CHICHEN ITZA, Mexico (Reuters) - As pockets of anxiety crop up ahead of the day billed as the Maya apocalypse, a motley crew of New Age thrill-seekers, mystics and tourists have gathered at ancient holy sites in Mexico hoping to witness the birth of a new era.
In the Maya Long Calendar, December 21 marks the end of the 13th bak'tun, an epoch lasting roughly 400 years.
In the 1960s, one respected U.S. academic said the event might signify a possible "Armageddon" to the Mesoamerican culture, and the belief that Friday could be the world's last day has spread since.
But to many of the artists, hippies, lawyers and businessmen congregating in the nerve center of 12/21/2012 - the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza in southern Mexico - the day will be the culmination of a spiritual journey, the dawn of a new consciousness, or the wellspring of untapped energies.
Or even all the above.
"There is an explosion of consciousness through this," said Shambala Songstar, a gray-haired Californian musician who gave his age as "eternal."
"We are becoming billionaires of energy. Opening to receive more light and more joy," he said.
In other parts of the world, fears that December 21 may bring doom, or unleash lesser disasters, has sparked scares.
For a video link to the Maya calendar coverage see link.reuters.com/pep74t
On Thursday, Chinese state media said about 1,000 people had been detained for spreading rumors about Friday, such as the prospect of a three-day-long blackout.
The crackdown, which targeted members of the "Almighty God" cult, has not been enough to stem shortages of candles, instant noodles and matches, according to complaints logged on Weibo, China's popular Twitter-like microblogging site.
In France, the media has buzzed about the Pic de Bugarach, a mountain said by believers in an impending catastrophe to be the only place that will survive 2012.
Social media spread fears that a mass suicide was being planned on a mountain popular among UFO spotters in Argentina. Local authorities decided to limit access to the Cerro Uritorco peak, though they said it was to prevent overcrowding.
A cornerstone of the 2012 phenomenon has been U.S. scholar Michael Coe's 1966 observation that the end of the 13th bak'tun could herald an "Armageddon" for the Maya. Coe could not be reached for comment, but friends and colleagues say he never meant to forecast an apocalypse.
NASA, other scientists and other experts on Maya culture have also dismissed the idea of disaster striking, but media rumors and Internet fascination with the subject have put the spotlight on the sweltering heartland of the ancient civilization.
Thousands of people are expected in Chichen Itza, where pilgrims will converge on the Temple of the serpent god Kukulkan, an imposing 100 foot (30 meter) pyramid.
Visitors have come from as far afield as Asia, Europe and South America to share in the experience, and there is little apprehension among them that the world faces a day of reckoning in the annals of the Maya's 5,125 year-old calendar.
"At least we can die saying we saw the end of the world," said 27-year-old Minu Nair from Kerala, India, laughing and bathed in sweat after a steep climb to the top of the Maya pyramid at Coba, about an hour's drive from Chichen Itza.
Most visitors here describe Friday as a moment of positive change, a time for reflection over the planet's direction.
"A new age will dawn, and everybody who is involved in this knows that the world is in a very sad state," said Jill Baker, an artist from Kentucky, who, together with her partner Lee Pennington, spent $14,000 to visit Mexico for the big day.
"We want to learn how we go about bringing the peace all the elders of the ancient civilizations have told (of)," she added.
Many modern Maya, whose ancestors rose to prominence as a conquering civilization in much of southern Mexico and Central America during the first millennium, practicing human sacrifice along the way, have been baffled by the hype.
Scholars say the date has been exploited by purveyors of spiritual hokum and tall tales in exotic locations.
"This whole Maya prophecy is actually a hoax, which cynical pseudo-scholars have developed to sell their books," said Susan Milbrath at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Sandra Stocco, 39, a tax lawyer from Brazil, said she was honored to be in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and pointed to a group of meditating people dressed in white and quietly humming to explain why she had come.
"For this. This sound, this is the sound of the vibration of their heart, and Chichen Itza is the heart chakra," she said.
Others see the gathering of minds as a chance for humanity to correct its ways by calling on extra-terrestrial assistance.
"We're hoping for some sort of contact event and to meet some beings of other species," said Otto Martin, a production manager wearing shorts who had traveled from Los Angeles. "We're basically just hoping to ask them for help."
Lisa Harris, a 23-year-old jembe drummer from Oakland, California, with a nose ring and dreadlocks, said friends had paid for her to come to Mexico. She hoped she would see UFOs.
"I definitely believe in UFOs and alien ancestry, so that would be pretty cool if that does happen," she said.
Jeremy Berg, a 28-year-old from Oregon and fan of full-moon celebrations, solstices, solar eclipses, and meteor showers, said great energies were coming into alignment.
"All over the planet there are key lay-line positions that meet up into little vortex spots," said Berg, whose day job is running an electronics firm. "This is a momentous time in history. I look at it as a new beginning."
But in case Friday is the end, Deutsche Bank analyst Jim Reid thanked his readers for their time over the years.
"It's been a blast," Reid wrote on Thursday. "So have an extra few roast potatoes today at lunch as it really won't matter if their prophesy turns out to be correct." (Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter in Mexico City, Bernd Debusmann Jr. in Chichen Itza, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Vicky Buffery in Paris and Alejandro Lifschitz in Buenos Aires; Editing by Dave Graham, Kieran Murray and David Brunnstrom)