The road to Marcahuamachuco (marca-wahma-chOOco) led up a mountain in driving rain. In any normal sense, the sun would soon set. The rain, however, had prevented the sun from ever meaningfully rising. We camped on a wide pullout alongside a switchback. We knew that it terminated in a cliff, but the rain and clouds obscured its edge. Previous travelers had described the views from this site “magnificent“. All we saw was rain. We sat in the the living room – the front seats of our car – and opened a bottle of carmenere, a small comfort after a long drive.

For a time, archaeologists think that Marcahuamachuco served as Peru’s primary political, economic and military center. The city’s importance faded in time, until falling to the Inca and then into memory’s shadowlands.

The next morning, the rain relented and the clouds parted enough for us to verify that the views were, in fact, magnificent. As no other tourists had braved the mountain storms, we found ourselves the ruins’ sole visitors that day. A guard at the entrance asked us to sign in, then gave us an information pamphlet and wished us well. The lack of an entrance fee came as a pleasant surprise.

Thick fog gripped ruined structures, flattening the light and only showing us the ancient city in incomplete glimpses. A structure called las Monjas – the Nuns – displayed a double-walled construction not seen elsewhere. Our information pamphlet described this as possibly a place where young women were cloistered for religious purposes. Or as the house of a noble family. Or possibly a military fortification.

Maybe this is why I never tire of ruins. For all of our technological progress, we are still reduced to guessing at the designs of past humans. Why did so-and-so build this? What was it for? No doubt, future archaeologists will find my old lab building and make the same lame guesses. I can’t fault them. The benches of dried and poorly-labeled chemicals* will look like alchemy. Without the information stored in them, our banks of computer screens surely look like some mad oracle, things people would sit in front of, hoping for a glimpse of wisdom. Our top floor, the mouse colony, bears uncomfortable parallels to the tops of mesoamerican pyramids, complete with animal sacrifice.

Another guard stood at the far end of the ruins. As we passed him, he asked us to sign in. We signed in at the other entrance, we told him. Yes, but that is a different entrance, he explained.

For the second time in one day, we signed in as Marcahuamachuco’s only visitors.

How To Go To Marcahuamachuco

These ruins are about as off the beaten path as it gets. Google maps suggests that an airport exists in the town itself, but good luck finding flights that go there online.

The nearest airports are found in Cajamarca and Trujillo. Of the two, only Trujillo takes international arrivals. We have only visited Cajamarca, but we found Trujillo more hospitable.

From Trujillo, several bus services can bring you to Huamachuco. Expect a roughly 5 hour drive in good conditions. Bring 8 hours worth of reading material and some dark glasses. Once in Huamachuco, the tourism information office can provide information on transport to the ruins themselves. When we were there, we saw tuk-tuks parked at the ruins, which, although they were empty at the time, suggests that you can probably hire one to bring you there. Since we came in our own car, you’ll have to ask around about prices.

Huamachuco itself didn’t look like it had a lot going on. We found a gas station, several streets in severely bad repair and a way out. If you plan on visiting Marcahuamachuco, we suggest that you make it part of a larger tour through northern Peru. For us, this meant also visiting Kuelap and Gocta Falls. The plan was to go from Marcahuamachuco to Huaraz, but our plan got rained on.

Good luck and happy travels!

*Intentional mislabeling of non-harmful chemicals is actually common in academic labs. The chemicals are often expensive and scientists, like many other people you might know, hate it when people use their stuff without asking.

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