By Mike McDonald
TIKAL, Guatemala, Dec 18 (Reuters) - At the center of the rebel base where Luke Skywalker took off to destroy the Death Star and save his people from the clutches of Darth Vader, Guatemala is preparing for another momentous event: the end of an age for the Maya.
Deep inside the Guatemalan rainforest stand the ruins of the Maya temples that George Lucas used to film the planet Yavin 4 in the movie "Star Wars," from where Skywalker and his sidekick Han Solo launched their attack on the Galactic Empire's giant space station.
This week, at sunrise on Friday, Dec. 21, an era closes in the Maya Long Count calendar, an event that has been likened by different groups to the end of days, the start of a new, more spiritual age or a good reason to hang out at old Maya temples across Mexico and Central America.
"If it is the end of the world, hopefully Luke will come and blow up that Death Star," said Alex Markovitz, a 24-year-old consultant and Star Wars fan from Philadelphia, looking out over the site of Skywalker's rebel base. "I see why they shot here. It doesn't look real. It looks like an alien planet."
Once at the heart of a conquering civilization in its own right, the ancient city of Tikal is now a pilgrimage site for both hard-core Star Wars fans and enthusiasts of Maya culture eager to discover what exactly the modern interpretations of old lore portend.
In the 1960s, a leading U.S. scholar said the end of the Maya's 13th bak'tun - an epoch lasting some 400 years - could signify an "Armageddon," though many people trekking to the old temples believe it could herald something wonderful.
Discovered in 1848 when locals unearthed human skulls whose teeth were studded with jade jewels, Tikal draws tourists from around the globe. Visitors this week said they felt a powerful presence in the blue skies above them.
"The force is strong here," said Jimena Teijeiro, 35, an Argentine-born self-help blogger. "The world as we know it is coming to an end. We are being propelled to a new age of light, synchronicity and simple wonderment with life."
Maya scholars and astronomers have dismissed the idea the world is on the brink of destruction but mystics and spiritual thrill-seekers have flocked to feed off Tikal's energy. Park guards said they had to throw out 13 naked women who were dancing and chanting around a fire pit near the temples last week.
"Something big is going to happen," said the president of Guatemala's Star Wars fan club, entrepreneur Ricardo Alejos. "The Maya were an incredibly precise people. Something big is going to happen and we'll find out what in a few days."
Surrounded by thick jungle home to jaguars, monkeys and toucans, the view of Yavin 4 from the top of Tikal's Temple Four, known as the temple of the double-headed serpent, has changed little since Lucas filmed here in 1977.
Lucas chose Tikal when he saw a poster of the site at a travel agency in England during the production of the original "Episode IV: A New Hope" film, and sent a crew to Guatemala in March 1977 to shoot during its 36-year civil war.
His team hoisted bulky camera gear and heavy lights to the top of the 210-foot-high (65-metre-high) Temple Four with a pulley system and paid a guard with six-packs of beer to protect the equipment with a shotgun for four nights, locals said.
A year after the shoot, the wooden huts where Lucas' film crew camped were burned to the ground by leftist rebels fighting against a right-wing military government.
Extending for 222 square miles (575 square km) through Guatemala's sweltering north, Tikal is one of the largest pre-Columbian Maya sites and known by some as the New York City of Maya ruins because of its high temples that climb toward the heavens.
The peaks of the limestone structures pierce the dense, green canopy of the jungle and howler monkeys wail at sunrise.
The shrines, believed to have been used mainly for worship, also appeared in the 1979 James Bond movie "Moonraker" in which 007 was lured through the jungle to the lair of his enemy Hugo Drax.
Local guides are expecting a rush of visitors this week and the Guatemalan government forecasts a record 235,000 foreign tourists for December. Hotels in Tikal are fully booked.
"There are passionate groups that come," said tour guide Gamaliel Jimenez. "One group told me 'If you don't take us to where they filmed Star Wars, we aren't going to hire you.'" (Editing by Dave Graham)