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What are the Nazca Lines?
In 1939, American professor Paul Kosok was flying over the deserts of southern Peru when he noticed something unusual. Below, he spied a figure carved into the ground that appeared to resemble a giant bird. He had unwittingly stumbled upon the ancient legend of the Nazca Lines.
Following the discovery, hundreds more of these geoglyphs were uncovered around the Nazca Desert, some over a thousand feet long. Many resembled simple geometric shapes; others animals, birds and humans; some, trees and flowers. Kosok dedicated much of his remaining career to unravelling the mystery of the Nazca Lines.
Studies revealed the lines were most likely created by the indigenous Nazca people some time between 500 BC and 500 AD. But the real puzzle – one that continues to baffle academics – is their purpose. Why were they made in the first place?
Kosok and another scientist, Maria Reiche, proposed a theory that the figures were used for some kind of astronomic calendar. Archaeologists have speculated that the lines have a religious significance and were used for the worship of gods. More outlandish theories have suggested they were created to communicate with visiting aliens. Nobody is sure of the truth.
The Nazca Lines have become an international fascination and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Peru. The nearby city of Nazca is located directly on the main road between Lima and Cusco, convenient for backpackers to stop en route. That’s exactly what we did.
Is it safe to fly over the Nazca lines?
Today, it is very safe to take flights over the Nazca Lines – there have been very few incidents in recent years. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Before we visited Nazca, we heard some sensationalist stories about the dangers of the flights. Airline safety records were terrible, the stories said, and fatalities not an uncommon occurrence.
Naturally, I decided to investigate further before we committed to stepping on board one of these planes. Indeed, I found a few disturbing tales online. One website claimed that in 1986, 26 crashes claimed a total of 130 lives. Another said that 19 people were killed as recently as 2016.
Further inspection, however, revealed this information to be grossly misleading. As ever, you have to be careful what you read on the internet!
It is true that there have been issues with flight safety in the past on the Nazca Lines. In February 2010, seven people were killed when a light aircraft carrying tourists crashed.
After this tragedy, the Peruvian Government made a swift response and halted all flights over the Nazca Lines. After rigorous safety inspections, only four flight agencies, and 7 out of 48 planes, were permitted to resume their services. Standards have seen great improvements since.
There was one further unfortunate tragedy: just months later, in October 2010, four British tourists and two Peruvian pilots died in another crash. At the time of writing, eight years on, there have been no further fatal crashes on the Nazca Lines.
The Aviation Safety Network keeps a record of flight incidents all over the world. A quick glance through its records on Peru shows a total of seven incidents in Nazca since the 1930s. Four of these were fatal, the worst of these in August 1997 when two planes collided, killing 12 people. The last recorded incident was in October 2016 when a Travel Air plane made a forced landing. Six people on board were injured, but all survived. Most of the world’s roads have worse records than this.
As such, we felt plenty safe enough to take a flight over the Nazca Lines. While the UK Foreign Office advises that there are risks involved, the statistics suggest these risks are very small, with tens of thousands of people visiting every year without incident. Of course, it doesn’t do any harm to check the safety record of flight companies before booking.
How to see the Nazca Lines
Several information sources suggest that the only way to see the Nazca Lines is from a plane. This is, in fact, not true. It is possible to see some of the geoglyphs from a 13-metre-high observation tower, ‘Torre Mirador de Las Lines de Nasca’. Peru Hop operates a tour to the tower as part of its open-ticket bus service.
However, you can’t see the full extent of the lines from the tower; to do so you will need to take a flight. Agencies all around Nazca city operate tours to the lines. We booked ours through our place of accommodation, Nanasqa Hostel.
The hostel was run by a lovely local guy called Roy who gave us advice and helped us make arrangements. Ahead of our arrival, he warned us that we may encounter people at the bus station offering bogus tours. He also advised us the correct price for taxis to the hostel (around 5 soles). This saved us from being ripped off, as the drivers at the station initially quoted double.
As the hostel worked directly with the flight companies and didn’t pay travel office rent, they offered us a really good price: we paid 230 soles per person, plus the mandatory 30 soles each for airport tax. At the time (July 2017), this came to about 62 pounds sterling each. Our tour price included transport between the hostel and the airport.
Our visit: not quite according to plan!
Our visit to the Nazca Lines was not without hitches. We had booked to stay in Nazca for two nights, and to take the flight on the morning of our full day. It’s best to book it for early in the day, because if bad weather pushes back the flights, those with later bookings sometimes miss out.
However, the day before we arrived, Lisa was struck down with food poisoning. Completely bedridden on the morning of our tour, there was no chance she would be up to it. Thankfully, Roy was completely understanding and managed to rearrange our flight for the next morning.
It was still touch and go whether Lisa would be ok, but a day in bed and a good night’s sleep ridded the worst of the bug. Off we went. After a light breakfast (we heard the flights could be a little stomach-churning), we were collected at 8am.
The flight company we were booked with was Aero Paracas, one with a very good reputation. Their planes certainly looked in good nick – one was taking off just as we arrived, and its engine purred beautifully as it glided into the air. This helped to settle any last-minute nerves.
Inside the airport we went through a frustrating mass of procedure. We showed our passports and filled out forms at the Aero Paracas desk. We paid our airport tax at a separate kiosk. With all this done, we were advised to take a seat and wait to be called for our flight.
We waited. And waited. And waited some more. After an hour and a half, everyone who had been in our minivan to the airport had taken their flight. What was happening? I asked the Aero Paracas desk receptionist, and she told me we just needed to keep waiting.
More people arrived, filled out their paperwork, and were called ahead of us. A couple who we’d been chatting with arrived back after their flight. “You still haven’t been called yet?” they asked us, bemused to see us still there. We responded with a confused shrug.
Lunchtime came and went. We didn’t eat anything, still wary of upsetting our stomachs for the flight, and Lisa was still fragile. The nerves that we had dispelled previously began to creep up again. We noticed that the tourists going through were not necessarily getting into planes owned by the companies they had booked with. The flight companies appeared to just be sharing planes…
Boarding at last
Then, finally, at 2pm, we were called through. We went through a security check and into another seating area, where we waited for another half an hour. It was 2:30pm when we were ushered out to board the plane.
As we had worriedly anticipated, the aircraft we were asked to board was not one of the shiny Aero Paracas ones. It was much smaller, scruffier, and clearly older. We cast each other a nervous glance. After all the waiting, we weren’t going to turn back at this stage. We hopped on board.
After all the stories about motion sickness, churning stomachs, crazy pilots, etc etc etc… our flight was absolutely fine. As smooth as anything. We have taken plenty of buses and boats on our travels that were far rockier rides. The pilot did bank quite heavily to the sides at times to give us a good view of the geoglyphs, but not in a way that induced nausea or felt unsafe.
Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Even without the spectacle of the lines, the views across the Nazca Desert scenery were stunning. The co-pilot gave us informative commentary on each of the famous figures, and we banked on both sides so both me and Lisa could see them clearly. Among others, we saw the spider, the monkey, the hummingbird, the condor, the astronaut – all magnificent from above. The mystery of their origins just added to the awe of gliding over them.
The flight lasted around 30 minutes, which seemed to pass very quickly. It was nearly 4pm by the time we arrived back at the hostel, later than we had anticipated but still in plenty of time to get some much-needed nourishment and make our night bus departure for Cusco.
Things to do in Nazca city
I’ll be honest here – the city of Nazca itself wasn’t the most exciting of places. In my article ranking the 28 cities of South America we visited based on our experiences, I placed it last. I’ll repeat now what I said then: “It didn’t have much character or intrigue; just grids of dead and dusty roads patrolled by stray dogs, centred around a dull plaza. The food was among the cheapest of our travels, but also the blandest.”
We left feeling that two nights was too much time to spend in Nazca. We could have easily done an overnighter, taken a morning trip to the lines and moved on. But everyone has different tastes, of course. We met an American in our hostel who loved the city so much that he had decided to stay for a few months while researching Peruvian history.
As photography enthusiasts, we did quite enjoy wandering around and taking pictures of the streetscapes against the desert backdrop. Not far from the main square we found some interesting local markets.
The Museo Arqueológico Antonini (archaeological museum) was a short walk from our hostel. However, at 25 soles each with camera fees it would take a big chunk of our daily budget, and after reading mixed reviews we decided against it. For the complete archaeology enthusiasts out there, I expect it would be worth the outlay.
Day tours from Nazca
Nanasqa Hostel did offer some other tours to nearby sites, and Roy was very helpful with providing information about them. The tours on offer included:
- Archaeological tours with various options priced at 45, 70 or 80 soles per person. Sites include Cantalloc Aqueducts, Chauchilla Cemetery, Cahuachi Pyramids, Telar de Nazca, Centro Ceramicas, and Ocongalla Aqueducts.
- Adventure day trip to Reserva San Fernando, 150 soles per person.
- Day tour to Cerro Blanco, a 2,078-metre sand mountain claimed to be the world’s highest sand dune. 150 soles per person.
With Lisa’s illness taking out a full day, we weren’t able to take one of these trips as we had to move on to Cusco to prepare ourselves for the Inca Trail.
Where we ate in Nazca
For food in Nazca, we mostly dined in menú restaurants, sometimes for as little as 7 soles for two courses and a drink. Read more about these peculiar places in my guide to Peru’s menú restaurants.
How to get to Nazca
The aerodrome at Nazca (Maria Reiche Neuman Airport) only serves the tourist flights over the Nazca Lines – there are no routes between here and other Peruvian cities. As such, we took the best and easiest transport option to get to Nazca: the bus.
There are several bus companies that cover the route to Nazca between Lima and Cusco. We used the comparison site Busbud to assess our options. With not too much difference between the prices, we opted for Cruz Del Sur, which had very good reviews for its comfort standards and safety records. We were more than happy with our experience, and stayed with Cruz Del Sur for all of our journeys in Peru.
We travelled into Nazca from Ica (2 hours and 10 minutes), which at the time of writing costs 11 USD for regular seating or 14 USD for VIP. The journey from Lima to Nazca (7 hours and 30 minutes) costs 26 USD for regular seating, or 33 USD for VIP. From Cusco (14 hours), it’s 43 USD (VIP seating only).
Another option is the above-mentioned Peru Hop, which offers an open, multi-stop ticket through the country. It does work out a bit more expensive than the other bus companies, but if you’re looking for flexibility and convenience it might be the best option. The ticket includes some sightseeing features as well, so you do get a bit more for your money.
Have you visited the Nazca Lines? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Are you visiting Lima while you’re in Peru? Check out my two-day guide here.