It was the Peruvians’ love of alcohol that led to the rediscovery of Machu Picchu.
“It was not until 1890 that the Peruvian Government, recognizing the needs of the enterprising planters who were opening up the lower valley of the Urubamba, decided to construct a mule trail along the banks of the river through the grand canyon to enable the much-desired coca and aguardiente to be shipped from Huadquiña, Maranura, and Santa Ann to Cuzco more quickly and cheaply than formerly,” wrote Hiram Bingham, the American who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911.
“It was this new road which brought Richarte, Alvarez, and their enterprising friends into this little-known region, gave them the opportunity of occupying the ancient terraces of Machu Picchu, which had lain fallow for centuries, encouraged them to keep open a passable trail over the precipices, and made it feasible for us to reach the ruins.”
Nowadays, backpackers who follow in the footsteps of Bingham along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu still cannot escape the Peruvians’ love of alcohol. On my first night on the trail, at 3000 metres above sea level, a Quechuan woman suddenly appeared bearing a bucket of Cusquena beers.
“Can I get you a beer, Mat?” asked my tent-mate, a nerdy midwestern Jewish guy who seemed likely to have been the inspiration for American Pie, the hit film franchise his childhood neighbour spawned.
“Nah, I’m all right, thanks,” I said, offering no further explanation.
The next day, we climbed 1200 parching metres higher and made camp. At dinner, we were all handed free pisco sours – Peru’s national tipple.
“Before you drink, you must pour some on the ground as an offering to the Inca earth goddess, pachamama,” said our guide.
I gave her the whole lot.
On our third night, just a tantalising hour’s walk from Machu Picchu, we were handed free mulled wine. I poured mine into the glass of the guy sat opposite me, a huge tattooed 20-year-old from Somerset.
“Why don’t you wannit, mate?” he said, puzzled.
“I don’t drink, mate,” I said.
“You’ve given it to the right person, then,” said his girlfriend; then he smiled a toothless smile as dessert arrived – flambéed bananas drowned in rum.
Peruvians are said to drink alcohol before they do any hard physical labour. Our porters had been carrying far more weight than us in far less time, with what seemed like superhuman strength. I’d heard that they got their energy from a mix of coca leaf and 60% proof aguardiente.
“No, that’s not true,” said our guide, who used to be a porter himself. “People working in the fields will drink chicha and sambuca, but porters just drink water from the stream.”
That night, he told us how his grandfather was once chased by spirits on his way home across the mountains after drinking with friends.
“He hid in a bush, defecated, then rubbed the shit all over his face to protect himself from the ghosts.”
I refrained from making any “shitfaced” jokes.
The next morning at Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate, we watched the first rays of sun slowly reveal the ruins, then made our way down to Intihuatana, the secret citadel’s famed sundial. In 2000, a crew filming an advert for Peru’s largest beer company, Backus and Johnston, smuggled a crane into Machu Picchu at dawn, after the authorities had prohibited its use. The crane collapsed on Intihuatana, breaking off a piece the size of a ballpoint pen.
“They’ve struck at our most sacred inheritance,” Peruvian archaeologist Federico Kaufmann Doig told media at the time.
The insults continue. As I tried to photograph Intihuatana, I found the sunlight blocked by a fat tourist in a Cristal beer T-shirt. Cristal is made by Backus and Johnston.
But Machu Picchu was never sacrosanct from alcohol. The Incas brewed vast amounts of chicha for ceremonial consumption, and evidence has been found that it was also brewed at Machu Picchu. Bingham theorised that Machu Pichu was a sanctuary for the Incas’ Virgins of the Sun, since most of the remains found there were female. Whether the chicha was brewed by beautiful virgins is another Machu Picchu mystery yet to be solved.
Scientists are far surer that beautiful “brewmistresses” made chicha at Cerro Baúl, a site about 400km south of Machu Picchu and which predates it by 400 years. “We believe this important find may be the oldest large-scale brewery ever found in the Andes,” archaeologist Patrick Ryan Williams told the media in 2004. Remains of the brewery were well preserved because a fire that was set when it was closed made the walls collapse over the materials. “The site was very special,” said Williams. “They wanted to make sure the space wasn’t used in the same fashion again.” Among the remains were shawl pins suggesting noble women were in charge of the beer making. “Women were crucial to the ancient empires of the south-central Andes,” said Williams’s colleague Donna Nash, adding that the fact that high-class women made the beer “probably made it even more special”.
The association continues: In 2006, Backus and Johnston was presented with an “anti-award” by human rights organisations in Peru for its adverts portraying women as objects – everywhere you turn in Peru there is another erection-yanking beer ad. Backus’s commercials were also criticised for linking alcohol with social success and excluding people with mestizo, indigenous, black or Asian features in a country where whites are a small minority.
There may have been women at Cuzco’s “Machu Picchu Group” AA meeting, 80km from the famed ruins, but there was no sign of any meeting at its given address. Luckily, the former Inca capital has no less than five other meetings to choose from. I plumped for a well-signed one just a few streets away, held in a dedicated room, roughly the size of a prison cell. The walls were plastered with home-made posters of AA’s Twelve Steps, amateur pencil portraits of AA founders Bill W and Dr Bob, and professional-looking posters of inter-group meetings all over the country. Eight alcoholic men – five mestizo, one indigenous and two Caucasian – smiled at me and asked me to share.
“Me llamo Mateo, y soy alcoholico de Nueva Zelanda,” I said. My name’s Mateo and I’m an alcoholic from New Zealand. “Lo siento, solomente voy a escuchar, mi Espanol es una mierda.” Sorry, I’m just going to listen, because my Spanish is shit.
They seemed to like that, so I added: “Encuentro como un pulpo en un garaje.” I’m like an octopus in a garage. My phrasebook had led me to believe that this was the equivalent of “I’m like a fish out of water.” From the disturbed looks on my fellow alkies’ faces, it certainly left me feeling that way.
The meeting was on “Paso Ocho” – Step Eight. As all the steps were rattled off, I found I could hardly decipher them, even when I followed the text on the walls. One guy then finished sharing by saying “Anyai,” which signified he’d just shared in Quechuan. No wonder I couldn’t follow.
The closest a recovering alcoholic will get to trying chicha is non-alcoholic chicha ice cream – which is supposedly on sale in Cuzco, but I couldn’t find any. I had more luck in the volcanic city of Arequipa, eight hours south, where I found a shop selling non-alcoholic cerveza ice cream. It tasted kind of like beer – in the same way that Foster’s Lager tastes kind of like lager. Still, it was better than my $US2.50 meal at a restaurant across the road, where the meat arrived covered in blue dye. Meat is dyed blue to signify it is not fit for human consumption – it is for pet food only. The second course was no better – tripe in a pus-yellow sauce.
More queasiness followed two days later, when I was flying over the world-famous Nazca Lines with four other sick-looking tourists. There have been many emergency landings of Nazca Lines flights on the Panamerican highway. Just a few months previously, five tourists had died in a crash landing. As we passed a huge astronaut-like figure scratched into a mountainside, one tourist finally reached for his sick bag. The pilot handed back a bottle of clear liquid with a swab. The tourist inhaled deeply from it, then looked surprised.
“Ohhhh that’s good,” he said, relieved. “That really works, what is it?”
“Alcohol,” said the pilot.
I stayed feeling sick.
This is extracted from Mat Ward’s excellent ebook, ‘Around the World in 80 AA’s where he tours the world investigating the phenomenon that is Alcoholics Anonymous.’ Buy it now.