The stars of the Southern Cross shone against the cloudless, Andean sky. This was Marcahuasi, 4,000 metres above the orange glow of Lima’s lights, and it felt as close to the heavens as one could get.
Marcahuasi is the Quechua name given to a plateau 60 km northeast of Lima, one that roughly translates as “the House of the Sovereign”. Exactly who this sovereign is, or what the stories are behind the stone abodes and rock monuments that dot the landscape, most experts have little clue. Some have offered a geologic explanation for the sculpted landscape, while others, such as proto-historian Dr Daniel Ruzo, believe that the rocks, which resemble everything from faces to dinosaurs, are markers left by an ancient civilization, long since annihilated by cataclysms of (literally) Biblical proportions. Ruzo believes the Marcahuasi culture may have encountered Noah’s flood, you can read more about his theories here.
Despite the mysteries that surround the plateau, the visitor can be assured of one guarantee: the awe of standing amidst the remains of a civilization long past, positioned dramatically on a mesa overlooking the Santa Eulalia Valley. The journey up here may very well be the definition of tedious, but the reward for the traveller is an unparalleled vista, the accomplishment of a mountain overcome, and an appreciation for our forebears that we know so little about.
The journey from Lima begins at dawn with a ride (which can be made by micro, colectivo or private taxi) to Chosica, a town on the furthest reaches of the capital territory. From there it’s a four-hour bus up the narrow and winding valley roads, bringing you across the provincial line to the village of San Pedro de Casta in Huarochirí, the base from which travellers start their trek. Coming straight from the sea-level of Lima our group of four decided to spend the night in town to acclimatize, familiarizing ourselves with the strays that roam the cobbled alleyways and the local sugar cane firewater.
Basic is the word I’d use to describe the accommodation at San Pedro de Casta. Our double rooms’ garbage was left uncleared since the last occupant, and running water only came on sporadically in the middle of the night. Put that together with a long day of travelling, a night of alcohol, and one particularly noisy (and also drunk) neighbour, and you’ve assembled yourself a somewhat worn-out team the next morning at sunrise.
It was certainly a blessing, then, that we had on hand a hired donkey to help us with our water and firewood. They weren’t just here for the tourists; these critters (along with their… by-products) can be seen all over the trails leading in and out of town, hauling farm equipment, harvests and bottles of Coca-Cola up and down the valley. Horses were also available to visitors so inclined to make it up to Marcahuasi without breaking a sweat, but I guess I needed some exercise to work off those snacks I’d brought along for the journey.
Rounding the last switchback, one catches sight of the Monument to Humanity, a pockmarked boulder on which one can draw out up to sixteen faces depending on lighting conditions (some are visible only by moonlight) and one’s amount of imagination. Guarding the entrance to the plateau, the monument also looks over a stone hut – our campsite and base for the night. Settling in and unloading the donkeys, it was time to start gathering kindle for our campfire; the temperature drops dramatically at sundown.
Our group cheated a little on the camping experience; we’d brought up cup noodles from a supermarket in Lima. (They did taste great after a day of hiking.) Bringing bottled water, however, was essential. The mountain has close to no water sources, the only freshwater being the stagnant puddle of a pond (toponymically glorified as a lake) fifteen minutes away from camp. It was just as well; water boils at a lower temperature at such high altitudes, complicating the sterilization process were we to use natural water sources.
In the dry season when clouds are few and far between, nightfall turns the sky into a breath-taking myriad of stars, with the Milky Way shining brightly from horizon to horizon. The drawback, though, was the quickly escaping heat, which meant four layers of clothes and a sleeping bag were still short of sufficient from keeping me warm at night. It was a sleepless stay at the mountaintop; between shivering from the cold and blowing my nose from the cold I’d caught, there really wasn’t much time left to sleep off the fatigue.
The rising sun peering through the mountaintop formations was an absolute relief. Breaking camp and warming up with a pot of coca tea, we set off to explore the plateau before heading back town to San Pedro de Casta. The questions one can ask about the civilization that built the huts (and maybe carved the formations) around the hilltop are endless. Were the houses used exclusively for the burials that were excavated? Why take the trouble to come up to this waterless, treeless plateau? Which of the things we see are natural, and which were made by the hand of man? The answers will eventually be answered by archaeologists the like of Ruzo, but in the meantime, one can only marvel at the spectacle of the location and the mystery of its history.
Francis Sin is a volunteer with Karikuy, volunteer positions are still available for 2010, for more info visit www.karikuy.org/volunteer