The bus from Cusco descended rapidly enough to make our ears pop, like a plane coming in for a landing. But unlike a plane the descent was drawn out, forcing me to spend the night holding my nose and making terrifying faces. When we arrived to the tiny city of Nazca we were exhausted. Magda had caught a stomach bug the night before the bus and neither of us had gotten much sleep. Bleary eyed we wandered out of the bus terminal and tried to figure out where we were going while touts and taxi drivers shouted and pointed in different directions.
The only reason to visit Nazca, so far the grimiest city we’d seen in Peru, are what’s known as “the Nazca Lines”, one of prehistoric South America’s great mysteries. Hundreds of perfect, straight paths in the dirt lead in apparently random directions for miles across the desert floor. As well as the lines there are enormous drawings of birds, a monkey, a whale and a human form which the Peruvians call, “the Astronaut “. Calling it the Astronaut is a trick and does the ancient illustrators ill-service.
Because of the complexity of fashioning such epic artworks on the desert floor, some have claimed they were made by aliens, despite zero evidence for the existence of extra-planetary life and much evidence of the resourcefulness of the Nazca people. The appearance of a large headed man who’s face looks masked helps kindle this science-fantasy. Hidden in this fun theory are shades of racism and culturalism seen time and time again regarding the cradle of Andean civilization.
The complex lines were beyond these primitive people’s means. The hydro-engineering was too complex, the astronomical predictions too complex. The brain surgery too complex. What is too complex is the idea that a complex society thrived in the Americas before Columbus and was capable of some very amazing things. Like drawing long lines across the desert floor.
Since they are best seen from the air, we made our way to a scruffy little airport and moved from desk to desk looking for the best deal on the little planes that buzz around over the landmarks. Like the hotels in Aguas Calientes, all the companies rated themselves very highly, and all were roughly the same price. We rolled the dice, picked one and soon were crammed in a little Cesna, high above the city.
The Nazca desert is one of the driest places on earth. In a part of the Atacama desert, just south, there has never been a single drop of recorded rainfall. It seems like a curious place for a civilization to thrive until one considers that one of the world’s highest mountain ranges is just next door to the east, and the Pacific Ocean is just to the west. Lots of water passes between the two, creating valleys of transient rivers capable of supporting cities. Because of the extremely dry climate and lack of rain to upset the topsoil, the lines and other artifacts are incredibly well preserved. Even wooden poles, used to ensure perfect geometry, have been found still stuck in the earth where ancient surveyors once stood. The desert is a time vacuum where nothing much changes.
Still feeling ill from food poisoning, Magda was positively green as the captain banked hard to make tight circles over the drawings below, sending the world outside into a spin. The featureless desert gives back little in the way of scale, and at first the drawings seemed smaller than promised. Then we passed a highway and the little trucks put all in their immense perspective.
Of all the figures, to me the monkey is the most interesting. The first monkey isn’t for miles, across a high mountain range and down into the Amazon forest. It’s features are captured well, it has an immense spiral for a tail and appears to be on all fours. That the Nazca had traveled, or had traded with the Amazon meant they had access to the rest of the Americas as well – these primitive people were part of a trade network. It’s thought the huge drawing may be a fertility prayer.
The touristic flights focus on the figures, since these are the easiest to comprehend, but the lines are more mysterious. They stretch across the plain toward the horizon. In some cases they converge in the valleys between low hills, points on the landscape as visible today as a thousand years ago.
It’s hard to explain the length, but its easy to see how the lines and the figures were made. The first few inches of earth is a dull red, but just below lies a lighter layer. From the air one can imagine a team of Nazca removing the red soil along on of the thousands of pre planned lines, painting the desert by removing it bit by bit.
We both felt queasy by the time we landed. We made our way back to the bus station and waited for our bus to Lima in the fresh dry air. A souvenir shop near us sold refrigerator magnets shaped like monkeys.