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Nazca, Peru

GPS: -14.738935541821, -75.129855915207

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The Nazca coastal plain is home to the highest density of geoglyphs in the world, several thousand stylized forms engraved in the desert soil of the Pampas de Jumana. Lighthouse attraction in southern Peru, the Nazca Lines were not discovered until the 1920s by an airline during a fortuitous overflight of the region. Extended over more than 450 km², this area between the Andes and the Peruvian desert arouses many theories around the origins and meanings of these mysterious representations. New symbols, figures and vestiges, hidden under a thick layer of sand, are still regularly discovered by archaeologists.

With its figurative forms, the Nazca Lines and Geoglyphs can be compared to creatures, imaginary beings, animals or plants immortalized in the ground. As for the various geometric lines, they are looming on the horizon such as triangles, trapezoids, spirals or straight lines over several tens of kilometres. According to specialists who have closely studied this national cultural heritage around Nazca and Pampas de Jumana, these gigantic geoglyphs could have ritual functions (linked to shamanism or the cult of head trophy), religious (in the form of a procession) or astronomical (agrarian calendar) with their designers. Another more fanciful theory evokes origins or a means of communication with an extraterrestrial civilization. But the most likely hypothesis put forward is that these open-air figures were once used as ceremonial platforms to combat water scarcity in one of the world’s most arid regions. The lines probably served as a landmark and marker in the desert for different population communities. As for the geoglyphs, they were used as procession paths and sacred places of worship so that these ancient peoples of farmers could address their gods.

Drawn to perfection, these representations made of stone and sand are the work of the civilizations of Paracas then Nazca, having lived before the people of the Incas. They would have been carried out between the 2nd century BC and the middle of the 7th century AD. Admirably well-preserved due to the lowest rainfall in the world, the Nazca Lines and Geoglyphs are now threatened by the tourist craze, the construction of new infrastructure and the exploitation of the region’s mineral resources. On the ground, it will be difficult for you but not impossible to spot the trace of geoglyphs for lack of perspective in the desert vastness of Nazca (or Sechura Desert). It is therefore mainly in the air, aboard a small tourist plane or at the top of a watchtower, that you will be able to contemplate the image, the degree of precision and the size of these strange shapes with their well-kept secrets.

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  • The countless geoglyphs of various forms and perfect proportions, vestiges of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Paracas and Nazca according to rituals that lasted for several centuries; the numerous representations of animals (hummingbird, monkey, spider, whale, orca or killer whale, shark, pelican, lizard, dog…) and mythical anthropomorphic beings (the character of the astronaut), the largest of which reach a length of 270 metres
  • The endless dimensions of the Nazca Lines and the Chincha glyphs which intersect to form an immense labyrinth; the geometric figures and shapes drawn in the ground with great artistic precision when observed from the air (they can be straight lines, zigzags, trapezoids, spirals, meanders, rectangles or giant triangles)
  • The contrasting colours of the landscapes between the lunar scenery of the Nazca and Palpa valleys, the harsh and barren desert, the expanses of pampas covered with sand and pebbles, the mountainous hills and plateaus (mesetas) forming part of the coastal cordillera, the green oases and valleys, the rivers and the immense dunes of the Cerro Blanco (rising up to 2,000 metres above sea level, this sacred site for the Nazca people represents some of the world’s highest sand dunes)
  • The Cahuachi ceremonial centre which includes many pyramids (the largest of which is 30 meters high) but also temples, necropolises and walls; the ruins of the old temples and villages around Nazca (Estaqueria, Paredones…)
  • The Antonini archaeological museum exhibiting many objects, painted textiles, embroidered fabrics and polychrome ceramics with rich iconography; the Nazca know-how in handmade pottery
  • The Ransacked Mummies of Chauchilla Cemetery (open-air museum of pre-incas tombs typical of the ancient Nazca and Ica-chincha cultures); the elongated or flattened forms of mummy skulls; the cult of head trophy (human heads illustrating various handicrafts) ; the funeral make-up of the people of Paracas and Nazca (remains covered with fabric and embellished with offerings)
  • The Cantalloc Aqueducts and underground spiral wells called puquios that were used to irrigate crops (a large part of these galleries dug in the ground to collect, filter and convey water is still in service today)
  • The Maria Reiche planetarium at the Hotel Nazca Lines; the nearby Maria Reiche Museum (named after a German archaeologist and mathematician who spent much of her life studying and preserving the Nazca Lines and Geoglyphs)
  • The view from the watchtower installed on the Pan-American Highway (around thirty kilometres north of Nazca); flying over the region in a small passenger plane
  • The discovery of loess (silt-sized sediment) on the ground surface proves that this desert region was made up of wetlands, grassland areas and arborated land about 10,000 years ago, a long time before the establishment of Paracas and Nazcas. It was at the end of the 6th century that the Nazca region experienced a great cycle of drought. This period also corresponds to the intensification of geoglyph construction and geometric lines around Nazca.
  • The oldest geoglyphs, of smaller size, would be the work of the people of the Paracas prior to the Nazcas. Having evolved before our era, this civilization would have mixed with that of Nazca and would have greatly influenced the development of the lines and geoglyphs present in the region. Later, starting in the 700s, the Nazca people may have been absorbed by the Wari (or Huari) under the Tiwanaku-Wari Empire (8th to the 13th centuries).
  • According to researcher and archaeologist Aïcha Bachir Bacha, the name Paracas also refers to a sandstorm that sweeps through the region in August. Although this part of southern Peru is at the same latitude as the Brazilian rainforests, the climate is completely different. The ambient dry air is the result of the action of the Humboldt Current in the Pacific Ocean (cold current) combined with the presence of the Andes mountain range. Despite the fact that rainfall is extremely rare in the Sechura Desert, rivers flow through it and create some oases.
  • Paracas and Nazcas people shared many similarities in their way of life: elongated shape of the heads by bandaging the skulls, complex irrigation systems to water crops (water was considered the most precious resource), identical techniques for create lines or geoglyphs in the ground, fitting out temples to worship the gods and honour the ancestors.
  • Reports indicate that the Nazcas cultivated fertile land between the Pacific coast and the rocky highlands. In addition to spondyles, they consumed fish, sweet potato, beans, corn, chili pepper, fruit (lucumas, guavas…) and sugar canes. They also exploited cotton and raised llamas and alpacas.
  • The design of various shapes and figures is relatively basic. It consisted in scratching the surface of the arid soil according to the technique of land surveying (or according to the typology of the ground, in removing the dark stones which covered the ground to highlight the white sand or the lighter ground which was below). To represent figures with such precision, the Paracas and the Nazcas used wooden stakes, cotton cords, pebble and stone alignments. The figures and geoglyphs of Nazca are even sharper on full moon evenings to observe them with the naked eye. The markings and lines drawn on the ground probably served as a path to help people move day and night.
  • Not far from there are the ruins of Cahuachi forming the religious epicentre of the Paracas and Nazca peoples. It is an important pilgrimage site for the surrounding populations who came to deposit offerings there. This place was run by an elite of priests carrying dreadlocks, cultivating the rite of head trophy (human heads of beheaded enemies offered to the gods) and who used to consume hallucinogenic substances like psychotropic plants. Human sacrifices were abundantly practised to honour deities (death was seen as a rebirth for them). It is very likely that people volunteered to be sacrificed in the hope of bringing water to their people and contributing to soil fertility. On the Cahuachi ceremonial site, dozens of skulls without bodies were exhumed. The discovery of burials shows that the inhabitants were buried in a seated position according to Nazca custom.
  • A team of scientists working under the direction of German professor Markus Reindel and Peruvian archaeologist Johnny Isla as part of the Nasca-Palpa project have noticed that some geoglyphs had tumuli at their ends. These mounds, in the form of piles of stone, served as open-air temples and altars to make offerings to the deities. Ceramics, pottery, plants, foodstuffs and spondyl shells (marine molluscs) were deposited by the Nazcas to fight against drought periods (the rivers were quickly dry). According to the Belgian archaeologist Peter Eeckhout, spondyles are symbols of fertility and water. They were not only used as cult objects to implore the sky to bring down rain but alos as currency by pre-inca civilizations settled near the Peruvian coasts and within the Andes Mountains.
  • 143 new geoglyphs have recently been discovered by a team of Japanese scientists in the Nazca desert widening the perimeter of the archaeological area to 1,000 km². Spotted thanks to artificial intelligence, these geoglyphs represent humans, plants and animals. In total, more than a thousand straight lines, geoglyphs and drawings of animals have been identified in the region of Nazca and Pampas de Jumana. The quantity of these remains is so large that their precise number remains unknown (some specialists believe that only 5% of the geoglyphs would have been updated). In October 2020, it is a representation of a cat-like feline with pointed ears that was discovered by archaeologists on the sides of a hill during preparatory work for the construction of a watchtower. About 37 meters long, it would have been designed towards the end of the Paracas period 2,000 years ago in a strategic location to be seen from the ground.
  • The world’s largest set of geoglyphs may not be in Nazca but in India. Researchers have identified huge geometric designs and patterns in the Thar Desert. One of them is a spiral carved into the ground. Known as Boha 1, it is thought to cover an area of about 100 km².
  • In December 2014, while an international UN conference was held in Lima on the theme of global warming, Greenpeace activists entered a prohibited area of Nazca to promote clean energy and put pressure on international leaders. In their action, they deployed a message on the ground damaging two of the most famous geoglyphs to the forms of monkey and hummingbird. This deterioration angered the Peruvian government and people despite Greenpeace’s apologies. Paradoxically, this event prompted the authorities to take a closer look at this cultural heritage with a view to carrying out conservation actions. At the beginning of 2018, it was a semi-trailer truck which damaged part of the Nazca Lines by entering a prohibited area.
  • From the heights of the Nazca hills and plateaus, accessible on foot, you will be able to fully appreciate the Lines and Geoglyphs of Nazca which extend over an immense territory. Viewpoints and watchtowers have also been set up to promote perspectives on the horizon. Please respect the traffic rules before exploring this protected area to avoid any accidental and irreparable damage to a geoglyph
  • The most famous geoglyphs are concentrated in the Pampa de San José (also known as Pampas de Jumana or Colorada) between the rivers of Río Ingenio and Río Nazca.
  • On the spot, do not miss the Ransacked Mummies of Chauchilla Cemetery, distant from a dozen kilometres from the city of Nazca, as well as the pyramid site of Cahuachi, the largest ceremonial centre of the Nazca civilization. These places have suffered from huaqueros (pillagers and grave robbers) but remain very interesting to visit from an archaeological point of view.
  • Another famous geoglyph is to be seen on the coastal site of the Paracas National Reserve. It is the Paracas Candelabra or Candelabra of the Andes (visible from the sea), 200 kilometres north-west of Nazca. To get there, you have to go through the sand dunes and the desert adjoining the city of Ica (a stop is therefore welcome to the oasis of Huacachina or to the Regional Museum of Ica “Adolfo Bermúdez Jenkins”.

Where to eat

  • La Kanada
    (simple and generous)
  • Mamashana Cafe Restaurante
    (ideal for vegetarians)
  • Polleria Rico Pollo
    (very good grills)

Where to go out

  • San Fernando National Reserve
    (large area of biodiversity)
  • Lost city of Huayuri
    (fascinating archaeological site)
  • Petroglyphs of Chichictara
    (impressive rock art)

Where to sleep

  • Hospedaje Yemaya
    (family hostel)
  • Hospedaje Anccalla Inn
  • B&B El Jardin
    (charming bed & breakfast)

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