A Travellerspoint blog

The Nazca Lines

Strange shapes in the desert valley.


Peru, 1939.Paul Kosock, an American professor from Long Island University arrives in Nazca, a small desert town near the coast in the south of the country.His mission: to investigate and survey the unique irrigation techniques reportedly developed by the ancient Nazca civilization that once flourished in the area.He is quite successful and finds many still functioning aqueducts in and around the town.His work ultimately helps establish the intricate underground system of Nazca as one of the most impressive feats of hydraulic engineering in South American pre-history.
But it isn't until his surveys bring him out into the dry Nazca desert that he will make what will be one of the most perplexing archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.Guided by a local, he travels out to a section of desert where he spies long, shallow furrows in the valley floor.His professional curiosity aroused, he hires a light aircraft from one of the local farmers and goes up to take a better look.What he sees from the air astounds him: hundreds of ruler straight lines criscossing the valley floor for miles around in an improbable network, and, even more unlikely, geometric shapes in the likeness of birds, fish and various other animals.Kosock had just discovered the remarkable and wholly unique remnants of a mostly forgotten civilization and had, in all probability, been the very first man to see these extraordinary images from the air.It was a discovery that has provoked much scholarly debate and many (often wild and outlandish) theories ever since.Yet to this day nobody has conclusively answered the question: what ARE the Nazca Lines?
The mystery that is the Nazca Lines remains one of the most enduring enigmas in South American history.Their allure is such that the once quiet frontier of Nazca has grown into a popular resort town cashing in on the curious tourists that arrive in their droves.It is almost exclusively geared towards backpackers eager to see the Lines, with a pristine and well maintained airport and a booming local economy in the construction and service industries.Many hotels in various stages of development are littered throughout Nazca and the modern day town centre is invariably awash with pizzerias and backpacker bars.It is an all too common occurence in developing countries but one that is sadly entirely understandable.
We arrived on an overnight bus from Arequipa at the ungodly hour of 3am, despite the fact we weren't expecting to get there until 7 or so.We were politely, but firmly, awakened from our crucial shuteye by the insistent stewardess who had us off the bus luggage in hand before we knew what was happening.Clearly, something was amiss.Indeed it was.We had somehow confused the traveling times and mistaken the arrival time in Lima, where the coach would continue on towards, with the arrival time in Nazca.This was not good.
Wandering around the deserted bus station in the dead of night still half asleep with all our worldy belongings was more than just a little disconcerting.However, we were serendipitously greeted with a miracle of the transport industry: a lone taxi driver who was somehow waiting for us with his inviting vehicle.We fell in, without even checking the fare beforehand (as is good practise) and gave the name of the hostel we were booked in at.After a quick ride around the deserted streets we pulled up in front of a featureless building that was still in total darkness.Of course it was.It was half three in the morning.A few rings of the bell later and the front door was eventually dragged open by an understandably surly porter who showed us to our tiny room.We collapsed into bed and fell back to sleep.
Morning came all too soon and we managed to drag ourselves up out of bed and down to the breakfast table.Talking to the owner in between bites of cereal we learned he operated a travel agency (they all do) that could take us to see the Lines that very afternoon.With nothing booked or even planned yet we readily agreed.To kill time we went into town and had a look 'round.The centre was a collection of shops on an excuse of a main street and the town had a distinct air of 'unfinishedness' about it.Nazca really is one giant construction site surrounded by endless, dry desert and slowly baking under a relentless sun.The heat really was something else.Bar the overall ugliness, the uncompromising heat was my overriding memory of the place.But then again, we hadn't really come to enjoy the ambience.

To understand the thinking behind the formation of images such as the Nazca Lines one must first look to understand the culture that made them.First identified as a civilization in the early 1900's, what little knowledge we have of the Nazca comes from the many colourful ceramics that survived in that region of Peru.The German archaeologist, Max Uhle was so impressed by some particularly beautiful pieces of pottery he had received that he travelled immediately to Peru in seach of their origin.His search took him to the valley of Ica where some local farmers recognised the relics he showed them and directed him to some ancient cemeteries nearby.A period of intense excavation yielded many more artefacts, identical to the ones he had in his possession.Uhle had pinpointed the origin of his ceramics and conclusively determined the existence of a new and prominent pre-Inca civilization.He named it the Nazca, after the valley in which they would have lived.
Pottery is such a wonderfully accurate and important method of dating cultures that civilizations are often classified according to whether or not they have mastered the art of firing up a kiln.Cultures lacking any obvious pottery making skills are generally assumed to be relatively undeveloped while the sophistication of others can be measured in terms of their specialized techniques.Generally, the more artistic the surviving ceramics the more advanced the culture can be said to be.In the case of the Nazca, the ceramics showed a high level of artistry: much of the pottery showed colourful images that realistically depicted everyday domestic scenes, while others bore stylised anthropomorphical and zoomorphic designs.Clearly theirs was an advanced and artistic culture, a feature that seems to have found its ultimate expression in the Nazca Lines.But what, exactly, are they?

The Nazca Lines is the name given to the extraordinary collection of lines, geometric figures (geoglyphs) and animal and plant drawings (biomorphs) that are spread out over a large area of rock strewn desert near Nazca.There are more than 300 figures and some 10,000 lines that cover an area of roughly 500 sq km.The most recognizable of the figures have their own titles, such as the Monkey and so forth.They were formed at least 1500 years ago (though many are older) by removing the sun darkened stones from the desert surface, exposing the lighter soil below.The truly remarkable feature of the Nazca Lines is the uniform symmetry found throughout and the fact that they can only be properly appreciated from the air, a fact that causes one to wonder how (and why) they were made in the first place.It is an intriguing mystery and one that is unlikely to ever be satisfactorily solved.
That hasn't stopped many people from guessing though.Over the years it has been variously theorised to be: an astronomical calender; ritual walkways connected to a water/fertility cult; giant running tracks (?); extraterrestrial landing sites; and hallucinogenic representations of shamanic rituals.The theory of an astronomical calender was first proposed by the German mathematician Maria Reiche, an assistant to Paul Kosock who continued on his research into the Lines after he left the area in 1948.She devoted her entire life to decoding the mysteries of the Lines and spent many years mapping and researching them.She became a celebrated though eccentric figure, so much so that when she died in 1998 she was buried with offical honours and her home was turned into a museum.Her theory was one of the more popular ones in her day and had some convincing evidence to back it up.
However, despite her complete conviction her theory had a few glaring faults and the prevailing theory accepted by archaeologists today is the one related to a water ritual.Since Nazca was a desert based civilization it stands to reason that they saw water as the source of all life and would thus worship it so, much like the later Incas worshipped their sun god, Inti.Many of the desert lines point in the direction which in times past would have been the source of rivers and rain.In times of exteme drought it is thought they would perform rituals by walking along the length of the glyphs, most probably dancing and singing, in order to appease their gods.It is likely they smashed many of their ceramics there as further offerings and there is evidence of this as shards of pottery and panpipes have been found at the end of some of the lines.
Whatever their function, it has at least been proven that the construction of the Lines wasn't something supernatural or out of this world, as some maintain.A series of simple experiments performed by a schoolteacher and his class demonstrated that with some rope, a few stakes and a little patience, it is relatively easy to replicate the giant glyphs that sprawl across the desert floor.Whether or not they were intended to be viewed by the gods above is, of course, open to speculation.
What is certain, however, is that they are a prime tourist attraction in an otherwise desolate stretch of desert beween Arequipa and Lima.Since being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the Nazca Lines have only increased in popularity year after year.We'd come solely to marvel at these striking examples of aboriginal art like everyone else.We were picked up and driven out to the small airport on the outskirts of town, a surprisingly modern construction that is towered over by the nearby Cerro Blanco, the world's highest sand dune at 2078m.It is a veritable mountain of sand that dominates the skyline and can be seen for miles around.It is possible to sandboard down or take a dune buggy across it but we were (as always) short on time and had to reluctantly decide against it.Not that it wouldn't been very cool.
We arrived at the strip, met our pilot and, after a short wait in the terminal were guided onto a small one engined Cessna along with four other backpackers.The seating was cramped but I somehow got the seat beside the pilot and had a birds eye view out of the cockpit.Nice!Just before take off I glanced back at Janelle who was wearing the most fearful look I'd ever seen on another person.It was somewhere between absolute terror and abject self pity and I again felt sorry for people the world over with a fear of flying.But there was nothing else for it.With a quick burst of speed and a stomach churning lurch we were suddenly airborne against the bright blue sky and sandy desert floor.From this height you could really appreciate how lush and fertile the Nazca valley is contrasted against the immediate desolation of the sprawling desert.Our pilot immediately corrected our heading and kept to an altitude of about 1,500 feet.Almost straight away we flew over our first glyph, the Whale.The pilot pulled the plane abruptly to the left at a 90 degree angle so we could all get a good look and then circled around for a second pass, this time turning to the right.Even so we had roughly eight seconds to catch a glimpse of it.Such jerking movements were pretty nerve wracking and I again pitied poor Janelle in the back, even though I was loving every minute of it.
The rough flying continued for the entire 30 minute flight.Even when the plane wasn't turned on its side the high winds buffeted against us and bounced the light aircraft around in a distinctly frightening manner.Two of our companions stopped taking photos and just plain hung on.But it was worth it nonetheless.We flew over all the major glyphs: the Whale, the Dog, the Spider, the Monkey, (with his spiraling tail), the Spaceman, the Hummingbird, the Trapezoid (aka the Landing Strip), and many of the others.Each of them were simply amazing; so symmetrical and stylish its hard to believe their creators never saw them this way.Each and every one is a wholly unique and dramatic work of art, a relic from a time and a people who we'll never truly understand.How mysterious and awe inspiring it is to view these strange symbols from a long dead civilization whose meaning is lost to us forever.A once in a lifetime opportunity for sure.

We landed soon enough without mishap, Janelle in particuler very glad to be back on solid ground and even tipped the pilot before being ferried back to the hostel.The feeling of almost religious awe lingered with us for the rest of the day and I could even appreciate the town of Nazca a little better than before.But not that much.We lazed around and caught up on some sleep before we left for the bus station and hopped on the coach bound for Lima.The entry point for many travellers, Lima as Peru's capital is often a backpackers first taste of South America and it is almost universally despised.The dirt, poverty and overall dangerous atmosphere ranks it somewhere near the very bottom of the list for most Gringos and the majority of them can't get out of the city fast enough.With such negative reports we'd budgeted only two days in the capital.It was a necessary pitstop before we could transfer on to the north of Peru and we intended on treating it as such.We prepared ourselves for the worst and hoped for the best.

Posted by Janelle_B 12:39 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

This blog requires you to be a logged in member of Travellerspoint to place comments.

Enter your Travellerspoint login details below

( What's this? )

If you aren't a member of Travellerspoint yet, you can join for free.

Join Travellerspoint