Off the beaten path Peru: Marcahuasi
Off the beaten path hikes: one of the best things to do in Peru
If you are a budget backpacker who can’t find any more things to do in Lima and need to recharge your batteries, there are nearby places that, although only 100 km away, will make you feel like you are on another planet. One of these places is Marcahuasi. Let me not spoil it for you with too much of a description. But be ready to experience its mysticism and its magic, knowing that it is one of the most incredible places to visit in Peru, especially if you are looking for some off the beaten path. It is possible to camp there, but you should be very well prepared with a good tent, excellent gear, and carry all foods and necessities (and walk up 4 km on horses or donkeys to carry all your belongings to the area where you can camp).
Despite not being too far from Lima, Marcahuasi is so isolated and hardly exploited by tourism, and it will take you a good 5 hours to reach it, with a few bus changes. You will hardly meet any tourists on the way. Don’t plan it as a day trip from Lima, even if they may tell you it is doable, as anything may happen along the way (a flat tire on the bus, construction works on the road; extreme fog or rain that may not allow to drive back; buses not leaving for some unknown reason) that may delay your journey and make it impossible to catch the last bus back. Be sure to carry warm clothes (set at 4000 meters above sea level, it does get very cold even during the day) and rain coat, and possibly a good sleeping bag.
How to get there
Travellers who have been on trips to Peru will be able to tell you that 100 km in this incredible country may involve hours of travel. Head out well early in the morning: from your hostel in Lima catch a taxi that will take you to the paradero (bus stop) where colectivos going to Chosica stop. That should cost you around 5 soles. Then, hop on a colectivo to Chosica (5 soles) and once there, look for the buses going to San Pedro de Casta (around 10 soles). There is one that leaves at 9 am. The bus will take about 3 hours, along a dirt road that will leave most passengers breathless for the beauty and the fear (it does drive along cliffs, and the road is truly narrow so if a car or bus is coming in the opposite direction, it will reverse until a spot where the road is wide enough to let the other pass!).
Once you get to San Pedro de Casta, there is no way you can get lost: this is most definitely where you will spend the night. The village is truly tiny, and everybody knows each other. Chances are that the tourism office will be closed, but the lovely lady who owns the “restaurant” next door will be keen enough to call the employee in charge and ask him or her to show up, as there are tourists. You will have to register your name in the tourist book (where you will notice that at most there are 2 visitors per day) pay a fee to go up to the site (it is only 5 soles) and, if you want to rent horses, make sure you do require them a day in advance as there are very few in the village. The lady in the restaurant or the person in charge in the Tourism office will also point you to the nearby (and only) hostel.
Where to stay
There is only one, rustic “Hospedaje Municipal” where you can sleep (unless you are brave enough to camp in Marcahuasi): double private rooms with or without bathrooms (between 20 and 30 soles for the room). Forget about hot water: there are showers, but only cold ones, and in those dark, cold rooms you won’t really want to hop in a shower and risk pneumonia.
San Pedro de Casta
The village has little to offer – 3 rustic restaurants with plain but wholesome food (trout, potatoes, rice and little more), which also serves as tiendas (shops) and where you can drink the much needed mate de coca to fight the side effects of altitude. One of the best past-times in the village is to sit in the main (and possibly only) square to watch life go by: at around 1pm children head out of school and if you sit in the main plaza you will see them all run, rucksacks on, to have lunch in the comedor (eatery); peasants will go up and down the hills with their donkeys; the many village dogs (and a few cats) will be roaming about and bonding with tourists. The village surroundings are gorgeous: mountains, mountains and more mountains. It will get even more fascinating at around 2 pm, when the clouds will cover it and rain will start dropping, softly at first, then a real downpour. That’s when you want to head to one of the restaurants and start sipping mate de coca to fight the altitude, or anything warm, and read a good book.
Plan to have an early night: by 8 pm everybody is pretty much asleep in the village. There aren’t many things to do in Peru most remote village. There are no cars at all, so the only sound you will hear at night are donkeys randomly braying, the sound echoing in the whole village. You will sleep tight, even more so considering how quiet it is compared to chaotic Lima. People in San Pedro de Casta are truly friendly, so practice your Spanish with them: ask about their culture, their traditions, share yours, appreciate whatever help they offer, especially when they show you what to do in Peru when transportation lets you down (the lady from the restaurant next to the Tourism Office, for example, literally saved my trip arranging transportation to get back down to Chosica on a day when the buses decided not to run: she literally spent over an hour running from door to door, making phone calls, arranging a ride) and be thankful.
The trek to Markahuasi
An early wake up is definitely the best way to start. Aim to begin your hike at 6 am, when the sun starts rising. It normally rains later on in the day, with clouds starting to come down at around 10 and rain starting to drop at around 12:30. If you walk up early, you will have more chances to get a clear sky and a perfect view of the mountains and of the site. Make sure you do carry some snacks and plenty of water. It is a hard hike: from the already 3000 meters above sea level of the village, to the 4000 of Marcahuasi, along a steep (but well marked) path of little over 4 km (8 km in total, going up and back). There is nothing along the way – not a shop, not a bar. Only crops, nature and mountains. You won’t meet any tourists. At most, a few peasants and their donkeys (I think I met 3 during the whole hike). Chances are that one of the dogs from the village will follow you. It happened to me, and it felt great to have that quiet company and his incitement to continue walking any time I stopped on the way, exhausted.
You will think you have seen it all along the way – those spectacular mountains, rays of light shining through the clouds, a view of San Pedro de Casta from high up. Then, you will get to Marcahuasi and will feel entranced. Rock formations that resemble human faces, empty spaces, and a cold breeze that will chill your skin, the echo of your voice and your steps. Something is magic about this place, and you will be repaid of the long (and at times scary) bus journey, of the dust you breathed along the way, of the bone-chilling cold you felt during the night. You will know it then: hiking Marcahuasi should definitely be listed among the things to do in Peru.
For more places to visit in Peru, click here.