It’s sunset as we climb the rickety watch tower by the side of the Pan American highway. The landscape is flat, desolate, bleached of colour. There is a dramatic sunset on the horizon. We are here to see the Nazca Lines, a series of ancient formations on the desert floor in Southern Peru. General consensus is that these giant geoglyphs were created by the Nazca culture between 400 and 650 A.D.
Discovered in the 1930s, the Nazca Lines range from simple geometrical shapes such as spirals and wedges to hummingbirds, condors, spiders, monkeys, fish, trees, or human figures. The largest, the monkey, is over 200m across. The Lines, which can only be seen from up high or from the air, have been thought to point to water sources, or been used in ceremonial processions, or for noting the solstices. Some of the Lines seem to correspond to constellations, for example the Spider, which shows a remarkable correlation to the constellation of Orion.
Visitors can choose to book a flight over the Lines – this is the only way to really appreciate their scale, size and beauty. However, from discussion with locals and my guide, I decided not to fly due to safety issues being the most important consideration, as well as cost. A 30 minute flight used to cost USD60, but is now USD100, due to the monopoly of the air space by just three operators. The other 24 operators had their licenses revoked after failing safety checks. Lastly, there is the issue of airport security at Nazca – which is completely nonexistent. Hijackings and fatal plane crashes: two very good reasons to stay on the ground.
From our vantage point, in the looming twilight, I can make out the white, almost-glowing lines that make up the Hands and the Tree figures. The Hands figure has only four fingers on one hand. Theories abound – the Lines were drawn by aliens, or to represent ancient gods, or were simply an expression of cultural aesthetic. The Nazca Lines remain an enigma.
The next day we head to the Chauchilla cemetery, which contains pre-Inca mummified remains of the Nazca people, almost 700 years old. The cemetery is located just a few kilometres outside of Nazca town. You can go with an organized tour from Nazca for about USD25, which includes transfers, transportation, a guide and entrance fees.
The cemetery has been badly plundered by grave robbers over the years, and many of the finer ceramics and textiles have long since been lost. Most of the mummies have been restored to the tombs, but not in their original positions or locations because researchers have no way of knowing where they belong. Many of the remains were found scattered above ground by the grave robbers.
The bodies have been remarkably preserved due to the dry climate and the process of mummification – hair, textiles and grave goods have all survived. In some mummies, left underground, soft tissues such as skin can also be seen, in very good condition.
From Ica, we drive to the oasis of Huacachina for a spell of sandboarding and dune buggy riding. There are many tours offering dune buggy rides in Huacachina – choose a reputable company with well maintained vehicles and new, unworn harnesses for safety. Our excursion, booked through the El Huacachina hostel, cost us PEN55, lasted 3 hours and included the equipment for sandboarding. Slap on the sunscreen, tie down your hat and sunnies, and head out for a rollercoaster ride!
The sand dunes are massive, undulating waves of golden mountains in the bright sun. Our driver revs up and down, curves and cuts his way across the dunes, eliciting shrieks of glee from us all. At the highest point of some of the biggest dunes, he pulls out the sand boards – simple constructions of laminated wood. You can either strap on and sand board your way down like snow boarding, sit upright and slide, or go on your belly, a surefire way of getting a mouthful of sand.
After the adrenaline rush of dune buggies and sand boarding, we chilled out by the hostel’s pool, drinking in the sun and the views of the sand dunes, entertained by the two tame macaws owned by the hostel owner and sipping Pisco Sours. Te quiero, Peru!