Peru’s Other Mystical, Mountainous Marvel.
So you find yourself in Lima, Peru.
Almost immediately, you realize that while a world-class city, Lima is still a sprawling concrete jungle of almost 10 million people. In an effort to escape, you explore all the parks and green spaces Peru’s largest city has to offer. Salazar Park. Muralla Park. Miraflores Central Park. You check out the fountains of Circuito Mágico del Agua and the ocean views of Larcomar. Nothing does the trick. You need raw nature, and you need it fast.
Where to, you ask?
Thankfully, there are quite a few hikes and preserves within a day’s drive of Lima. Las Lomas de Lúcumo, Las Lomas de Lachay, and Palakala Falls, to name a few. None of them, though, rival the mystery, the beauty, the remoteness, and the sheer altitude that Marcahuasi offers. Furthermore, few places could be further off the beaten path, if a little solitude is what you seek.
Marcahuasi is a large plateau located approximately four hours east of Lima along the Rímac River. While it’s far less famous than Peru’s other mystical mountainous marvel, Machu Picchu, Marcahuasi is a worthy destination in its own right. It’s renowned for its unusual granite rock formations, which resemble everything from human faces to animal forms, as well as for its prehistoric ruins, which are believed to be almost 10,000 years old. In no small part due to its relative inaccessibility, this stunning, secluded site was rediscovered in the 1950s and made famous by archaeologist Daniel Ruso.
Marcahuasi is also located at 12,500' in the Andes Mountains, and reaching its heights requires navigating one of the most harrowing mountain roads in Peru, either by renting a car or by taking a bus ride. Not one to shy away from a legal adrenaline rush, my friend Gisselle and I opted for the former transportation approach. So, we rented a dilapidated Toyota Yaris with suspect brakes and a dying horn. What could possibly go wrong?
I have skydived, rock climbed, ice climbed, whitewater kayaked, spelunked, and engaged in countless other adventure sports. I can say with certainty that I have never been as scared as I was driving the 2-hour stretch of one-lane dirt road stretching from Chosica to San Pedro de Casta, the small village clinging to a mountainside just below Marcahuasi’s trailhead.
Two thousand foot cliffs. Blind corners. Landslides. This road has it all. Several times, I had to back up hundreds of feet along the edge of a precipice to try to let a bus pass. Once, I even let a bus driver back up my car for me. All the while, as we navigated this treacherous route, tens of gravestones and crosses dotted the side of the road, grim reminders of those before me who weren’t lucky enough to make it out alive.
I can’t downplay the dangers of this road, but I also can’t downplay the fact that the rewards of Marcahuasi outweigh the risks.
We pulled into the cobblestone plaza in the center of San Pedro de Casta just before sunset. We booked a cheap room at the only hotel in town that seemed open, enjoyed a simple yet tasty dinner at the only restaurant that seemed open, and after a little (okay, more than a little) pisco, called it a night. Early the next morning, before sunrise, we bundled up to fight the chilly mountain air, and headed up the well-maintained trail. Slowly, the sun rose, revealing a sea of green mountains in every direction, replete with fields of yellow wildflowers, agricultural terraces, and the occasional weathered, undersized tree.
Navigation is a non-issue on this broad, graveled trail, as it is impeccably well-marked, featuring mileage signs and frequent rest stops. The trail is 5 miles roundtrip, with multiple route options towards the end. Upon reaching a junction, we opted for the steeper, more direct route to the top, and soon reached the lip of the Marcahuasi Plateau.
Strange stone specters rose before us as far as the eye could see. We wandered in between these figures in the early morning light, stopping to explore small sets of ruins, narrow arroyos, and rocky outcroppings. We climbed into the doorways of ancient tombs and admired fields of intricately constructed cairns. The silence and solitude, coupled with abundant shadows slinking off of every boulder, only served to add to the mystery of this place.
Eventually, we came around a bend and were surprised to find that we weren’t alone. We stumbled down a narrow, rocky couloir into Marcahuasi’s main camping area, a small yet verdant green valley ringed by granite cliffs, where some 20 or 25 intrepid souls had spent the night. Fire pits, trash bins and even outhouses offered a sliver of civilization we hadn’t expected to see.
We lost ourselves and our thoughts in the wonders of Marcahuasi for several hours, letting our imaginations run wild. Finally, out of time, we hiked back down to our car in the midday sun to brave the hazardous road back to Lima to pick two friends up from the airport.
There is magic in Marcahuasi. Legends abound regarding how these mysterious rock formations came to be. Were they carved by human hands, or sculpted by the forces of nature? Or, as some locals suggest, were these otherworldly formations created by visitors from other planets? Though most geologists and archaeologists agree that erosion formed Marcahuasi’s enigmatic sculptures, seeing them for yourself may just convince you otherwise.
Locals will also inform you that the area contains numerous energy vortices, and may even regale you with tales of miraculous healings, including that of a paralyzed man who regained the ability to walk in a Marcahuasi energy vortex.
So you want to escape Lima and visit Marcahuasi? Make sure you allow yourself ample time to get there, to hike to the plateau, and to explore. Everything will take longer than you expect. Most visitors camp at Marcahuasi for at least a night, but a day trip is doable, as well, if you opt for the power tourism approach. Either way, Marcahuasi is a profound, puzzling, peaceful place, one that needs to be seen to be believed.