Nazca Desert, Peru: A Desert Full of Mysteries: A Complete Guide & How to Reach Nazca Lines

The Nazca Lines are a collection of giant geoglyphs—designs or motifs etched into the ground—located in the Peruvian coastal plain about 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Lima, Peru. Created by the ancient Nazca culture in South America, and depicting various plants, animals, and shapes, the 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines can only be fully appreciated when viewed from the air given their massive size. Despite being studied for over 80 years, the geoglyphs—which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994—are still a mystery to researchers.

What Are the Nazca Lines?

There are three basic types of Nazca Lines: straight lines, geometric designs and pictorial representations.

There are more than 800 straight lines on the coastal plain, some of which are 30 miles (48 km) long. Additionally, there are over 300 geometric designs, which include basic shapes such as triangles, rectangles, and trapezoids, as well as spirals, arrows, zig-zags and wavy lines.

The Nazca Lines are perhaps best known for the representations of about 70 animals and plants, some of which measure up to 1,200 feet (370 meters) long. Examples include a spider, hummingbird, cactus plant, monkey, whale, llama, duck, flower, tree, lizard and dog.

The Nazca people also created other forms, such as a humanoid figure (nicknamed “The Astronaut”), hands and some unidentifiable depictions.

In 2011, a Japanese team discovered a new geoglyph that appears to represent a scene of decapitation, which, at about 4.2 meters long and 3.1 meters wide, is far smaller than other Nazca figures and not easily seen from aerial surveys. The Nazca people were known to collect “trophy heads,” and research in 2009 revealed that the majority of trophy skulls came from the same populations as the people they were buried with (rather than outside cultures).

In 2016, the same team found another geoglyph, this time one that depicts a 98-foot-long (30-meter-long) mythical creature that has many legs and spotted markings, and is sticking out its tongue.

And in 2018, Peruvian archaeologists announced they had discovered more than 50 new geoglyphs in the region, using drone technology to map the landmarks in unprecedented detail.

How the Nazca Lines Were Created

Anthropologists believe the Nazca culture, which began around 100 B.C. and flourished from A.D. 1 to 700, created the majority of the Nazca Lines. The Chavin and Paracas cultures, which predate the Nazca, may have also created some of the geoglyphs.

The Nazca Lines are located in the desert plains of the Rio Grande de Nasca river basin, an archaeological site that spans more than 75,000 hectares and is one of the driest places on Earth.

The desert floor is covered in a layer of iron oxide-coated pebbles of a deep rust color. The ancient peoples created their designs by removing the top 12 to 15 inches of rock, revealing the lighter-colored sand below. They likely began with small-scale models and carefully increased the models’ proportions to create the large designs.

Most of the known geoglyphs were formed by removing rocks from only the border of the figures (creating a kind of outline), while others were formed by removing rocks from the interior.

Given the low amount of rain, wind and erosion in the desert, the geoglyphs have remained largely unscathed throughout the centuries.

Nazca Lines and Aliens?

Toribio Mejia Xesspe, a Peruvian archaeologist, began a systematic study of the lines in 1926, but the geoglyphs only gained widespread attention when pilots flew over them in the 1930s. Experts have debated the purpose of the Nazca Lines since then.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, American historian Paul Kosok studied the geoglyphs from the ground and air. Based on the relative position of one of the lines he studied to the sun around the winter solstice, he concluded that the geoglyphs had an astronomy-related purpose.

Soon after, María Reiche, a German archaeologist and translator, also concluded that the designs had an astronomical and calendrical purpose. She further believed that some of the animal geoglyphs were representative of groups of stars in the sky.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, other researchers, including American astronomer Gerald Hawkins, examined the Nazca Lines and disagreed with the astronomical explanation for the geoglyphs. They also poked holes in other far-out explanations, such as those relating to aliens or ancient astronauts.

Purpose of the Nazca Lines

More recent research suggested that the Nazca Lines’ purpose was related to water, a valuable commodity in the arid lands of the Peruvian coastal plain. The geoglyphs weren’t used as an irrigation system or a guide to find water, but rather as part of a ritual to the gods—an effort to bring much-needed rain.

Some scholars point to the animal depictions—some of which are symbols for rain, water or fertility and have been found at other ancient Peruvian sites and on pottery—as evidence of this theory.

In 2015, researchers presenting at the 80th annual meeting of the Society for American Archeology argued that the purpose of the Nazca Lines changed over time. Initially, pilgrims heading to Peruvian temple complexes used the geoglyphs as ritual processional routes. Later groups, as part of a religious rite, smashed ceramic pots on the ground at the point of intersection between lines.

Conservation Issues

Unlike other relics throughout the world, the Nazca Lines are largely spared from unintentional destruction, thanks to their location. But the geoglyphs aren’t completely safe.

In 2009, the Nazca Lines suffered the first recorded instance of rain damage. Heavy downpours flowing off the Pan-American Highway—a network of roads that connects nearly all countries in the Americas with a Pacific coast—deposited sand and clay onto three fingers of the hand-shaped geoglyph.

Five years later, environmental group Greenpeace damaged an area near the hummingbird geoglyph during a media stunt. The activists disturbed the upper layer of rocks by the hummingbird when they trampled through the forbidden area of the desert to lay down a large sign that promotes renewable energy.

And in 2018, a commercial truck driver was arrested after he drove onto a portion of the Nazca Lines, etching deep scars into an area roughly 100 feet by 330 feet (about 50 meters by 100 meters). The damage caused by the truck driver renewed calls for greater security and surveillance at the sites.

So, what are they?

Part of what makes the Nazca Lines so fascinating are their mysteriousness. Though these geoglyphs in the sand were made around the first century CE, they were virtually unknown until the early 1900s. Plenty of theories abounded about how the lines got there and what they meant.The Lines became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. At the time, UNESCO wrote, “They are the most outstanding group of geoglyphs anywhere in the world and are unmatched in its extent, magnitude, quantity, size, diversity and ancient tradition to any similar work in the world.”Different people see different things when they look at the Lines from the sky. Some of the formations have nicknames like The Sparrow, The Iguana and The Flower based on their shapes.Though the Incas are probably the most famous pre-Columbian group who lived in what is now Peru, the Nazca people had a thriving civilization in the desert for hundreds of years.Related contentBest Peruvian food: 9 dishes you’ll want to try on your tripThe most and least exciting thing about the Nazca Lines is their relative simplicity. The lines are not dug deep into the ground — they’re simply made from the top layer of desert sand and could probably be recreated by a group of people in a few days.The relative ease of making them makes it even more impressive that the Nazca Lines have remained intact for so long, inured to the heavy winds.

What do they mean?

“For a long while, many generations of Peruvians and the international community grew up learning that these lines referred to astronomical cycles, like constellations and movements of the stars,” explains Javier Puente, who is a specialist for the Incas Expert Guide travel company.”But recent research has shown that that is not the case. They seem to be ritual-related and water-related.”Puente, a Peru native who is now an associate professor of Latino/a History at Smith College in Massachusetts, has heard just about every Nazca Lines conspiracy theory out there.

Despite environmental changes, the Lines have remained intact for more than 2,000 years.

Despite environmental changes, the Lines have remained intact for more than 2,000 years.Genry Bautista/picture alliance/Getty Images”They were not drawn by aliens, that’s for sure,” he says. This theory has endured over time because many people believe some of the figures — in particular, one nicknamed The Astronaut — look anachronistic. But there was no fancy technology or intelligence needed to make them.For desert people, water is everything — and many scholars believe that these pathways could have indicated where water sources were. It’s also possible they were elements of a spiritual practice, with people walking the same paths over and over again to deepen the lines.

How can I see them?

First, you’ll need to get to Peru. Fly into Lima, then drive or take a bus 400 km (250 miles) down the Pan-American Highway to the beachside town of Paracas.This sunny surfer community recently hosted the sailing events during the 2019 Pan-American Games, and there are several nice hotels, including a DoubleTree by Hilton resort.The best way to see the Nazca Lines is from the air. There are multiple daily flights, lasting about 75 minutes each, that depart from Pisco Airport.If you’ve ever gotten frustrated by a long security line at an airport, Pisco is about to be your new favorite place. Despite being fully equipped with all the modern technology of an airport, Pisco is basically empty except for these Nazca flights. You can sail through check-in and security in about two minutes if you walk slowly.

The Nazca lived in the first centuries CE in what is now Peru.

The Nazca lived in the first centuries CE in what is now Peru.Genry Bautista/picture alliance/Getty ImagesHowever, the ease of the airport is balanced out by the challenges of the flight itself. Only about 10 to 12 people can fit on each plane, and everyone is guaranteed a window seat, so travelers who are tall or need a lot of leg room will find themselves feeling pretty cramped.The desert is notoriously windy around the Lines, and on a small plane you’re more likely to feel every fluctuation. On top of that, the pilots will dive the plane low so that people on both sides can view different line formations and take pictures.It feels a little bit like being on a stunt plane, and even the hardiest travelers will likely find themselves turning green. Invest heavily in your anti-nausea drug of choice before boarding, and look out for the plastic bags at every seat in case you need one.Still, surviving the flight will only make you feel more like an intrepid explorer once you’re back on solid ground. Especially once you post the photos and have the bragging rights.If you’re a nervous flier, there is another option — an observation tower. You won’t get to see as many of the formations, but it’s a solid Plan B, and one with less barfing involved.

Why should I go?

Like so many natural wonders around the world, the Nazca Lines could easily disappear within our lifetimes. Despite surviving thousands of years, the Lines could be easily swept away in a significant rainstorm, a risk in the age of climate crisis.However, the biggest threat to the Nazca Lines are human beings.”The danger is urbanization, road construction and modernity,” says Puente. “The Nazca Lines are more threatened from that than any natural reason.”Perhaps it’s that impermanence — not the symbolism — that truly makes the Nazca Lines so magical.

How to Visit the Nazca Lines in Peru

Transport to Nazca

Nazca’s tiny airport doesn’t serve passenger flights so almost all travelers arrive by bus instead. Buses depart from Lima every half hour or so, take around seven hours, and cost US$25 with Cruz del Sur. Other cheaper companies are available and there are direct connections from most major nearby destinations.

How long to stay

Most travelers rock up to Nazca, check out the lines and jump on the next onward bus that day. Having said that, there are plenty of other attractions for those with an interest in pre-Inca history that would warrant a stay of two days or more.Nazca lines

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Taking to the skies

Once in Nazca, there are only two options for viewing the lines – take a flight or climb the nearby observation tower. Essentially, the best option boils down to your budget.

Flying is undoubtedly preferable as it offers a bird’s eye view of the most important etchings. A word of warning though, the 20-minute flight consists of numerous sharp turns which leave most travelers feeling seriously nauseous. Grab an anti-nausea tablet from a local pharmacy and try not to eat any big meals within a few hours of take off. Early morning departures are best as there tends to be less turbulence and better visibility.

Expect to pay around US$80 per person and try to book with a well-renowned company such as AeroNasca, AeroParacas, or Movil Air. Nazca Lines – Monkey 

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Viewing them from the ground

Budget-orientated backpackers who don’t want to fork out for a flight should consider viewing the lines from the observation tower instead. While clearly inferior to soaring through the sky, this 13-meter (42-foot) tower does provide a reasonable vantage point to admire three separate spectacular lines. Travelers keen to see more can hike to the top of a nearby hill for excellent views of some different lines.

To get there on the cheap, buses and collectivos leave from outside the Cruz del Sur bus station and charge 3 PEN (US$0.90). Alternatively, taxis offer return trips for around 50 PEN (US$15) . Entry into the tower costs just 3 PEN (US$0.90).

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Brush up on your history

There’s little point visiting the Nazca lines without doing at least a little research into how these remarkable etchings came to be. Two excellent local museums, the Casa-Museo Maria Reiche and the Museo Antonini, provide detailed information about these ancient pre-Inca people and some of their possible motivations for drawing the lines. There’s also a worthwhile museum located at the airport itself.Casa-Museo Mari Reiche.

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