Nazca lines: the story of a flight that never happened

“We must be getting nearer to Nazca”, I say to Zeza. Our bus approaches a wide plain of rocky desert, stretching out for several kilometers to the southwest. The few patches of clouds that have been following us since we left the grey morning of Ica are now behind, as if they know they aren’t allowed in this territory. And it isn’t long before we spot a silvery twinkling object flying in circles right above our heads. The Nazca lines are right there, even though we can’t see them.

Zeza lets out a deep sigh as the aircraft shrinks in the distance, and I immediately understand why. Seeing the Nazca lines is on the top of our to-do list in Peru. But I’m not sure whether her will to see the lines is enough to overcome her fear of flying. And the problem is, she isn’t as well.

sand lines at rocky desert with mountains behind
The rocky desert of the Nazca plain

To be completely honest, I haven’t exactly been helping her deal with that internal conflict. In fact, I might have been worsening it, with my increasingly insisting attempts to convince her to fly. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been discussing and researching the companies thoroughly. And even though the last fatal accident on a Nazca lines flight is a now few years old, there’s no shortage of bad reviews online, emergency landing news and safety concerns from foreign tourism authorities.

I am determined to fly, nonetheless, I think it could be a remarkable experience for both of us. I keep trying to appeal to her adventurous side, but whenever I feel she’s about to give in, we somehow find some new horror story that throws us back to square one. And as of today, the day we’re supposed to fly, she hasn’t yet managed to get on board. We can’t delay this decision anymore, though. We’re just staying in Nazca until the evening, when we’ll get on a sleeper bus bound to Arequipa. So this is do or die. Do, preferably, die is a tough verb to use when one’s about to get on a plane.

“Look, there’s the tower!”, Zeza says. “I think I just saw a line!” “It’s possible, I heard that the Panamericana cuts right through the lizard’s tail.”

 

The Flying Dutchmen

20 minutes later, we’re in Nazca. While waiting in line at the bus station’s left luggage office, we bump into a Dutch couple who we had met before in Huacachina. Their itinerary is the same as ours, but their bus departs to Arequipa half an hour earlier. “So, are you guys flying?”, Zeza asks them. “Yes, we are! The guys from the airline should be picking us up any minute now!”, the Dutch guy replies, barely containing his excitement, storming to the door every minute to check for the airline guys.

His girlfriend, though, is a little less keen. “Oh, I don’t know how he got me into this.”, she says apprehensively. “I get nauseous so easily, I just hope I don’t throw up on everyone on the plane… Baby, let me get our medicine pouch from your bag, I need my nausea pills…”

The Dutchwoman goes through the bag, the Dutchman checks the entrance once again. Zeza lets out another deep sigh. This timely little encounter has given me the final bit of insight I needed to quell this issue.

 

The Grounded Portuguesemen

“So, here we are” Zeza says as we exit the station to the scorching streets of Nazca. “Let’s just get done with it quickly. The sooner we fly, the sooner I can get this monkey off my back. Just promise me we’ll go with the most expensive, safety-norm-abiding company!”

“Yeah, about that… we shouldn’t go. Even if it turned out to be the smoothest ride ever, I don’t think you would enjoy it the least. You already struggle in huge, rock stable planes as it is. So getting you on one of those wheelbarrows with wings would just be plain torture. I can’t put you through that. Besides, we can always see the lines from the tower.”

“Are you sure? But you really wanted to do this… and the tower won’t be nearly as cool as the flight…”

“Maybe not, but I would much rather pick a program that we both can enjoy, than to see you suffer through the whole day for this. We got plenty of time to get to the tower and to do something else. I was reading about Chauchilla Necropolis on the bus, and it seems pretty interesting. What do you say?”

 

A decision for the future of our family

We roam Nazca searching for tour agencies with a Chauchilla tour that afternoon. But we’re not yet settled, and we continue discussing the matter. Zeza feels bad that her fear of flying would keep me from flying over the Nazca lines. I feel bad for having put so much pressure on her to fly over the Nazca lines knowing that her fear of flying would keep her from enjoying it.

For weeks we’ve been arguing from opposite banks of a river, each of us trying to convince the other to swim across. Suddenly, we both cross it at the same time. And now we’re still on opposite banks, still arguing, but from a different side. That’s marriage for ya.

After a long dispute, as the gentleman at the counter of the tour agency we ended up booking a tour to Chauchilla with can certainly testify, we finally decided we would not be flying over the Nazca lines. A difficult decision for everyone involved in it, but taken on behalf of the well-being of this family, especially that of its future offspring, who despite being far from conceived, would surely suffer from the remnants of the insane amounts of stress such an enterprise would induce on the womb that will one day generate them.

It’s ten past noon. There’s plenty of time to get to the tower and check the lines before the tour at 15h00. But we need to get something to eat first, arguing makes me hungry.

 

Ica, Ica

It was supposed to be just a quick bite. Grab the day’s special and get going. But the ceviche is spot on, the cold breeze of the A/C feels great on our backs, and more importantly, we’re allowed to drink! The stupid Prohibition Law that ruined our booze weekend in Huacachina ended this morning! And since we’re not flying anymore, we’re entitled to a little vengeance.

Well, maybe a pisco sour appetizer and three beers for each were a bit above what you might call “a little vengeance”. It surely got us lost in time though. It’s past 13h30 when we leave the restaurant.

Local buses called colectivos stop at the observation tower, 20 minutes from the town, en route to Ica. And there’s one about to leave as we get to the stop, with an old man by the door hailing “Ica, Ica!”. “¿Sale ahora?”, I ask. “Sí, ahorita mismo. Ica, Ica!” “Vale, queremos irnos a la torre de observación de las líneas.” “6 soles por favor. Ica, Ica!”

We get on the colectivo to find it’s practically empty. I knew right then it wouldn’t salir ahorita mismo. So we sit there, waiting for more passengers as our time runs out. “Ica, Ica!” And after 20 minutes, the colectivo isn’t even half way full. I stick my head out the window and shout at the hailer: “Hey, abuelito, ¿nos vamos o qué?” “Sí, sí, ahorita mismo! Ica, Ica!”

Two more passengers get on board, and the colectivo sets off. 14h10. OK, it’s gonna be tight, but I think we can make it. I mean, we’ll only get about 10 minutes to… wait, is the bus stopping? Is there something wrong? We just drove a couple dozen meters… and then we hear it again: “Ica, Ica!” We didn’t set off, we just changed bus stop. And if we wait any longer, we won’t make it back in time for the tour.

We get off the bus. We’ll go to the tower when we come back from Chauchilla. Who knows, maybe at sunset the Nazca lines are even more beautiful!

 

Chauchilla

Our guide to Chauchilla is a character. An overweight man, walking with a cane and wearing slip-on shoes. He’s old, not too old, but old enough not to care if anyone on the tour doesn’t speak Spanish. On the way to the necropolis, he rants about how today’s tourists treat his city as a pit stop for the Nazca lines, arriving in the morning, flying in the afternoon and leaving in the evening.

“When you fly above the Nazca lines”, he says, “all you see are drawings on the rocks. But they are much more than drawings on the rocks. And the only way to see beyond that is to understand the people that made them: the Nazca. How they survived in the desert, what they believed in, what they might have used the lines for. And that’s not something you learn on the plane. For that, you must come to Chauchilla, to Cahuachi, to the Planetarium”.

Chauchilla has an impressive setting, surrounded by dark, bare hills scarred by rainfall and ancient, long dried out streams. “Water was the number one priority for the Nazca!”, the guide explained as we get to the first tomb. “The most widely accepted theories presume that the Nazca lines were related to water, or its availability. Some of them functionally, as to point out water sources, others religiously, as to gain favor from the gods above in the form of rain”.

mummies at a tomb in Chauchilla necropolis, Peru
A Nazca family tomb at Chauchilla Necropolis

He tells us about the Nazca mummification process, emphasizing the grim detail that the deceased’s bones were broken while the body was still warm, so it would stiffen on fetal position. “The mummies at Chauchilla were found wrapped in textiles that had motifs resembling the drawings at the Nazca lines. For sure, there is an ethereal element to the lines, linking them to the afterlife, the gods, the unknown”.

After further explanation and another rant, this time against the Peruvian government and its negligence regarding preservation and further exploration of Nazca civilization ruins, he demanded questions from the group. Everyone pitched in. The man is angry and has a cane, so we best cooperate.

 

To the Nazca Lines!

“Now, I will take you to a textile office in the town”, the guide says as we leave the Necropolis, “Where we will learn about the centuries old Nazca weaving process!” Yes, we’ve reached that part of practically every group tour when tourists are willingly ambushed inside a cheap handicraft shop, shown a couple of bogus techniques said to accurately replicate those of an ancient method, and expected to pay up a small fortune for a decoration piece that could go for half the price or less if bought in any souvenir stand in town.

“Listen, Guide, we haven’t yet been able to check the Nazca lines. Would you be so kind to drop us off at the bus stop to Ica so we can get to the observation tower?”

“Oh, but it’s past 16h30 already. It’s getting late, you best leave that for tomorrow morning!”

“Uhm… we can’t do that… we’re leaving tonight to Arequipa…”

“You are leaving tonight?!? Uh, uh, uh, amigos. That’s not good. I don’t think you can make it to the tower before dark.”

That little piece of information struck us like a chair to the face. In between our to-fly-or-not-to-fly predicament and the subsequent impromptu planning of this day, we had forgotten how early the Sun sets round these here parts. “Well… I guess we have to try!”, I say to him.

“Al toque, pués. I will drop you off at the bus stop.”

 

Nevermind

It’s already darkening as we get back into Nazca. To top it off, there aren’t any buses providentially awaiting for the last two passengers to depart, as we were hoping for. “Salió ahorita mismo”, a woman selling snacks by the bus stop tells us. We got here too late.

Waiting for another bus is out of question, so we walk along the main street hailing for a cab. “Hace a la torre de observación, ¿cuánto?” A scorning snort is the preferential answer by most drivers. Those who go past that throw out an exorbitant price and a warning: “Pero a esta hora… ya no veréis nada!” Some of them would even infer that the tower would already be closed by the time we would get there.

And it gets darker by the minute. Not only does the Sun set early, but it also sets fast. Soon, it isn’t worth to keep trying. It’s time we admit defeat. We had it coming, to be honest. By dragging the flight issue up until the very last moment, and by coming to Nazca for just a few hours without any settled plan, we were basically asking for things to go wrong. We came to Nazca, and we’re not seeing the f****** Nazca lines.

Upset and disappointed, we turn around towards the darkening city center. We book the 20h30 session at the Planetarium, and look for somewhere we can be upset and disappointed with a Pisco Sour.

 

A total failure?

We exit the Planetarium towards the bus station. Our sleeper bus to Arequipa departs in 45 minutes, and we need to get our bags, change clothes and attend to whatever hygienic procedures possible to attend to at a bus station public restroom.

Our day in Nazca was not as we expected, that’s a fact, but I can’t say it was a total failure. Well, we didn’t get to see the Nazca lines, and to be honest, if that’s not a total failure, I don’t know what is. At least, we can try and find comfort in the fact that we had the opportunity to learn more about the lines and the mysteries surrounding them.

But amid all these talks of religion, water channeling, astronomical calendars, aliens and all these other motifs considered by the theories trying to explain the reason behind the construction of the Nazca lines, there’s one that I believe to be unfairly overlooked: tedium. I mean, there’s only a limited amount of recreational activities one can engage on in the desert. So how can we be sure the lines aren’t just pre-columbian 3D graffiti? What if we could magically summon the last of the Nazca before our eyes, only to be told “Oh, you mean these lines? Well, the desert can be pretty boring, so the gang would often sneak out into the plain at night and draw these just for fun”.

We bump into the Flying Dutchmen at the bus station. “Man, it was out of this world!”, the Dutchman replies as we ask how was the flight. “We got to see so many of the lines… and they’re huge! I wonder how the hell they were made!”

“Oh I didn’t have such a great time”, the Dutchwoman says. “I spent the whole flight trying to hold my stomach in! I must have seen like two or three lines, at best, through the corner of my eye… Looking out the window was so scary! And the maneuvers the pilot did so that everyone could see the lines were really terrible!”

Their bus is departing, so conversation was cut short. Surely we’ll bump into them in Arequipa. We say goodbye and head to the left luggage counter, still disappointed not to have seen the lines, but happy we’re leaving with a slight idea about how the hell they were made.

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