It's a Saturday morning during the celebration of Carnival in the western Venezuelan city of Mérida. In the Plaza de Toros, several bulls are preparing to do their last dance with a Spanish man dressed in gold while thousands of spectators watch. People from all over the country have descended upon Mérida for this, for the parades and parties happening in the rolling green mountains that make the city the adventure capital of Venezuela.
But not far from the plaza, on a countertop in Mérida's Mercado Principal, it's a cooler full of bull's eyeballs that stare back at the crowd. The eyes will be dropped into a blender, along with milk, brandy, baby formula, fish eggs, and 21 other ingredients to create the city's token aphrodisiac energy smoothie known as levantón Andino, meaning Andean boost.
It's sold here everyday at Super Batidos de María Luisa de Rangel, a juice and empanada kiosk at Mercado Principal that is the birthplace of the drink. Typical customers tend to be college students prepping for tests, runners, climbers, old men hoping to drink their way to brawn, and couples trying to get pregnant. But today, there are a lot of first timers.
When I walk up, three girls from Caracas are waiting to split a cup between themselves and are joking nervously about the scene.
The guy manning the blenders begins by dropping in frozen fruit: strawberries, papaya, cantaloupe, pineapple, and raspberry. This is followed by dashes of rum, red wine, milk, beer, and a number of liquids from unmarked bottles.
"We've been told it can wake up the dead," one girl says.
María Luisa de Rangel works the register while her husband, Giovanny José Rangel, hangs out with customers. At 10:30 AM, he is noticeably a bit drunk, and before we can carry on watching the levantón being made, he orders me to take a shot of miche andin— a homemade, 40-percent alcohol, sugar-based liquor that tastes like licorice (and is also an ingredient in the smoothie).
Sugar is dropped into the blender by the cupful, and the man behind the counter fishes an eyeball out of the cooler, giving it a little squeeze so the iris bulges out towards us. Holding it over the top of the blender, he makes a cut in the back and squeezes the fleshy insides into the mix. He drops two quail eggs in, shells intact, and cracks two chicken eggs over that. He turns the blender on and walks away.
"I'm the third-generation of this drink," Giovanny begins. His grandfather's generation used to mix an egg into a cup of dark beer as a sort of energy boost, and this concoction inspired the levantón. Twenty-seven years ago, when he and his family opened the shop, they sold the egg-beer combo before deciding they needed to go bigger.
"We needed something that would revolutionize the market!" Giovanny exclaims.
He and his wife asked every member in the family to come up with an ingredient that would enhance the egg-beer drink. His mother came up with the idea for the bull's eye (for vision) and the quail's eggs with the shell (for fertility). María Luisa herself has several secret ingredients that only she and Giovanny know.
One man, who says he drinks a pitcher of levantón once every 15 days, orders and then runs off into the market. He returns with a bottle of miche andino, and proceeds to dump a quarter of it into his levantón. His chest puffs up. "More energy!" he proclaims.
Everybody is talking about what a great source of energy it is, but we're all tiptoeing around the drink as a potent aphrodisiac as well. It contains the libido-boosting extract of the Amazonian Chuchuhuasi tree bark. Each time I ask what someone intends to do after they drink the levantón, Giovanny raises his eyebrows and his glossy eyes light up.
"It's good for sexual energy as well, right?" I throw out there. "The levantón is an aphrodisiac."
Giovanny grins. "Well, yes, that's it," he says sheepishly. "You took the words right from my mouth."
"I have this friend in Valencia (Venezuela)," he begins, "and I don't know if it was him or his wife who was having fertility trouble, but they wanted a kid and nothing was happening. So I said, 'Look, you both need to drink this everyday for two weeks.' Today, he has a little son and every time they visit me my friend says, 'This is a product of the levantón!'"
I start talking to a couple that is standing off in a corner splitting a pitcher. At first, they buffer my questions, but when I ask if it's hard to drink and think about the more unconventional ingredients, they act flabbergasted.
"Of course not," the woman says, "I didn't watch them put any of the ingredients in anyway." Employing classic hot-dog psychology.
Giovanny jumps in with a curious grin. "And how does it taste?"
The man shrugs. "It tastes like a strawberry smoothie."
I have trouble accepting this answer. It's like saying your toothpaste tastes like Girl Scout Thin Mints. There are clearly less savory flavors lurking in the background, but you can will them away. I have tried levantón andino three times now, and have been unable to take down a full cup. It's pretty gelatinous for a smoothie, and takes on new life when you think about raw egg and eyeball mucus surging up the straw towards your mouth. I relay this to Giovanny using softer words, but he goes on the defense.
"You know we had Don Francisco here?" Giovanny asks me, "And he loved it, he was one of the first to drink this!" When—and please forgive me—I don't know who the 74-year-old Chilean host of Univisión program Sabado Gigante is, his face drops. All five people in on the conversation look at me like I just thought "Purple Haze" was a Prince song. "Well, Alexandra, you know," Giovanni says while tapping his index finger against his forehead, "most importantly, this is a boost for the mind."
He reaches for a cup of levantón and rattles his head as if awakening to reality, downs the drink in one fell gulp, and then reaches for the bottle of miche andino.
"Now," he says, "maybe we need this kind of boost, too."