The Peruvian Line Safari

Charukesi Ramadurai flies over the Nazca Lines in Peru and discovers there is more to the country than Machu Picchu

An etching of a spider in the Nazca desert. Photos: iStock
An etching of a spider in the Nazca desert. Photos: iStock

“Your fourth day in Peru and you aren’t yet in the Andes?” This from a friend who had been following my social media updates of a recent trip to Peru. What she really meant was, “Why haven’t you headed to Machu Picchu yet?” I knew she was not alone in thinking the only place worth visiting in Peru was the famous Incan citadel.

Of course, I was heading to the highlands and then Machu Picchu, but a couple of days later. That morning, I was in Paracas in the Ica region, 4 hours south of the capital, Lima. I was 3,000ft above the ground, in a 12-seater Cessna aircraft, peering hard at the arid desert surface of Nazca below.

In my hands, I held a rough map of the area over which we were flying, with 13 distinct images marked out clearly, starting with a whale and ending with a tree. These are some of the most famous geoglyphs that form part of the great Peruvian mystery called the “Nazca Lines”.

A painting of an old Peruvian warship.
A painting of an old Peruvian warship.

Sprawling over 450 sq. km, the Nazca Lines refer to a series of etchings of geometric shapes, animal images and mythical figures, apart from innumerable lines criss-crossing their way through this desert—more than 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures and 70 images of flora and fauna.

As to when and why they were made, there are as many theories as there are questions. According to Unesco, which granted the site World Heritage status in 1994, these are from a pre-Incan civilization, created sometime between 500 BC and 500 AD.

The Ballestas Islands.
The Ballestas Islands.

There can be no doubt that this was a highly sophisticated civilization, for these are massive, elaborate and symmetrical drawings. They were made by simply etching the surface in the desired form to reveal the lighter colour of the soil underneath. And they certainly thought large, for the images include an 890ft-large monkey and a condor with a wingspan of 426ft.

But here is the thing: These lines are barely visible on the ground, and most of the figures are so large that their shapes are revealed only from above. So how did these ancient Peruvians map these shapes in the first place?

This phenomenon was first documented in detail by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe in 1927. And since then, this part of Peru has been attracting scientists, archaeologists and historians, each with their own bundles of speculation. The hypotheses range from astronomical functions to ceremonial worship, with someone even suggesting that the Nazca people had the know-how to construct and use hot-air balloons, from which they viewed their work.

Guanay cormorants and Humboldt penguins on the Ballestas Islands.
Guanay cormorants and Humboldt penguins on the Ballestas Islands.

Not surprisingly, the Nazca Lines are a source of absolute delight to conspiracy theorists and alien watchers. Why, one of the semi-human figures has actually come to be popularly known as Astronaut.

My flight from Pisco airport near Paracas reached Nazca in 45 minutes, a journey that takes more than 3 hours by road. By then, my mind was so full of these images that every swirl and streak on the sand seemed like an ancient drawing.

Closer to the actual site, there was a nervous excitement inside the Cessna, the guide droning on about the “enigma factor”. The first figure, the whale, whizzed past before I could even figure out where to look. And by the third one, I found myself in a state of near panic, scrambling to identify the patterns far, far below.

And there they were, finally, the monkey, the hummingbird, the parrot, the spider and the disembodied pair of hands, eerily reaching out as if in supplication.

Recently, the Nazca Lines were in the eye of a major controversy involving a misguided stunt by environmental organization Greenpeace. On Day 1 of the 2014 UN climate talks in Lima, its activists placed yellow cloth letters spelling out “Time for Change! The Future is Renewable” right next to the Hummingbird.

This unauthorized entry into a prohibited zone was appalling for many reasons, not least the danger it could be to the fragile desert soil canvas of these centuries-old drawings. Also, by leaving their footprints—literally—in the Nazca desert, the activists had effectively trampled upon an area considered culturally and historically significant by Peruvians.

Indeed, this mysterious collection of etchings is so much a matter of national pride that the symbol of Peru Tourism, seen everywhere from brochures to T-shirts, contains the swirling tail of the monkey.

Another morning, I set off early in the day on a boat trip from Paracas to the Ballestas Islands, 24km from the shore. Most people head to this group of islands for its reputation—created partly by clever marketing—as Peru’s answer to the Galápagos Islands. Me, I was more interested in the place that was involved in the world’s greatest (and possibly only) poop war. But more on this later.

A few minutes over the expanse of water, I came across the region’s other famous and equally intriguing icon, the Paracas Candelabra. It stood out from a distance, not surprising given that it is more than 500ft long and 165ft wide. This etching of a three-pronged object on a hillside en route to the Ballestas Islands has also been the subject of much research and speculation.

Was this a navigational aid for sailors of yore, based on the Southern Cross constellation? Was this an ode to a cactus known for its hallucinogenic powers? Or was it connected to the Nazca Lines in some way, pointing towards them many miles away? Nobody knows yet.

Closer to the three small islands collectively known as the Ballestas, I could see a thick black carpet on the craggy outcrops. This moving, heaving carpet was made of hundreds of native birds: Peruvian boobies, Peruvian pelicans, Guanay cormorants and Inca terns—the last breaking the monotony with their tiny red beaks and feet.

Now this brings us neatly to the poop war story. In the mid-1800s, the nitrate- and phosphate-rich droppings of these birds—guano in the Quechua language—found great value as a fertilizer. The business of processing guano collected from here and the neighbouring Chincha islands proved lucrative to the country’s economy, even helping it repay international debts at one stage.

This caught the attention of the erstwhile colonizers, the Spaniards, whose navy captured the Chincha islands in 1864, completely halting the guano activity around it. Peru retaliated the next year, with support from other South American countries such as Chile and Ecuador, who feared the return of Spanish power in the region. The Spaniards were routed, and all was once again well in the world of guano. The poop-processing business in Chincha and Ballestas resumed a few years later and is now managed by Peru’s department of agriculture.

The Ballestas Islands are now known primarily for their birdlife, along with regular sightings of sea lions and dolphins. And I was not disappointed. Although it was a dull and rainy morning, the sea lions were out, lounging on the rocks in large groups.

As we cruised around the islands—tourists are not allowed to get off the boat—the air hummed with the cacophony of Peruvian boobies and pelicans going about their daily business. And right in the middle of them, I spotted two dozen Humboldt penguins making their way down towards the water in small groups. They had almost merged into the brown landscape and black feathers; only that distinctive penguin waddle set them apart.

Back at the hotel in Paracas, I brimmed with the satisfaction of having seen a slice of Peru I had never known about. I was ready to head on to Machu Picchu.

Do the ceviche

Peruvian cuisine is creating waves worldwide, and with good reason. The Chalana and Ballestas restaurants, both inside Hotel Paracas, offer fresh seafood (don’t miss the ceviche) and innovative Peruvian cuisine.

Charukesi Ramadurai’s life mantra goes: travel, write, drink filter kapi; rinse, repeat.

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