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Nazca: How Best to Visit and See The Nazca Lines

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Nazca observation tower

Nazca observation tower

Travel Guide to visiting the Nazca Lines in Peru.

The Nazca lines are high on the list of places to see for many visitors to Peru.  They are World Heritage listed and are one of history’s great mysteries.

No one really knows why the lines were constructed nor exactly how.

It is thought that the Nazca lines were etched into the desert back in 600 to 700 Ad. The Nazca culture is one of the most important of the pre-Hispanic cultures of Peru, dating from 100 BC to 700 AD. It extended through several desert valley, the Nazca Valley, Pisco, Chincha, Ica, Palpa, and Acarí valleys.

As well as the Nazca lines the culture is well known for its mummification, extensive desert irrigation and pottery.

Is it worth visiting Nazca?

A visit to Nazca is well worth it for anyone interested in the pre-Inca cultures. The Nazca lines are just one of several important Nazca sites and a day or two in and around Nazca will allow time to explore.

How do I get to Nazca?

The only way to get to Nazca is by road. The journey takes seven hours from Lima. You can break the trip in Paracas which lies about half way between the two. Nazca itself has a tiny air strip outside the town but it is not used for scheduled flights, just for over flights of the lines. From Nazca return to Lima or continue to Arequipa, approx 9 hours by road. You can also drive to Cusco, with a stop over in Abancay, over 2 days.

What is the best way to see the Nazca lines?

There are two options for viewing the lines – take a flight or go up the observation tower.  The tower is just outside the town of Nazca. It is 13 meters high and gives a good view of 2 of the lines; the tree and the hands.

Flying is the better way to view the lines, offering a fabulous view over the whole pampa. However, there have been many safety issues with the airlines and several accidents over the years.  it is worth satisfying yourself that you are OK with this before signing up.  In addition pilots make numerous sharp turns in the small aircraft,  which could leave you feeling nauseous.

An alternative, if you choose to fly, is to take one of the 90 minute flights from Ica or Pisco. Again, check the safety record of the airlines involved. I recommend taking two or three days to make a trip south from Lima staying overnight in Paracas. As well as the Nazca flight, visit the scenic Paracas reserve, the wildlife rich Ballestas Islands and in Ica the museum with fabulous mummies and Paracas textiles, the Huacachina oasis and perhaps add in a winery as well.

 

 

Safety Tips for Flying over the Nazca Lines

Read this excellent article on safety tips for flying over the Nazca lines.

Nazca town today

Nazca is not an appealing town, and were it not for the intriguing world famous Nazca Lines there would seem little reason to visit.  However, the Nazca civilisation was one of Peru’s most important and influential and in addition to the lines, the archaeological remains, mummies and ceramics are fascinating.  Nazca has a rather rundown look and feel about it partly because of the dry, warm climate which obviates the need to construct solid buildings and also because it has suffered considerable damage from earthquakes, and seems to be perpetually undergoing reconstruction.

Nazca History

The Nazca culture is closely related to the Paracas culture from which it developed in the 3rd to 7th century AD.  The Nazcans were expert artists, craftsmen and engineers, creating an ingenious system of hydraulics that enabled them to survive in the arid coastal plains of the Peruvian desert, where it virtually never rains.  The administrative centre of the civilisation is thought to have been at Cahuachi, which is 20km from where Nazca is today.  Nazca art work, with its many symbols of war including trophy heads, sling shots, and depictions of fighting, indicates that they were a warrior people.  However, a wide representation of animals, birds, and stylised figures seen in the Nazca lines, textiles and ceramics indicate a more complex society with an intricate religion and system of beliefs.

What are the Nazca lines?

On the Pampas de Nazca, covering an area of 350 square kilometres, are the world famous Nazca Lines.  Something of an enigma, the lines consist of huge etchings of animals and geometric shapes stretching out as far as the eye can see across the desert pampa.  They have been protected and made famous by Maria Reich, a German born mathematician.  She carried out tireless investigations on the lines, surveying and measuring the figures and trying to correlate the lines with the rising and setting, sun, moon and stars.  She lived in Nazca from the 1940s until her recent death in 1998.  Since the lines were first spotted from the air early this century there has been endless speculation as to their purpose, especially as they cover too vast an area to be appreciated from the ground.  They were mostly made by the Nazcans over a period of time from AD 500, by the simple technique of scraping away the dark red-brown top soil and lining the scraped out yellow-white subsoil with small stones.  Some of the figures may be from much earlier, as many as 2,000years ago.  It’s possible the shapes were used for ritual or religious purposes, processions of people tracing their outline, or shamans following the lines on drug induced spiritual journeys.  Many of the animals are frequently used spirit helpers to jungle shamans today.  One of the largest figures is of the Andean condor, it is 110m long and has five straight lines crossing its body.  There are eighteen bird figures in total and many other animals such as the monkey, dog, whale, spider, and lizard.  Just as impressive are the large numbers of straight lines and trapezoids, which cover the pampa every which way, ignoring the topography in their straightness, and defying explanation.

What is there to see and do in the Nazca area?

  •  If you are in Nazca take a couple of hours to visit the Nazca potters of today, making replica pots.
  • There are two museums worth visiting in Nazca, the Casa-Museo Maria Reiche and the Museo Antonini. The museums provide detailed information about the Nazca people and some theories about the lines.
  • The Cementerio de Chauchilla 28 km to the south of Nazca on the Pan American highway is a Nazca cemetery which has been ravaged by huaqueros,  leaving only bits of mummies and fragments of pots lying around the desert.  It is still worth seeing as it is quite an incongruous sight, and maybe a bit disturbing.
  • The Nazca planetarium based at the Nazca Hotel where Maria Reiche lived for a while, has evening films and a chance to enjoy the clear desert star filled nights.
  • The aqueducts of Cantalloc.  4km from the centre of Nazca are intriguing spiral rock lined holes into the ground give access to the network of underground aqueducts built by the ancient Nazcans to irrigate their crops. This hydraulic system was known as puquio.  The channels were roofed with stones and planks of wood and every 10-20m eyes were built which permitted cleaning of the channels and access to the water.  These channels were up to 10m underground and an average of 500m long.  There are 30–40km of rock and wood lined tunnels running through the valley.
  • Paredones.  Thought to have been a Nazca temple, this site of adobe is in poor condition with little to see.  There is a private collection of craniums and bits of mummies and ceramics collected from the site.
  • Museo de Maria Reiche.  27km from Nazca on the Pan American highway is the house of Maria Reiche, the well known German mathematician, protector and enthusiastic researcher of the lines.  She died in 1998 and her tomb is next to her house, which is now a museum.
  • Lomas.  90km from Nazca to the north is the small seaside town of Lomas.  It is a good beach though can be rough for swimming and popular with the people from Nazca at weekends and in summer months.
  • Cahuachi.  27km south of the lines near the river Nazca, you find the archaeological remains of what was probably the principal city of the Nazca culture, a ceremonial centre including forty temple mounds and vast plazas.  Nearby is the Estaquería where you see huarango wooden stakes up to 2 metres tall probably used as some sort of supporting structure or even a solar observatory.  There are several cemeteries in this area too.
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