Among the most enigmatic attractions in this most mysterious of countries are the Nazca Lines, enormous figures carved into the desert by the ancient Nazca civilization between 200BC and 500AD.
About 70 of the figures—clearly the oldest—are pictures of animals: a hummingbird, a monkey, a spider and many more, even one that looks suspiciously like an astronaut. Later lines are perfectly straight, forming roads, triangles, trapezoids and other geometric figures. They can only be clearly seen from above, and were rediscovered in the 1930s, with the advent of air travel.
A number of myths and theories surround the Nazca lines, the wildest (and most popular) outlined in the 1968 UFO-era classic, “Chariots of the Gods,” by Erich von Daniken. He used the Nazca Lines and “evidence” from several other archaeological sites to show that extraterrestrials had visited Earth long ago. The Nazca lines were both art to be appreciated from spaceships high above, and runways so they could land and say hello.
Other hypotheses are more down to Earth. Perhaps the Nazca had hot-air balloons, wooden towers, or simply scaled surrounding mountains to appreciate distorted views of the lines. The lines might have been used for ceremonial rituals, or as some sort of religious art to please deities high above. Other archaeologists suggest they might be astronomically aligned, like Mayan architecture, though further research hasn’t borne this out.
After years of study, spearheaded by German mathematician and local hero Maria Reiche, the only conclusion is that we aren’t sure. No matter; the lines are still well worth seeing.
1) Getting There
The lines are located on an enormous floodplain just outside the dusty, nondescript service town of Nazca, located 443 kilometers (275 miles) south of Lima, about 7 hours by bus. It’s another 566 kilometers (352 miles; 9 hours) to Arequipa, making this a popular stop between the two tourist destinations. Overnight buses make the 14-hour haul to Cusco.
There are no commercial flights between Lima and Nazca, but you can book a flight from Lima that takes you over the lines, then returns you to the capital. Viator offers a great tour from Lima combining the Nazca Lines and Ballestas Islands.
2) Seeing the Lines
If you’re in Nazca, there are two ways to see the lines, and it’s recommended that you do both. Operators can take you out onto the geoglyph field and point out the lines on the ground, so you can see why they were so difficult to spot. Builders dug shallow trenches that exposed the lighter rock to contrast with the naturally sunburned, iron-oxide coated rock on the surface. The Mirador Observation Tower, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of town, offers decent views of the lizard, tree and giant hands.
Next, you simply must book a flight out over the lines. No matter how slim your budget, this is one splurge you’ll never forget. Every hotel, tour operator and tout in town offers the 20-minute flight in a tiny Cessna for about the same price, and there are more than a few scam artists. Use your best judgment when choosing a guide, and enjoy.
3) Around Nazca
While seeing the Nazca Lines is sure to blow your mind, it won’t take up too much of your time. You could certainly while away a few hours in the tiny desert town sampling the street vendors’ various healthful elixirs, and you simply must visit the small but excellent Antononini Archaeological Museum, but why not book another tour?
The Chauchilla Mummies reside in a partially excavated cemetery about 45 minutes from Nazca, and is a popular half-day trip; some operators offer discounts for a combo “flight/mummies” deal.
The cemetery was used between 200AD and 700AD, and has been since victimized by tomb raiders, who have eerily left pieces of preserved bodies scattered about the sun-drenched desert. Some of the tombs have been reconstructed beneath modern shelters, with the mummies posed inside. Your guide will explain the mummification and burial process as you take it all in.
Another popular day trip is to see the Aqueducts of Cantayo, constructed by the same folks who carved the lines. About 30 of the 50 canals are still in use today, 2000 years later, by the descendants of the original hydraulic engineers. Most of the canals are, of course, underground, but visitors can see blowholes and sections of aqueduct. Tours usually take in other area sites, including the much younger Inca ruins in the area.
If you stay the night, finish up at the Planetarium Maria Reiche, a great introduction to the Southern sky with an emphasis on the possible astronomical alignments of the Nazca Lines.