A rude awakening to my phone’s alarm at 5:00am brought me groggily out of bed, bundling up in various forms of knit alpaca wool while still half-asleep. Nearly dozing off again in the taxi, all sleepiness left as I grabbed my pack and stood shivering at the intersection, waiting for the others. Another taxi ride but this time with five of us plus the driver meant I sat awkwardly folded on a semi-strangers lap for an hour, resulting in a horrific crick in my neck upon our arrival. Dawn broke as we pulled into a town on the outskirts of Lima, and the hustle and bustle of the morning market greeted us with sensory overload. An abandoned lot serving dual purposes as a bus station and the town’s market meant we had to be on our toes. Buses nudged through the makeshift stands piled high with pig carcasses, baskets full of freshly picked herbs and flowers, women huddled with babies strapped to their backs, and teenage girls selling sandwiches with queso fresco and warm quinoa con leche. Amidst shouting and yelling, chaotic dodging, and lurching buses we made our way through to our bus and dropped our bags. With time to spare we grabbed fresh pineapple juice and sandwiches before stocking up on Gatorade and water for the journey to come.
Piling onto the rickety bus we were lucky to get seats, and soon were smothered beyond hope of escape with people packed in every inch of standing room. Despite the lack of seatbelts I had no worries of moving even slightly should we get in an accident. The grueling three-hour journey of horror began as our bus departed the chaotic frenzy of the market. Slowly but surely we began the rickety ascent up the mountains on a narrow, one-lane dirt road. Struggling to breath through the clouds of dust billowing in through the window, I closed my eyes and tried to think of anything other than the current journey. Glimpses out the window revealed that the single-lane dirt road was marked by the rocky face of the mountain on one side, and a 1,000 feet drop-off into a far-below valley on the other, with nothing but a few blades of grass and pebbles acting as a barrier. To make matters worse, hairpin 180-degree turns occurred every two minutes as we maintained our ascent. Terrified, trapped, and with no hope of turning back, I utilized the one skill that never seems to fail me: sleeping on any form of moving vehicle. The inability to stay awake on long car, bus, train or plane journeys that once seemed like a curse felt like a true blessing, and I embraced it happily and wholeheartedly.
After three hours of sickeningly dangerous driving (with only several delays, including backing around a hairpin turn to allow another car to pass and waiting ten minutes for 50 goats to cross the road) we arrived at the village, San Pedro, at an elevation of over 10,000 feet. With nothing but mountain peaks in sight we tumbled out of the bus into scorching heat, lightheaded and gasping for air as our lungs struggled to acclimate to the high altitude. The air felt sharp, pure, and refreshingly clean, so untouched from the pollutants of our modern world. After “renting” three donkeys to carry our bags and some firewood for the night, we began our ascent to the legendary stone forest of Marcahuasi. Slowly but steadily we climbed the face of the mountain, every step an effort to combat the elements: the scalding sun, the harsh altitude, and the steepness of the rocky path. Conversation gradually died out as we drifted deep into our own worlds, all energy being consumed on the focus needed to keep moving forward. Trance-like, we rose higher and higher until finally, after what seemed like infinity, we reached the height of the plateau.
Marcahuasi is an ancient place, the subject of many mystical tales, stories and folklore. A plateau 13,000 feet in altitude, it is characterized by huge stone formations and scattered with the ruins of a pre-Inca civilization. Numerous legends declare it to be an “energy field,” some say with healing powers. Stories of UFO sightings, apparitions, and mysterious occurrences happening at Marcahuasi are abundant, with some people even devoting their life’s work to exploring and documenting the legends of Marcahuasi. Yet not all of the stories have a happy ending – equal numbers of people have been lost on the plateau, wandering until their death, either from the bone-chilling cold at night or other mysterious causes. So far from civilization, there are certain risks to visiting. Many recommend only going with a guide, as the alien-like landscape and harsh elements are not easily navigable. Having researched the place before going, I was skeptical and somewhat apprehensive as to what I would find.
Setting foot on the legendary plateau of Marcahuasi was less than exhilarating, I’ll admit. I believe it was due, in part, to the fact that I could barely breath, was drenched in sweat and caked in dust, and was expecting a magical transformation from the so-called mystical rock powers whilst being swarmed by legions of UFOs. So, initially, it didn’t quite live up to all the hype surrounding it. But as we moved through the stone forest, clambering up abnormally smooth expanses of rock and prancing around eerily shaped rock formations, I began to sense the origin of the legends surrounding it. The stillness, the absolute and utter silence, which I can only describe as being loud due to its overwhelming presence, and the peacefulness are something I have never experienced. We set up camp and made our way to one of the most famous formations, La Fortaleza, as dusk approached. Clambering over spookily unstable pre-Inca ruins, we perched atop the rock, drinking in the sight around us. On one side the plateau, its rock formations burning fiery gold with the light of the setting sun, illuminating shapes unseen before. On the other side a vast expanse of mountaintops and the vivid blue horizon mixing with the vibrant orange, brilliant burgundy and soft pink of the sinking sun. Stunned into silence, we stayed there long after the sun had set, melding into stone statues like the figures around us and becoming nothing more than cold silhouettes in the night sky.
That night as we huddled around the meager campfire with our fingertips brushing the flames for warmth, the temperature sinking below zero, the experience seemed surreal. Blanketed in darkness so extreme I never thought possible, it was countered only by the sheer number of the stars above. Never before have I witnessed more stars in a night sky, and never before have I been so in awe of nature. Beyond words, we stared into the light above us, overcome by the magic of the sight. And while I never did see any UFOs, I knew I had managed to catch a glimpse of the real Marcahuasi, the one that has been the source of legends passed down through generations for decades. Marcahuasi: land of the extremes.
Image credits: Haley Scheer