As my plane begins to climb over the desert in southern Peru, the landscape morphs from neat green crops to an arid plateau dotted with mountains and valleys. Straight, distinct lines quickly begin to appear and intersect across the barren terrain, making the earth below look like a giant sketchpad. Geometric designs of triangles, rectangles and wavy lines start to change into more lucid shapes: first a whale, then an astronaut, hummingbird, monkey, spider and dog. I’m flying over the Nasca Lines — enormous geometric images etched into the landscape — and one of the greatest archaeological mysteries in the world.
What are the Nasca Lines?
Located 200 miles (322 kilometers) southeast of Lima near the town of Nasca, the lines are known as geoglyphs, drawings made by removing the top layer of dark gravel to reveal the lighter bedrock.
They fall into two categories: natural objects such as animals, birds and insects and basic shapes like lines, spirals, triangles and rectangles etched with geometric precision. There are more than 800 lines, 300 geometric and 70 animal and plant drawings, known as biomorphs. Some straight lines stretch for 30 miles (48 kilometers), while the biomorphs range from 50 to 1,200 feet (15 to 365 meters), as large as the Empire State Building.
Mystery about why they were created has persisted for decades. Are they signs left by aliens? Or relics of an ancient and far more advanced people? According to UNESCO, which made the lines a World Heritage Site in 1994, they are thought to have been drawn by ancient Pre-Hispanic societies between 500 BC and 500 AD. But it’s still unknown exactly how or why they created these artworks. In a place that’s one of the most arid in the world, the lines may have been used in rituals involving water.
The view from the plane window
Almost immediately after take-off our small Cessna banks left hard, tilting at nearly 90 degrees as we steeply circle our first geoglyph, a criss-cross of lines carving the earth. Hiding among them is a ballena whale with its mouth agape. It’s a continuous exhibition of ancient artwork from there.
Two huge trapezoids, one to my left and then one to my right emerge, followed by a giant ‘astronaut’, who appears more alien-like and seems to be waving at us from the side of his mountain.
A monkey, dog, birds and more
We then soar over a monkey, whose distinct spiral tail is a well-known symbol of Peru, followed by a dog, hummingbird, condor, spider, giant rectangle, Alcatraz heron, parrot, tree and a pair of hands. The lines are close, less than a few minutes apart, and the flight lasts for 40 minutes.
How to do it
You can book through a tour agency, or simply show up at the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport, located on the outskirts of Nasca town, as I did.
As operators are keen to fill all seats, showing up is the cheaper option with flights costing 80 USD (270 PEN). Booking through an agent can cost 100 USD (336 PEN) upwards with commissions. There is also a 25 PEN (7 USD) airport departure tax, which must be paid at a small kiosk in the departure lounge. The airport hosts a multitude of operators who will beckon you to choose them. Each of these operators will take you over the same sites for the same price.
Safety has been a concern in the past following a number of crashes. However, the Peruvian government has tightened regulations in recent years. Fewer aircrafts can now fly over the Nasca Lines and increased safety measures have been taken. I flew with AeroNasca, and with their professional boarding process and modern aircraft, I felt safe.
Can I see the lines from the ground?
You can see parts of the tree and hand geoglyphs from El Mirador, a viewing platform next to the Pan-American Highway just outside Nasca, for 3 PEN (less than 1 USD). I chose this option during my first visit to the lines in 2014 and later regretted it.
Unless you are scared of flying (and you are happy to pay the relatively steep airfare), it does not compare to seeing them in full scale from above.
Do you get airsick? Are you scared of flying?
These are two considerations to take into account before flying over the Nasca Lines. To ensure everyone on-board gets a good look, the pilots perform plenty of steep banking, rolling the aircraft from side to side and circling. I have never been airsick, but there’s a first time for everything. After 35 minutes of some pretty intense G-forces, I made discreet use of the provided air sickness bag on the final leg back to base.
If you’d rather keep your breakfast down, take a motion sickness tablet before you go. If you’re a nervous flyer, also consider that you will be flying in a six-seat propeller plane at the mercy of the winds, and you will feel every gust, lump and bump.
‘An impenetrable enigma’
According to UNESCO, the Nasca Lines are “…one of the most impenetrable enigmas of archaeology by virtue of their quantity, nature and size, as well as their continuity.” If you get the chance to see this mystery of the ancient world, I insist you to consider doing it from high above.
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