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Drinking Chicha in Peru

Does sacred alcohol give you the same hangover? Yup.

With my head tilted back I stare painfully into the shot glass and despair. I haven’t downed it fast enough; a sickly sludge has formed and it’s slowly sliding towards my mouth. This must be at least my twentieth of the night and it’s starting to taste like vomit. I close my eyes and throw my head back further.

Finished, I swing the glass towards the floor spraying the dregs on the ground. Not a sign of defeat, this is the tradition. The drink gone I smugly pass the empty glass to a fellow gringo, his heart sinks at the sight of it, but on turning back I’m instantly handed another empty glass and more chicha.

Gouged into the Andes near the Inca capital of Cusco is Peru’s glorious sacred valley. Throughout this region, identified by distinctive red carrier bags on sticks, chicheria microbreweries distill and serve xhicha. A corn based, sour tasting alcoholic phenomenon; a poison that actually gets worst the more you drink.

Touring the region a week previously I visited a tourist chicheria where I tasted weak chicha, fermented only for a couple of days. The real stuff is fermented for over a week and according to our amiable guide Freddy is ‘for locals only.’

Tonight’s venue however, is no tourist destination. It’s located up a dark, endless alleyway no guidebook would advise visiting. Half way up, branching off to the right is a smaller, even darker alley, which, after a nervous fumble round a couple of corners, opens into a small courtyard littered with locals.

On each side is a small one-storey building, one housing the brewing equipment, the other rammed with people watching Brazilian football on a white noise infected TV. I’m offered a seat squeezed in with a dozen or so young Peruvians, plus the odd – in fact, really odd – westerner. Some struggled introductions are exchanged, and I’m offered my first chicha.

Handed a jug and empty shot glass I was left to learn the rules, fill up, down it, and pass it on. Repeat ad infinitum. Simple. The number of jugs and glasses doing the rounds depends on your group size. As social drinking goes nothing quite compares to it.

Between drinks I soak up the atmosphere. Cusco inhabitants young and old, from jewellery makers and musicians to shopkeepers and, judging by the hard hats, builders are all here on the night of the 21st June celebrating the Andean New Year. Otherwise known as Inti Raymi, this festival of the sun is a f*cking big deal to proud Peruvians.

Thousands of tourists, backpackers and pilgrims experience this celebration every year but in an entirely different manner. A few days later on the 24th, hungover in the blistering sun high above Cusco, I joined these touring hordes at the ancient Incan site of Sacsayhuamán to watch a staged reconstruction of an ancient ceremony. And like so many others I’ll leave bitterly disappointed by a rather insipid and uninspiring experience.

Historically, this would have been a colouful Incan Empire religious ceremony in honor of the god Inti (thanks wikipedia), involving animal sacrifice, fires and a cast of thousands. But this overblown recreation had no real substance or sense of wonder to capture what was in its time undoubtedly a grand, emotional feast for the eyes and soul. Discussing the event with other travellers I hear similar complaints, “I was expecting something spiritual,” lamented one Columbian girl.

But here, tonight, I find myself as far as spiritually and symbolically possible from the gaudy spectacle on the hill, in a chicheria.

As our group grows, so too does the volume of alcohol. Now outside, the cold night bites and the stench of piss from the outside toilet is pungent. I realise the reason soon enough; without a light or flush everyone just relieves themselves against the outside wall. Including at one point a rather rotund and saggy-skinned old woman, who squats in full view of everyone. Luckily we are saved from the detail by the darkness of her heavy skirt, although the fountain-like gush from within is more than enough to turn the stomach. Despite the putrid smell and darkness I later try to be a gentleman and use the toilet, only to re-emerge with the bottom two inches of my jeans soaked in thick, foul urine.

But this is just a minor complaint. Our hosts, young modern Peruvians are as entertaining as they are welcoming. In their hair and clothes each individual adorns magical flourishes of colour, tradition and culture – perfect and effortless representation of everything typical Western hippies spend a fortune and lifetime trying to emulate.

Everyone appears to be a musician and a dancer, happily playing any instrument with ease or literally sweeping girls off their feet and throwing them around. In combination with the free flow of chicha it’s a dizzying but exhilarating experience to savour.

Yet two hours pass and fatigue sets in, I’m struggling to muster the same enthusiastic approach to downing chicha as I started with and the suffering is increasing exponentially as drinking slowly reduces recovery time. Occasionally, lightheaded, I squat to swallow back the sick feeling but the stink of piss from the bottom of my jeans forces me to return to the surface, greeted by another jug thrust into my hand.

By virtue of his position by my side, my friend often exploits my mercy and skips his turn. I curse him and my kindness as I pass the jug onwards past his lowered head.

Finally, the chicha runs out and the assembled masses flock out into civilisation to invade another venue. I start dreaming of lager, its carbonated, refreshing sensation quenching a scorched thirst and ridding my mouth of its vomit taste.

Our hosts instead take us to a nearby park, where we stand, in a circle, pass round shot glasses and a bottle of rum. This continues long into the night, accompanied by more guitar playing, dancing and laughing. Quality.

Colin Scott