the world to end.
Crowds of foreigners flooded Alto Paraiso, a small town in central Brazil built over a crystal quartz formation that mystics have long associated with special energy.
But authorities were prepared, because in 2000 the town was also swamped by outsiders preparing for the apocalypse.
In the southern French village of Bugarach — rumored to be one of the few places to be spared in the apocalypse — journalists from across the world were bitterly disappointed at the lack of New Age fanatics to interview.
Police however arrested two men who had gas masks and machetes in their car as they approached the Pic de Bugarach, a nearby mountain said to be a place where people will survive when the world supposedly ends.
Police had wrongly anticipated a mass influx of visitors and blocked access to the village and the mountain, which some say will open on the last day and aliens will emerge with spaceships to save nearby humans.
Reporters also wandered around the tiny village of Sirince in Turkey, hoping to grab a mystic taking refuge there.
Doomsayers identified Sirince — said to be the site from which the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven — as a site that will be spared thanks to its positive energy flow.
A record numbers of visitors flocked to a pyramid-shaped mountain in Serbia believed by some to be a source of electromagnetic waves that could shield it from catastrophe.
Australia was one of the first countries to see the sun rise on December 21, and Tourism Australia’s Facebook page was bombarded with posts asking if anyone had survived Down Under.
If the world does end, Chinese furniture maker Liu Qiyuan has designed a fiberglass pod that can carry up to 30 people and withstand towering tsunamis and devastating earthquakes.
A Dutch Christian has meanwhile painstakingly prepared a lifeboat in his garden capable of saving 50 people ahead of expected biblical floods.
Separately, Chinese authorities arrested some 1,000 people in a crackdown on a Christian sect that spread doomsday rumors.
Thousands of worried people even contacted the US space agency NASA asking what to do. In a web page devoted to debunking the Mayan prophecies, it reassured them that the world would not end on Friday.
Some argued online that a milestone for the “Gangnam Style” video of South Korean rapper Psy — one billion views on YouTube — was itself a harbinger of doom, enlisting a fake Nostradamus verse in their cause.