Viewed from the ground, the desert of Nasca in southern Peru resembles all other deserts; dust spirals whirling across a large flat plain made up of small rocks and a lot of sand. However when viewed from the air it becomes unique – the flat plains criss-crossed with what are now famously known as Nasca Lines.
Getting to the actual lines by bus (at least from Lima) is pretty much a consistent 8 hours of sand in every direction. Peru has a lot of deserts which are actually quite pretty depending on how the sun hits them, but I spent a lot of my trip trying to figure out how people actually live there successfully.
The Nasca Lines are huge geoglyphs (soil drawings) – illustrations of plants, birds, fish and animals, spirals, lines and other geometric shapes spanning many kilometres in length. From the town of Nasca, 26km to the south of the plains, you can take flights in small aircraft over the lines. The pilot will considerately dip the plane steeply on both sides so everyone gets a good look at the figures (if they are not head-deep in the airsick bag). Luckily these flights only last 30 minutes – but apparently may leave you nauseous for the rest of the day. I decided Google earth was good enough for me.
Scientists believe that the majority of lines were made by the Nasca people who flourished from around A.D. 1 to 700. There are quite a few theories as to why the Nasca Lines were formed, and why they can really only be appreciated from the air. Best theory (at least for me) is the one where aliens used the desert as enormous runways for their UFOs, leaving weird lines and markings on the earth as they took off and landed…
It is also theorised that the local Nasca people used the lines and drawings to communicate with the gods responsible for agriculture and water (Nasca gets one hour of rain a year!), and/or that the lines were used as a calendar for specific astrological dates.
The local museum in Nasca has a great collection of ceramic pots, misshapen skulls, implements and weavings found in the same are where the Nasca people lived. However the UNESCO listed Nasca Lines wouldn’t be as preserved as they are today without the input of a German mathematician, Maria Reiche (the Pan-American highway actually goes right through the desert plain, bisecting several lines and a figure of a lizard because the lines hadn’t been discovered when the highway was constructed).
From 1946 Maria began documenting and resolving the figures she discovered in the desert. The actual lines are only about 10cm deep, and are formed by removing the topmost rocks, allowing the lighter soil below to show as a contrast against the surrounding earth. A lot of Maria’s work was to make these lines visible again – using a yard broom! It was as a result of her (literally) lifelong work in the desert that Nasca became a tourist destination and worldwide attention was paid to these strange and intriguing geoglyphs.