Just a few days into 2012, tour operators and travel companies in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras – the four countries also known as the Mundo Maya – have ramped up their promotions for the coming year, which marks the end of the Maya Long Count calendar on December 21.
More on the significance of the date below (hint: It has very little to do with the movie 2012), but it also means the coming months will see a surge in Maya-themed packages, trips, and offerings, with varying degrees of value and quality. One that recently hit my inbox appears to exceed the mark in terms of authenticity and adventure, while being supremely affordable: the Maya 2012 Passport, launched by the Belize Tourism Board.
The passport, which costs a mere $25, grants travelers access to about a dozen participating sites (and there are some biggies on the list), including Altun Ha, Barton Creek Cave, Cahal Pech, Caracol (pictured above), Cerro Maya, El Pilar, Lamanai, Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit, Nohoch Che’en, Serpon Sugar Mill, and Xunantunich. Passport holders also receive a souvenir booklet to record their visits.
But that’s not the only cool offering the tourism board has recently unveiled to commemorate the 2012 celebrations. For the first time, the National Institute of Culture & History (NICH) is allowing visitors to camp overnight at the majestic Maya site of Caracol to witness the rising sun over the revered site on the summer and winter solstices and spring and autumnal equinoxes.
These Maya Equinox Celebrations are limited to 100 guests per event and allow travelers to camp at Caracol on the evening of the 20th of March, June, September, and December. Upon arrival, a senior NICH member will give a tour of the site, followed by a traditional Maya meal of cochinito en pibil – a special pork dish – tamales, and more in the Caracol camp kitchen. On the morning of the solstice or equinox, travelers will take part in a traditional fire ceremony, performed by a native Maya shaman, before watching the sun rise over the temples and then returning to the small town of San Ignacio.
Tickets to the Equinox Celebrations are $150 and are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis. The price covers all camping, site and guide fees, plus two meals. More information on the celebrations and the passport should be forthcoming at the website of the National Institute of Culture and History (www.nichbelize.org), but travelers who want to purchase a passport in the meantime can contact Shari Williams, NICH Communications Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or +011 (501) 227-3050. They can also contact the NICH main office in Belmopan City, in the Cayo District in Belize, at +011 (501) 822-3302. The Belize Tourism Board will also be available to take orders for the passport at 800-624-0686 or email@example.com.
Over the next few months, I’ll be writing more about various Maya-themed trips and adventure offerings in Belize and beyond, but anyone planning a trip to the Maya Mundo in 2012 (or any other time) should definitely check out Joshua Berman’s Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. This handy, pocket-size guide, part of the esteemed Moon Travel Guides, is just $7.95 (also available in e-book format for just $2.95) and is packed with information and tips about goings-on throughout 2012 in the Mundo Maya.
Berman does an excellent job of putting the history and significance of 2012 (specifically, December 21) into layman’s terms, but here’s a quick crib sheet: December 21, 2012, is a significant date for the Maya culture because it marks the end of its Long Count, a 5,125-year cycle of the Maya calendar. But there's no actual Maya reference or writing that predicts death or destruction; instead, the end-of-the-world, doomsday theories have sprung primarily from Western hype and Hollywood (especially the aforementioned 2012).
Bottom line: When a tour or package promotes itself with an "end of the world" or "apocalypse" reference, you might want to keep looking.