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Photo by Jeremy Williams, My Shot (National Geographic)

Traveling to the End of the World

This is not my computer’s IP address. It is actually today’s date.

Your phone might tell you that today is February 9th2012. But it is also baktun twelve, katun nineteen, tun nineteen, uinal two and kin four . . . according to the Mayan long form calendar.

Excuse me while I pull out a napkin and do the math (Do you have a pen?). That’s (12 X 144,000 days) + (19 X 7,200 days) + (19 X 360 days) + (2 X 20 days) + (4 X 1 day), which comes to a total of (carry the one, divide by 365 days a year) . . . 5,124 years one month and fourteen days.

5,124 years, one month and fourteen days since what?

Since the beginning of time and the creation of mankind, the universe and everything in it, that’s what. According to the ancient Maya, that all took place on August 13, 3114. B.C.—and according to the ancient Maya, all of it will end on December 21, 2012.

Wait, isn’t that, like, this year? Why yes it is. If the Mayan long count system was a giant wall calendar, there would only be 315 pages of kittens or shirtless firefighters or Far Side jokes left to tear through. And then, on the very last page, in some small gray font, it would simply read, “The End of the World”—as if it was Arbor Day.

Except that the ancient Maya did not merely imply the world would come to an end just because their calendar did. They laid out a pretty spectacular doomsday prophecy and quite literally carved it out in stone.

I am not afraid of the world ending. Rather, I am afraid of the world ending before I get to see it all. If the whole Mayan doomsday prophecy comes to pass, then it seriously complicates my long-term travel goals. While the apocalyptic-minded might stockpile weapons or move themselves to higher ground, those of us with wanderlust should be busily ripping through our bucket list.

Because the world is about to kick the bucket. At least that’s what everyone keeps saying the ancient Maya said. The problem is, the ancient Maya are not around to defend their claim, leaving their prophecy in the hands of millions of internet soothsayers who are whipping up a fancy New Age feast of doom, gloom and hogwash.

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By John Lloyd Stephens, "Incidents of Travel in Central America"; London, 1841

This is why I have come to Mexico: to find out the truth. In lieu of time travel, real travel can take us back into the past and help us understand a lost world. Travel teaches us by touching all of our senses. This is how I want to learn about the Maya—by surrounding myself in their world.

I have traveled to southern Mexico to discover the Maya, their country, and their calendar. Five states in particular (Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche,  Yucatán, and Quintana Roo) comprise El Mundo Maya or World of the Maya, a place where even today, so many only speak their indigenous languages—a place where hundreds of temples and ruins lie buried under volcanic ash or jungle overgrowth.

My past travels have already taken me to the grand ruins of Copán in Honduras; I have also climbed the temples of Tikal in Guatemala. Now, at a time when the world (and the internet) is so focused on the darker predictions of an ancient civilization, I intend to seek out my own answers to the mysteries of the Maya. Not only because I am a highly curious person, but because chasing a mystery is probably the greatest reason ever to travel.

I travel alone and carry no guidebooks. Instead, I am traveling with the CNG (Complete National Geographic)—a portable hard drive the size of a deck of cards, filled with every issue of National Geographic since its initial publication in 1888. I have learned more about the Maya (both ancient and present-day) from reading National Geographic than anything I’ve ever read online. Thus I approach the 65-million-year Mayan calendar with 124 years of Nat Geo knowledge.

I intend to visit as many ancient sites as possible and to visit the modern-day Maya as well. I hope to find answers throughout my journey, but I also realize that I am in a race against time. Many lifetimes have already been spent studying the Maya and their civilization. And now (allegedly), only 315 days remain until earth reboots and assigns herself a new IP address.

They say tomorrow is another day but maybe not. Maybe tomorrow is the last tick in a ticking time bomb, or else maybe tomorrow is merely

There’s only one way to find out, and that is why I am in Mexico.

Track my travels with this interactive map of Mexico’s World of the Maya.