Nazca Lines, Peru

High up in the parched Nazca Desert of southern Peru, there lies an orca. He’s big, even by whale standards – some 60m long from nose to tail. His parched environment has not hindered him; rather, it’s protected him, for perhaps as long as 2,000 years. He was ‘drawn’ into the earth by ancient Peruvians, who created his massive outline by moving red rocks to reveal the greyish earth below.
The orca is not alone; he is surrounded by many hundreds of other drawings, known as the Nazca Lines. Archaeologists believe these geoglyphs were created over a period of 1,000 years, from 500 BCE to 500 AD, by the Nazca and Paracas people, and the windless, desert climate has protected them almost perfectly throughout the ensuing centuries. However, while the designs have been conserved, their purpose has been lost, and much about these drawings, of humans, animals and geometric shapes, remains a mystery to this day.

What are the Nazca Lines?

The 900 figures etched into the Peruvian Desert take many forms. Most are geometric shapes: spirals, triangles and perfectly straight lines – one stretching for over 14km. Around 70 are of humans, animals and plants, and these are perhaps the most exciting for visitors to observe. Some of the most famous include a huge monkey with a spiral tail, a geometric hummingbird, and a pelican – one of the longest drawings at 285m thanks to its extraordinary zigzagging neck. There is a clearly outlined whale, too, in addition to the orca which is one of the most recently discovered glyphs. This may be a desert, but it is just a few kilometres away from the coast, and marine life was important to the Nazca. One of the more curious images is the so-called astronaut, a human figure that looks like he’s wearing a spacesuit. Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with this one, but given that, on closer inspection, he has a fish in one hand and a net in the other, most historians believe he is a terrestrial fisherman.
Hidden in plain sight

Hidden in plain sight

Ironically, the geoglyphs’ sheer size – some up to 370m long – had made them ‘invisible’ even to those walking right on top of them. The first reported sighting of the Nazca Lines was by a conquistador in the 16th century; observing from ground level, however, he assumed the outlines in the earth were simple trail markers. The full scale of the drawings was not apparent until pilots began to fly over this landscape in the early 20th century, although it was a Peruvian archaeologist, Toribio Mejía Xesspe, who spotted them while walking in the nearby hills, and realised their significance.
With each decade of the 20th century, more geoglyphs were identified and studied as historians began to investigate the lines, and aerial surveys revealed their full extent. While the theories – from a giant celestial calendar, to indicators on where to find water, and even that they had been created by ancient astronauts – were mostly speculation or pure fantasy, some things became apparent as the investigations continued. In the 1940s, the historian Paul Kosok realised that the lines converged at the point where the sun would have set during the June winter solstice, while subsequent research was able to carbon date wooden stakes left pegged into the lines. Drone flights now mean that extensive surveys can be carried out much more quickly and cheaply than before.
Despite all these technological advances, the Nazca Lines continue to throw up surprises; as recently as April 2018, some 50 more drawings were discovered in the desert, many believed to be depicting warriors. While most of the original lines were created by the Nazca civilisation, it is believed that these newly discovered geoglyphs were created by people known as the Paracas, who pre-date the Nazca by around 1,000 years.

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How were the Nazca Lines made?

From Stonehenge to the Egyptian Pyramids, we are always fascinated by how prehistoric people, without technology, machines or even wheels, managed to create such astonishing temples and artworks. While the Nazca and Paracas cultures may not have required the stone-shifting skills of other ancient civilisations, their geoglyphs’ immense size and impressively straight lines, combined with the impossibility of viewing them from ground level, have inspired many questions about their creation. Despite the ‘ancient astronauts’ theory, however, in the 1980s an American scientist gathered a small team to create a geoglyph in the United States, using only the technology that would have been available to the Nazca people. Using a scaled down sketch of a hummingbird as a guide, he demonstrated how a remarkably accurate 130m-long version of the bird could be etched into the landscape by plotting coordinates and scaling up the measurements. The remains of wooden stakes left pegged into the lines seem to further support this theory. It has also been shown that all of the lines can in fact be seen by ascending the surrounding hills, so the Nazca would have been able to admire their impressive artworks even without a full aerial view.

How to see the Nazca Lines

The Mirador is a metal viewing tower which you can climb up for a nominal fee to see a few of the lines up close, including a tree, hands and a lizard. It is possible to view the Nazca Lines from the surrounding hills, although these give better views of the basic lines than the more famous animal glyphs, as most of the surrounding area is closed off to tourists in order to protect the lines.
Most visitors will opt for a scenic, half-hour flight – often included on Peru vacations as an optional extra – which gives a bird’s eye view of 12-15 of these epic drawings. This is really the only way to get a decent view; better than the lines’ creators ever had! Don’t expect to take amazing photos though, particularly without a zoom lens. The speed you are traveling, plus the distance and the fact you will be photographing out of the window means that, in our opinion, you’d be better off leaving your camera behind and simply admiring the astonishing views.
The flights are carried out in small planes, usually Cesnas, carrying just two to 12 passengers. Turbulence is a common issue, so this option is not recommended if you are prone to motion sickness or are afraid of flying. Even those with stronger stomachs may want to take ginger or travel sickness medication, just in case, especially as there are plenty of sharp turns to facilitate viewing.
The earlier you leave, the lower the turbulence; afternoon flights tend to be the choppiest. Do be aware that your flight may be delayed if there is adverse weather, or fog that could obscure your view – another reason to book as early a flight as possible. There have been safety concerns in the past, but the Peruvian government has tightened up the regulations, and on organised tours your operator will only work with the flight companies that have the best safety records.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Christian Haugen] [Top box: ilkerender] [What are they? (Monkey): Diego Delso] [Hidden in plain site: VasenkaPhotography] [View from plane : Christian Haugen] [Bird: Christian Haugen] [How were the Nasca Lines made (viewing from hill top): ilkerender] [The Mirador: Václav Syná?ek] [Traveler next to plane: ollie harridge] [Viewing the lines by flight: ollie harridge]
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