Xul, Mexico - In Mayan, the name of this speck of a village means "the end." A long time ago, it was just the end of the road. Those who tell tall tales, though, say the strangers who settled here four years ago have come to await the end of the world.
Down a country lane bordered by scrubland and parched fields, the newcomers have built their own colony of thick-walled houses at the end of a dirt drive a couple of miles outside the village.
Only this much is known for sure: The pioneers are Italian, and they raise cattle, produce cheese and tend fruit trees on a 250-acre ranch surrounding their homes. A concrete sign by the roadside announces the name of their redoubt, Las Aguilas ("The Eagles"), in white letters. A four-foot golden statue of an eagle is perched atop the first letter "L."
Why the newcomers came here and what they believe has fed apocalyptic speculation across this torpid patch of the Yucatán Peninsula.
"We know all the gossip here, but about this we know nothing," said the Rev. Yvan González, a Roman Catholic priest who celebrates a weekly Mass on Wednesday evenings at an old stone church, where a tin roof long ago replaced the Mayan thatched covering.
"It is a secret group," Father González said with a chuckle. "People say they are here because the world will end. They have a lot of money to spend to wait for the end of the world."
This place, after all, is just miles from where the world nearly ended last time, when the Chicxulub asteroid fell about 65 million years ago, a disaster that scientists theorize was the cause of the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.
Xul is also in what was the heartland for the ancient Maya, whom some New Age prophets credit with predicting a doomsday date: the winter solstice of 2012. Scholars agree, though, that the Maya believed nothing of the sort. The date is the final one in their so-called Long Count calendar, the end of a historical cycle of 5,125 years - give or take. A new cycle begins the following day.
Efraín Cámara, swinging on a hammock at the Xul (pronounced SHOOL) farming co-op office, was confused about the supposed predictions of his forebears. "According to the scientists, the Maya world will end," he shrugged, his Spanish hesitant with the aspirated consonants of his native Mayan language. "We don't know. Only God knows what will happen in those days."
Rosalía Pacab, 78, bending over her embroidery, does not take her ancestors' astronomical calculations as the authority on the eventual end of days.
"Well, isn't that what the Bible says?" she said.
The Italians went about their business quietly at first. They hired the local villagers to clear the land, plant orange trees and start construction.
The Maya, who either try to coax corn out of the limestone bedrock or migrate to California to earn a living, welcomed the new jobs.
"The good thing is that for the boys, they give them work, because there is no work here," Adi Beltrán, the mother of four young children, said of the strangers.
Then, last year, a newspaper in Mérida, the capital of Yucatán State, decided it had a scoop. Front-page articles declared that the Italians had come to Xul to guard against the end of the world in 2012. The reporters interviewed workers who claimed that the houses were linked by underground tunnels. There were interviews with one of the Mexican architects, who said the colony's imposing walls were intended to withstand floods and other natural disasters.
The official response was electric. Soldiers rumbled down the gravel path to look for any evidence of drugs; immigration officials checked papers; welfare officials combed the grounds. Newspapers hired helicopters to fly overhead as photographers snapped away.
Angel Ruíz, the municipal secretary at the county seat in Oxkutzcab, about a 30-minute drive north of Xul, said the walls were about two and a half feet thick and "filled with tires."
The Italians, he said as he spread out the settlement's construction plans, are members of a sect that recruited wealthy retirees. A carpenter friend told him the houses were fortified, their doors constructed of three layers: steel, a metal grille and then wood. "They have cisterns with thousands and thousands of liters of water," Mr. Ruíz said. "Supposedly they have come here to live to protect themselves from whatever might happen."
After last year's onslaught of attention, the Italians locked their gates and plastered them with "private property" signs, declaring the area an ecological reserve.
But they have talked to some of their neighbors. Just next door to Las Aguilas is the 4,000-acre Helen Moyers Biocultural Reserve, which is managed by a nonprofit group called Kaxil Kiuic and partially supported by Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. American and Mexican scientists at the reserve are studying the region's dry tropical forest, and archaeologists are excavating Kiuic, a Mayan site.
"They are peaceful people, hard-working people," said the reserve's director, James Callaghan, adding that the Italians had sought advice on conservation and organic farming. "Our interaction has been very friendly and open."
Mr. Callaghan does not believe the stories. "Tabloid-type journalism needs things to keep it going," he said, musing that the Italians may have inadvertently stirred up Yucatán nationalism. "Yucatán prizes itself as a world apart because of its history and separation."
Most of the workers on the Italians' compound were reluctant to talk as they arrived for work early one morning this month. But a couple of them, when prodded, repeated the sensational details.
"I have seen one of the tunnels," said Jaime Xol, who said he was building drinking troughs for the ranch's cattle. "You can walk upright," he said, adding that they were about 10 feet underground.
Not true, fumed one of the Italians. He refused to talk as he drove out of the gate. But later, his suspicions eased, he began to answer questions in fluent Spanish as he came out of the Xul general store.
The compound's residents built the thick walls of their houses to keep them cool, like traditional Mayan huts, he said. To dig wells, they had to bring in heavy machinery. How could they ever build tunnels, he asked?
The group came to Xul, he said, not because it means "the end," but because the land was cheap.
Out spilled more details, except for his name. He said, "Call me Juan Sinmiedo" - Juan Fearless. The community is a retreat, he said, made up mostly of retired people. Breaking the rules of the community means expulsion. A Mexican psychologist named Carolina offers spiritual guidance.
No, Juan said, he did not expect the world to end in 2012. "But scientists expect some kind of shift in the Earth's magnetic field next year," he added.
And even if something did happen, he said, maybe not entirely in jest, the odds were very good that Yucatán would be spared. "We already had a cataclysm here," he said, "with the asteroid."