Where the Mayan doomsday is not the end of the world

According to the Mayan ‘long count’ calendar, December 21, 2012 marks the end of a 5,125-year cycle. Some view its advent as a time of rejuvenation and the beginning of a new era. Others, meanwhile, predict apocalypse, believing the date marks a ‘doomsday’ foretold in hieroglyphs.

Throngs of tourists are expected to flood into southern Mexico and Central America to 'celebrate' the occasion. But what do the locals here in Belize make of it all, I wonder?

A traditional Mayan dance

Mystical: A Mayan fire dance ritual is performed in Mexico, which has become a focal point for the prophecy

It’s almost 10pm in San Jose, a village without electricity in the heart of the Maya Mountains, and we should have arrived hours ago. The bus suddenly stops and honks twice, the sign to let my homestay host know I’ve arrived.

Getting here was an adventure in itself, involving a short flight to Punta Gorda, in southern Belize, before travelling along bumpy, unmade roads, through lush jungles, past mountains riddled with caves and over underground rivers.

Within a few minutes, my host appears out of the darkness. I grab my backpack and start walking as the bus disappears into the distance. We hike together in silence up a steep, slippery path to the family home, lit only by the dimmest of candlelight.

Mr Pop

At ease: Mr Pop takes a rest (top) while wife Andrea cooks up a storm

Dressed in Wellington boots and slacks, he introduces himself in broken and slurred English: ‘I am Mr Lucas Pop, she is Andrea.’

The couple are in their 60s, and their house, while basic, is covered with wedding photos, Mr Pop’s sporting trophies and a huge hammock that hangs across the main room, where they sleep.

‘You hungry?’ I nod, nervously. ‘We wait for you, but we eat already. Now you eat’, says Andrea.

I sit at a small table and vigorously eat my dinner of beans, eggs, corn tortilla and a boiled cabbage-like vegetable with mild spices called 'yippi yappa', all washed down with cold, sweet coffee.

Once finished, I am shown to my bed - made from wooden planks, two layers of cardboard, a quarter of an inch of foam, and a bedsheet. My hosts bid me goodnight and I quickly fall asleep. 

Mayan ruins in Belize

More the Maya: Belize has its own share of ruins from the ancient civilisation

A local looks like he's found something tasty
A yellow vegetable

Gastronomy: A local man lifts a cocoa pod (top) from the tree and peels the skin (bottom) to unearth the beans

In the morning, cockerel crows wake me as the first rays of sunlight creep in through the cracks between the palm tree leaf roof. The smell of tortillas hits the air, which we enjoy for breakfast with more yippi yappa and cold coffee.

After eating, we sit and chat for a while. Mr Pop explains how life in San Jose is still largely based on the sun’s cycle: 'We wake up at dawn, work in daylight, and go to bed when the sun sets.’

The village was originally a small community raising pigs, but in 1954 the British came and the Catholic Church was established. There is now a school with 250 students built with money from the US Peace Corps in 1968.

Mr Pop says they have been struggling lately as their harvest was ruined by rain and tourism has also been slow because the community is hard to reach.

A couple kayaking in Belize

Paradise: Belize is a destination which draws tourists in search of an exotic break

San Jose guesthouse sign

Traditional: The inhabitants of San Jose are keen to encourage more visitors to sample their hospitality

‘What do the Maya hope for their children?' I ask. ‘To go out into the world,’ says Mr Pop, ‘to go to school, but to come back and help their communities strengthen their identity as Maya.’

‘And what about December 2012 and the end of the world?’ I add. ‘There were no stories told about it in that way,’ says Mr Pop. ‘There could be change in climate or the way we live, good or bad, but no end. So we pray, light incense, and ask to be good with nature.’

I head out along the dusty gravel streets to attend a meeting of the village elders. I’m now able to see the picturesque village properly, with its wooden bungalow homes with palm tree leaf roofs dotted across the green hills.

Children play freely as the adults carry out their chores and women in traditional dress sell beautifully weaved baskets.

At the meeting I am told how the villagers want to promote their tea houses (guesthouses) and homestays as another way of supporting themselves. So far, they only have a phone number registered with the tourist boards.

A Maya woman tends to roasting cacao beans in a village in Belize

Traditonal methods: A Maya woman tends to roasting cacao beans in a village in Belize

I ask them what they have to offer a visitor to San Jose. ‘We have a cave, we do jungle treks, there are waterfalls, horse riding, and we can show our visitors how to beat corn and make ethnic dishes like tortillas,' they say.

'We also have a storyteller, can play music, and give craft lessons. It’s important our culture remains. It’s important for the visitors, their experience and for us.’

Again, I inquire about the end of the world predictions. ‘Not all Maya believe it,’ says Mr Silvano, an elder who became San Jose's first-ever tour guide in 1974.

Katy enjoys an exotic cocktail

Well-earned treat: Katy enjoys an exotic cocktail

‘Some Maya have different approaches to it. For example, the Catholic Church allowed our culture and traditions to remain and to make rituals of the past like blood letting, but perhaps this may end in 2012, or perhaps interest in 2012 can bring visitors to our village to learn about our culture?’

After the meeting, concluded with a Glockenspiel performance, I am taken on a short drive to Cyrila's Chocolate factory, where Juan Cho and his wife Abelina produce what is claimed to be the only true Mayan chocolate in Belize using indigenous farming methods.

Abelina shows me how to grind the cacao beans with a stone tool called a 'matate', made of volcanic rock. I give the process a go.

I’m told to hold the stone at 45 degrees to grind the beans and soon, oils add a shiny luster to the brown paste and a chocolatey smell scents the air.

The texture is still coarse, and while some chocolatiers will grind beans for 36 hours in a machine, here they do it all by hand. They then add honey and plain sugar to sweeten the mixture and flavours such as spice, vanilla or chilli.

Abelina then pours the paste into moulds and sets the bars out to harden. Mr Cho tells me he hopes that the growing demand for ‘green’ products will mean a rejuvenation of traditional Mayan farming methods, which will help expand their business.

I spend the rest of the day buying traditional baskets (around £3 each), visiting a cacao plantation and exploring the village.

Life here is far from economically rich, but it seems to me that most Maya I meet in San Jose feel that now is a time of hope, for rejuvenating the practices of the past, and making the future easier.

It seems rather than preparing for the apocalypse, they are looking forward to the years to come.

Travel facts

For information on travelling to and staying in San Jose or other Mayan village homestays, visit www.travelbelize.org.

There are two options for reaching Belize and both involve a stopover. The first is to fly to a US hub and take an interconnecting flight to Belize City.  A scheduled return flight will cost around £500-£550 in low season (February and November to mid-December).

Alternatively, fly to Mexico and continue overland or fly between Cancun and Belize City with Maya Island Air (www.mayaregional.com). Flights with the same airline to Punta Gorda start at around £20.

Guesthouse accommodation in San Jose costs around £6 per night.