The Nazca Lines: A Mystery in the Desert
Most people visit Nazca in southern Peru for just one reason: to see the Nazca lines. Before coming to Peru, I had heard only vaguely about this archaeological phenomena, but knew very little about it.
For us, visiting Nazca made sense because it was on our route from Arequipa to Lima and we thought we might as well check out these much talked about lines while there. But it turned out to be a fascinating learning experience and not just a visit to a tourist attraction.
A lot is actually known about the Nazca lines: they were created by the Nazca people between 400 and 650 CE. They are a series of geoglyphs depicting animals, abstract symbols, as well as straight lines, rectangles and trapezoids on the surface of the desert, covering about 80km, starting roughly 20km northwest of modern-day Nazca town.
What is not known for sure, however, is why. What purpose did they serve? Why make images in the desert that can only be seen from above?
There are many theories, some with more support and evidence to back them up than others. One of the most popular is that the geoglyphs all have some connection with water and that the Nazca people used to dance upon the lines to perform water rituals to pray for rain in the desert.
It has been shown that some of the lines align with certain astronomical phenomena, for example the winter solstice setting point of the sun. However, there are so many lines on the desert floor, they could be pointing to almost anything in the sky an this could just be coincidence.
And you can’t talk about the Nazca lines without mentioning the name Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who dedicated her adult life to trying to discover the meanings of the lines. Her legacy is all over modern day Nazca, with streets, schools and sights named after her, as well as statues and murals of her scattered around the town.
There are two key sights in town that we visited to learn all of this: the Museo Didactico Antonini and the Planetarium Maria Reiche. We then followed these up with a visit to the desert itself and looking out over a few of the geoglyphs from the Mirador.
A slightly musty place with a lot of text (in Spanish only, though they’ll lend you a folder with translations for each display in various languages).
We found most things in this museum rather hard to penetrate, since they were lacking context. Indoors is mostly displays of pottery, jewellery and tools, but the questions: “who made them?”, “when?” and “what were they used for?” are not addressed in an accessible way, in our opinion.
There is a garden at the back of the museum, with a few peacocks strutting around, as well as reconstructed circular Nazca graves and a scale representation of the Nazca lines. We found this to be the most interesting and enjoyable part of the museum.
- Entrance is S/15 (£3.50)
- The museum is open 9am-4pm
- It’s located at Avenida la Cultura 600
Planetarium Maria Reiche
Housed within the Nazca Lines Hotel, one of the town’s top-end places where Maria Reiche herself lived for 25 years while studying the lines, the planetarium puts on a show every night explaining the various theories surrounding the lines, a brief history of Reiche’s work, the connection with astronomical phenomena and a quick run through of some of the most recognisable Southern Hemisphere constellations.
The night we visited, the guide had also set up a telescope to give us a view of Saturn, its rings and three of its moons, which was a fun addition. We definitely found this experience to be worth it, as it gave us a good overview of the lines and prepared us well to see them ourselves.
- Tickets are S/20 (£4.60)
- The presentation is given in English every evening at 19:00.
- The hotel is located on Bolognesi, one block from the bus terminal
Unless you want to pay upwards of US$80 per person for a flight over the lines, the best way to see them is from a man made mirador along the Carretera Panamericana, 20km northwest of Nazca.
Unfortunately, it only allows you a view of two of the figures (the Hands and the Tree), but we still found it to be a worthwhile experience.
It can be quite windy in the desert, and the structure is a metal tower with very little cover from the elements, so if you have a fear of heights, prepare yourself beforehand and remember to hold on tight to the railing.
- To get to the mirador by bus go to the main bus station and take any bus heading north for S/3 (£0.70), though they will ask to see you passport to sell you a ticket. The other option is to walk west from the bus station towards the roundabout and hop on any of the buses waiting there, who will not need a passport to sell you a ticket, and charge S/2 (£0.50). Alternatively, take a taxi. The journey will take about 25 minutes.
- Entrance for adults to the mirador costs S/2 (£0.50) or S/1 (£0.25) for children, students and retirees.
As a tourist town well established on the South American gringo trail, there are many places to eat. As with any Peruvian town, you’ll find very basic places offering a menu (usually soup, main and drink) for around S/6 (£1.40).
For something a bit more upscale, we’d recommend Mamashana (Bolognesi 270), a gringo restaurant with a wide range of pastas, meat dishes, sandwiches, cakes, coffees and drinks at tourist prices, but also good quality. Additionally, they have decent wifi.
For coffee, cake, ice cream and small snacks, we’d recommend Coffee Break (Bolognesi 219). The setting is simple, but the cakes were delicious and Zab found the mocchachino to be exceptionally good.
We stayed at Camiluz Hostel (formerly Pirwa Hostel, so you might see both names) and it was a pleasant surprise. We had booked a twin room online, believing that the double rooms were all taken, but when we arrived, they upgraded us to a suite with a double bed, desk and chairs, large bathroom (with a huge walk-in shower with excellent pressure!) and even a separate dressing room!
The breakfast was decent (tea or coffee, bread, jam, juice and something else like eggs or potato and cheese that changed each day), the staff friendly and the wifi fast and reliable, and at S/90 (£20.50) for a double room, we thought this was a good deal!