When we rolled into Nazca after an overnight bus ride from Lima, we thought we were going to see some alien lines in the desert and possibly test out sandboarding on the world’s largest sand dune. Our plans quickly changed, and while we took pictures of the sand dune instead of boarding on it, we were still fascinated by the lines and intrigued, if not a little bit creeped out, by the ancient mummies we encountered.
The city of Nazca is located in the Nazca desert, which is just north of the driest desert in the world, the Atacama. This exceptionally dry climate has allowed ancient artifacts, ruins, and sand drawings to be preserved extremely well for thousands of years. In fact, as we saw in person during our tour of the Chuachilla cementary, mummies from the Nazca civilization are still sitting in open tombs not far from the city. (See pictures below)
As we learned from our guide, this site actually covers a very large expanse of land, half of which has been pillaged by tomb robbers and half of which remains untouched. For touristic purposes, nearly a dozen tombs lay open to the elements with a small roof covering the their contents. Inside the tombs lay mummies of varying social status and family groupings with what is left of the original contents of the tomb. If walking through the desolate area of the cemetery while seeing the bodies of ancient people still with hair and clothing still intact does not sound eerie enough, couple that with pieces of human bone scattered amongst the sand and rock to complete the picture.
Chauchilla is the burial grounds of the Nazca people who lived at the site known as Cahuachi and took part in the making of the famous Nazca lines. The lines themselves were probably not crafted only by the Nazca people, but older civilizations as well. All though it is not known for sure, the lines were also probably an on going and possibly unfinished project.
Many theories exist as to the purpose of the lines. Some of the most popular theories suggest they were an astrological calendar, alien landing strips, routes leading from the villages of the natives to points of fresh water coming from the mountains, religious ritual spots, and signs to the gods. After listening to the explanations, visiting two museums about the lines and seeing them sprawled before us from two different viewpoints, we decided that the lines have multiple purposes depending on when they were constructed or what their shape.
These famous lines are not all just straight lines criss-crossing the desert, but also images of spiritually significant animal figures (condor, monkey, hummingbird), human figures (perhaps constructed by the civilization prior to the Nazca), and trapezoidal shapes (which led to the alien landing strip theory). Most of the lines are still very much intact, but a few have been vandalized by modern day vehicle tracks. One example is the lizard which has been intersected by the Pan-American highway. This occurred before people realized the significance and extent of the lines and since then, the area has been deemed a UNESCO world heritage site and protected area.
While we only had time for a line viewing tour (by land, not air), visiting the bone-chilling Chauchilla cemetary, and hearing a talk about the theories of Maria Reiche (woman who made the lines famous) at the planetarium, there really is much more to do in the midst of this arid desert. If we had had more time we would have tested out the sand boarding on Cerro Blanco, the world’s tallest sand dune, or we would have visited Cahuachi, the excavation site of the Nazca’s religious center where it is estimated that nearly 50 pyramids lay buried in the sand as only 15% of the site has been excavated to date. The surrounding area also houses several aqueducts dating to the Nazca civilization and are still being used by the area’s farmers.
Overall, there is much to do and see in Nazca, Peru Whether you are looking for adventure activities, are interested in developing your own theory of the mysterious lines, or enjoy visiting historic sites, this small desert town has a lot to offer.