So why did the Maya fall? Deforestation, drought and wars against neighbors have been blamed. In his 2005 bestseller "Collapse," UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond cites "kings who sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster —reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs."
Before things went south, the Maya astronomers calculated a long-term calendar and forecast that a 5,125-year era in human history would come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012.
And then? Like so many fortunetellers and economists before and since, the Maya were vague on details.
For the 21st century doomsday industry, of course, this was perfect. Now we have books, movies, souvenirs and T-shirts tied to Dec. 21. Even though almost nobody believes it, the idea of extinction evidently sells. Mayaland Resorts was charging less than $200 a night at its lodges at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá in May, but this December, the rates will reach $1,000 a night and beyond.
I asked just about every Yucatecan I met, including many of Maya descent, about Dec. 21.
"People say, 'It's 2012. I'm not going to die. I'm going to Chichén Itzá!'" said Andre Mar Arriaga, manager of the bookshop in Mérida's Regional Museum of Anthropology and History.
In the Valladolid office of MexiGo Tours, guide Gilberto Tec Ligorria noted, "My mother is from Guatemala, and my father is from here. So I'm a mix of two kinds of Mayas. And I think it's just the end of a cycle."
At the Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman outside Valladolid, I raised the subject with manager Diego Moo, who keeps a slingshot at the ready in case turkey vultures fly too close to the water. Maybe, Moo suggested (in Spanish), his Maya ancestors were predicting the end of the pure Maya race.
This may seem pessimistic, given that several million Maya endure, many of them farming in Yucatán. But old ways are fading, Moo said, and Mexico's bloodlines are more mixed than ever.
Then the trees rustled and he reached for his slingshot.
On my last full day in the country, I finally got to Chichén Itzá, where the 12/21/12 hucksterism is at its most intense.
It was about 9 a.m. when I stepped up, well ahead of the crowds, and paid separate entrance fees to the state and federal agencies eager to get their cut.
While I roamed, hundreds of vendors were setting up throughout the archaeological zone, playing radios, making faux jaguar roars on little ceramic kazoos and peddling shirts, hats, carvings, calendars, hammocks, dresses, jade jaguars, Cuban cigars and enough refrigerator magnets to drag Iron Man to his knees. Much of the merchandise was doomsday-based.
Guides told me they expected about 2,500 visitors on the day I was there, compared with 8,000 on busy days in December. About 40,000 came for this year's spring equinox, one guide told me, and many are hoping for 80,000 on Dec. 21.
The site's marquee attraction is the restored Temple of Kukulcán (a.k.a. El Castillo), and it's a sight to behold, a four-sided pyramid guarded by feathered serpents. In 2000 I climbed it, along with a few thousand others that day. But now you can't.
Local guides say climbing has been banned since Adeline Black, an 80-year-old visitor from San Diego, suffered a fatal fall while ascending the ruin in January 2006.
You also can't swim in Chichén Itzá's Sacred Cenote. But as you stand at its lip and look down, remember that just last year scientists found bones here of six apparent human-sacrifice victims. Two were children. Estimated time of death: between 850 and 1250 AD.
So was it a perfect trip? Oh, no.
Mérida's traffic drove me nuts and gave me plenty of time to scrawl "miserable city driving torture" in my notebook while creeping along at 2 mph. For the carless, the city's 16th century cathedral, its plaza loud with bird song, and the poc-chuc (grilled pork with citrus juice) at La Chaya Maya on Calle 62 are good fun. But if I had this trip to do again, I'd give Mérida just one night.
I'd sleep instead in the countryside, perhaps at the Pickled Onion, a restaurant and B&B in Santa Elena (near Uxmal) that's run by an English expat named Valerie Pickles, or perhaps at one of the big hotels at Uxmal so I could walk to the ruins.
I'd also spend a few more nights in Valladolid, which has twice the charm and about 8% of the population of Mérida. The Hotel El Mesón del Marqués on the plaza charges about $60 a night, and I had the most elegant meal of my visit at Taberna de los Frailes, a short walk away. While I ate, songs of worship seeped into the night from the neighboring Ex-Convento de San Bernardino de Siena.
Another change I'd make: more time in Izamal, where the Convent of San Antonio de Padua was built atop a Maya temple in 1561 and most of the downtown is painted mustard yellow.
One thing I wouldn't change, however, is my lunch in the town of Xocen. As part of a daylong tour with Valladolid-based MexiGo Tours, guide Gilberto Tec Ligorria and I arranged to share lunch in Xocen in the home of a Maya farming family.
The Puc Canuls are a middle-class family, which in Xocen means a father, mother and six kids farming corn, keeping bees and growing limes, coriander, mangoes, mint, sapotes, chaya and bananas in the yard. The eight of them share four hammocks, a refrigerator, one television, cellphones and an old sewing machine, all on a dirt floor. Next door, in the larger building where the family keeps its seed corn, the concrete floor was immaculate.
The family's eldest daughter, 13-year-old Helmi, made us corn tortillas on a traditional stove (three rocks, campfire and metal tray).
The kids told me about school and sang songs in Spanish and the region's Maya dialect. I showed them pictures of my daughter, drank Fanta from a gourd and gave thanks for an hour of contemporary Maya humanity to complement the days of architecture and history.
For the record, I predict an uneventful Dec. 21. But if you get to Yucatán and you're lucky, the Maya past, present and future may flash before your eyes.