Tuesday, February 15, 2011

It's Not All Beer and Skittles*

At a height of almost 3350 metres (10,790 feet), Cuzco, Peru is a city rich in history and culture. For years, it was the home of the Killke and Incan civilizations and in 1983 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. When you stroll along the cobblestoned streets it’s easy to spot Incan foundations married with buildings from the days of the Spanish Conquistadors. And in any given year, 1.5 million tourists visit this small city, and they get thirsty. Very, very thirsty.

Paddy Flaherty’s Irish Pub, on the corner of Cuzco’s main square, Plaza de Armas, is a haven for those who need an escape from historical tours and markets selling llama wool hats and scarves. It’s the highest Irish pub in the world and where I tended bar between working jobs as a tour leader.

The entrance is tucked in a side street, and a dark staircase leads up to a bar that could easily be transplanted to Dublin. Creaky floorboards, beer, and fried food greet one on arrival, and it takes a while for the eyes to adjust to the dimly lit rooms. From early evening the place is abuzz with hordes of tourists fresh off the Inca Trail or from day trips to nearby ruins. This pub is a sanctuary for English-speaking foreigners who need a break from their travels and want to step into a world that’s familiar. They can sit and talk about their ideals and travels in English and don’t have to reach for the phrase book every two seconds. In a way, this pub is a home away from home.

I’m not sure how much has changed since I worked there ten years ago, but back then, the Irish favourite, Guinness, wasn’t available on tap. It had something to do with Cuzco being at altitude and beer barrels being pressurised, blah, blah, blah. I’m sure someone with an ounce of scientific knowledge could give a much better explanation. All I knew was that Guinness could only be served in a can in Cuzco and boy, didn’t that cause a ruckus for the Guinness aficionados that ambled through the door. 

No matter how many times I explained that pouring Guinness out of a can at altitude was a skill that only bartenders in Cuzco have mastered, some patrons refused to listen. I would patiently describe what would happen if they didn’t pull the tab and pour the dark liquid at the right angle. Speed was involved but the macho types didn’t trust this strange Aussie lass and so I let them have at it. They’d position their glass on top of the bar and give me a “You have no idea what you’re talking about, girlie” grin and I’d duck down and strategically place a towel over my head. There would be a whooshing sound, quickly followed by splats of beer all over the bar and a “Je*)* F(&%$#&* C^%#(%!”. I’d bob up, hand them the towel, give them my “I told you so” smile and suggest I open the next can for them. No one ever refused my offer.

The tourists drifted in and out, new faces replacing the old every few days. There were regulars, including ex-pats and the Peruvian version of the gigolo, the brichero. I’ll let you in on a secret—I love my television soapies. South American ones are my favourites. But the best, and sometimes the saddest, were the real-life dramas happening in the bar before my bleary eyes. The bricheros know how to charm. In a way, it’s their business. They’d declare undying love for the gringa (foreign woman) and in return the brichero would receive drinks, food, clothes, and a few nights of unbridled passion. Being the bleeding heart that I am, I would occasionally step in and mutter my warning to the women who looked like they didn’t know this was a game. Most were thankful. Some got angry but would return the next day and thank me for opening their eyes. I hated bursting people’s dreams of romance but having been bitten myself, I wasn’t going to stand by and let it happen to others. 

Day shift was a great chance to get to know the patrons taking a break from being a tourist. Living in Peru meant I spoke Spanish most of the time, so it was a welcome respite for me to have a conversation in English (even though some people had to ask me to translate my Australian into “real English”). One rainy afternoon a couple came in and plonked themselves at the bar. We got chatting and I couldn’t shake the feeling I had seen this guy before. Eventually I asked what he did and he said, “I’m in a rock group but you’ve probably not heard of us.” When I prodded further, it turned out this handsome and very affable guy was Evan Dando from The Lemonheads. I nearly fell over. They were, and still are, one of my favourite groups of all time. I’d watched their film clips many times over, but it never occurred to me that this guy was someone…well, famous. From that moment on I started recognising a parade of well-known singers, writers, and actors coming through the doors of a tiny Irish Pub in the middle of the Andes.

Even though I was hired as a bar tender, I ended up serving a lot more than alcohol and food. I became a tour guide, translator, and counsellor. But the best part of the job? Learning that people from all over the world are one and the same—we want someone to listen to us and need an escape every now and again, even if it’s from being a traveller.

* Translation—a life of indulgence spent in a pub.


  1. Love the pouring beer at altitude tidbit!! I'm already thinking how to turn this into a clue in a story. LOL!

  2. What a fun experience! I only worked as a secretary when I worked abroad ;). I haven't been to South America yet, but I will now add this to one of the places I must visit.

  3. Great post about high altitude. Looks like I need to add Cuzco to my list of places to get to.


  4. Great post! I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for some of those Guinness episodes!

  5. You must have collected some great ideas for stories (and characters) working that bar. If fact, I think you did already... :)

    Do you know when the pub first opened or whether it is still there?

  6. Lina, yes, pouring beer at altitude is an artform. I'm glad this got your creative mind working!

    Gigi, if you ever make it to South America, let me know. I worked for twelve years as a tour guide and travel consultant so I'd be happy to give some free advice!

    Yes, Edith! You definitely need to go. It's amazing!

    Heather, those Guinness episodes never ceased to amuse me or the other staff. Ten years later and I'm still laughing about it!

    Heidi, the pub opened up in 1996 and it seems to be getting more popular every year. It was owned by a Peruvian and Australian when I was there and now it's owned by a real-life Irishman (I worked behind the bar with him). And yeah, I definitely have a lot of stories and characters in my head based on those experiences. But some may never make it to print. ;-)

  7. Oh Alli, thanks for bringing back memories of one of the finest drinking establishments in South America...and home at the time to the delightful you, a friendship I've treasured ever since. Believe it or not I still lean towards pouring guinness like you had to there, although it's stupid to really as minus the altitude it produces far to flat a drink! But it was great amusement and I'd forgotten about it until you nudged my memory...I do remember though just how perplexed people got as they got increasingly drunk, despite your warnings that the altitude makes you drunk quicker! Indeed one of my first night's there your boss insisted on bundling me in a taxi across the square because I'd been caught out myself on that one! Thanks for sharing your memory and for bringing back my own happy memories :~)

  8. So Alli where were you when l needed someone to whisper in MY ear ???
    LOL ... Kris

  9. Jane, my partner-in-crime! I forgot about how altitude can make one very drunk very quickly. Thanks for reminding me! Remembering those days does make me smile.

    Kris, I promise to scream in your ear next time you need it!

  10. A Treasure found;
    I cherish this, and know am going to have magnificent times with it, over & over.....