Travel guide to visiting Nazca lines and geoglyphs in Peru

From incredible vestiges to well-kept secrets


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Nazca, Peru

GPS: -14.737615018353, -75.128592641743

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When visiting Nazca lines in the arid southern Peruvian coastal plain you will witness a group of geoglyphs scratched into the desert surface between 500 BCE and 500 CE. While these images clearly illustrate plants and animals familiar in today’s world, the most famous geoglyph is a humanoid figure with an arm in the air in an apparent greeting. The humanoid is named “The Astronaut.” Apart from cactus plants, flowers and trees, other geoglyphs depict dogs, ducks, hummingbirds, lizards, llamas, monkeys, spiders and whales. The Nazca Lines were discovered by a Peruvian archaeologist who came across them on foot in 1927. When air traffic over the area increased in the 1930s, the Nazca Lines became better known and attracted a stream of tourists.

The Nazca Lines are pre-Columbian geoglyphs covering nearly 1, Apart from the 300 different figures, there are more than 10,000 lines. Some of these measure 30m wide and stretch for more than nine kilometres. The Nazca Lines and Geoglyphs are most visible from the air and nearby hilltops and remain one of archaeology’s greatest mysteries. They are believed to have been part of a ritual to the gods to attract much-needed rain to the arid region. New symbols, figures and vestiges, hidden under a thick layer of sand, are still regularly discovered by archaeologists. The various geoglyphs, the triangles, trapezoids, spirals or straight lines, cover several kilometres. According to archaeologists, these gigantic geoglyphs could have ritual functions linked to shamanism, religion or astronomy, such as an agrarian calendar. A more fanciful theory evokes origins or a means of communication with an extra-terrestrial civilization. But the most likely hypothesis is that these figures were once used as ceremonial platforms to combat water scarcity in the arid region. The lines most likely served as a landmark and marker in the desert for different communities. As for the geoglyphs, they were used as procession paths and sacred places of worship so that these ancient people could address their gods.

Admirably well-preserved due to the lowest rainfall in the world, the Nazca Lines and Geoglyphs are now threatened by tourism, the construction of new infrastructure and the exploitation of the region’s mineral resources.

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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), 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 and grassland areas 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 to 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 molluscs, they consumed fish, sweet potato, beans, corn, chili pepper, fruit and sugar cane. They also farmed cotton and raised llamas and alpacas.
  • To represent figures with such precision in the arid soil the Paracas and the Nazcas used wooden stakes, cotton cords, pebbles and stone alignments. The markings and lines drawn on the ground probably served as a path to help people move day and night.
  • Not far from the site 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 priests wearing 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 have noticed that some geoglyphs had tumuli, mounds of earth and stones raised over graves. Ceramics, pottery, plants, foodstuffs and mollusc shells were deposited by the Nazcas to fight against drought. According to the Belgian archaeologist Peter Eeckhout, molluscs were symbols of fertility and water. They were not only used as cult objects to implore the sky to bring down rain but also 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. In total, more than 1,000 straight lines, geoglyphs and drawings of animals have been identified in the region. The quantity of these is so large that their precise number remains unknown. In October 2020, a figure of a cat-like feline with pointed ears was discovered by archaeologists on the sides of a hill during preparatory work for the construction of a watchtower.
  • 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 of a monkey and hummingbird. This event prompted authorities to take a closer look at this cultural heritage and to improve conservation technique in the area. At the beginning of 2018, a semi-trailer truck damaged part of the Nazca Lines when entering a prohibited area.
  • Nazca and Pampas de Jumana are about 300 kilometres south of Lima. Flying over the area remains the best way to visualize the geoglyphs and geometric lines of this fascinating region (possible flights from the cities of Ica, Pisco or Maria Reiche airport near Nazca by booking in advance).
  • The Nazca hills and plateaus, accessible by foot and offer good views of the Nazca Lines and Geoglyphs.
  • 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.
  • Do not miss the Ransacked Mummies of Chauchilla Cemetery, as well as the pyramid site of Cahuachi, the largest ceremonial centre of the Nazca civilization. These places have suffered from pillagers and grave robbers but remain interesting to visit.
  • Another famous geoglyph can 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.

Where to eat

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

Where to go

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

Where to stay

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