Chicha, a fermented drink that hails from Inca times, was commented on by the Spanish invaders They noted its use in festivals and as a sacred offering to the sky and mountains, Incan deities. Archeologists find evidence of its being brewed long before the Incas. Although Spanish colonial authorities tried to stamp it out, chicha continues to be enjoyed in towns and cities across Peru, including the neighborhoods of Cuzco.
People, like Doña Rosa– who makes her living brewing chicha and selling it daily in a house on the hillsides above the city center where a red plastic bag hangs most afternoons from a post — say that chicha was considered sacred because it came from the mama jora (lady corn, or mother corn) and because it was used in the most important ceremonies of Tawantinsuyo (the Inca Empire). The Qhapaq Inca (the emperor or Holy/noble Inca) would raise q’eros (beakers) of chicha and give thanks to Inti (the sun) and to the Pachamama (the earth) for their field’s produce, both at planting and harvest time.
She continues with a story well known in Cuzco about the origins of chicha. “Our grandparents said that in ancient times people would work hard to till the earth and get food to eat. It was hard work, but people would work together in happiness and love. The God Viracocha (the creator) saw this and was content.
“He wanted to help them so he came down from Hanaq Pacha (the world above) to place in a single plant the powers he wanted to give them. He chose a weak plant that struggled to grow amidst spiny weeds because it reminded him of the hard work of the people. To give his power to this plant Viracocha took from his his bag a sliver of huaranguay wood, a hair from the puma, a feather from the condor, and the fox’ brain. He put them together, placed them on the small plant, and said:
‘You will grow so big that you will be as tall as the huaranguay tree and from your fruit people will make a drink that will be unlike any other drink. When people drink what you give them they will become as strong s the puma, wiser than the fox, and their minds will fly farther than the condors in order to get great benefit.’
“Once he said this, the God Viracocha disappeared. Shortly afterward people domesticated and began planting this new plant. They made from it a drink that they called aqha, which in Spanish is called chicha. Everything the great Viracocha predicted took place just as he said. People became strong and intelligent and were able to build marvels on the mountains.”
The Spanish Viceroy Toledo tried to ban this drink. He said: “Of the most damaging things in this republic is the drunkenness of its people and the meetings the Indians carry out on Sundays and feast days, and sometimes even on ordinary days in each other’s homes … all of this results in a public offense known by God our Lord and the good conduct of the Indians.” (This quote is found in this work).
But, even after Peru gained its independence, people who inherited the recipe for making chicha continued to make it for festive times, perhaps because it was a tradition they carried from Inca times.
Today, in Cuzco’s neighborhoods one can find aqha wasis or chicherías as they are called in Spanish where people can go to enjoy their chicha. Drinking chicha is is a strong tradition in Cuzco, something passed on from grandparents to their grandchildren. As a result, drinking chicha isn’t just about quenching thirst, it is to remember Cuzco’s culture and heritage.
Some people even consider chicha to have medicinal benefit. They say it can prevent prostate problems and cleanse the lungs. It is also a drink that gives you a lot on energy, they say.
Every day, from about four pm. people gather to enjoy this drink and also to eat the famous picantes that accompany it. Picantes are a small amount of food handed out to accompany the chicha, as if they were tapas.
When a glass of chicha is lifted, it is very important to thank the Pachamama before drinking by pouring a bit of chicha on the ground. The aqha wasis (chicherias) are easily visible. above their door there is a red bag hanging. That tells us that the place is a chichería.
People go to the chicherías in the afternoon, to rest after their day of work, drink their chicha, and share ideas with other people about work, society, and even to share the day’s news. The chicherías have a warm, inviting ambience whether because of the music or the customers.
The chicherías are also fun. In almost all of them one finds the famous game called “el sapo”, the toad. Whether along or with a group, people toss coins at a metal toad with an open mouth to win points where the prize is … another glass of chicha.