In late December, we went to Nazca, a seven-hour drive south of Lima, situated on an inland desert plateau at an average altitude of 1,500 feet. It was a fabulous drive through rugged terrain, mountain passes, and lush oases. We stopped at the famous watchtower of the Nazca Lines once we reached the Nazca plateau, where we were able to appreciate our first geoglyphs; the tree, and the hands.
The meaning of these geoglyphs remains mysterious although many theories were written about them over the years. Maria Reiche dedicated the greater part of her life to studying the lines and geoglyphs and was declared an honorary Peruvian citizen during the last years of her life. I was privileged to meet her in person in the late 80s at the Hotel Nazca Lines. Already blind and frail, her mind was fully alert and lucid and I had a fascinating conversation with her.
Although most researchers do not follow Reiche’s premise that the figures represented an astronomical calendar, she was undoubtedly a pioneer in drawing worldwide awareness to the Nazca lines, having lived in the desert and measured the geoglyphs for over 40 years.
The etchings were made by scratching away the surface known as ‘desert varnish’, a layer of manganese and iron oxides that formed on the clays, thus revealing the contrasting lighter color of the desert clay underneath. Were the lines landing strips for aliens or pointers towards mountains and water sources? Were the animal designs meant to be walked on in rituals by different kin groups, or do they relate to dark cloud constellations on the Milky Way or shamanic rituals? The last word has definitely not been spoken yet… More and more geoglyphs pertaining to the Nazca and Palpa lines have been discovered only recently, and there is room for plenty of speculations. Our party was able to appreciate some of the more famous ones in an overflight in a small Cessna aircraft the following morning.
We stayed for four nights in the outskirts of the unremarkable town of Nazca, in an old desert Hacienda converted into a beautiful rural hotel with inviting gardens, where tall trees were providing welcome shade, a refreshing swimming pool, a resident alpaca and plenty of artwork decorating the premises. It was the perfect base for our explorations over the next days, and we had vegan breakfast and dinner included.
A special outing took us further into the desert to the ancient Nazca pilgrimage site of Cahuachi where around 40 pyramidal mounds were found. Although this was a major site, the archaeologists agree that this was not a permanently inhabited city, as no permanent dwellings and little household refuse were found there. Instead, there was evidence of stakes for pitching large temporary tents that were most likely for ceremonial uses. The site has been restored over recent years and is definitely worth a visit.
We also visited Acongalla, one of the puquios near the Hotel. These were entrances to underground water sources. In the absence of rain, the Nazca culture could only create an oasis in the middle of the desert by maximizing the precious water coming from the highland glaciers of the Andes through the construction of subterranean aqueducts that prevented the rate of evaporation.
Another excursion took us to the Buena Fe Lines on the outskirts of the town. After climbing a small hill we could appreciate a trapezoidal-shaped geoglyph.
We explored the former administrative Inca site of Paredones in the last afternoon light before driving back to our hotel.
Another full day trip in a sand buggy took us to the Wildlife Sanctuary of San Fernando on the coast. This is a delightful Nature Reserve where sea lions, Humboldt penguin, Inca terns, pelican, turkey vultures, and other birds can be easily spotted as they occur in great numbers there.
We were extremely lucky to spot several Andean condors soaring over the bay. This majestic bird has a wingspan of almost three meters and it can rise up to altitudes of 25,000 feet in the Andes due to thermal winds. Unfortunately, the Andean condor is also severely threatened. Once one of the adult birds flew so close over our heads that we all felt the breeze it created. What a privilege to start the New Year (it was 1st January) with such a close encounter – a gift from the Apus (tutelary spirits)! We could not have hoped for more…