Meal of the Gods in Tikal, Guatemala

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.

Ruins of Tikal loom out of the jungle canopy

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.

Romance at the Mayan ruins of Tikal

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.

Cabana at La Lancha, Guatemala

“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.

Pretty pool at La Lancha

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.

Coconut and banana bread, followed by desayuno petenero – fried eggs cooked with corn and bacon served on steamed potatoes topped with a spicy ranchero sauce.

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.

Iconic Tikal

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.


Sky like heaven above Lake Peten Itza



Dugout canoe on Lake Peten Itza


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

Michele Peterson
Michele Peterson
Dividing her time between Toronto, Mexico and Guatemala (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is an award-winning writer, blogger, editor and publisher who specializes in travel, cuisine and luxury lifestyles.
Recommended Posts
Showing 9 comments
  • P.C.

    Great photography – I’d love to try those dishes and visit the ruins at Tikal

    • Michele Peterson

      Thanks! It’s a great year to go to Tikal – with so many special 2012 events it will be quite magical.

  • lori

    I enjoyed your story and like your writing style. Lori

    • Michele Peterson

      Thanks for the feedback! I sometimes time wonder if I should try to keep the posts shorter but maybe I’ll just keep with it.

  • Carol Perehudoff

    You should write a food book, Michele. This is beautifully written. What a place.

  • Colleen Friesen

    You’re right about the ‘sky like heaven’. Gorgeous.
    I would love to read more, Michele. That dish sounded so tasty-perfect.
    After reading this, I am feeling that familiar yearning to get ‘out there’.

  • Brian Knowles

    Eery trip to Guatemala we say we are going to Tikal but we never makes as like you said it might as well be from Winnipeg as its takes a day just to get there.
    Next trip! Definitely going to try and stay at La Lancha!

  • Chris Rawstern

    In all my 12 years in Guatemala, I never went to Tikal. In the 1970s it was nearly impossible. with little children even moreso. Your articles are great and I am hungry and missing everything Chapin.

    • Michele Peterson

      Most of the members of our family in Guatemala haven’t been to Tikal either–they’re not too interested in going anywhere unless there’s family to visit! It also take a very long time to drive there and would have taken even longer in the 1970s. But I can imagine how much more untouched Tikal t must have been then. I’m glad you’re enjoying a virtual journey back to Guatemala through its food!

Leave a Comment

5,695 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you as soon as we're online.

Not readable? Change text.