It’s early August and the past few months have been a bit of a blur, days of staying in punctuated by trips for groceries and home supplies, and a few rounds of golf. I feel that we’re a lot less stressed here in Canada, but the news from outside our borders is routinely troubling.
Michelle Obama has gone on record about feeling low-grade depression through all of this, a revealing comment from someone who was resilient enough to be a truly historic First Lady. While I’m not feeling the stress in exactly the same way – removed as I am from a lot of the turmoil that she’s surrounded by – even in Canada there’s a constant and pervasive low hum of tension just below our senses that we try to ignore so we can carry on as best as possible.
We feel it in small ways though. I find myself more irritable about silly small things, never completely relaxed, looking for ways to keep myself occupied. Perhaps you’re feeling the same, or something different.
The lengthy heat wave we’re experiencing in Ontario hasn’t helped for me personally, although it’s a great summer for pool owners. I can do dry heat any time, but the combo of 90oF-plus temperatures and humidity just as high makes me even more testy when I do have to go out, and I’m drained of energy by the time I get back home. I really feel for so many of the seniors I see in grocery stores who seem to be struggling with navigating the ever-changing rules as our society tries to safely get closer to normal, but I get frustrated with people who appear to have forgotten how to drive or can’t seem to understand the social-distancing thing.
So this is a good week to offer a little distraction via the next part of our journey to Peru, through the blazingly hot desert to see the Nazca Lines and Chauchilla Cemetery.
Peru is most famous for the Incas, but there were many cultures before them. From Huacachina Oasis the road took us backward in time to the mysterious Nazca people, and then forward to the very early Incas, through burnt landscapes filled with eerie dust devils and so empty that we wondered why anyone would have ever made a home there.
The Pan-American highway crosses the Nazca Plateau and there’s even a spot where a tower has been built to view a few of the strange and gigantic etchings in the dirt without flying over them. The area is protected, so you can’t walk out to the etchings, but you can get a decent view of a couple of them from the tower if you’re not inclined to do the flight. The view from the tower, though, doesn’t capture the weirdness – for that you need to see all the Nazca Lines from above, stretching for miles across the desert plateau, layers and layers of them.
As we left the tower, the sun was setting over the eerie landscape that houses the etchings – more than 50 miles of flat reddish land dotted with little scrubby bushes that seem to survive on virtually no moisture.
We stayed in a charming 3-star hacienda-style hotel surrounded by farmland — how they managed to grow food in this climate was a sign of Peruvian ingenuity.
The next morning, those of us who planned to brave the Nazca flights headed off to the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport.
Maria Reiche was one of the first noted researchers of the Nazca figures. The enormous geoglyphs had been mentioned by a Spanish conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León, as ‘trail markers’ in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until humans invented flight that people were able to see them in their entirety and realize their significance. An American historian, Paul Kosok, was the first to study them in depth, including from the air, and he was later joined by an America archaeologist, Richard P. Schaedel, and Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and archaeologist who had come to Peru originally as a governess and tutor, then stayed on when WWII started. She’d been doing scientific work in Lima when she became fascinated by the Nazca figures. She joined Kosok in his research and spent the remainder of her long life studying, mapping and protecting the geoglyphs. After the Pan-American highway was cut directly through one of the figures, she lobbied the government to protect their national treasure and also sponsored the tower that we’d just been at the afternoon before. For her efforts, she became known as the Lady of the Lines, and is honored at the local airport.
Safety Note: For several years before we arrived, the small-craft flights over the Lines had a poor safety record, with several crashes and deaths. At one point, as group leader for our cluster of eight travellers, I was going to recommend that we skip the flights entirely. The Peruvian government had worked diligently to improve matters, and by the time of our trip our tour company was able to recommend several approved flight companies. The one we used, as you can see in this photo of yours truly waiting to board the plane, was Air Majoro.
Any time you’re planning an adventurous activity, it’s important to do your research in advance – there’s always an element of risk in these types of activities, but you’ll want to know what you’re getting into and make an educated decision about how far you’re willing to go.
The airline put my hubby and I on different planes – they spent a lot of time figuring out weight configurations among all of us on the small craft – so we each had very different experiences.
One thing you should be aware of before deciding to fly is that the planes tilt at severe angles to give you the best view of the figures etched into the red dirt. They also make a lot of pretty tight turns to allow you to see as many of the figures as possible.
Rising into the deep blue sky, it’s truly stunning to see how many figures the ancient Nazca people carved – there are over 1,000 of them, spreading for miles, often crossing other figures, and in a wild assortment of shapes and styles. Seventy of the figures, known as biomorphs, include the famous animal figures (monkey, spider, lizard, heron, etc.). But these are only a small proportion: there are 300 odd geometric designs, and 800 straight lines running for up to 30 miles in length!
There are only a few somewhat humanoid figures: a large pair of what looks likes disembodied hands, and a 100-foot tall figure etched into the side of a hill. It’s often referred to as the Astronaut, with an odd helmet-shaped head and its arm raised as if in greeting to something in the sky.
The geometric shapes are astoundingly sharp and straight for having been created over 2,500 years ago by removing the reddish upper layer of dirt up to about a foot deep to reveal the pale yellowish base beneath. Reiche found the mathematical precision to be highly sophisticated. Her research with Kosok found that many of the figures pointed towards the summer and winter solstices, so they theorized that the plateau was a gigantic astronomical calendar.
Since then, a lot of people have speculated about the purpose of the figures, from landing sites for aliens to religious ritual designs to markers for underground sources of water in a landscape that receives only about one inch of rain in a year.
Many of the theories seem to fit some of the Lines, but none of them fit all of the Lines, and it’s not until you fly over them that you see how strange they truly are. Whichever theory appeals to you, there are a lot of questions still. Some that popped up in my head that day: what could prompt those ancient peoples to make so many of them (think of the effort in measuring, excavating, running straight edges for miles and miles and miles even up in the hills), why would they make so many different shapes, why would they lay them on top of each other like a crazy jigsaw puzzle? I’m not sure we’ve come to any real understanding of what the etchings are for, or are even close to it.
Our pilot gave us a heads-up as we approached each different figure or cluster of figures, tilting the plane steeply so that the wing tip was pointing towards where we needed to look. Then he would execute another tightly-banked turn to move on to the next figure.
It turned out that my plane had a hot-dogging pilot who seemed to be showing off a bit for a guest he’d brought on board. I was doing okay stomach-wise until he started zipping through tighter and tighter turns, while I got greener and greener in the face. I had to stop taking photos and was fervently praying to land soon when someone must have alerted the pilot that I was looking pretty bad, because suddenly we were doing just that. On the ground, our excursion leader sat me down and hustled to get me some coca leaf candies.
Peruvians have been using coca leaf tea for centuries for altitude sickness, and it turns out that coca leaves are also great for nausea. Both tea and candies are available everywhere, and I recovered enough to be able to explore a couple of shops – I bought a silver-coloured wrist cuff with the most famous Nazca animals on it – while I waited for my hubby’s plane to return.
What I didn’t find out until they landed was that his pilot had trouble with the landing gear and was delayed for several minutes as he frantically pumped the lever to get the wheels down. My hubby regaled me quietly with this story after we got back to the hacienda.
Was the flight entirely safe? Well, everyone in our group eventually made it safely to ground, although not without a bit of a close call. Do we regret taking the flight? No, there’s no other way to get any real sense of the scope and enigma of the Nazca Lines. Should you go to Peru, check recent safety records and decide for yourself.
The mystery of the Lines becomes even deeper when you visit the ancient cemetery of Chauchilla, just 19 miles south. The Nazca culture believed that the afterlife was a mirror of their earthly existence, so they buried their people in little houses constructed underground, hair braided and clothed in well-made robes, surrounded by the artifacts they had used in life – pottery for cooking, tools if you were a builder, and so on.
You can visit Chauchilla and its subterranean necropolis today because robbers had been digging up remains for some time – walking across the blistering sand, you can see bones and bits of smashed pottery scattered about – so the government turned it into a protected open-air museum.
You approach Chauchilla across miles of bleak desert, where eerie dust devils spin up out of the sand with a noise like gusts scouring the air.
Wear closed footgear – Chauchilla sits in part of the Atacama Desert (according to the National Geographic Society), commonly considered the driest place on earth. It was certainly the hottest place we’ve ever been, a strange wind-blown inferno which for some reason the Nazca peoples decided to make their home. Any of our travellers wearing sandals took no more than a few steps before they sprinted back to our overland truck to get shoes. Even the truck itself was parked under a huge shaded ‘truckport’ to keep it at a reasonable temperature while we explored the site.
Long stone-lined paths lead to covered areas where you can view the tombs.
The occupants are well-preserved and you can see details of their lives, including stone grinding bowls and simple pottery. It was an appropriate place to visit on Halloween, as it happened.
So this brought to mind my next question: how did these apparently simple peoples create the mathematically-sophisticated Nazca geoglyphs? And why would they have gone to the trouble?
Questions to ponder as we moved forward about 1,000 years in time to a place on the coast where the ancient Incas sent fresh fish by footpath over 300 miles to Cuzco, the religious centre of their culture. The road to Puerto Inka is cut through soft sand down to the beach – we blessed our skilled driver for navigating the precipitous twists and turns.
As evening began to fall we arrived at a unique place to stay, the Hotel Puerto Inka just outside the ruins of the ancient village overlooking the pounding waves of the Pacific.
After checking into one of the comfortable, salt-scented rooms stacked in layers up the hillside, many of us checked out the ruins of the Inca buildings, which even in their rustic village state still displayed remarkably precise engineering.
A few people took a walk along one of the many paths in the surrounding hills (presumably those of the fish-runners), or along the gorgeous beach.
At dinner, since it was Halloween, we celebrated with a round of Pisco Sours and organic candy suckers that I’d brought with me, while the waves crashed on the shore and storm clouds darkened the sky – a fitting wrap-up to a day of strangeness and wonder.
The Nazca Lines are one of those ancient mysteries that will haunt and intrigue us for a long time, I think, and should not be missed if you go to Peru.
Next up: beginning our high-altitude acclimation 8,000 feet up in Arequipa, the ‘White City’ for its white-stone buildings set among three looming volcanoes, and widely considered the most beautiful city in Peru. Its residents consider themselves so set-apart from the rest of the country that they even have their own, unofficial, passport (which you can buy).
In the meantime, stay calm and kind for yourself and the people around you, stay safe for the better tomorrow that will be coming.