The Nazca Lines: Ancient art in the desert

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Art on a grand scale, monstrous drawings, mysterious figures and baffling lines are just not adequate enough to describe Nazca's most famous attraction. Spread over 100 square miles of one of the driest, most inhospitable places on earth, the Nazca (Nasca) Lines transform a barren desert plateau in southern Peru into an elaborate artistic canvas.

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Nazca Lines: An enduring mystery

At ground level, these figures are almost unrecognizable as random furrows cut into the reddish-brown gravel to expose the whitish ground underneath. But when you view them from a light plane at heights where only the gods dwell, the figures take on a whole new meaning.

No one has ever been able to determine the purpose of this one-of-a-kind art form. The 800 straight lines and 300 geometric figures have been called ritual mazes, an astronomical calendar, symbols of various gods/goddesses in the pantheon and even extraterrestrial landing strips. A more practical theory has the lines marking the flow of aquifers and the geoglyths as outdoor temples to the water gods.

The name Nazca translates to suffering and very hot. For centuries, this region has received no more than 20 minutes of rainfall per year; and breezes are few and far between. Perversely these are the very conditions that have helped preserve the pictures for almost 1500 years.

Once airborne, an English-speaking co-pilot/guide points out the figures as you fly over them. The pilot makes several passes over each of the geoglyths giving you time to see them. From the air you don’t realize that many of the geoglyths are over 660 feet long.

With a little patience and practice you will be photographing outlines like the hummingbird, spider, dog, lizard, llama, whale, monkey and a humanoid figure named “the astronaut”. The astronaut might be one of the reasons why Erich Von Daniken suggested an extraterrestrial connection to Nazca.

Unfortunately you also discover that some of the geoglyths were damaged before the Nazca lines were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seen from the air, the Pan-American Highway bisects “the lizard” and comes dangerously close to amputating “the hands” and chopping down “the tree”. This road was constructed before either of these two figures was discovered. Other geoglyths have also been damaged by people who have driven off-road into the desert.

Time flies faster than your plane and you cannot stay aloft forever. After landing, you may wish to visit some of the make-shift stalls outside the terminal to look for that perfect souvenir of your flight.

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Aqueducts of Cantolloc

If you had any doubt that water was available in the vicinity, take a taxi to the Aqueducts of Cantolloc and dispel this notion. The ancient Nazca people were experts at tapping into aquifers. Between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE, they dug “puquios” (wells) and then linked them by means of snaking underground or open channels. These channels slowed the flow of water during times of flooding.

Amazingly thirty-five of these rock-lined wells are still in use today. You can descend into three of the 7-foot diameter holes by means of a counter-clockwise spiral pathway. If you look carefully at the bottom, you might just see openings into the channels. Presumably these tunnels are large enough for people to make repairs or clear out any silt that accumulates over time. During the rainy season the water can become cloudy with silt; this was not apparent at the time of my visit in September however.

Walking approximately 300 yards upstream, you come to a fork where underground streams converge at one well as indicated by two chains of puquios. En route you also find that the wells become progressively deeper, starting at about 8 feet and then dropping an additional four feet.

Survival in this harsh climate has always been tenuous at best. The Nazca civilization thrived for 1000 years but by 800 CE it had disappeared from history. The collapse of this society may be related to frequent droughts caused by the El Niņo phenomenon along the Peruvian coast coupled with wars. Whatever the reason, the enigmatic Nazca Lines have now become a memorial to their creators.

If You Go

Nazca is roughly 272 mi (440 km) southeast of Lima, Peru.

You can travel to Nazca from Lima with an organized tour. Diane and I took the two-day tour, which included a day in Paracas, found at: Alternatively you can assemble your own Nazca tour. This can either be a long day trip of an overnight adventure.

Travel from Lima to Nazca by bus using Cruz del Sur Bus Lines. The trip is 7 hours one-way. Book your room for the night at the hostel/hotel of your choice.

Arriving at the Nazca bus station you will be met by many touts trying to sell you dubious quality tours, flights and lodging. Bypass these and take a taxi directly from the bus station to your hostel/hotel and check-in.

You can often book your flight through your hotel/hostel or staff there can recommend a reputable airline or tour operator including transportation. Alternatively staff can arrange your taxi to the airport where you can negotiate the price of your own flight. Expect to pay between $50-90 per person (not including tip) depending upon the time of year.

Whether you take a package tour or arrange your own flight, you will be required to pay an additional airport tax of 20 Sols.

The Aqueducts of Cantalloc (admission $4) are approximately 4 miles outside of Nazca. Expect to pay about $8 taxi fare which includes waiting time for the taxi (tip not included).

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Troy Herrick, a freelance travel writer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. His articles have appeared in Live Life Travel, International Living, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

Diane Gagnon, a freelance photographer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. Her photographs have accompanied Troy Herrick’s articles in Live Life Travel, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

Updated: January 5, 2016

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