On Day 2 in Peru, we were out of the door with a hefty agenda. I had a better sleep that night so I was hoping I wouldn’t nod off while Margot the tour guide was trying to talk to us about the history of Peru.
We began at 9am with a trip to Ajha Wasi Inka Bar for some Peruvian beer. It seemed a little early for a beer, but Margot insisted. This is not beer that you find in a normal brewery with all its expensive machines, hops and fancy bottling. We are talking about chicha, a local beer made from homegrown corn. Everything in Peru is made with corn, but not in the high fructose corn syrup way. Corn is boiled whole and served with cheese and salt on the streets of Peru, kind of like hot dogs are in New York and Philly Cheesesteaks are in Philadelphia.
The corn kernels are what you would imagine they would look like if you had injected it with steroids: the kernels are bigger than your molar teeth. It’s kind of unnerving. Corn is used in food, fermented for beer, and dried and used to snack on as a healthy natural version of the corn nut. The animals do not eat the corn, they graze on the grassland (except for one animal which I will talk about later).
Mercedes is the owner of the brewery. She has been making fresh batches of chicha in her tiny but well-appointed kitchen for 35 years. We entered the small dark room with dirt floors and observed that all walls were lined with ancient pots and pans, bowls and platters that looked to have been passed down from the Incan times. Her chicha business has also been passed down for generations, but unfortunately Mercedes has two sons who have opted for a city life in Cusco so Ajha Wasi may end with Mercedes.
The chicha drink is maize (corn) that is dried and then fermented for a day. The end result liquid is considered a beer with 2% alcohol. You have to drink a lot of chicha to get drunk, but I am told it is very possible. Mercedes made a batch with fresh strawberries, which was muy preferible para mí. Before we took our first sip of our chicha, we were required to perform an ancient custom used by ancient Incans before they drank their chicha: we poured a bit of it out on the ground as an offering of thanks to Pachamama (earth mother) and dip your fingers into it and flick out into the air to give thanks to the sun. Chris loved the chicha and tried to get more every opportunity her could. I am a bit more partial to a cosmopolitan martini (make it a double).
After drinking our corn beer, our Margot led us through the ancient Incan town of Urubamba where the original streets and aqueducts run through the city. I was completely blown away by the beauty and how it was the most ancient looking town I have ever seen. The aqueduct water runs along the streets, but is not used anymore for sanitary reasons. Driving through this town, I felt like I was back in the times of the Incans . . . the people wore traditional Incan dress and the narrow cobblestone roads were built for walking not driving.
Past this town are the Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo. During the Inca Empire in the mid 15th century, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region and built the town and a ceremonial center.
We hiked many steps up the mountain to the sun temple. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a week long intensive in stair climbing. This town is 9160 feet in elevation. As I climbed the hundreds of stairs up to the top, I felt like I couldn’t breath. It almost brings a feeling of panic when you take in deep breaths but feel as if you are oxygen deprived.
Machu Picchu is the more famous and spectacular ruins, but Ollantaytambo should not be missed either. The houses, steps and temples are well preserved. It is truly a wonder how the Incan people back in the 15th century were able to mortar 19-ton granite stones together to fit like a puzzle. How did they get them up the mountain? How did they carve them into the trapezoid shapes and polish each one so smoothly like the granite on your countertops? They did it all by using other stones. They seemed like too primitive a culture without modern machinery to be able to pull such weight and create perfect buildings.
We saw the terraced gardens at Ollantaytambo that the Incans are so famous for. To the Incas, life was all about worshiping the sun and all of nature that provide them with the food and the sun and water they need to survive. There are fountains and temples everywhere that prove their adoration to planet Earth.
Then our driver took us an hour up a windy dirt road, over mountains, to get to a place called Moray. Moray is an archeological site near Cusco at an elevation of 11,500 feet. This ancient Incan site is a series of enormous circular terraced gardens, some 98 feet deep, which was solely used for the ancient study of domestication, acclimatization, and hybridization of wild vegetable species that were modified or adapted for human consumption. For example, today there are 350 varieties of potato and hundreds of varieties of corn in Peru, which some of which were likely created in Moray. This area was a vegetable garden laboratory of the 15th century — perhaps the beginnings of the GMO movement (just kidding, kind of).
Next you will learn the most popular meat eaten by the Peruvian people. We were not ever brave enough to try it, despite the constant urging of Margot our tour guide.
It may not be what you think. Stay tuned . . .
Until next time, the mothership is signing off.