party reports

The Party at the End of the World: A Mayan Doomsday Dance in Chichen Itza

Photo: Russel Chan/Xinhua Press/Corbis

VALLADOLID, MEXICO — In Hollywood’s take on the Mayan apocalypse, 2012, the Earth melts from the inside out “due to the sun’s destructive forces,” Woody Harrelson explains. But when the morning of December 21 rolled around to the Chichen Itza, a thin layer of clouds rendered the solstice sun so benign that the tens of thousands of pasty pilgrims who descended upon the Mayan ruins could go without sunscreen.

It was a good omen for the several thousand visitors who had come for Synthesis 2012, a three-day spirituality conference and electronic–world music festival celebrating “the end of the Mayan calendar.” Their planned dawn procession to the ancient city canceled owing to the national park’s strict security, the white-clad spiritualists had joined the less righteous visitors deposited by tour buses from all-inclusive resorts at Chichen Itza’s public opening time, 8 a.m.

“They really could have handled this better,” one such day-tripper from Cancun said as she made the one kilometer trek from an overflow parking lot to the pyramid. “I see they don’t believe in the Disneyland system of moving people.” Her adult son, noting the prevalence of Chacos, panchos, and elaborate leather fanny packs, asked if there was a “burn” going on somewhere.

In fact, there were several. Despite widespread ambivalence about the end of the Mayan calendar among their descendants living in Mexico, English-language festivities were planned across the region. An hour north in Mérida, hundreds of spiritualists packed into a convention center for a ceremony led by crystal skull-healer Star Johnsen-Moser. To the east, in Tulum, visitors meditated among the Mayan ruins of Coba. Many Synthesis attendees were on a winter holiday festival circuit across Maya country, dropping by Chichen Itza for an apocalyptic pit stop between the Rainbow gathering in Palenque and the Cosmic Convergence in Guatemala.

They did not believe the end was nigh. “When we listen to the words of the Mayan Elders, we learn that the end of the Mayan Calendar is comparable to watching your car’s odometer roll over to all zeroes,” Synthesis’s website explains. “The Mayan prophecies foretell of a transition to the age of the 5th Sun, a new time when consciousness, prosperity and the Divine Feminine prevail.” The most cataclysmic moment occurred when the three festival buses containing stages and sound equipment were turned away at the border. But it was hardly the end of the world: At Synthesis’s opening ceremony–cum–press conference in a hotel outside the pyramids, a festival producer assured the crowd that by moving rocks “in the Mayan tradition,” her team had built a stage “so beautiful you’ll cry.”

Scholars believe the Maya had slaves to help build their cities; others believe aliens helped. Synthesis benefitted from the labor of dozens of migrant hippies and music fans who volunteered in exchange for access to the festival and campground, a converted dump ten kilometers from the pyramids. Dylan, a tow-headed hitchhiker I picked up with his girlfriend en route to Chichen Itza, told me he hadn’t taken a “vacation” in seventeen years. Festivals are work; he had come to Yucatán with one peso (about ten cents) to his name and planned to barter for survival. “I do amazing bodywork,” he explained. “I went to the Harvard of massage schools.” In lieu of helping to pay for parking, he advised me to take a “leap of faith” as he exited the car.

To that end, Synthesis offered dozens of New Age self-improvement workshops (“Birthing a New Humanity: Shifting Collectively into the New Paradigm”), world-music groups (the Earthlings, featuring Marvin Gaye’s son), and bass and dubstep D.J.’s (a.k.a. “audio shamans”). Occurring across Piste, the Yucatán town closest to Chichen Itza, the events coincided with a “galactic alignment” of the sun, the Earth, and the center of the Milky Way. NASA, the official wet blanket of the Mayan apocalypse, concedes that the galactic alignment is kind of real, if unremarkable and imprecise. They might not have been so generous with the other celestial events discussed.

“Our extraterrestrial visitors have a surprise for us,” Ra-Ja “Merk” Dove, a self-proclaimed “elder senior ambassador from the Interplanetary Council of 12,” promised at the festival’s opening ceremony. He wore an African-style kufi cap but otherwise looked and sounded like a Confederate general. Dove claimed to have seen a blue light open up the sky at the Rainbow gathering in Palenque, which he interpreted as a fulfillment of a Hopi prophecy. “Our brothers and sisters from the stars will join us.”

Noting the presence of brothers and sisters from satellite television broadcasts, other speakers urged attendees to manifest their purest intentions, as their energy would be magnified by the abundant media — the New Age equivalent of a field trip chaperone’s warning to “be on your best behavior because you’re representing this school.” One woman near the center of the crowd seized the talking stick and warned that owing to the expected 30,000 tourists and a planned visit from the president of Mexico, police presence around Chichen Itza would be palpable and perhaps oppressive. There were tales of a guy from a nearby hotel sentenced to seven years in the local state prison for one joint.

“Are you a federale?” a man across the crowd shouted.

“I am everything, baby,” she snapped back. “We are all one.”

The president never showed up, but the polícia did. The night before the Mayan calendar expired, about a dozen officers formed a blockade outside the festival campground entrance, citing incomplete permits. Displaced campers negotiated fruitlessly, singing and drumming and giving the police unsolicited massages and hugs. A flip-flop-wearing bro from Michigan whined that he should have gone to Rainbow. A woman named Harmony, wearing a bindi and and clutching a book of mythology to her chest, said she was Synthesis’s lawyer and urged him to go to a bar down the road, where the locals had been kind enough to connect someone’s dubstep-heavy iPod to the speakers.

The next day, there were some signs of the end times. Those who arrived at Chichen Itza wearing the recommended all-white purification uniform gave the proceedings a suicide-cult vibe. Pickup trucks patrolled the town with rifle-toting soldiers standing on the beds. I did not consider my own demise until, walking out of ruins, a double decker tour bus clipped my left arm. A stud in the hubcap caught the strap of my purse, tugging me down a road lined with souvenir vendors, where I treated myself to a Sobreviviente el ‘Fin del Mundo’” T-shirt.

Visitors are no longer permitted to traipse up the steps of the iconic temple of Kukulkan, but organizers of the electronic-music festival affiliated with Synthesis constructed a two-story replica of the pyramid for two twelve-hour dance parties called AscenDance. Seasoned festivalgoers in face paint and crop tops claimed spaces on its red- and purple-lit steps, gyrating with LED hula-hoops for the benefit of anyone taking acid.

All revelers were encouraged to climb the top of the pyramid at least once, in order to pass through its two symbolic arches. The first, according to AscenDance publicity materials, was a portal of purification that would “release all the stagnant energy constructs that will no longer serve your higher purpose in this new paradigm.” The second, a portal of manifestation, would “actively call in all guides and energies to support you on your path of realizing your full potential.” (For some, this seemed to work. The child-size man known around the campground as “Party Moose,” for his plush antler hat, cut an impressive figure when he danced atop of the pyramid, backlit by psychedelic projections.)

But before the fun could begin, there was cultural diplomacy to be done. The weekend’s most-talked-about spiritual leader was Ac Tah, a direct descendant of the Maya who interpreted his ancestors’ “coded” technology into a series of dancelike movements. When performed atop circular mats affixed with high-powered magnets available only in China, these movements (a combination of voguing and the foxtrot) allow people to “activate their DNA and rise to a higher frequency, to that of an awakened being,” his website explains. “Ac Tah has connections,” an acolyte named Terry said as he demonstrated the motions to onlookers at a local smoothie shop.

The Mayan calendar festivities accommodated a range of spirituality with origins far beyond the reach of the ancient civilization, which went into decline sometime in the ninth century. A generically uplifting song was introduced as a vision the singer had received from ancient Egypt. After a Buddhist prayer, a Synthesis emcee urged attendees to think of Tibet and urban ghettoes worldwide. Aaron, a hoodie-wearing twentysomething, came to Yucatán on a mission of “Christ consciousness.” Specifically, to place a crystal he found ten years ago — cylindrical in shape with a bulge at one end in the manner of “a crown of thorns, because I vibe on Jesus” — into a crack in a ruin at Chichen Itza.

Meanwhile, a gray-haired organic food distributor in the spiritualist’s all-white uniform gave a secular explanation for his pilgrimage: the dawn of a techno-utopia. “I’ve been working the whole time I’ve been here,” he said, gesturing to his iPhone. “I made $30,000 today.”

Toward the end of the spiritual ceremoniesthe festival’s top producer, Michael DiMartino, announced that the AscenDance had been postponed by three hours. After meeting with the mayor of Piste, he had concluded that Synthesis participants should attend Piste’s municipal calendar celebration in the town square instead. A miniature pyramid had been erected there, too, and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto would be projected on a screen. In return, he explained, the locals had been invited to join the AscenDance. This announcement drew the loudest applause of the weekend, including one man who threw back his head, lifted his arms, and yelled “thank you” to the night sky.

“Will there be shuttle buses?” a smart aleck in the crowd asked, referring to the promised ground transportation between the hotel zone and the campground that had yet to materialize. It was one of a handful of organizational grievances that ultimately dissolved the relationship between the electronic music and spirituality sides of the gathering shortly after the end of the long count calendar.

“We are asking you to show up,” DiMartino said. “Show up.”

By then, Ac Tah had shown up, too, in all-white garb with fringed boots and his long hair tied back with a headband. While Terry demonstrated his leader’s signature magnetic movements, Ac Tah told the crowd that his Mayan ancestors were not ceremonial types. They had been mathematicians and astronomers and neurologists, he said. Taking this for criticism of the Synthesis festivities, I hoped the dancers who were on next — a man dressed like a jaguar and a bunch of women wearing ten-foot-tall batwings — were out of earshot. “If we don’t change the circuit of our brains,” Ac Tah said through an interpreter, “when you go back to your country you’ll just say how good the party was.”

On the first day of the fifth sun — and the second-to-last of the festival — the hot gossip around the campground was that some girl took too much LSD and had been found lying naked on the ground. For some, this would be a sign of a good party, but by then a shift in the consciousness had taken root. Hung-over partiers were rousted from their tents for a morning meeting on the topics of community safety and respect for sacred land.

The Party at the End of the World