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. PeruBus/Soyuz offer seats on regular buses for S/.12, departures every half hour.
There are several direct overnight buses from Cuzco (14 hours) and Arequipa (9 hr). Delays can occur in the wet season. Prices vary between 60 and 170 soles. If you get a 4pm bus from Cusco you should arrive just after 6am, have time for breakfast, then be able to catch a taxi to the airport, bargain a good price for your Nazca Lines flight, before continuing on to Huacachina, Ica or Lima, without having to spend any time in Nazca town itself.
Nazca is a small city that does not have a proper bus station, but most of the bus companies are clustered together near the main roundabout (Óvalo de Nazca).
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.
The Nazca Lines are the star (and only) attraction. Scattered over 500 km² of an arid plateau between the Nazca River and Ingenio River, they are huge representations of geometric patterns, animals, humans figures and thousands of perfectly straight lines that go on for kilometers. They were created by removing surface stones, revealing the lighter-colored soil below. They're unquestionably ancient (dating back 1400-2200 years), and remarkably precise (with straight lines and clean curves). The images are so huge that they are only appreciable from the air, a fact which has led to speculation that the ancient Nazca people either had access to hot air balloons or alien helpers. Most academics attribute the lines' precision to low-tech surveying techniques, but nobody actually knows who made them or why.
From the air
From 2013 the flight prices and number of operators have been consolidated due to a number of accidents dating back a few years. Only a handful of operators offer flights for around 75-85 USD per seat, including transport both ways from the city center (excluding airport tax of 25 soles). You can book your flights directly at the airport, or in the official agencies (One is located next to the bus station Aeroparacas.
June 2016 - flights can be got for US$70 at the airport with a little bargaining, or US$80 without any bargaining at all - however this will be to fill up the last slot on a plane. Be sure to demand the smaller planes without wing supports which partially obscure your view of the lines (yes, seats on these planes CAN be had for US$60, not the advertised US$80). Booking with one company might not mean you necessarily fly with them, you could be put on another company's plane if they have seats to fill, so just make sure you pay the lowest price/get the best plane. Don't pay until after you have taken your flight. There is no working ATM at the airport and some of the smaller (cheaper) operators may not have a working VISA/Mastercard machine, so bring cash (offering to pay in cash is another effective way of bargaining). If it's not peak season (June, for example) and in the afternoon (when the airport is less busy), you can get 60 USD per seat without even bargaining, going directly to the airport and booking with one of the agencies there. Be aware flights in the afternoon can be very turbulent due to the increasing winds later in the day. All agencies seemed to apply the same price. And they all offer the same route, so don't believe people telling you they will show you more signs! In the city, the price they offer you is normally higher.
Arriving in June 2016 most companies had full bookings and said they might have spaces in the afternoon should the weather remain good. Never deal with the touts at the bus stops, they will leave you very badly off and our very rude and pushy. 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. Beware that the operators only start arriving at the airport around 7am for their first (prebooked) flights, which means you cannot get a 7am flight by being at the airport early. The sooner you can get a flight without prebooking is around 8am, but you must be at the airport at 7am to negotiate a price with an operator, do all the required paperwork and wait for your flight.
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 and bring a plastic bag.
Fourth of May 2015: A plane of unofficial airline (cheap flight) crashed after failing to make the landing. Nobody was harmed, but you should always book at a respectable agency.
Longer flights which include the nearby Palpa lines are also available.
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.
It is illegal to walk on or near the line figures. Doing so disturbs the dark colored stones that form the background of the images and damages what the Peruvians now consider a great cultural heritage.
There are several bars along Jr. Bolognesi.
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. Soyuz/PeruBus have buses approximately every half hour to Ica, leaving from their terminal near the main roundabout and stopping along the Panamericana Sur on request until full - S/.11.
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 intermediary 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.