Marcahuasi is one of the most surreal places you can hope to see in Peru.
At about 100 km east of Lima geographically, Marcahuasi is about a million miles away from it from all other points of view. For as busy, polluted, lively and touristy the Peruvian capital is, Marcahuasi has yet to be discovered by tourism (let alone mass tourism!).
This unique site is at about 6 to 8 hours hike from San Pedro de Casta, a tiny mountain village, and a truly breathtaking place.
So, if you are looking to discover a place that is completely off the beaten path in Peru, and interested in a unique hike, definitely keep it in mind!
In this post, I will explain everything you need to know to plan a trip to Marcahuasi and how to make the most of it.
Some Background Information About Marcahuasi
Marcahuasi is a magic, mystic place. Located on a mountain range rising along the banks of the Rímac River, in the Huarochirí Province, and with peaks that go over 4000 meters, it’s known for the funny shapes of human faces, and animal and even religious symbols supposedly carved in the granite rock.
The plateau where Marcahuasi is found was formed as a result of a volcanic eruption. Although some say that the rock shapes have been sculpted by an ancient civilization, archeologists agree that they have been formed naturally through erosion, and that they formed around 10000 years ago.
Not far from where the rock shapes are located, there are some pre-Columbian sites which are also interesting to visit, though most of them are now in terrible ruins; as well as burial sites.
The first person to explore the area was Daniel Ruzo, who visited for the first time in 1952. He spent nine years researching Marcahuasi, taking photographs and involving the community of San Pedro de Casta – the nearest village – in his work, which was eventually published with the title “Marcahuasi: The Story of a Fantastic Discovery” and where he suggests that the energy vortices in the area where Marcahuasi is located have healing powers.
I can’t testify to the healing power to be honest – in fact, I had a tremendous throat infection when I was visiting and 3 weeks later I had to leave the country and returned to Italy and have my tonsils removed – but there’s a legend of a Peruvian man who was paralyzed after a car accident and healed after visiting Marcahuasi.
The hut where Ruzo lived during his research is still in the plateau, and often becomes shelter to visitors who decide to spend the night there.
Before starting your hike to Marcahuasi, make sure you stop by the tourist desk in San Pedro de Casta and pay the small tourist fee (5 Peruvian Soles (PEN) (around $1.5 USD). It really is pennies, and it goes to help life in the village – it won’t take you much to understand why.
You really can’t miss the tourist desk. In fact, as tourists are so rare in San Pedro de Casta, chances are you will be spotted the minute you get off the bus and invited to go to the office and sign the register.
The hike to Marcahuasi is a strenuous one. The issue isn’t so much distance – it’s about 8 km there and back, or longer if you decide to visit the entire site. It’s not even the terrain – you walk on a narrow dirt road for the most part, and the trail is really well marked.
The problems is the altitude: you start in San Pedro de Casta which is at about 3000 meters above sea level, and go all the way to 4000 meters, so there is a significant elevation gain, and the starting point is already quite high – which is why I don’t recommend this hike if you aren’t accustomed to the altitude already.
It will take you between 6 and 8 hours for the hike, depending on how quick you walk and at what point you decide to head back to the village.
GOOD TO KNOW: Keep in mind that the weather turns bad pretty much every day at around 12:00 pm, so I don’t foresee you wanting to spend hours on end at the site!
My advice is to have an early night (there’s nothing in terms of entertainment anyways) and wake up nice and early and start walking no later than 6:00 am, as soon as the sun starts to rise, to make sure you have enough hours of good weather so that you don’t hike in the rain and you have good visibility during the hike and once you reach the site.
GOOD TO KNOW: You may want to enquire locally about renting a horse to go up to the site. Make sure it is clear where and when you want to meet, as miscommunication happens regularly.
It takes about 5 minutes into the hike to realize you are in the middle of nowhere – you will be surrounded by crops to begin with, then just mountains. And you won’t meet any tourist: just the occasional farmer and its donkey ( I met 3 at most during my hike); or a dog following you from the village (that’s what happened to me).
The view of San Pedro de Casta from a distance is lovely, but nothing compared to the stunning mountain views you get once you reach Marcahuasi. As soon as you get there you will feel like you have stepped into a different world. 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 – it will take your breath away.
The magic of the place will completely repay you for the effort of the hike and the cold you may have experienced the night before, or even during the hike.
How To Plan Your Trip To Marcahuasi
San Pedro de Casta
San Pedro de Casta is the best staring point to hike to Marcahuasi. It’s a small village of no more than 500 souls (and that’s an overestimate, I think) and little in terms of tourist offices. It’s the kind of place where there’s a school, a church, a main square, a library and a tourist desk (in the same place) and everyone knows everybody.
People in San Pedro de Casta live a truly simple life – but a happy one, close to nature and to those they love. There is no more than one car in the village – usually that of the teacher, who comes from another village nearby. There are donkeys (in fact, that’s all you hear at night); chickens, cats and dogs all roam freely and seemingly happy.
This is the kind of place where you really can learn about local life – because there is only locals to talk to. Sit by the main square and at 1:00 pm you will see kids running out of school to go to lunch; farmers go about their daily business and so do the women who cook and take care of local shops and restaurants. The one thing they all have in common is that they are incredibly welcoming and helpful, despite the language barriers.
In fact, this is your chance to practice your Spanish with them!
The village surroundings are gorgeous: mountains, mountains and more mountains.
The landscape becomes fascinating in the early afternoon, when clouds hover over the village giving it an even more mysterious look, and it starts raining – first softly, then a proper downpour. That’s pretty much when you should make your way to one of the local restaurants to get a cup of mate de coca (coca leaves tea) or go back to your room to stay warm and read a book.
How to get to San Pedro de Casta
The first thing you need to be clear about is that 100 km in Peru are not like 100 km in Europe, or North America. While in optimal conditions in any European countries it would take you 1.5 at most to cover that distance, the same distance will require 5 solid hours of traveling in this part of the world.
Having said that, here’s how to get to San Pedro de Casta.
From your accommodation in Lima (chances are you will be staying in Miraflores), get a cab or a colectivo (shared shuttle) to the paradero (stop) where colectivos to Chosica drive by. The colectivo to Chosica should cost you between 5 and 10 Peruvian Soles (PEN) (between $1.3 and $2.5 USD). Between getting to the paradero and from there to Chosica, factor in at least 1.5 hours.
Once in Chosica, ask around for the bus to San Pedro de Casta. There usually one that leaves at 9:00 am. It costs around 10 PEN ($2.5 USD). The trip lasts around 3 hours, which are all needed to cover the mere 40 km distance.
GOOD TO KNOW: There is only one dirt road linking Chosica to San Pedro de Casta. It’s so narrow, that when a bus meets another bus or car coming from the opposite direction, one of the two will have to drive back and find room for the other to pass.
The road is incredibly scenic, if only a little bit scary – you will be looking directly over the cliffs more than once.
Where to stay and eat in San Pedro de Casta
There isn’t much in terms of accommodation and eating options in Marcahuasi.
You will find 3 rustic “restaurants” that offer plain but wholesome local food (trout, potatoes, rice and little more). Restaurants also work as shops (or perhaps it’s the other way around) which also serves as tiendas (shops) and where you can drink the much needed mate de coca to fight the side effects of altitude.
Although you can camp up in Marcahuasi, keep in mind that there is nothing up there so you will have to carry anything you may need for the night – a tent, sleeping bags, food etc.
Other than that, there is only one place to stay in town – the Hospedaje Municipal. You really can’t miss it, and if you do just ask the lady at the tourist desk to take you there. It is very basic, with plain private rooms with or without bathroom, but no hot water and in fact no running water after 8:00 pm. If you fancy a shower, however, the manage is happy to warm up some water for you to take a bucket shower. Room prices are in the range of $5 to $10 USD, depending on what you get.
What to pack for your trip to Marcahuasi
The most important thing to keep in mind when visiting Marcahuasi is that it can get very cold up there, and it can rain. Here are a few items you should make sure to pack with you:
- A pair of hiking Pants.
- One or two long sleeves t-shirts. I am a fan of the Kuhl Athena pullover t-shirt, and the Kleo Hoody shirt.
- A good micro fleece – these are usually lightweight. I like Kuhl Alska. Take an extra one such as Kuhl Lea Pullover.
- A rain and wind proof jacket. You may want to take a poncho too. I am a fan of the windproof Kuhl Hydroflex Rain Jacket.
- A pair of good hiking boots such as Merrel Mohab – make sure to pick the waterproof version.
- A beanie to keep you your head warm. You may also want a scarf and a pair of gloves.
- Leggings – you can layer them under your hiking pants if you are cold, and wear them as pajama at night.
- A power bank.
- A water bottle with a water filter
- A flashlight: always keep it handy, as you may walk through a forest where light is scarce, or may end up walking for longer than expected.
Make sure to also bring some snacks – but you can buy some in the local shops if needed; any toiletries you may need for your stay; any prescription medicine you have to take; and a book to keep entertained after the hike – there isn’t much in terms of entertainment in the village.
Make sure to check out my post The Perfect Hiking Packing List For A Long Distance Trek for more inspiration on what you may need to bring.
Important tips for visiting Marcahuasi
Finally, here are some recommendations to make the most of Marcahuasi.
First of all, don’t plan this as a day trip from Lima, even if someone told you it is doable if you leave really early. It really isn’t – trust me, I have tried. First of all, the journey to get there is slow, and road works, fog or a simple car failure may mean hours of delay.
In fact, I recommend to factor in up to three days and two nights for your trip. Keep in mind that buses to and from San Pedro de Casta don’t run every day, and you may want the extra day for further exploration or to adapt to the altitude.
Make sure to check out my post about the Inca Trail.