Situated on the Pacific coastline of South America, Peru has a rich cultural history that includes a time when the Incas ruled the largest pre-Columbus empire in the Americas; the Spanish invasion that conquered that empire; and the migration of immigrants from Africa, Asia and Europe that helped build a modern country. The cultural diversity speaks out in architecture, clothing and local dishes, but the most entertaining way to explore Peru’s history is through its national beverages. Avoid the traditional touristy cocktails filled with fruit, lime and ice served in most bars and seek out traditional beverages. Once you do, however, just know, like Peru’s national dish of fried Guinea Pig, not all the traditional Peruvian drinks leave you wanting another.
The Good: Pisco Sours
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Like Margaritas are to Mexico or Mojitos are to Cuba, Pisco Sours are the quintessential Peruvian cocktail.
“They taste like a liquid version of a lemon meringue pie,” said Thais Rodriguez, executive chef at JW Marriott El Convento Cusco.
Beginning in the 16th century, Spanish settlers distilled grape wine into the high-proof spirit Pisco, with a deceivingly smooth taste that gives the tangy cocktail its kick. To balance out the flavor they added limejuice, sugar, bitters and egg whites and, voila, Pisco Sours were born. The intense citrus from the lime juice balances out the sweetness of the sugar, while the egg white foam provides a silkiness to the cocktail, masking the Pisco and making them very easy to drink.
Every afternoon The Qespi Bar in the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco fills with travelers exhausted from a full day of hiking Machu Picchu or exploring the city. Built on ancient Incan ruins, the restored 16th-century stone San Agustín colonial monastery turned luxury hotel is a perfect place to rest tired feet, sip Pisco Sours and soak up some Incan history. With cocktail in hand, guests can wander the exhibition hall showcasing the ancient artifacts such as Incan pottery and sculptures dating back to the 13th century discovered during the renovation of the hotel.
The Bad: Inca Kola
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Known as “El Sabor de Peru” or the Flavor of Peru, this intensely yellow soft drink is made with lemon verbena. However, the sugary sweet beverage tastes nothing like lemon verbena. With each sip the soda gets sweeter and more perplexing, causing sippers to ask themselves, “what is that flavor?” Some say bubblegum, others say pineapple, while the rest say it tastes like cream soda.
In 1935 a small soda company created the unique drink to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Lima’s founding. Marketed as the “Pride of Peru,” Inca Kola quickly became a crowd favorite. While grocery stores and convenience stores sell Pepsi and Coke, most self-respecting Peruvian restaurants only serve Inca Kola.
On a typical Friday afternoon, diners cram into the open dining hall of the traditional garden restaurant La Cusqueñita Tradicional Pikantería. Dancers in brightly colored traditional costumes take to the small stage to perform regional dances as patron pass the time leisurely eating and drinking as they would in a neighbor’s home. The radioactive yellow cola washes down enormous portions of classic dishes such the Peruvian delicacy Cuy, or Guinea Pig. Whole sections of villages surrounding Cusco are dedicated to raising guinea pigs to be skewed whole then fried or roasted over a spit. Tasting similar to rabbit, the meat is served with potatoes or rice. Only the nobility ate Cuy in Incan times, but today it is included in everyone’s Andean diet.
The Ugly: Chicha
If you’re looking for a kind of gross drink that comes with a little adventure and a hilarious history, chicha (pictured at top) will excite you.
During the height of the Incan empire, a small group of maidens known as the Virgins of the Sun sat around chewing corn, and then spitting a mix of half-chewed corn and saliva into a jug. They allowed that repelling concoction to ferment into corn beer known as chicha. The sour-tasting beer was popular with Incan royalty and often used as a sacrifice to the gods. After the Spaniards conquered the Incas, Peruvians began making their own chicha at home. Don’t worry, they replaced the spit-fermentation with a more practical and less disgusting fermentation process.
Chicha is still made and sold in the back of homes, but in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to find. Those who sell the bathtub brew stick a red balloon outside their house indicating to curious beer drinkers that chicha is sold there. Known as chicherias, these establishments are usually the front room of someone’s simple home complete with dirt floors, plastic chairs and traditional music blaring from small boom-boxes sitting in a corner. Chances are the beer is brewed in less than sanitary conditions and the flavor and alcohol content is unpredictable.
Finding an open chicheria is not as easy as pulling up Google maps to search for the closest operating brewery. Sometimes a chicheria only opens one day a week. Sometimes the owner of a known chicheria moves, taking their red balloon with them. Or other times, when it rains, the owner could simply decide they do not want wet shoes leaving tracks in their home, so they close up shop. Your best bet is to wander the streets of Cusco asking locals where the closest one is while keeping an eye out for the distinguishing red balloon. The result of all this hard exploration? A cloudy colored, sour beer served at room temperature that is usually not as refreshing as all the work put into finding it deserves, but it is super, super cheap.
Jennifer Simonson is a travel writer by trade and a lover of the world’s food, cultures, drinks and outdoor spaces by nature.