When the bar owner placed the unchilled quart-sized glass of cloudy, phlegm colored beer down in front of me I could tell the description “it’s an acquired taste” was an understatement. I hesitated to drink it even as the dry thirst in the back of my throat created by the six hours crisscrossing the Peruvian town searching for this drink begged for relief. This was chicha, a legendary corn beer originally fermented during Inca times from the spit of virgins and used as a sacrificial offering to appease the gods. That holy elixir slowly morphed into a sour bathtub beer of the Andes known for its acquired taste.
The first time I heard about chicha, I immediately put tasting it on my bucket list. I didn’t actually have a bucket list at the time, but knew I needed one just for this as I watched a history show describe how groups of women sat around, chewing corn, spitting it into a bucket and letting that saliva-corn mixture ferment. These women were no ordinary women, they were the “chosen ones”. Inca kings hand-picked them for their beauty, youth and purity. Known as the Virgins of the Sun, they were taken from their villages at eight years old and hidden away in temples for years chewing and spitting their way through adolescence with their chastity intact. Once their beauty ran out Incan high priests brutally murdered them on mountaintops as a sacrificed to the gods.
After the Spaniards conquered the Incan empire Peruvians began making chicha at home replacing the spit-fermentation with a more practical and less disgusting fermentation process. Today home-brewed chicha has become increasingly rare to find. Women, mostly in the countryside, still make the beer. When they make more than they can drink they place a red balloon on the end of a long stick outside their mud hut indicating to would be beer drinkers that chicha is sold there. Chances are it is brewed in less than sanitary conditions and the flavor and alcohol content can vary wildly. The sour beer is consistently ranked at the very bottom of Peru’s beverage hierarchy, if it is ranked at all. But how bad could it really be?
So when I arrived in Peru earlier this month, I only had two things on my agenda, hike Machu Picchu and try chicha.
The starting point for both of these activities is the Andean mountain town of Cusco. What was once the capital of the largest empire in the pre-Colombian Americas is now a tourist mecca. Streets are full of clothing stores selling everything alpaca, overly aggressive guides hawking tours of Machu Picchu and traditionally dressed women sitting on sidewalks with their llamas waiting for tourists to pay for their pictures.
Built in the shape of a puma, a sacred animal in Incan myths, the city became the capital of the Tawantinsuyu Inca Empire in the 15th century. All roads in the 2,500 mile territory ran through the ruling city until the Spanish arrived.
With the same bitterness of a recent heartbreak, locals here can tell you the exact year, 1532, that the evil Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, conquered the last true Inca, King Atahualp. Once the conquistadors defeated the Incas they pillaged, razed and burned everything they could. Known as having the most finely worked stone structures of any ancient civilization, many of the Incan temple walls were impossible to destroy, so the Spanish simply built on top them.
My tour guide and I started the city tour at the historic Cathedral Basilica near the main square La Plaza de Armas. Like any good Latin American city, the Spanish placed a grand Catholic cathedral smack in the middle of town as a constant justification of why they annihilated a whole civilization (God wanted it) and why they stole thousands of pounds of gold from the indigenous population (God likes shiny things).
Construction for the cathedral began in 1559 on top of the foundations of an Inca Temple. The muted terracotta colored stone work on the outside gives way to an inside blanketed with ornate glittering gold and silver from floor to ceiling.
Towards the back of the massive cathedral hang somber Renaissance-style oil paintings seemingly identical to those hanging in Italy. However, on closer inspection of the Last Supper Judas sure does resemble that evil conquistador Francisco Pizarro and it isn’t bread that Jesus and his disciples are all gathered around. It is a roasted Guinea Pig, paws up ready to be eaten. Guinea Pig, or Cuy as it is called in Peru, is a delicacy. Whole sections of Inca cities were, and still are, devoted to raising guinea pigs to be skewed whole then fried or roasted over a spit. They have become a national mascot of sorts. Gift shops are full of Cuy stuffed animals and kitschy shirts with cartoons of Cuy Marley, a guinea pig dressed up as a rastafarian, or Cuytallica a Metallica-like band with four hardcore guinea pigs.
Once out of the cathedral we walk to the Mercado de San Pedro, Cusco’s main market. Row after row of vendors sit behind tables filled with fruits, vegetables, quinoa, cheese, flowers, dry goods, vitamins and indigenous cures for everything from erectile dysfunction to heartbreak to good-old fashion insomnia.
Meat isles in these mercados are always hard to stomach. Horse snouts, rib cages of unidentified animals, pigs heads sit in the open air. Flies buzz around piles of nauseous smelling bone, blood and flesh. Looking away as an elderly man struggles to hack through a carcass with a flimsy saw, I asked my guide about chicha.
“There are two types of chicha,” she said. “There is the Chicha Morana, which does not have alcohol and is made from purple corn and there is Chicha de Jora, or corn beer.”
She went on to describe how the locals in the Sacred Valley around Cusco make Chicha de Jora, but I did not understand most of it.I speak Spanish well enough for people to assume I speak Spanish very well. Living in Costa Rica for a year I perfected the phrases common to the beginning of conversations. After a few minutes locals assume my Spanish is much better than it is and talk to me with the same quickness as if they were talking to a native speaker. My guide was no different. She began quickly describing something about drying corn, something, something something, waiting for sprouts, something, something, a bucket, something, the whole process takes about two weeks. I never have the heart to tell someone that I didn’t understand a majority of their five minute tirade, so I usually move on and hope my next question wasn't just described in painstaking detail.
“Where would I find the original chicha now?” I asked.
“I am not sure,” she said. “You can drive around the Sacred Valley and look for the chicharias with red balloons, but not many people make it any more. It is more of an ancient pastime. Now if people want beer they can go to their local store and buy it.”
That afternoon I wandered the city and asked locals where I could find a chichaeria. Without exception they all told me two blocks that way, pointing in any direction, and one block over. I find when asking people directions in Peru, everything is two blocks away and one block over, until you get there.
Finding chicha was harder than I thought, so I turned to a place where most journalists turn to when they are stuck on a story, Facebook. I looked up local bars and stumbled upon a page for Bar Hop Cusco, a bar hopping tour business led by Harly an ex-pat from New York. If anyone knew where to find chicha in a language I could understand, it would be this guy.
I met Harly at 2 p.m. in La Plaza de San Blas. San Blas is Cusco's hipster neighborhood full of reiki treatments, yoga centers, vegan restaurants, rave kids and hippies selling handmade jewelry on sidewalks. Everyone is looking for something to make them feel better, whether it is animal-free food or psychedelics, most of the time both.
“So you want to try chicha,” he asked,
‘Yes,” I said.
“It is funny you call it chicha, you know the real chicha is bathwater shit," he said.
"Yes I do, that is what I want to try. I am writing a story about Peruvian drinks called the Good The Bad and the Ugly and Chicha will be the ugly.”
I made up the last part. It was true that I was thinking about writing a story about Peruvian beverages, but really I just wanted an excuse to try chicha without admitting that it is the one and only thing on my bucket list.
“Ok, well then I am going to have to rethink this. I was going to take you to some nicer places that sell a better version that tourist usually drink.”
We stopped so Harly could get directions to a nearby authentic Chicheria from the aforementioned jewelry making hippie kids. I talked with a young 20-something Cusquenan man who had a mouth full of gold teeth and coca leaves. As he told me how he lived “una vida tranquila”, a carefree life, spit from the coca leaves gathered at the sides of his mouth.Occasionally stopping to suck back the pools of saliva, he said he was not a slave to money like many people in the world because all money does is ruin the world. I have had many conversations like this in my travels. The assumption, of course, is because I am an American all I care about is money. I want to tell him that the only people who truly didn't care about money were Mother Theresa types who have completely dropped out of society to dedicate their life to helping others, not young people avoiding work so instead they get high on the streets selling cheap jewelry and illegal drugs to tourists. But that was way beyond my Spanish capabilities and I really didn’t care, so I said sounds like a nice life and turned to wait for Hanly.
“Let’s go,” Harly said. “None of them can make up their minds as to where the chicheria around here is exactly, so we are going to go to the place I originally wanted to go. It is not the most authentic chicha, but it is a good starting off point.”
We walk for fifteen minutes, through La Plaza de Armas, past the busy Avenida de Sol to La Cusquenita Pikanteria Traditional, a large traditional banquet-style restaurant. At 3 pm on a Friday almost every seat was taken by beer-drinking, Cuy-eating Cucscanas.
"Does anyone work in this town?" I asked.
“I don't know,” he said.
Hanly orders us two chicha de Frutilladas. The pink drink is made with chicha beer, but strawberries, sugar and water are added during fermentation to cut down on the sourness of the beer making it more palatable.
I picked up the quart-sized glass with both hands to move it for a picture, some of the pink foamy liquid spilled on the floor.
“That is a sacrifice,” Harly said.
It was customary for the Inca king Tupac Amaru, yes just like the rapper, and others to pour out or sacrifices the first sip of chicha to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) as a sign of respect and gratitude for providing them with the corn to make the beer. I felt drawn to my college years when while listening to the rapper Tupac, my friends and I would pour out the first sip of our 32-ounce beer on San Diego beaches for our dead homies.
Hanly had texted a friend earlier asking about chicerias in the Cusco. His friend texted back.
“As you go UP calle Saphi...continuing about 100-200 yards past police station,, on the left there is an alley like street next to a large water/ditch.. it is pretty well lighted running up the hill. Only another 200 feet or so you will see a red ball on a large stick on the right.. Canto miss it .. good place, all locals, but safe. I like dark beer in my chicha,, she has both and is usually stirring a large tub of it.”
We found the police station and what we thought was the right alley. It started raining as we walk up the steep cobblestone streets. My heavy breath is a reminder that we are in 11,000 feet elevation. We see no red balloon nor anything that resembles a bar. Harly stops a passerbyer to ask if there is a chicheria up ahead and she says yes right up there. We walk until the street dead ends, no balloon, no signs of a chiceria.
“But that woman said it was up here,” I said.
“Who knows if she was being honest or not. Sometimes people here tell you what you want to hear even if they don't know. It is a way of being polite,” he said. We walk back down the street to double check in case we missed it to no avail.
“Maybe we are on the wrong street, maybe it was never here or maybe it is closed shop taking the balloon inside because it is raining,” he said. “There is really no way of knowing.”
So we head back down the hill and into a bar to ask his bartender friend JP about another chicheria near the market he heard about. While my mind is on ancient beer production we stopped at The Craft, a cocktail bar using the latest in molecular mixology techniques. Resembling a science lab, the bar uses liquid nitrogen, test tubes and gels to make its fancy cocktails. As JP made me a Tequila Sunrises he explained every step of the very scientific process to me in Spanish. I understood none of it, but the drink served in test tubes with smoke coming off the top and garnished with what looked like red fish eggs on the bottom looked very cool.
JP told Hanly about a really good chicheria near the San Pedro Market. Not knowing the name of the street, he told us to take the first ally on the left after a certain mercado and the chicharia would be the door just to the left of the Coca-Cola sign. He showed us on Google map where it was and what the door looked like. Hanly took a photo of the door on his phone so we would know exactly where to go. No more wild goose chases for us.
After another walk through town, we found the ally, we found the door, but the coca-cola sign was gone. The door was closed, there were no lights on and no red balloon. Our search for chicha was bordering on six hours. The streets were dark and slick from a recent rain and I was tired. I was about to suggest we call it a night, when Hanly asked a man walking by about the chicharia.
The man said that no he did not know about that chicaria, but two blocks away there was one as he pointed farther down Avenida Baja.
"You don't have a knife on you, do you," he asked as we walked through a dimly lit maze of allys.
"Uh, I have no weapons," I said not really knowing if he was joking or not.
Near the middle of an alley there was a single light shining dimly on crumbling walls and a blue door that was halfway open. There was no red balloon, but an open doorway with a light on in the back. We ducked through the low doorway and into a room filled with a few tables, low wooden stools and broken down Panasonic television set resting on an empty bookshelf.
A group of four men eyed us suspiciously as we sat at the table closest to the door. A short, tired-looking Peruvian woman took our order and came back with two glasses filled to the rim with what looked like bathwater. The plastic glasses with grim from being washed without hot water after too many dirty hands.
Served unchilled, the beer had a two-inch head of foam that gave way to a cloudy, phlegm-colored liquid. The first sip of the sludgy liquid was anything but refreshing. It had a faintly familar sour taste making me immediately take another sip to see if I could figure it out. The only beverage I could compare it to was “bar mat” shots a bartender I worked with made servers do when they lost a bet. He would pour all the spilt liquid from that night’s drinks collected in a rubber bar mat into a shot glass.
“What do you think,” Harly said smiling as he watched me take that first sip.
Chicha is described as an acquired taste that is best matched with local cuisine. In my opinion it is fucking disgusting and any amount of local fare could not change that fact.
“Well, I don't love it,” I said.
Stray dogs ran in and out of the open door. Occasionally, in between serving customers and feeding her children in the back room, the owner ran at them with a stick to bat the dogs away. They would leave until the coast was clear, then sneak back in to resume their position under the tables sniffing for scraps as if nothing had happened.
Harly and I talk, as we had all afternoon, about life, travel, business and relationships. He was a great host and as badly as I wanted to hangout toasting our accomplishment I could not enjoy the beverage. There was nothing refreshing about the sour beer as it sat rotting in my stomach. Halfway through my first and only glass we ask for the check.
“Four soles,” said the woman.
“Four soles? That is like .75 cents each for these huge beers. That is amazing” I said excitedly to Hanly, momentarily forgetting I thought it the grossest thing I ever tasted.
I put money on the table I thought of those young, beautiful maidens spending their youth chewing and spitting corn to make this elixir for the gods, knowing soon they will be sacrificed to those same gods. Then I thought, if I lived in a time when this shit was the best drink available, I would want to be sacrificed too. It is time for a new bucket list item.