Mayan new era -- or end of world -- about to start

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Tucked away in thick forest, an exquisite site of Mayan ruins began hosting winter solstice ceremonies on Thursday as the region's indigenous people marked the end of an era.

Or perhaps the end of the world, depending on your point of view.

At the site, there were no signs that doomsday -- the stark scenario conjured by proponents of one minority reading of the ancient Mayan calendar that underlies the festivities -- was imminent.

At sunset, Guatemalan President Otto Perez was to kick off a long night of Mayan dance and other rituals, lasting until dawn, when Mayan natives will greet the rising sun on December 21, 2012 -- a date feared by some.

Around the world, superstitious people have fretted over a quixotic, not to say apocalyptic, interpretation of the calendar -- taking refuge in mountains or bunkers, with some stockpiling guns and survival rations.

In the United States, still in shock after a massacre at an elementary school, officials in one county of the midwestern state of Michigan sent thousands of students home early for the Christmas break.

The Lapeer County district said "rumors connected to the Maya calendar that predicted end of the world" had distracted students and teachers, even though they have been "thoroughly investigated and determined to be false."

Still, classes were cancelled Thursday and Friday.

The mystery stems from a carved stone found in Tortuguero, a Mayan site in Mexico. The relief contains a cryptic allusion to something really big happening on Friday.

However, most experts interpret the calendar to mean December 21, 2012 is simply the end a 5,200-year era for the Maya and the start of another.

This reading says that Friday marks the end of 13 cycles with which they measured time -- each lasting 400 years.

If that's right, everybody can relax and enjoy the ceremonies as folklore.

Governments and tourism officials have thus scrambled to cash in on the doomsday frenzy and lure visitors to Mayan sites from Mexico to Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

In the run-up to the ceremonies, Mayan high priests purified some 20 sites that are sacred to their culture, including Tikal.

But a leader of an association of these leaders, Sebastian Mejia, said the government is cheapening it all by treating like a circus show.

"For us it is not a show and it is not about tourism. It is something spiritual and personal," Mejia said.

The site here in Tikal is a UNESCO world heritage site that boasts six pyramids as high as 70 meters and an astronomical observatory.

To get to it you have to hike through the thick forest of a national park that is home to 500 species of butterflies, 300 kinds of birds, jaguars, pumas, wild boar and deer.