Most people go to Tikal to soak up the atmosphere and history of one of the world’s largest Mayan archeological sites. I went for a plate of chicken. In all fairness, it wasn’t an ordinary chicken dinner, but Subanik, a ceremonial Kaqchiquel Maya dish that relies on wild turkey, ancho and guaque chiles to impart its unique flavour.
Although we’d been going to Guatemala for decades, we’d never once visited the mighty ruins. They were a 7 hour drive from San Vicente which meant it might as well have been in Winnipeg, as our family rarely leaves the village.
There were plenty of reasons we should have gone earlier. Tikal is one of the world’s archeological treasures.During its heyday of 200 and 900 AD, the expansive site dominated the political, economic and religious world of Mesoamerica and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. But it wasn’t until I found out that the menu at La Lancha, Francis Ford Coppola’s jungle retreat, included the Mayan dish Subanik that I was actually able to convince Javier to make the drive.
“How did Coppola ever find this place?” asked Javier once we finally arrived at the lodge. Covered in dust, we ached from 40 minutes of jostling down the access road. Located on Lake Peten Itza, our cabana was tucked off a cobblestone pathway and draped in vines from the orchid-threaded jungle.
As the sun set, white moonlight lit up the stone pathway and the flickering hurricane lamps on the upper terrace looked like fireflies. Javier fell fast asleep and I lay awake listening to the night sounds.
The next morning, we headed to the archeological zone. Stepping off the path leading to ancient pyramids called el mundo perdido (the Lost World), we encountered a man foraging for pacaya in the gloomy shade of the giant cieba or kapok trees. I had prepared pacaya,an edible flower pod of the pacaya palm tree, just a few days earlier so it was serendipitous to see it growing in the wild. The delicate fronds – which resembled octupus tendrils – are dipped into egg batter, fried as fritters and sold by village women in colourful Mayan markets such as Chichicastenango, Solola and Todos Santos.
That night back at the lodge, I indulged in several glasses of crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Coppola’s own Napa Valley winery and chatted with Chef Ezekiel. One of Guatemala’s most promising young chefs, he hails from Jobompiche an aldea or small communitynext to Cahui National Biosphere 30 minutes from the lodge and draws on his cultural heritage for inspiration. The community, made up of people of Q’eqchi and Ladino descent, is known for its communal planting practices followed by ceremonial feasting. Their town’s festival day prominently features skulls in its festivities.
“I prepared Subanik for you” he said as he brought forward a steaming clay dish. I was thrilled and honoured. It was the tourist off-season so Subanik wasn’t officially on the menu and it was a labour-intensive dish to make for just two people.
“This dish signifies communication with the gods so it’s most often served on ceremonial days,” explained Chef. I spooned up the deep red, succulent meat and savoury broth. It was heady with ancho and Guaque chiles and chock full of rice, stewing beef. No wonder it was shown as “God’s Meal” on the menu.
No wanting Javier to miss out on such a great meal, I decided to track him down. I eventually found him on the dock chatting with a fisherman in a dugout canoe under a sky the colour of heaven. He’d found his own way to commune with the Gods.
If You Go
La Lancha is located in between the ruins of Tikal and the town of Flores.
Call toll-free from the US and Canada 800-746-3743
Cabana Rates: Range from $125 a night in low season to $295 a night in peak season