I first heard about San Pedro de Casta because the village is the access
point for Marcahuasi, an allegedly ancient archeological site high in the arid
western slopes of the Peruvian Andes. Here, people claimed, humans had
lived for 10,000 years and left behind sculptures that depicted the various
races of humanity and a wealth of other oddities.
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?
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.
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
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
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?"
"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
"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
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
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
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.