CHICHEN ITZA, Mexico (Reuters) - Dawn broke over ancient holy sites in southern Mexico to celebrations on Friday, ushering in the start of a new era for the Maya people that had been billed as a possible end of the world.
Mystics, hippies and tourists descended on the ruins of Maya cities to mark the close of the 13th bak'tun - a period of around 400 years - and many hoped it would lead to a better era for humanity.
The end of the bak'tun in the 5,125-year-old Long Calendar of the Maya had raised scattered fears around the world that the end is nigh or that lesser catastrophe lay in store.
To many visitors to Mexico, however, it was quite the opposite.
"I'm just grateful to be here at all," said Graham Hohlfelde, 21, a student from St. Louis, Missouri. "I hope something happens to make me a better person. If I can get a little cosmic help I won't turn it down."
"It's not the end of the world, it's an awakening of consciousness and good and love and spirituality - and it's been happening for a while," Mary Lou Anderson, 53, an information technology consultant from Las Vegas.
Fears of mass suicides, huge power cuts, natural disasters, epidemics or an asteroid hurtling toward Earth have circulated on the Internet ahead of December 21.
A U.S. scholar said in the 1960s that the end of the 13th bak'tun could be seen as a kind of Armageddon for the Maya. Over time, the idea snowballed into a belief by some that the Maya calendar had predicted the earth's destruction.
Chinese police arrested about 1,000 people this week for spreading rumors about December 21. Authorities in Argentina restricted access to a mountain popular with UFO-spotters after rumors began spreading that a mass suicide was planned there.
A few minutes before the north pole reached its position furthest from the sun on Friday, a spotlight illuminated the western flank of the Temple of Kukulkan in the old city of Chichen Itza, a focal point for the celebrations in Mexico.
Then a group of five English-speaking tourists dressed in white made their way across the plain, dropped their bags and faced the pyramid with their arms raised.
Maya experts, scientists and even U.S. space agency NASA had insisted the Maya had not predicted the world's end.
"Think of it like Y2K," said James Fitzsimmons, a Maya expert at Middlebury College in Vermont, referring to the year 2000. "It's the end of one cycle and the beginning of another cycle."
The New Age optimism, stream-of-consciousness evocations of wonder and awe, and starry-eyed dreams of extra-terrestrial contact circulating on the ancient sites in Mexico this week has left many of the modern Maya bemused.
"It's pure Hollywood," said Luis Mis Rodriguez, 45, a Maya selling obsidian figurines and souvenirs shaped into knives like ones the Maya once used for human sacrifice.
The Maya civilization reached its peak between A.D. 250 and 900 when it ruled over large swathes of what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
The Maya developed hieroglyphic writing, an advanced astronomical system and a sophisticated calendar that helped provide the foundation for the doomsday predictions.
There is a long tradition of calling time on the world.
Basing his calculations on prophetic readings of the Bible, the great scientist Isaac Newton once cited 2060 as a year when the planet would be destroyed.
U.S. preacher William Miller predicted that Jesus Christ would descend to Earth in October 1844 to purge mankind of its sins. When it did not happen, his followers, known as the Millerites, refereed to the event as The Great Disappointment.
In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult, believing the world was about to be "recycled," committed suicide in San Diego to board an alien craft they said was trailing behind a comet.
More recently, American radio host Harold Camping predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011, later moving the date forward five months when the apocalypse failed to materialize.
Such thoughts were far from the minds on Friday of gaudily attired pilgrims to Chichen Itza seeking spiritual release.
Story Copyright 2012, Reuters Photo Copyright 2012, Getty Images