Sunset over Marcahuasi
“What the fuck is that?” I shout, pointing at a light above me. The night sky is incredibly clear, which is one of the reasons so many ET-chasing stargazers come up here to the mountains of Marcahuasi, Peru. I’ve managed to pitch a tent and build a fire, and I’m warming my hands with the flames and the rest of my body with a bottle of rum when I spot it.
It looks like a plane at first, faintly flashing blue, gliding towards Orion’s Belt. Then I realise it’s not gliding at all, but performing a zig-zag that, as far as I’m aware, is impossible for a 500-ton block of flying metal to achieve. It strikes a straight path for the first half-second, then spells a wobbly W, before going back to the start point to do it all again.
I rub my eyes and stare at the fire for a bit. ‘Must be some kind of optical illusion,’ I think – or I’ve just hit the rum a little too hard. But my friend sees it too, and when I lift my head to take another look… fuck, it’s still there.
In the scheme of things, this should be a win. You head to Peru on a UFO-hunt and you actually see a UFO. But now that it’s staring me in the face on the creepiest mountain on Earth, all alone except for my terrified friend – who’s desperately trying to get into the tent and suppress her nerves with sleeping pills – I’m not so sure I’m up to this. Maybe I’d have been better off just writing another gourmet food tour guide for the Delta Airlines’ inflight magazine.
A few days earlier in a Lima café, I’m sipping a coffee with Marco Barraza, who you might say is to blame for this whole thing. I’m asking him why the Peruvian air force has, as of last October, reopened its office of UFO investigations, not quite realising the terrible frontiers to which such an innocent question will deliver me.
Writer for Peru.com and the Spanish-language Discovery Channel, Marco’s a UFO investigator of international standing whose website is the most read on extra-terrestrial matters in the Spanish language, with 25,000 daily visitors. He has been lobbying for the office to be reopened for years – its last period of operation was between 2001 and 2003.
While the name of the Department of Investigation of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena may be pretty enticing, DIFAA isn’t a top secret cubbyhole brimming with the kind of stuff that would get Robbie Williams and his fellow ufologists too overexcited. Instead, it’s fulfilling “a real need”, according to Marco. “Some of the unidentified aircraft – whether meteorites, falling space debris or meteorological balloons – can be dangerous,” he explains. “There are air collisions. And there are many illicit flights, mostly narco-traffickers launching drones. There’s also a national security issue.”
Marco isn’t referring to the threat of alien invasion, but issues with neighbouring countries like Chile. Unidentified objects in the night sky are likely to come from foreign militaries, he says, which is why DIFAA is overseen by a colonel from the national air force. He and a civil advice council meet at least once a week to review the latest credible sightings.
“There are some very interesting cases,” says Marco. Sadly, those cases are classified, but one extraordinary incident dating back more than a decade was revealed recently by former DIFAA boss, retired Commandant Julio Chamorro, during a rare interview; then-President Fujimori was on a fishing trip in the Amazon with his full security entourage, when a luminous sphere rose from the water and hovered over the boats before shooting off into space. This, along with frequent sightings at La Joya military base in the southern region of Arequipa, are said to have prompted the office’s opening.
I’ve loved science-fiction since William Shatner first fired his phaser, but to me it’s always been just that: fiction. However, Marco assures me that sightings around so-called “sacred” sites are consistent. One of them has drawn extra-terrestrial theories for decades, so I head there, south, to the Nazca Lines, a series of ancient geoglyphs – large designs formed with rocks or other natural materials – that range in intricacy, from simple lines to motifs of fish, monkeys, spiders and lizards.
The "astronaut", one of the Nazca Lines
The tiny six-person plane tilts 60 degrees to give us a better view of the first geoglyph, a slightly distressed-looking whale. Struggling with intense nausea, I’ve recovered enough to see the bizarre “astronaut” laying on a hill, like a five-year-old’s first Etch A Sketch, only enlarged a billion times. The enormous, perfectly symmetrical hummingbird isn’t so childish, with a wingspan of nearly 100 metres.
Obvious questions have formed since the lines were discovered in 1930s. How did ancient people make these giant pictograms without planes? Maybe, as controversial extraterrestrial writer Erich Von Däniken argued, they were landing strips for alien aircraft. Back on the ground, local tour guide Orlando explains the prominent theories, including the ideas that they’re a vast astronomical calendar, or point to underground water sources. But what about aliens?
“There’s something in all the theories,” Orlando says. Then, more quietly: “I believe that we are not alone. Gods were always coming down to the people. There are paintings on ceramics found on the lines which show winged beings…”
Soon we’re knee-deep in Sumerian legend and whispering about the Annunaki, who proto-historians believe genetically engineered humans 300,000 years ago. Maybe, Orlando suggests, the lines were meant to be seen by “alien gods”. It would certainly explain why they’re so fucking massive.
As for UFO sightings, Orlando recommends visiting nearby energetic zones such as the ancient Nazca capital of Cahauchi, and Orcona, where people visit to see strange lights at night. I go, but witness nothing of the sort.
Footage of giant figures recorded in Marcahuasi
If there’s one place in Peru that I can really hope to see a tall grey man with gangly arms and legs, it’s Marcahuasi. A hotbed of sightings and strange phenomena, this peculiar area in the mountains 100 kilometres east of Lima is little known by tourists. However, it’s famous among UFO enthusiasts, not only for the bizarre rock formations that proto-historians claim are massive sculptures pre-dating human history, but also for the giant figures that regularly show up here.
In truth, I’m as doubtful as anyone. And after four hours bussing it on a narrow, fog-choked mountain pass, I wonder what the fuck I’m doing in San Pedro de Casta; composed of a few eerie buildings and misty streets, this tiny town is the base from which we’ll hike to Marcahuasi in the morning.
The village’s only hotel is spooky as hell, with not another soul in sight, my loudest “Hola!” finding no reply. Eventually, a tall guy with a luminous-green bandana tied around his head turns up to say that the owner is away and that the caretaker will be along shortly. In the meantime, Igo – as he calls himself – enthuses about how very “special” this mountain is. Saving me from another discussion about positive energy planes, the sweet, ancient caretaker eventually shows us to a freezing room with no hot water.
Igo (on the right)
Before bed, Igo warns me of the dangerous power of Marcahausi. People have been known to wander naked, raving that they’re communing with spirits, he says. He himself claims to have seen mysterious figures in the twilight.
Alien hotspot or not, the hike through the hills up to Marcahuasi is lovely in the bright morning sunshine. After setting up camp, there are hundreds of colossal melting faces jostling with misshapen animals to explore in the rocks, while a wander to the edge of the mountains shows that we’re above the clouds. Wary of getting lost come afternoon, we turn back before reaching the mighty tower of rocks known as The Fortress, at Marcahuasi’s farthest point.
Above the clouds in Marcahuasi
As the setting sun turns the landscape a weird purple-orange, I’m finally beginning to feel that there is something almost magical about this place. Whether or not it’s this “energy” that everyone’s been banging on about, I have no idea, but as night brings with it a perfect view of the cosmos, I’m starting to think that UFO hunting isn’t so bad. And that’s when I see it – an inexplicable light zigzagging about the sky. It can’t be a plane. It’s definitely not a star. And there is no Earthly technology capably of darting around like that. When I retire to the tent half an hour later, I’m no closer to explaining what it could be.
The Monument to Humanity
The next day, after glimpsing the Monument to Humanity – a rock that looks uncannily like a gigantic human head – we have some trouble leaving Marcahuasi. A wrong turn leads us through a field of cactuses, and then, bewilderingly, we think we can see The Fortress. Just as we turn back, mist descends. Within minutes it’s difficult to see beyond outstretched hands. It’ll be dark soon and we consider camping where we are, but there’s no food and little water left. Things are looking grim. It’s like the mountain doesn’t want us to leave.
Luckily, the fog lifts for a moment to reveal a old woman – up here on a search for missing goats – who points out the way. Hours later, starving and exhausted, we make it back to San Pedro de Casta, not that the town is hugely welcoming. Eyeing us up suspiciously, the locals seem like ghosts. Even our friend Igo unnerves me: “I’m glad you made it back!” he chuckles. There’s one bus leaving the next day, and I make sure we’re on it.
Marco will call shortly after to tell me of “a very special event” happening at the end of the month in Chilca, a desert plain known for sightings. International media will be in attendance. Safely back in England, I politely decline. I’ll never know what that weird light was in Marcahuasi, but I’m just glad Marco’s out there looking for the truth so that I don’t have to.
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