Because our bus from Ecuador turned out to be 2 days longer than expected, we only had 24 hours to spend in Nazca: we weren’t about to waste one second of it. We had a crazy, whirlwind day and booked 3 separate tours to get as much in as possible. The day was so full I’ve been apprehensive about writing about it… But here we go.
We really lucked out when we arrived at the Nazca, Cruz Del Sur bus station. A young man named Reynaldo had offered to drive us to our hostel for next to nothing, and on the way he explained that he did private tours of the city. His prices were equal to, or cheaper than the others we had checked out, so the three of us put together a full day excursion starting at nine AM the next morning. It was a great feeling going to sleep with everything taken care of!
The next morning we were picked up by a bus and taken to the airport just outside the city. We were going to go on a 35-minute flight in a tiny 4-passenger plane to see the Nazca Lines!! We were both so excited, and a little nervous. We’ve heard horror stories of some of the flights, with people throwing up all over the place from the turbulence. Even when we booked our flight the guy said, “don’t eat breakfast… Trust me”. So we did as we were told, and I popped a gravol as an extra precaution.
We were very lucky in our wait time. Even with a reservation, many people wait between 1 and 4 hours to actually get on a flight. It all depends on weather conditions and number of tourists. We were weighed in and sent out to the runway within five minutes of arriving. The day was beautiful and HOT. There’s a reason they call this place Death Valley. The heat is outrageous, and the rainy season is a total of THREE HOURS a year! We packed ourselves into the little plane with two other guys, our pilot and our copilot. Our headsets were connected to the copilot’s so he could explain what we were seeing, and we were given a small map of the shapes. Then just like that we took off! I had never been in a plane that small before, but the experience was awesome! We must have hit a great day, because we had no turbulence and neither of us felt sick at all (thank god).
The Nazca lines tour was out of this world!! What a cool way of seeing them! We flew over each geoglyph twice, once on the right and then again on the left to take photos. The whale, the astronaut (actually the ancient priest), the hummingbird, monkey, parrot, spider, trapezoids, heron, dog, the tree and the hands! They were just like you see them in photos in magazines! They are perfect shapes with distinct lines and although it was sometimes a little hard to find them at first, once you saw one, you couldn’t not see it! They were beautiful and mysterious and we loved every second of the tour! From the air you could get a perfect view of the entire valley. Long lines zigzagged across it, and the shapes were scattered across the flats and along the sides of mountains. The area was desert, all shades of brown with gorgeous and surreal looking mountains off in the distance. Even as we looked at them, we both said that they looked more like a painting than real life. But the real spectacle was the lines. They ranged from 36m from end to end (the whale) all the way to 300m (the heron) As we found out later, these shapes were just a few main ones. There are over 200 figures, and 4000 lines in Death Valley, all made by the ancient Nazca people.
The flight was a great way to start our day, it was an exhilarating rush, and the lines were beautiful and exotic! Luckily, however, our next two tours with Reynaldo were full of information. If you go to Nazca, I recommend both tours. The lines are seen the best from the sky, but you get no practical information on them at all. When we met up with our guide after the flight is when we really started to understand what we were looking at..
The Nazcans were an ancient culture that lived prior to the better-known Inca’s, between 400BC and 800AD. They were a highly advanced civilization, and were well versed in mathematics and astronomy. They knew the pattern of the sun, the solstices, and even managed to map out the largest astrological clock ever to exist. These were the people that created the Nazca lines. Interestingly, the lines are not trenches dug into the ground, or painted rocks. They are actually just negative space. The Nazca people created lines by moving the dark pebbles of the canyon and revealing the lighter sand beneath. When many of the rocks are removed it creates a distinct, light coloured line by contrast… And they are EVERYWHERE throughout the valley! The lines were used for many things. Some denoted a path into the mountains, others were markers to mark the seasonal solstices, and some were images of animals meant as sacrificial offerings to the gods (ie the now famous Nazca lines).
We stood on one hill later in the day to take a look at the lines for the movement of the sun. The lines started at the hill, and stretched out in a perfectly straight line for as far as you could see into the distance. There were so many of these lines zig zagging across the valley, each one having its own special meaning or purpose. These formations of lines are considered to be the largest astronomical clock that exists: and I don’t know how you could possibly make one larger! The lines were discovered in the early 1930’s when the first aircrafts began to fly over the area. The figures were much darker than they are today. Over hundreds of years of being exposed to sun, the light coloured sand had darkened, making much less contrast between the two colours. It was not until a decade or so later, when Maria Reiche, a German-born Mathematician and archeologist, came to study the lines that things changed. Maria took it upon herself to restore the Nazca lines herself. She lived in the desert completely alone for 15 years and spent everyday cleaning the lines with a broom, and slowly mapping out each one of the geoglyphs. She was the person who introduced the lines to the public, and eventually made the movement to have the lines become a unesco world heritage site. Without her, the lines would have been destroyed today. Strangely enough, one of the geoglyphs is of a pair of hands. No one knows why hands were sculpted as a gift to the gods, and even stranger yet, why one of the hands only has 4 fingers on it. By coincidence, or fate, Maria Reiche had actually lost a finger when she was a young girl. She also only had 9 fingers. When she discovered the pictograph, she took it as a sign that restoring the lines was her duty from God; and so that’s what she did! After her 15 years of solitude, she spend the last 26 years of her life educating the world on the Nazca lines, until she finally passed away in 1998 at the age of 95.
Today, her house has been transformed into a museum. You can still see her charts, photos and work space exactly as she left it. She was meticulous in her studies, and has left behind invaluable information on the Nazca history. Unfortunately, without Maria around, there is no one to continue cleaning the lines, without funding and support from the government, the lines will eventually disappear if they are not properly maintained. It seems like such a shame. We got a tour of Maria Reiche’s house, a ground view of a couple of the lines from two separate miradors (man made scaffolds that you could climb to see the lines from above). And a close look at the astronomical clock… As one tour.
For our other tour we took a look at the Nazca Aqueducts. And as everybody knows, our guide told us, “these are the key to the Nazca lines”. Really? Because I’m pretty sure we thought it was aliens right up until 12 hours ago. Our guide was pretty funny and had this way of saying “of course!!” after every question we asked as if the answer was SO obvious! But I suppose in a way he was right about the aqueducts; without them there could be no civilizations living in Nazca, and so, they were extremely important to its history. Essentially, the Nazca people discovered two water sources under ground that they used to their advantage. They build incredibly long and elaborate aqueducts that led all through the valley in order to irrigate the land, thus creating fertile land to live on. They used gravity to their advantage to move the water in the right directions. The aqueducts went on for kilometers throughout the valley, with watering holes used for drinking, and others for bathing. Without these water sources, Death Valley would have been impossible to survive in. Hot temperatures and no rain all year round were not ideal conditions for a thriving civilization. And so, with the ingenious nature of the Nazca people, huge irrigation systems were created.
The Inca people, who came after the Nazcans, also used these systems. They used the aqueducts to their advantage when they set up strategic fortresses along the mountain ridge at the edge of the valley. We walked through the remains of the Inca fortress as well on the tour. It was interesting to see the difference between the two cultures. The Nazcans were concerned with irrigation and astronomy, mathematics and religion. Their reign was over 1000 years. The Inca reign was only 120 years! They were a warrior people, and were more focused on building strongholds against invading armies than culture. It’s amazing to see what they accomplished in such little time. 120 years to conquer so much land and to build empires that included grand fortresses like the one in Nazca, and Machu Picchu further inland.
Overall, the day was incredibly informative. We even learned a little about Nazcan pottery on the trip. One man had dedicated almost his whole life to studying the techniques of their ancient pottery. Today, his daughter continues his work, and creates the most amazing collection of traditional bowls, teapots, masks and figurines in a small house in Nazca. All the techniques are traditional, right down to the ancient kiln, and creating a shiny finish to the pottery by polishing oil from your face onto the finished product. Her work was exquisite! All in all, it was our first introduction to ancient Peruvian civilizations on the trip and I definitely learned a lot. I can’t believe we hadn’t even been in the city 24 hours and we were already heading out on yet another night bus to Arequipa. Then we were ready to spend 3 full nights doing nothing important before heading to Cusco and the Inca trail…