Nasca Lines

Trip Start Feb 07, 2007
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Sunday, September 16, 2007

We hung around all day in Arequipa so we could take the 10pm Royal Class night bus for the journey to Nasca. We even scored our favourite seats - numero uno y dos. I had a sneaky feeling that it was too good to be true. When we arrived at the bus station we were informed that the bus had burnt down (!), so instead we found ourselves jammed on to the economico bus for the 11 hour journey. A night of extreme discomfort ensued, the bus stopping regularly so local passengers to unload/load their cargo. It is common for buses in South America to leave the terminal later than scheduled then stop every 10 metres outside the terminal to pick up more passengers (the bus speed barely peaking at 10km per hour until the bus is full). To make things worse just as you're sighing with relief that you're finally on your way, the bus pulls over to get fuel. Invariably once the bus hits the city limits it pulls over again so the driver and conductor can have a leisurely dinner. Some of these journeys really shouldn't take as long as they do and you can safely add at least 2 hours onto the promised arrival time of most buses. So, we finally arrived in Nasca, unfurled our sore limbs and stumbled, bleary eyed into a taxi.

There are two reasons we have come to the dry and dusty town of Nasca, located in the Nasca Desert. The first reason is to visit the Chauchilla Cemetery. It is here that various civilisations have buried their dead, beginning with the Pre-Incan Paracas peoples over 1000 years ago, then seceded by the Nasca and Incan people. The cemetery lies on some of the driest land in the world creating great conditions for preservation of the remains.  The site has unfortunately been desecrated by grave robbers over many decades who have opened up most of the graves, scattering and destroying bones, clothing and ceramics in an attempt to fine precious burial items. As a result pieces of bone, cotton, textiles and pottery are dotted across the area. Only a handful of tombs were found unopened and most of the precious items found inside these graves have been taken to museums - mostly outside Peru. These include some of the precious 'bound' skulls that have an incredible elongated shape. What is left at Chuacilla are a random collection of skulls, bones and mummified bodies preserved by the dry environment and many still wrapped in embroidered textiles, some with incredibly long dread-locked hair curling around their dried remains. Their tombs are now covered by woven covers, but the mummies are mostly exposed to the elements. The tiny museum holds the finest examples - an older man hunched over with incredibly life like limbs and a small child with perfectly preserved toe nails. On the way back into town our guide points out the largest sand dune in the world, which rises up above the surrounding mountains at 2095m. He also points out to us a chicken farm, where (he points out to us proudly), they can produce fully grown chickens in only 40 days. Amazing...

Our scheduled flight to see the Nasca lines is delayed the following day, but luckily the weather is sensationally clear, so it doesn't matter. We head out to the airport at 11am with another three Aussies. After some waiting, the five of us jump into the tiny Cessna at the busy airport, Tim scores the front seat and I'm in the tail. The pilot crosses himself as he takes the little craft up into the sky. We're soon bumping along above the Nasca Desert, banking one way and then the other over the famous geoglyphs. The lines were constructed by the Nasca peoples between 200BC and 700AD. As well as the famous 70 or so animal/human representations including a monkey, a hummingbird, a dog, a spider and the lovely 'astronaut' (more realistically thought to be an owl faced spiritual man), there are dozens are incredibly straight lines stretching as far as you can see into the distance.  The lines were made by removing the iron oxide coated pebbles which cover the surface of the Nasca desert. When the gravel is removed it contrasts with the light-colored earth underneath. Despite being only 10-30cm deep, the lines are incredibly preserved because of the extremely dry, windless conditions here (the Nasca desert is one of the driest on Earth). It is thought that Nasca people made the lines using simple tools and surveying equipment. Wooden stakes in the ground at the end of some lines (which were used to carbon-date the figures) and ceramics found on the surface support this theory. Researchers, using reenactments, have shown that a small team of individuals could recreate even the largest figures within a couple of days. As to WHY the Nasca Lines were so meticulously constructed, there hundreds of widely varying theories. Johan Reinhard (the same guy that discovered Juanita) believes the lines are a form of worship of mountains and other water sources. His theory purports that the lines and figures can be explained as part of religious practices involving the worship of gods and that the lines were primarily used as sacred paths leading to places where these gods could be worshiped. As we look down on this great mystery, the plane really lurches a great deal (hence the blurry photos) and does some really steep angles so everyone can get a good look at the lines. One minute you're looking at the sky and the next you can't see anything but ground! I begin to sweat profusely, but some deep breathing seems to ward off any other ill effects - thankfully! It's a short and dizzying flight and before you know it the little flying contraption is touching down on the run way and it's all over!
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