Today's Nazca town is on the site of where the ancient Nazca civilization was based after the fall of its first capital, Cahuachi, in around AD 400. It has an exotic, dusty, desert setting but holds little enchantment in itself. It can provide between a few hours' and a few days' entertainment depending on one's interest in the ancient Nazca people.
The ancient Nazca people
For much of their history, the Nazca people were based in the Ceremonial City of Cahuachi, an ancient pilgrimage center 28 km southwest of modern Nazca. The society emerged in around 100 BC and was active untill around AD 750. Its influence stretched from Cañete in the north to Acari in the south. The lower section of the Nazca Valley was likely chosen to situate Cahuachi due to its abundent underground water, which allowed extensive irrigation for improved agriculture.
This civilization was responsible for the famous Nazca lines, giant representations of animals and other designs that are also seen on Nazca pottery and textiles found at Cahuachi. Discovered pottery fragments also suggest that the Nazca people gathered in the desert to perform religious ceremonies, with objects being smashed as offerings to the gods in the sky. The fragments found in the desert among the Nazca Lines are mainly pieces of panpipes and whistles, suggesting the importance of music in the religious rites.
A series of natural disasters, climatic and tectonic, began to undermine the civilization in around AD 350. An earthquake finished the capital, Cahuachi, in around AD 400, leaving the society to limp into oblivion for the next few centuries from its new base in what would become modern Nazca.
Discovery of Nazca culture
Nazca culture first aroused academic interest through its pottery. In the 1890s, archaeologist Max Uhle was studying ceramic samples at the Anthropologisch-Ethnografische Museum in Dresden. The consignment contained many works from South America, including some striking and colourful work from the Nazca people. In 1901 he travelled to Peru to examine their origins. After months of searching he arrived at the Valley of Ica at a place called Ocucaje, where he met farmers who told him about the ancient cemeteries where these colourful ceramics were frequently found. Uhle excavated the sites and found Nazca ceramics at many of them. His work introduced Nazca culture to the wider world.
Discovery of the Nazca lines
The Nazca Lines were first spotted when Faucette, an early Peruvian airline, began flying from Lima to Arequipa in the 1920s. The pilots noticed lines criss-crossing the desert between the valleys of Palpa and Nazca.
The pilots' discoveries led Toribio Mejia Xesspe, an archaeologist, to come to Nazca in 1926. His research arrived at the conclusion that the lines were part of ancient sacred roads. Xesspe never flew over the area and so only saw straight lines; he missed the figures.
A more worthy discovery of the lines was made in 1939 by Paul Kosok of Long Island University. Kosok came to Nazca to study the ancient irrigation systems, the puquios (see below). He surveyed the channels and noted that over 50 of the underground aqueducts were still in used. He was told of other, even older, ancient channels and so set out to the Nazca desert but found only long shallows furrows. He thought that perhaps these other ancient channels were located very far away and so hired a small crop-dusting aircraft to go and find them. On the flight he saw hundreds of lines and geometrical forms in the desert. He later recalled asking the pilot to follow one particular line and being somewhat surprised at it leading to a bird! Kosok later met Maria Reiche, who then devoted her life to studying and preserving the lines.
Nazca channels or puquios
After the fall of Cahuachi, the Nazca people still achieved some notable, though oft overlooked feats. An extensive series of underground channels, the puquios (a Quechua word to describe a natural spring), are one of the greatest legacies of the Nazca culture. This underground system is unique in South America, and perhaps the world, because of its very intricate construction. Over 50 underground channels were built over one hundred years starring in AD 400; many of them are still in use! Some of the best preserved channels are at Cantalloc, also known as Cantayo, where visitors can see a series of spiral blow holes, which were probably used to allow cleaning of the channels' interiors and also to restore them after earthquakes.
The cemeteries along the Nazca River contained the colourful ceramic works that first drew attention to the Nazca people. The high-quality work on vessels shows realistic and complex depictions of the ancient Nazca world: everyday life, animals, plants, fruits, birds, insects and gods are all represented. Vessels showing stylized creatures, including zoomorphic and anthropomorphic designs, sometimes contain over ten colours. Bridge-handle bottles with two landfills are the most common find, but spherical pots were also produced, as well as cups and glasses. The best examples of Nazca ceramics are in museums, such as the Museo Arqueologico Antonini in Nazca, the Anthropological and Archaeological Museum in Lima, the Regional Museum of Ica, and many others in Peru and around the world.
The Nazca people's belief in life after death led to mummification of their corpses. The shrouds wrapping the dead were fine textiles, which still retain their quality and colours. The Nazca people, like many other pre-Inca peoples, believed textiles to be spiritually important, leading their textiles to be skillfully produced and depicting sophisticated artistic scenes on fabrics of cotton and the fibre of Andean camels. Samples from the ancient capital of Cahcuachi can be seen at the Museo Arqueologico Antonini in Nazca.
There are frequent collectivos (small buses) to and from Ica. They leave when full, it takes 2-3 hr and cost 12 soles.
Nazca is a small city that does not have a proper bus station. Most of the bus companies are situated on the northwest part of the city.
If you're traveling in a small group (2-4 people), it's fairly easy to arrange a one day all-inclusive side trip to Nazca from Lima with private transportation. One-day trips are generally paired with a stop in the Ballestas and include the airplane ride to see the lines. A private trip isn't particularly cheap (running around 900 soles per person), but can be worth it if you really want to see the lines and don't have a lot of time in Peru. One-day trips from Lima leave early (around 4:00 AM) and return late (around 10:00 PM).
Getting around in Nazca is easy. You can walk almost anywhere and a taxi inside of town really costs around 3 soles although every taxi driver might try to charge you more.
The big hassle in Nazca are the touts that hang out at the bus stations and on the streets. They represent shady or nonexistent hotels and travel agents, claim to work for your hotel or to offer cheap flights for viewing the Nasca lines. Ignore them and have your hotel pick you up from the bus station.
From the air
Nazca town is full of hotels and tour agents pedling flights over the lines in Cessnas, few, if any, will offer a decent price. A seat in a four-seater plane (two pilots, two passengers) should start from US$50 in the low season, don't pay more than US$90. Haggling is necessary. An airport tax of 25 soles is usually not included in the price. Longer flights which include the nearby Palpa lines are also available.
Only consider booking in advance in the high season (December to March) as planes are going up and down all day and flights are generally only 30 mins, meaning that hundreds of people can be dealt with daily. Booking with flight operators directly at their airport sales desks allows for easy price comparison and ensures your money isn't needlessly passed through brokers. Never deal with the touts at the bus stops, they will leave you very badly off. The cautious may choose to pay only after taking a flight but buying at the airport is safe enough. Flights run as required from 7AM-4PM, so don't feel pressured, you'll fly when you want to.
The pilots love banking their small planes hard (for good views of the ground) and motion sickness can occur. Take a motion sickness pill if in doubt.
Note: As of October 2013 the flight prices and number of operators seem to have been consolidated due to a number of accidents dating back a few years. Only a handful of operators offer flights for around 85 USD per seat (excluding airport tax) and haggling does not seem to be possible any more. You can still book your flights directly at the airport.
From the ground
There is a observation tower (2 soles) along the Panamerican highway with a view of three of the figures and a lookout on a mountain. If you get airsick, this is the way to go. You can go there by tour, public transportation, hitchhiking, or taxi (around 50 soles per car for a roundtrip). Buses from Nazca to Flores, Cueva or Soyuz pass the tower. Flag a bus down for the trip back to town.
There are several bars along Jr. Bolognesi.
There are various travel agents in town though having an office in Nazca does not guarantee trustworthiness. Be very careful and never buy from people that address you on the street or wait the bus stop.
If you think that the Peruvian government is worthy of your money, only work with tax paying business that will give you a legal tax invoice (called either a "boleto" or a "factura"). This document will have the name of the business and their VAT number printed on it, together with a unique number.
Cruz del Sur run daily buses to Lima at 11:30AM and at 2:30PM. The trip takes 7 hr approximately. Arequipa is 8 hrs away by bus. Cruz del Sur offer buses at 3:00PM and also later in the evening. Most of the other companies' buses leave in the evening from 10PM-12 midnight.
Ica is 2.5-3 hrs away, various companies run buses throughout the day. Prices start from 7 soles.
The long trip to Cusco from Nazca can be broken up into three legs if you don´t mind being called "gringo" when hanging out in the intermidiary towns. Hourly colectivos ply the paved, but curvacious, road to Puquio where you will find 3 simple hostals near the main plaza (18 soles a night for doubles with bano privado). From there, buses head another 6 hr (40 soles) to Abancay. In Abancay, you will find that the Hotel Paraiso next to the bus terminal is your best bet. From there, Cusco is a 5 hr bus (20 soles) ride on an equally winding, but paved, road.