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Ceremonial Tamales

Updated: Feb 1

The room was smoky and dim. No windows offered natural light, only the open door. A hot fire burned merrily in the corner and a big pot filled with chicken washed thoroughly in lime juice bubbling over it. The previous day had been the final offering for the Cha’ Chaac—the ceremonial offering for the rain god—and we had missed it. But Francisco, the village shaman and our good friend, wanted us to experience the making of the tamales and so he had enlisted his entire family to go through the process of making the offering bread again, just for our benefit.

Mary Isabel was obviously in charge of making the tamales. Everyone deferred to her, offering her bits of maza dough to taste test and getting her approval on the amount of salt in the tomato sauce. She was was sister to Francisco and the oldest woman in the home that day. Her flowered huipil (traditional Maya dress) was smeared with soot and the lace skirt that hung below it was torn on one side. But despite the still heat of both the Maya summer and the dark kitchen, hardly a drop of sweat formed on her brow. Her dark hair, streaked with white, was pulled back in a tight bun and the scowl on her face seemed to be only a show saved for the instructing of the younger woman in the fashion of making the bread for the Cha’ Chaac because occasionally a brilliant smile slipped through.

The weather had been dry for months and the corn surrounding the pueblo was failing. An offering to the rain god, Chaac, would be sure to bring rain . . . IF it was done carefully and in the correct manner. For three days the villagers came together to make prayers, light candles, burn incense, and make offerings. On the third day, the heavens relented and released the rain. Francisco, the village shaman/herbatero and our good friend, explained that they would have continued the offerings for as many days as necessary until the rains came. I was thankful on their behalf that it was only three days and not ten or even twenty. That would be exhausting!

We’d arrived mid-morning after a 3-hour drive into Yucatan not knowing what to expect. We knew Francisco had something special planned for us, but we didn’t know what. In truth, I was a bit overwhelmed at their generosity when I discovered they had invited us to participate in the making of the offering bread, which actually was a huge pile of very special tamales wrapped in banana leaves and smoked in a pit called a pip/pib.

Francisco’ entire family was hard at work on the project. Even the children participated when they could, throwing water on the fire and washing the hard, yellow kernels of corn. My grandson Ayden chased a white puppy through the happy chaos, played with the children even though he did not share their language, visited with the striped brown baby pigs, and counted all the teenager chickens (I think there were twelve).

Max and Noe, the guys who were with us, went out with Francisco to gather banana leaves and Sarah (my daughter) and I followed the activity around the family compound, recording everything, asking questions, and even taking a turn at patting out butter-enriched tortillas and scooping out tomato sauce for the tamales.

Before the tamales were all made and delicately wrapped in their banana leaf packages, we were treated to share a bowl of the sauce and a pile of fresh tortillas. So, filling! Oh, and of course cups of Pepsi which were re-filled the minute we set empty glasses on the makeshift table. No one goes hungry in Kaua. It may seem like a poor village a when you drive through and see the stick homes and thatch roofs and the occasional street dog refusing to get out of your way as you wend through the streets. But the entire village is surrounded by fields and fields of corn and Yucatan pumpkin and black beans and white beans. Everything is farmed by hand and everyone works . . . and everyone eats.

The ceremony for the rain god Chaac is vital to the villagers. Everyone is part of it. The entire village holds with old Maya beliefs along with a bit of Catholicism thrown in. In fact, it is a town filled with both hidden rituals and public ceremonies. It is a place where the line between the material world and the spirit realm is blurred at best and non-existent in some things. I find it fascinating and I feel so very privileged that we have been made privy to so much of it.

Here is the general recipe for the ceremonial tamales.

Make sure to take note of how to check and see if they are done!

Sorry, I can’t include amounts, but it still gives you an idea of how it is made.

  • Cut corn from the cob and wash

  • Grind corn and mix with water, salt, aciote (a smoky red spice), and butter until it is a smooth, velvety dough. (Note: this type of dough does not usually include butter)

  • Slice sauce tomatoes and put in a skillet with garlic, chili habenero, and salt.

  • Cook tomatoes until tender

  • Thoroughly wash 3 whole chickens with fresh lime juice making sure to pluck and remove any stray feathers.

  • Place chicken in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over the fire and cook until done.

  • Remove chicken and save the broth.

  • Pull the meat off the bone.

  • Take about 2 cups of the dough and dissolved it in water. Then add to the broth to thicken.

  • Blend about ½ the cooked tomatoes, garlic and chili, and add them to the sauce.

  • Sear banana leaves over the fire until soft and strip away all the center stalks. Separate the leaves into rectangles the right size for wrapping the tamales and keep some of the thinner strings of the center part to tie them closed.

  • Pat out tortilla rounds from the dough

  • Spread with sauce, chicken, and some of the tomatoes that were not blended

  • Wrap into small packages and tie with leftover bits of banana strings

  • Meanwhile. Prepare the pit for cooking by lighting a fire in the bottom, then covering it with rocks. When the rocks are hot, put the tamale packages on a large grate and lower into the pit (pip/pib)

  • Cover with sheets of tin

  • Cover the tin with dirt

  • Light another fire on top of the dirt

  • Ask the shaman stone when the tamales are done. For more on the shaman stone, go here.

  • When they are finished, put out and remove the top fire. Remove the layer of tin sheets, and pull the tamale filled grate out of the hole in the ground.

  • Serve tamales with Coke or Pepsi and Enjoy!

eating...yes, still eating,


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