A desert full of mysteries: the Nazca Lines and beyond

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The giant animal figures and hundreds of razor-straight lines etched into the sun-baked Pampa Colorada plain near the Peruvian desert town of Nazca constitute one of humankind’s enduring mysteries. Who created them? For what purpose? It's the stuff of endless fascination. But the Nazca area has much more to offer: the enigmatic glimpses of a lost civilisation in the form of the Cahuachi pyramids; the Palpa Lines; an ancient necropolis; aqueducts; Inca ruins; the world’s largest sand dune; and a highland vicuña sanctuary.

The Nazca Lines

Ancient petroglyphs score the arid landscape near Nazca. Image by Michael Clark / Photolibrary / Getty Images.

Mysterious ancient geoglyphs score the arid landscape near Nazca. Image by Michael Clark / Photolibrary / Getty Images.

Standing on the ground, you can barely see the Nazca Lines, which are made of light soil highlighted by lines of darker stones on either side. There are huge numbers of them – shard-like triangles and rectangles several kilometres long, as well as stylised animal and bird figures: a monkey, a condor, a perfectly symmetrical spider, a hummingbird. How were they created with such accuracy given that they can only be seen properly  from high above? Theories abound regarding their purpose: they landing strips for alien starships; they giant walkways linking ceremonial sites; they are an astronomical calendar aligned to the sun and the stars. A couple of plane companies, Aeroparacas (www.aeroparacas.com) and Alas Peruanas (www.alasperuanas.com), offer 30- to 60-minute Cessna flights over the Lines. The planes bank steeply left and right for the best views, which makes the ride as nauseating as the landscape is spectacular. If you prefer to remain on the ground, you can view a giant tree, a pair of hands and a lizard from a mirador (observation tower) 20km north of Nazca off the Panamericana.

Related article: Driving through the wilderness on Chile's Carretera Austral

Palpa Lines

Less famous than the Nazca Lines but no less intriguing, the Palpa Lines of Palpa Valley consist of mountain tops, flattened as if to receive some giant airborne craft. Perfectly straight lines and pointed shards bisect the mountains and the valley floor, with giant, mazelike trapezoid spirals, geoglyphs depicting a sundial, a star, and the ceremonial knife known as Tumi. The Lines and the mountain tops can only be appreciated from an aeroplane, but there are anthropomorphic figures etched into a hillside, depicting several females and a male with bulging eyes, a short walk from the main road.

Chauchilla Cemetery

A macabre display in the Chauchilla Cemetery. Image by Stew Dean / CC BY 2.0.

A macabre display in the Chauchilla Cemetery. Image by Stew Dean / CC BY 2.0.

In use between 200 and 900 AD, the Chauchilla Cemetery, 30km south of Nazca, consists of a dozen or so tombs containing remarkably well-preserved mummies from the Nazca culture, which preceded the Incas and flourished in the area for hundreds of years. Though in the past the necropolis was heavily plundered by huaqueros (grave robbers), many of the mummies have been returned to their final resting places. There they sit, their arms crossed and their legs drawn up to their chests, wrapped in layers of cloth, the important men among them showing off their particularly long and luxurious hair.

Cahuachi

This immense ceremonial and pilgrimage centre of the Nazca people stands in the middle of the desert, and consists of more than 40 mounds, topped with the remains of adobe constructions, with several intact pyramids, cemeteries and elaborate underground tombs – all only partially excavated. A wealth of pottery has been discovered here, as well as graves containing only trophy heads. The sands around the area are eerily littered with ancient pottery fragments as well as human femurs and skulls. Cahuachi is reached via a rough 25km dirt-and-gravel road from Nazca.

Cerro Blanco

Towering above the desert, 14km east of Nazca, is the world’s largest sand dune: 2078m tall and a toughie to climb. The slog from the base to the top, ankle-deep in sand, takes around three hours under the relentless sun, so the likes of Peru Dream Travel (www.perudreamtravel.com) and Mystery Peru (www.mysteryperu.com) leave Nazca no later than 5am. Once you’ve admired the view from the top, you get to wax your sandboard and shimmy, stumble and roll your way down the slope. Unless you’re a pro, you will then spend the rest of the day finding sand in places you never thought it could reach.

Reserva Nacional Pampas Galeras

A mysterious figure etched into a mountainside in the Nazca Desert. Image by Dom Crossley / CC BY 2.0.

A huge, enigmatic figure etched into a mountainside in the Peruvian desert. Image by Dom Crossley / CC BY 2.0.

Head into the mountains 90km east of Nazca to the Reserva Nacional Pampas Galeras for an encounter with the shy vicuñas. These wild relatives of the llama and alpaca live at high altitude and have the finest wool of all three species. This wildlife sanctuary, consisting of hilly scrubland, is home to hundreds of the animals. The villagers who live nearby round them up over a period of several days in late May, shearing them and indulging in the alcohol-fuelled merrymaking that accompanies traditional ceremonies.

Museo Didáctico Antonini

The excellent Museo Didáctico Antonini, along Av de la Cultura in the eastern part of Nazca, gives an in-depth introduction to the history of the area, focusing largely on the Nazca culture. Standout exhibits include trepanned skulls and colourful pottery found at the Cahuachi ceremonial centre, a scale model of the Nazca Lines, perfectly preserved mummies of Inca children, burial tomb reproductions, and maps of the area, displaying the locations of the various archaeological sites in the area.

Cantallo aqueducts

Ancient petroglyphs score the arid landscape near Nazca. Image by Michael Clark / Photolibrary / Getty Images.

The remains of an ancient aqueduct developed by the pre-Inca Nazca people. Image by Linda Whitwam / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images.

The pre-Inca Nazca people were competent irrigation engineers and the Cantallo aqueducts, the underground system they developed centuries ago, are still very much in use. In fact, they are essential for claiming the yearly crops of potatoes, corn, beans and fruit from the desert around Nazca. Locals can enter the ventanas (windows) of the aqueducts, but visitors can only observe the remarkable spiralling stonework from the outside.

Museo Maria Reiche and Planetarium Maria Reiche

The Museo Maria Reiche is a squat mauve house, with unpainted walls and simple interior. This is the former home of the German mathematician who made the Nazca Lines her life’s work, researching them from 1940 onwards, and whose mortal remains are seeing out eternity in the tomb here. Some of her personal effects are on show, including her sketches of the Lines and her tools. In Nazca itself, the planetarium named after her holds nightly shows on the Nazca Lines at the eponymous hotel, with the opportunity to peak at the stars through a powerful telescope.

Paredones ruins

Once the Incas incorporated southern coastal Peru into their domain in the late 15th century, they built an administrative control centre 2km southeast of Nazca to link the coast and the mountains. Little is left besides some sun-bleached outlines of adobe buildings and several walls that show off the Incas’ precision stonework – there's not a crack between the building blocks – but it's a fascinating site and another reminder of the rich history of the Nazca area.