Marcahuasi and San Pedro de Casta Meet the New Age
My discovery of the village's existence happened at a peculiar spot in Lima in the mid 1970s. I was in one of the downtown tourist shops near Plaza San Martin, looking for an ancient jungle weaving that I had heard may have been for sale in one of the boutiques. Such weavings were purported to represent an old language that used mathematical symbols, developed by an antediluvian culture that thought in mathematical terms, unlike our present cultures that express language with phonetic and pictographic alphabets.
A foreign woman in the store, dressed in a lavishly beaded dress with bangles on her arms and layers of silver necklaces covering her bosom, inquired as to my mission. I politely explained my interest in ancient Peru and she quickly asked if I knew about Marcahuasi. I did not, so she gave me basic facts. The site was located on a plateau about three thousand three hundred meters above sea level yet only eighty kilometers from Lima, a day hike above the village of San Pedro de Casta. Marcahuasi was held sacred by many indigenous groups and apparently contained an unparalleled set of ruins, including depictions of all the major human races and much, much more. Getting there would present a challenge, she went on, but the rewards were worth the effort.
During the 1970s public transport was spotty in many different regions of Peru. I already knew this. So, how was one supposed to get to San Pedro? The only option, my new friend explained, was to take an early morning bus from the squalid market area near Plaza San Martin in downtown Lima, head for the resort town of Santa Eulalia, and then hitchhike along the road to Huancayo, debark at the fork that led straight up the side of a steep valley to San Pedro, and stick my thumb out for that segment, too.
I soon arranged to visit San Pedro with an English friend, Michael. I had further business in Lima for the next couple of days so we agreed to meet in San Pedro in a week's time. He would make the trip first, procure accommodations, and we would hike together to up the mountain to Marcahuasi.
He departed two days before I did. Early in the morning I decamped from a modest hotel to the marketplace bus stop, my head dizzy from an all night rap session with a young Australian female acquaintance. I am quite sure we solved all the world's problems that evening, but come morning our brilliant ideas had disappeared with the rise of the mist-laden Pacific sun.
I made my way to the proper bus and boarded. The vehicle, an old and rickety American Bluebird, was packed with local campesinos. The only available seat was a spot at the rear on the vehicle's floor and I sat there, making a cushion from my pack.
The bus departed in due time and made its way through the barrios jovenes that ringed the city. But soon we began to climb from the coastal desert; the sun appeared as we gained altitude, leaving the seaside garua fog below. I was happy to get away from Lima. One grows weary of the endless traveler babble sessions in the hotels there, and the empty promises, made during furious mental marathons, for working out great world changes. Yet here was a promise I had kept, perhaps more simple than most, but still, I was on my way to a remote village to meet Michael and hike to one of the most controversial archeological sites in South America. What could go wrong?
The first trouble arrived unexpectedly at a police checkpoint, twenty kilometers from Lima. Officers boarded the bus and began to shout at the passengers, demanding identification and other proof of their right to travel. The burly men, dressed in ill-fitting uniforms and who handled their assault weapons with sloppy indifference, soon tired of questioning the Peruvian travelers and spotted me, a lone gringo with a British army surplus field pack, surrounded by other meager possession in the back of the bus. "Get up here and off the bus!" they barked. I complied with haste. Once outside the old school bus, they noticed a plastic baggie hanging from my shirt pocket. "What do you have in there? Show us!" I produced the bag, which contained Dutch Drum tobacco. "That's marijuana! ¡Vamos a la comisaría!" So I tagged after them into a one-room adobe shack by the roadside. Indoors, they rifled my belongings and found another baggie, this one filled with white powder. "¡Cocaina!" they cried. "You are under arrest."
By now I had tired of the harassment. First, I rolled a cigarette, lit the thing and blew smoke in their faces. "See, this is tobacco, not marijuana." They were skeptical but couldn't deny the smell. Then I took off a shoe and thrust my foot on the desk of the commandante. "Look, I have athlete's foot. The white powder is sulfathiazole, which helps alleviate the symptoms. Here, put it up to your nose but don't inhale. It's toxic if taken internally." The cops did not believe this story but I showed them an empty packet of the drug from my pants pocket to prove the substance's provenance. I stated, "I am a tourist who has come to see your beautiful country and to help foster understanding between your citizens and ours. How dare you accuse me of being a criminal?"
With that comment they relented and returned my plastic bags -- the bag of white powder was in fact cocaine -- and reluctantly gave me permission to board the bus. Luckily the driver had waited to see the outcome of my interrogation. The passengers burst into applause when I climbed the stairs. Score one for the good guys!
The bus trip ended as advertised in Santa Eulalia. This was a quaint town with many restaurants and river-side pensións, where limeños with sufficient means spent weekends away from the polluted streets of their home city. Otherwise the place had little to recommend it. So I stuck out my hand and flagged a passing truck. The driver was headed to Huancayo and he let me off at the intersection of the track that led up the hills toward San Pedro de Casta. I began to talk with a few men who were standing nearby. They asked me what the heck I was doing here, so I explained the reason for my journey. One of them was about to walk up the mountain to San Pedro, and he invited me to accompany him. By walk, I mean that he was planning to trek some 7000 vertical feet uphill on a barely-negotiable path. I declined.
No other traffic passed by that day, so I pitched my tent by the river, behind some trees to keep out of sight, and spent a restless night listening to the flow of the current and to all manner of unidentifiable noises. The cocaine I had carried for companionship evaporated in the humidity of the night and left me feeling lost and forlorn.
The next morning, feeling stressed, tired, and hungry, I managed to secure a ride on a truck that was going to a town near San Pedro. The driver, who held a bottle of aguardiente in one hand and a bag of coca leaves in the other, appeared ready to set a land speed record for mountain travel. By now I was too burnt-out to care, so I jumped into his cab and we took off, tires screeching in the dirt.
The road climbed the mountain in a series of zigzags. At every hairpin turn the driver, after helping himself to a nice belt of moonshine, fishtailed around the corner, coming within inches of falling off the road and thousands of feet to the valley floor below. Then he would turn to me and grin, the wad of coca leaves in his mouth showing a bright green tint on his teeth. Only fatigue prevented me from having a nervous breakdown.
He finally let me off at another intersection, where I saw the village of San Pedro, perhaps an additional six kilometers distant. The view was magnificent. But I had a long uphill walk ahead of me, with no prospect of any vehicular traffic with which to hitch a ride.
San Pedro village perched on its mountaintop location, as seen from my drop-off point. A lot further away than it looked.
I reached the village just before nightfall. The town was small, so small that my Brit friend saw my approach an hour before my arrival. "You made it!" he exclaimed. "Did you bring any food?" "Food," I replied weakly. "Why would I do that?" "They don't really have any here," he said.
Oh boy. That was great news. "Do we have a place to stay?" I asked.
"Yes. They gave us a house." Sure enough, Michael led me to a one-room hovel with a dirt floor and a pile of unidentifiable offal in the corner. No furniture, no electricity, just a front door, with a thatched roof to complete its list of charms. "How much do we have to pay?" "Nothing, they gave it to us for free and said we can hang out as long as we like. They don't have any money here and so they don't have any use for cash."
"Where's the outhouse?" I said. Michael shrugged. "They don't have loos, either. You go out back into the fields to shit or whatever." By now he could have told me that we were required to take our dumps in front of the town council every morning and I wouldn't have cared.
"Hey," Michael now informed me. "Know what? The hillsides are covered with San Pedro cactus. There's mescaline everywhere growing wild. When we go up to Marcahuasi we can take a batch." "Whatever," I said, only wanting to unroll my sleeping bag and get some rest.
We lingered in the village for a few days gathering information about Marcahuasi and related subjects. The locals had seldom seen outsiders -- we were there before the place became a New-Age pilgrimage focal point -- and so they were delighted to share their knowledge and experiences.
First, the village was a hot spot for UFO activity. Night after night strange lights appeared in the sky and on at least one occasion a saucer had dive-bombed the town. The Catholic priest, who did not want to hear such nonsense, told the villagers that these sightings were devil's work, causing the townspeople to promptly kick out the priest and close the church. This was nearly the only place in Latin America where I'd ever heard of the Church in modern times being run out of town.
Old men told us of cave entrances that could only be seen by moonlight at certain phases of its orbit around the Earth. What was inside these caves? I wanted to know. Entrada gratis pero no hay salida, came the invariable answer. In other words, you can check it out but you can't leave. Don Henley and Glenn Frey would have appreciated the sentiment.
One afternoon I asked the villagers why they no longer dressed in traditional clothes. The hamlet was laid out in its original pre-Hispanic street grid and clearly the modern world had yet to intervene. They replied that in recent times, people had dressed the same as their forefathers, but this was no longer the case. Their castaway rags of Western clothing belied the sadness behind these remarks.
As for Marcahuasi, they believed fervently that the site was special, and had been settled long ago by an unknown civilization. Go visit for yourselves, they said. You'll see what we mean.
At last Michael and I made the necessary preparations and hiked to Marcahuasi. The mountain's summit formed a plateau a thousand meters above San Pedro, with ravines and deep valleys cutting into the arid landscape. We took sleeping bags, food, and mescaline, but didn't bother with my tent, hoping to save weight during the hike.
Well, we explored Marcahuasi after spending a frigid night camped under the stars. The Milky Way shone like a giant headlamp crossing the night sky, and strange lights buzzed back and forth between the stars until dawn. As to their nature I cannot say, except that these odd lights moved in non-linear fashion and did not behave like any airplanes or satellites I have ever seen.
We saw the famous "Monument to Humanity" as it is sometimes referred to, a rock that is supposed to depict different human races from selective angles. We walked around it countless times. I believe that this formation is a natural structure, and any human shapes that appear are the result of our brains' tendency to form pattern recognitions in otherwise random features. I formed the same impression when examining more of the "statuaries." At this altitude, with the extreme temperatures caused by the equatorial sun followed by inevitably clear nights, rocks eroded in peculiar fashions, chunks falling in sheer lines almost as if carved, due to moisture expanding in pre-existing fissures.
We brewed several pots of San Pedro; I had been taught how to do so in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, home to South America's most potent variety of the drug. But the substance chose to show us nothing we couldn't see with our own eyes. Its properties had no power over the energies of Marcahuasi; this was a site meant to be experienced by humans using their own divine-inspired senses. That the plateau held answers to some of humankind's riddles was clear, but it was up to us to understand the answers. We were left, as humans so often are, to rely on our natural devices. Michael and I reached the same conclusions independently: the story of the Marcahuasi civilization dates from such ancient times that modern academic attempts to try to pinpoint its beginnings constitute an exercise in egotistical foolery.
And we did see ruins, lots of them. Mostly low stone structures that had been built as mausoleums. Crawling into one I saw skulls, clay pots, jewelry and other offerings, but did not touch the objects out of respect for the ancient peoples who had placed them there.
In due time we returned to San Pedro, staying in our hovel a few more days and making more friends whom I would return again to visit in later years. These were the nicest people, poor in the extreme, but happy to share whatever they had without asking for money or anything else in return. We did experience hunger most of the time, but the villagers had enough potatoes on hand to keep our bodies functioning.
When told of the tombs we had discovered, the elders nodded their heads solemnly. "You were respectful," one old man allowed.
"What would have happened if we had tried to remove something? I said.
The man moved a finger in a silent horizontal motion across his throat. "We guard these places always," he finished.
When we departed San Pedro for the long walk back to the road and the modern world, we bade goodbye with reluctance. As well as saying farewell to some amazing people, we understood also we were saluting a way of life that was vanishing in real-time. With every visit I made during ensuing years the people had become more jaded, less hospitable, and more anxious to collect the copious but well-intentioned tourist cash.
Nowadays every UFO freak and New Age adherent includes San Pedro in their Peru itineraries, and you can even travel there with groups. I have even heard of tourists taking ayahuasca at Marcahuasi, a practice that makes as much sense as dropping acid in a junior college remedial English class.
True, the local population now has money and the means to enjoy modern consumer conveniences. But at what price? The old ways are gone. You can check it out but regrettably you can now leave.Tweet