It was a long, windy, and nauseating 14-hour bus ride from Cusco to Nazca. My mother, Barbara, her husband, Irwin, and I were looking to escape the cold and wet of Cusco—not to mention the altitude sickness—and to bask in the heat in one of Peru’s driest towns: Nazca. I was intent on puzzling over the mysterious and otherworldly Nazca lines.
We arrived at a dreary bus station as the sun rose. Our hotel, Hospedaje Anccalla Inn, was a few blocks away. It was surprisingly lovely, with excellent service. They gave us a small room and breakfast while we recovered from the unsettling bus ride. I was tired and hot, but restless. I went to the lobby to book some tours.
Once recovered, we walked to the main square, where we witnessed a celebratory parade with costumes and a band. It didn’t take long for us to find the local market—an outdoor assembly of vendors selling anything and everything we didn’t need, from kitchen supplies, shoes and clothing to dollar-store costume jewelry.
I was foolishly craving a Starbucks, but settled for a simple café with rickety 1970s tables and chairs serving Inca Colas, an unappetizing yellow in colour.
The ancient Nazca lines are what put this city on the map. Aside from those, there probably wouldn’t be much reason to be there. The town seemed desolate and a bit scuzzy. We did manage after some searching to find a couple of good restaurants, Italian/Peruvian, where we could enjoy a quality dinner with a lovely view from the second floor to the street below.
The Nazca lines are ancient geoglyphs created between 400 and 650 AD. Hundreds of giant figures span the desert, and new ones are still being discovered. They range from simple lines to animals, including a monkey, a spider, a whale, a condor, a hummingbird and many more. There is even a figure which might be an astronaut, though some believe it to be an alien. The largest of the figures span about 200 meters across and the lines appear to be aligned with with celestial bodies.
The meaning and purpose of the lines have baffled scientists since their discovery in the early 20th century.
Some believe the Nazca people created them to be seen by their gods. Some argue that the lines could not have been created unless the designers were able to view them from high above and thus argue they were the runways of an ancient airfield used by extraterrestrials. I second that.
For a pricey $90 each, Irwin and I booked an aerial tour. Barbara bowed out, having had enough of altitude sickness.
When we arrived at the little airport, we paid the airport tax, got on the scale to be weighed and then waited with about 50 other tourists. The plane seated only four people: the captain, the co-pilot, Irwin and myself. The ride was unexpectedly smooth as we twirled around above the desert, spotting figure after figure.
I booked an afternoon tour the next day that included archeological sites and a sand-boarding lesson in the desert sand dunes. (Sand-boarding is like snowboarding in the sand.) I was picked up from my hotel in a sand buggy that seated nine people. My tour guide looked like a professional sand-boarder. “C’mon chica! Get in and put on your sunglasses!”
We drove 30 minutes into the nothingness of the desert to visit Cahuachi, an ancient ceremonial centre of the Nazca culture. The site covered about 1.5 square kilometres and included maze-like pyramids. Nearby was a sad, ancient cemetery. Bones, pieces of clothing and hair were scattered as far as I could see.
I saw a small mummy. The guide explained it had probably been a child. Since the graveyard was discovered, looting has been a serious problem.
I wasn’t really looking forward to the sand-boarding. To be honest, I was kind of dreading it. I was hot and tired, and as we drove through the desert, the sand flew through my hair and was sticking to my skin, which was responsibly smothered in SPF 85 lotion. And though I am Canadian, I have never skied or snowboarded, so I was worried I was going to be lacking terribly in skills.
Another 20 minutes and we were driving on perfectly carved sand dunes—like a roller-coaster on sand. We stopped suddenly and were told to take a board and climb to the top of the dune. The climb was tough but the sand felt so perfectly soft and the view atop was breathtaking.
I positioned my board as the guide had taught us and then sat down. I was terrified and couldn’t move. The dune looked too high and too steep. Fifteen minutes passed. Everyone else slid to the bottom and were already climbing up for their second round.
The guide climbed up to me: “Chica, you have to let go! Relax, you’ll be fine.”
I had spent six weeks in Peru, travelled from the Andes to the Amazon, and it was that moment, sliding carelessly down the sand dune, in the middle of nowhere, where nothingness goes as far as the eye can see, that was hands-down the highlight of my trip.
I returned to the hotel.
My face was covered in sand.