Why you should care
Because it won’t fly under the radar for much longer.
I didn’t expect to see a kangaroo in Peru, but that’s exactly what greets me in the Andean pueblo of Huamachuco. Admittedly, the marsupial is fashioned from a conifer, and somewhat in need of a haircut, but my pal — amateur Australian explorer and archaeologist John Leivers — says, “It’s a good roo,” and that’s enough for me. There are roosters too, and men on horseback, and a giant Easter Bunny.…
Topiary isn’t the only reason to make the five-hour drive from the northern coastal city of Trujillo to Huamachuco. While the surviving colonial town is a mere 465 years old, it has been a center of civilization since at least A.D. 300 and there are two extremely important pre-Inca cities in the area. What’s more, the Qhapaq Ñan (the old Inca highway) dissects the town’s stately plaza, so the trekking has some serious props.
Markahuamachuco is at least 1,000 years older than its more famous cousin.
The ruins of the city of Markahuamachuco, located on a huge mesa just 6 miles from town, are “one of the most important sites in Peru,” says Leivers, but on the day we visit, we have them entirely to ourselves — despite not having to pay a cent to get in. With 360-degree views, towering 40-foot walls and intricate aesthetic detailing, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with the tourist trap that is Machu Picchu. As we stroll the 2-mile-long complex, pausing often to admire the incredible stone masonry, I keep reminding myself that Markahuamachuco is at least 1,000 years older than its more famous cousin.
But the ruins are by no means the only attraction. Barely 2 miles from Markahuamachuco is the Huari administrative center of Wiracochapampa, an imposing square citadel built around A.D. 650. For several hundred years, the two great civilizations co-existed. “They didn’t speak the same language or have the same beliefs,” says Leivers, “but they managed to get along without war.” There’s a message in there somewhere.
Not to be outdone, the Incas arrived on the scene around A.D. 1000, establishing a city on the same site as the modern town of Huamachuco. For at least a few decades, all three great cultures got along. Recent archaeological findings show that the Huari were heavily influenced by the architecture at Markahuamachuco, and, says Leivers, it’s “common knowledge” that the Incas borrowed heavily from the Huari. “It’s simply fantastic,” he marvels, “to have so much history in one place.”
Most of the Inca city has been absorbed by the Spanish town, and a grotesque modern cathedral resembling an airplane hangar is built atop the Inca ushnu, or ceremonial platform. The Incas’ roadbuilding exploits, though, have proved harder to erase. For a few utterly exhausting days, I follow the 65-year-old Leivers’ footsteps south. On the first night, we camp next to Lago Cushuro, one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever clapped eyes on, before launching our assault on the famed Escalerilla (gangway), a series of several thousand stone steps that summits three 13,000-foot passes.
I’ve seldom felt worse than I do at the summit of the third pass, but — despite the waves of nausea and my trembling extremities — it’s hard to argue with Leivers when he says that “Huamachuco simply has to be the next big thing in Peruvian tourism.”
Go now, before it’s too late. And don’t forget to say “G’day” to the roo.
GO THERE: HUAMACHUCO
- Directions: There are daily buses from Trujillo (on the coast) and Cajamarca (to the north, in the mountains) — both about six hours away.
- Stay here: Hotel Mama Wasi has tastefully decorated rooms and a wonderful riverside location. And Roberto, the owner, has a wealth of local knowledge.
- Pro tip: August is a good time to visit. The first weekend of the month sees the Fiesta de Waman Raymi, while the Fiesta de Huamachuco runs from the 13th to the 20th.