I braced myself for another marathon bus ride. We left Cusco at 2pm and weren’t scheduled to arrive in Nazca (sometimes spelled Nasca) until 7:00 the next morning. But our driver must have been in a hurry. After only fourteen hours on the road one of the attendants shook me awake. “Nazca,” she said. I looked at my watch: 4am. Three hours early? Still half asleep, I stumbled off the bus and collected my bag. Most of the other passengers were continuing on to Lima. The bus drove away and the dark station became eerily quiet.
Hmmm… It took me a few minutes to clear my head and decide on my next move. Sitting around the dilapidated little bus station until daylight would have made me miserable. I had a map of the city, so – with my fingers crossed that the streets of Nazca were safe in the wee hours of a Sunday morning – I started walking towards a hotel. A few red-eyed men weaving their way home after a big night greeted me drunkenly, amused by the unexpected gringo sighting. I reached the hotel’s front gate and rang the bell. A disheveled night receptionist woke up, opened the gate in resentful silence, escorted me to a room, handed over the key, and went right back to sleep.
Later that day I walked to Nazca’s Plaza de Armas and discovered groups of locals marching down the streets, flags waving and drums pounding. By this point I was more surprised when I arrived at the central plaza of a Peruvian town and found that there wasn’t a parade in progress.
Nazca was a tiny, middle-of-nowhere town until the 1930s, when the first airplane flights over the area happened to reveal something that wasn’t apparent from the ground: the surrounding desert contained hundreds of massive geoglyphs, lines in the earth that had been created by removing a top layer of dark-colored stones to reveal the lighter stones underneath. Many of the lines simply run straight across the horizon. Some form geometric patterns, others depict human and animal figures – a pair of hands, a monkey, a whale, a hummingbird, a spider, a dog, a condor. And they’re huge. The condor, for example, is larger than a football field.
These geoglyphs, known now as the Nazca Lines, could only be fully appreciated when seen from far above. Which raised the big question: what was their purpose? Archaeologists generally agree that the lines were drawn by the Nazca people between 900 BC and 600 AD (and have remained well-preserved thanks to the extremely arid climate), but the reason the Nazca people were willing to spend so much time and effort creating ground graffiti remains mysterious.
Maria Reiche, a German archaeologist who dedicated her life to understanding and preserving the lines, believed they formed an elaborate astronomical calendar. She discovered that certain lines pointed to the rising points of bright stars (e.g., Sirius) at key times in the farming season (e.g., summer and winter solstice). Reiche also believed that the shapes of some of the lines matched well-known star constellations (the Spider, for example, fits well over Orion). But what about all the lines that don’t seem to have an astronomical connection?
Other archaeologists theorized that the lines led to sources of water, a life-or-death resource for a community trying to survive in one of South America’s driest deserts. Research showed that approximately 30% of the lines pointed to potential sources of water. But a 30% correlation isn’t particularly impressive. There are lines pointing in every direction and most of them don’t seem to have any connection to the supplies of water that would have been available during the time of the Nazca people.
The most entertaining theories involve aliens. Many of the lines look like ancient runways, perfect for Martian spaceships. And one of the humanoid shapes, referred to as “the Astronaut,” looks a little like a sci-fi alien, with an unusual oval head (or helmet) and large egg-shaped eyes (or goggles).
Currently the most widely-held theory is that the lines were created and used for religious purposes. Many of the shapes are composed of a single line – with a beginning and an end – that does not cross itself, and worshippers may have walked these paths as part of a sacred ritual. Some of the ceremonies may have been conducted at special times, like the solstices, which could explain the astronomical connections found by Reiche, and other ceremonies could have been the Nazca equivalent of a rain dance, which could explain why some of the lines are connected to water sources. The skyward-orientation of the lines might have been an attempt to attract the attention and approval of gods looking down from above.
The element of continuing mystery makes the Nazca Lines that much more interesting, and I couldn’t wait to see them in person. There are really only two ways to get a good look at the lines. The first is to climb up a viewing tower north of town, and the second is to book a seat on one of the small planes that fly tourists over the lines every day. I heard that the tower was lame, with a very limited view of only three figures (the tree, the hands, and the lizard). So I bought a ticket for a plane flight taking off early the following morning.
That night I stopped by the town’s planetarium, a small circular building inside the Nazca Lines Hotel (Maria Reiche’s home for the final 20 years of her life). A Peruvian guide ran through a one-hour presentation on the Nazca Lines, and afterwards our group (all three of us) went into the courtyard to identify constellations and look at Saturn through a telescope. It was a beautiful clear night and we could easily see Saturn’s rings and two of its moons – Titan and Rhea.
Flying over the Astronaut Nazca Line in Peru (Video)