Imagine if you will a game of roulette but instead of numbers in red and black, there are no colors at all. Instead of 1 through 36, you’re gambling on 1 through 10. Imagine that the wheel doesn’t turn. It doesn’t need to because instead of a small round ball that bounces from number to number, there is a small, round guinea pig with a mind of its own.

Guinea Pigs As Food

Previously, I had only known the Guinea Pig, as a pet in the United States.

It was only on our first trip to Peru that we learned that people raise guinea pigs for meat. The animals, called cuy, are often seen running around Andean homes, both urban and rural, and could be mistaken for pets, but they aren’t. 

A guinea pig hutch in Peru

In fact, our Inca Trail guide once played as a child with the guinea pigs that shared his home. He laughed at those of us who questioned treating an animal like a pet and then later eating it. Truly, we were imagining a first world problem in a third world context.

The Guinea Pig Game

Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered a new use of the guinea pig – a simplified version of roulette. I learned about this Peruvian game at a cultural festival in Quito, Ecuador.

It’s really very simple. You need 11 cardboard boxes, ten of them cut with small openings and placed on the ground in a large circle but without gaps in between, a number atop each box. The boxes look like small garages waiting for toy cars to park. Inside each box is a little guinea pig enticement, pellets of food. The eleventh box is kept whole and becomes the starting block for the Cuy Magico.

The cuy is about to be placed in the box in the center of the arena.

Once the bettors surround the circle and have placed their dollar coins atop each box, the game can begin. The Ringmaster, or Maestro de Ceremonias, quickly places the Cuy Magico under the box. He waits a few tense seconds while the pressure grows. Anxiously, children and adults alike wait for Cuy Magico to be released. Once out in the open, the Cuy Magico performs his magic.

The Guinea Pig Magic

Each time I watched, the guinea pig wasn’t very excited. He sniffed the grass. Looked around. And then ambled towards one of the openings.

Ready, set, release the cuy!

It was more exciting to watch the faces of those who had placed bets. Almost all were cheering and cajoling though a few just watched, hoping the intensity of their gaze could possibly serve as a magnet and attract that Magic Guinea Pig. Everyone was trying to convince the Cuy Magico that their box was the best. Choose me! ¡Número 3! This box, this box! ¡Esta caja! ¡Número 10!

And just where will the cuy go?

When the small creature finally chooses his little garage, the winner takes all! An easy $10 for un ganador – a loss of $1 for the other nine perdedores. ¡Que chévere! as the Ecuadorians would say!