Local Drinks, Cusco
Most people traveling to the higher climes of Peru have already heard of "Mate de Coca" tea and its benefits which are said to help travelers adjust to the altitude and thin air of the Andes. Even upon arriving at Cusco's Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, you'll see lots of businesses inside the airport which offer mate de coca tea to lure customers, and businesses which sold it directly --- either the deep green coca leaves themselves or other versions of them.
Archaeological evidence supports the fact that the use of coca leaves by Andean cultures has a very long history not only in Peru, but also in other nearby South America countries. Some believe it's been used for thousands of years. Historical evidence also indicates that Incas and their predecessors were known to have used coca since traces have been found in mummies and in characterizations on pottery. Prior to the advent of anaesthetics, coca leaves are thought to have been used in the treatment of broken bones, childbirth, and even complicated operations on the skull.
Obviously, the practice continues today of drinking mate de coca tea and it is seen as a traditional drink although it is still thought to have many medical uses. It is often used as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger, or thirst, but it is widely used to ameliorate the effects of altitude sickness which seems to be the most prevalent reason for its use today.
My first experience with mate de coca tea was during the lunch we were having at The Center for Traditional Textiles in Chinchero where the altitude is said to be about 12,500 ft. Many of us were feelings the effects of the altitude so we were offered the tea which came in the form of whole leaves in boiled water. As previously mentioned, it did not seem to make a difference in my case. However, who knows what I would have felt like had I not had the tea! It surprised me that while in the Sacred Valley when I was ordering hot tea several times I was asked if I wanted regular black tea or mate de coca tea.
It's very important to note that in most, if not all, other South American countries and most certainly in the USA, coca leaves in any form are considered to be a prohibited narcotic and not allowed to be transported over the border. As nearly every hotel we stayed in offered tea-making facilities in the rooms, mate de coca tea bags came as a standard. I had kept several tea bags to take home thinking nothing more of it. On our day of departure from Peru, it finally (and most thankfully) occurred to me that bringing coca leaves or coca tea home would be a crime and most likely drug-sniffing dogs would find it in my luggage!! It is not worth taking this chance!
After visiting the Center for Traditional Textiles in Chinchero, the we wouldn't be in Cusco again for several days, but when we returned our first visit in the city was to the Plaza de Armas.
Mate de Coca or Coca Leaf Tea is a brew of leaves from the locally grown coca shrub. Well the same coca leaves are used to make cocaine - so it's no small wonder that this herb has been attributed medicinal properties from a cure for altitude sickness to a anti-depressant.
Mate de coca is served at breakfast, lunch and dinner as a regular beverage all over Peru. Containing trace amounts of cocaine, drinking of this tea will help blood circulation and hence alleviate the symtoms caused by high alltitude.
Coca leaves are steeped in hot water for a few minutes and the resulting brew (sans leaves) is drunk like regular tea. Sugar can be added since the mate tends to be on the bitter side of the taste spectrum.
These leaves can also be chewed but beware, you can get spiked on it!
Throughout the Sacred Valley, you will see small businesses and private homes with red flags or balloons hanging on a stick outside the building. These flags indicate that this home or store brews and sells chicha. Chicha is a popular local drink which is fermented maize beer that is served warm. You will also see chicha for sale at some markets.
Although I was curious, I did not try it. At the markets, it is served in a glass out of a jug and you drink it right there. This glass is reused for the next customer (although it is rinsed out in a bucket of water in between).
Chicha is a corn beer with a modest alcohol content. Each kind of corn (and they have many) gives the chicha a little different taste. The one I tried had a flavor almost like a mild cider--I liked it. Some places also offer chicha mixed with strawberry juice--I preferred it plain.
Establishments have a flag--or even a ball of colored plastic--on a pole to show that they have chicha ready to serve.
A Pisco Sour is a cocktail containing pisco (8 parts), lemon or lime juice (4 parts), egg whites 1, simple syrup (3 parts), and bitters 1 dash. All but the bitters are shaken vigorously and the bitters are added to the resultant foam as a garnish.
Pisco is a colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored grape brandy produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. It is said to have originated from the prohibition of producing wine from grapes introduced by the Spahish.
Peruvian home brew- I didnt like it, but tried it. Somewhat thick & white, served in a big glass. Look for houses on the roadside with little red flags- this means they brew chicha. Drop by and ask for a glass....but remember drinking & driving- so be careful. Chicha is used in ceramonies and consumed by locals.
The local beer of Cusco is Cuscuena and one of the country's very best. It went well with the local spicy foods and sunny arid climate.
Coca Tea is a famous drink in the Andes. It is made by boiling Coca leaves. It is used to reduce the effects of altitude sickness which can be helpful in Cuzco since its over 10,000 ft up.
Inca Kola is Peru's version of Coca Cola and it is really good it has a kind of bubble gum like flavor but is hard to describe.