San Pedro de Casta: The Village in the Andes Mountains
When people hear that I travelled to Peru, I always get asked: “So, did you go to Machu Picchu?”
Honestly, the more touristy something is, the more I don’t feel inclined to do it — even though I’m sure it deserves all the hype it gets for being a must-see wonder of the world!
Still, I knew I needed some kind of adventure in nature during my visit to Peru. And so, I decided to explore Marcahuasi, an ancient “Stone Forest” hidden high up in the Andes Mountains.
Trying to find my way to this place from Lima alone would be a feat.
The Journey to San Pedro de Casta
It was April 2016, and I had just spent a few days in Miraflores, Peru. It was now the morning of the long day of travel I had ahead of me. To begin my journey, I was to meet Arturo in Central Lima at 5:30 am.
Arturo was a guide I had befriended on a free walking tour I had joined in Miraflores. Arturo’s face had lit up when he found out I was heading to Marcahuasi. He had been there a few times before and loved it.
Although he couldn’t join me for the fun, he did insist that he accompany me from Central Lima to the town of Chosica.
From Chosica, I’d have to change over to a second bus heading to San Pedro de Casta, the village from where I’d do the hike up to Marcahuasi.
That early morning, Arturo and I met outside Parque de la Exposición in Central Lima, where we hopped on the bus to Chosica.
After a two-hour, bumpy, nauseating ride, we emerged in the little town. The streets were starting to bustle with the morning’s activities.
After asking a street vendor for directions, we walked along Jiron Libertad and found the stop for the bus to San Pedro de Casta, just outside a little restaurant.
The bus wouldn’t be leaving for another hour, so we waited inside the restaurant and had a much-needed coffee and breakfast.
Commuters were already putting their bags on the bus seats to save their spots. There was also an entire marching band stuffing their musical instruments inside the bus.
Arturo found out that the band was travelling up to San Pedro de Casta to play in the village’s anniversary celebrations. What timing!
Given that many of the seats were already taken up, Arturo asked if I wanted to sit in the empty seat next to the driver. I had read all about the hair-raising bus ride that would wind through the narrow mountain roads to San Pedro de Casta.
It might be one hell of a journey, but I decided that this was a once in a lifetime chance to experience it all with a front row seat! (There’s my pack at the front.)
It was 8:30 am and time to say goodbye to my friend, Arturo. I was incredibly touched that he had woken up so early to make sure I got here safely.
We hugged and I promised to get in touch upon my return, so he could hear all about my adventure in the mountains.
Ten minutes later, the bus had made its way out of the busier part of town. As we drove alongside a river, I took one of my altitude sickness pills, giving it time to work before we got up into higher territory.
My first views of the grand mountains were simply mesmerizing.
The ride to San Pedro de Casta was thrilling. We just kept reaching higher and higher into the Andes mountains, leaving behind the rest of the world.
Yes, the roads were winding and narrow. Yes, we were basically driving alongside a sheer cliff with no guardrails to protect us from plummeting to our demise.
But with our experienced driver who probably drove this crazy route every day, I felt completely safe. Plus, I was way too excited and awestruck by the breathtaking views of the majestic mountains and valleys to feel afraid.
I was clearly the only foreigner on the bus. Everyone else looked like they had done this a million times already.
Every so often, someone would get off in seemingly the middle of nowhere, presumably to go home. And every so often, the bus would pick up someone standing in a random spot by the mountain road.
It was pretty incredible to see how people lived and travelled in such a remote place.
Finally, we started to see glimpses of San Pedro de Casta. And then, we arrived.
The Little Village in the Mountains
It was 10:40 am when the bus dropped us off by the town’s main square. After paying my tourist dues at the town hall, I made my way to the one and only hotel in the village and booked a room.
The accommodations were simple — a small room with a bed, a side table, and some hooks on the wall. After staying in a hostel with lots of people though, I was just grateful to have a quiet place to myself.
I was exhausted, and after munching on some Oreo cookies that I had saved from the plane, I retired for a nap. The bed was freezing, and I put on my hoodie and huddled under the wool blanket.
I could hear the band playing outside in the square, and eventually knocked out to them blaring away.
I woke up at around 1 pm and eventually made it outside. It was the most surreal thing to walk out to a giant mountain as my frontyard view.
Back at the main square, there were a couple of food stands up with people selling sweet corn pudding and other snacks.
I bought a bowl of pudding for one sol, and walked over to where a couple of señoras and kids were sitting. Smiling, I gestured to the bench beside one of the old ladies. She nodded and told me to sit.
I realized that I needed to find out if there was internet here, so I could send an email back home to let everyone know I had made it to the mountains alive, but it was taking me forever to eat the pudding.
Everything just felt super, super slow as I was adjusting to life at 3,200 metres elevation.
Back in the hotel, a man named Luis, who I assumed was the owner, greeted me in the office. He was exceedingly polite and eager to help me with any information.
Although Luis didn’t speak any English and my Spanish was minimal, I somehow managed to determine that there was no internet, that the bus returning to Chosica came twice each day, and that a guide up to Marcahuasi would cost me 60 soles.
Since the room was much cheaper than I had expected, I agreed to hiring a guide. I would meet him back here tomorrow morning.
I was feeling pretty lightheaded by now, and went off searching for some mate de coca. Walking into the shop nearest to the hotel, I met the shop owner, Clorinda.
She fixed me up a cup of the herbal tea, as well as a dish of lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian meal of stir-fried steak, tomatoes, onions, and fries on a bed of rice.
I sat at one of the tables outside, and took in the afternoon scene of the main square. The band — a group of men dressed in black — sat with their brass instruments under the shade of a big gazebo.
Another group of men sat in a circle on green, plastic chairs, saluting each other with small cups of alcohol. Every few moments, one of the men would raise their glass, and the rest of the men would join in.
Suddenly, the band stood up, grabbed their instruments, and started to play what sounded like a traditional marching song. One of the band members kept beat with his huge drum.
The other men joined the band, which was now walking out of the square. A moment later, a group of women joined in as well.
The procession wandered up the hill, growing in numbers, then disappeared out of view. The square was now empty, but for a lone man sweeping up some garbage into his pan.
Exploring a New World
After my meal, I decided to walk around and check out the neighbourhood. It was pretty amazing how taking one step even slightly uphill felt like a huge challenge.
The altitude was definitely taking its toll on me, and I had to take another altitude sickness pill. I didn’t feel too nauseous, but incredibly tired. I had almost fallen asleep at the table while eating my lomo saltado earlier.
Strolling through the cobblestone streets, I caught glimpses of some of the locals tending to their homes, as well as the many dogs hanging around outside.
I also ran into the cutest little boy who was walking along a dirt path with his adorable dog. He obliged with a photo and picked up his pooch to pose with him.
Further away from the main residential area, the path took me to more open spaces where crops were being grown. I spotted a donkey and could hear several others braying from somewhere nearby.
I returned to the main square for a break, and an elder woman sat down beside me. Her name was Elva Bautista and she seemed quite curious about me.
I asked if the villagers here saw a lot of tourists, and she replied yes. She liked to speak with tourists, she added. I learned that Elva worked the land eight hours a day — “It’s hard work.”
Elva confirmed that it was indeed the “anniversario de la pueblo — cincuenta años.” There would be a party the next day to celebrate.
Then, another lady walked by and addressed her. Elva suddenly jumped up, as though she had remembered that she was supposed to be somewhere important. Or perhaps her friend had just invited her to something quite exciting.
We said goodbye, and I went back to Clorinda’s shop for another mate de coca.
A group of men were inside Clorinda’s shop drinking. Later, a couple of them got up to leave. One of the men, looking very official in a suit, shook my hand as he passed by my table.
“How are you?” he asked.
I felt surprised. He might have been the only person I had heard speaking English in San Pedro de Casta.
“Muy bien, gracias.” (For some reason, I felt the need to reply in Spanish.)
“Do you like Peru?” he asked.
“Por supuesto!” I replied.
“Welcome to Peru,” he said, stretching out his arms, as though he had just invited me into his home.
“Muchas gracias, señor,” I said with a smile.
I sat out in the square to people-watch and drink my mate de coca. It actually dried out my mouth, but the hotness felt good and, for some reason, it seemed to last forever.
A number of men were out drinking beer or having a smoke. Señoras sat around quietly on various curbsides or benches.
The band had just finished playing a song to which some of the locals had been dancing to. A group of young boys were still out playing near the square.
My new friend Chance, Luis’ dog, walked over and sat to people-watch with me.
After my drink, I decided to walk over to where there were less lights, so I could see some stars. It was an incredibly clear night and with so much open sky, I figured it would be a glorious place to stargaze.
As I strolled by the houses, one señora called out: “¿A dónde va?”
Maybe she was worried that I was walking to no man’s land alone in the dark.
“Quiero ver las estrellas,” I explained, pointing at the sky.
“Ah!” she said knowingly, and retreated back into her house.
I wandered a bit further down the road, then stopped to take in the stars up above. The lights of the village glowed like candles in the distance. It was so surreal to be in this other little world embedded in a mountainside.
With no internet connection, how many of these people knew what was out there but for the tourists who brought in their differences?
When I really thought about the journey it took to get here today, it seemed incredible to realize just how remote this place was.
For most of the day, I had felt like a bit of an outsider watching another world in action before me. Every time I had encountered a village kid, they seemed so in awe, as though they were wondering: “Who is this strange looking person, and why has she come here?”
But the nice thing about just hanging out and sitting around with the locals is that, eventually, the Clorindas, the Elva Bautistas and welcoming señors talk to you and bring you just a little bit more into their world.
>> Stay tuned for the next post in the Marcahuasi adventure series!: Marcahuasi: Hiking to the Stone Forest