The Nazca people inhabited the deserts of Peru long before the more famous Incas. Between 100 B.C. and A.D. 700, the Nazca etched the Nazca Lines, a set of mysterious geoglyphs, into the Earth. Experts still aren’t sure why, although they have a few theories.
Discovered in the 1920s, the Nazca Lines now attract thousands of visitors each year. They were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.
The Nazca Lines are not only lines! Although the geoglyphs include about 800 straight lines, there are also approximately 300 other shapes, including rectangles, triangles, and spirals. Some of the most fascinating designs resemble plants and animals -- the most famous depict what appear to be spiders, monkeys, whales, hummingbirds, and condors.
Read on to learn more about these mysterious geoglyphs -- and find out how to see them for yourself.
The History -- And Mystery -- Behind The Nazca Lines
Although the Nazca Lines are not as popular as Machu Picchu, they are just as intriguing. Part of the fascination stems from the sheer size and number of the geoglyphs -- some stretch up to 30 miles long.
It’s believed that smaller models were designed first and then enlarged to the sizes we see today. The Nazca likely cleared rocks around the borders of the designs before scooping out the inside stones to make the processional paths.
The purpose of the Nazca Lines is still largely a mystery. Some have suggested that they served astronomical and calendrical functions. During certain times of the year, the sun lines up perfectly with some of the lines.
Conspiracy theories abound, and some people have even concluded that the Nazca Lines were created by aliens!
More recently, archaeologists have surmised that the geoglyphs served religious purposes. Due to the area’s lack of water, the lines may have been used as ceremonial roads to ask the gods for rain.
Where To Find The Nazca Lines
The Nazca Lines are located about 280 miles south of Peru’s capital city, Lima. This area at the foot of the western Andes, approximately 2,000 feet above sea level, is known as the Nazca Desert. The arid conditions, with little rain or wind, have allowed the geoglyphs to remain undisturbed for centuries.
Although the archaeological area covers 185,000 acres, most of the geoglyphs are located near the city of Nazca, Peru. The city is a day’s drive on the Pan-American Highway from Lima.
The Best Time To Visit The Nazca Lines
Due to Peru’s proximity to the equator, the seasons consist of a dry and a rainy season, unlike North America’s four seasons. If you’re planning to travel through Peru, it’s better to visit between May and September, or during the dry season.
Generally, due to Nazca’s proximity to the coast, the weather stays pretty dry throughout the year. You should be able to visit the Nazca Lines at any time of year without a problem, although flights are occasionally canceled due to bad weather. If you visit during the rainy season, it’s a good idea to extend your trip by a day or two.
How To Visit The Nazca Lines
To visit the Nazca Lines, you’ll need to fly into either Lima or Cusco. Due to the high elevation in Cusco, most travelers prefer to land in Lima and make their way along the Gringo Trail that passes through Nazca on the way to Machu Picchu.
Although the best way to see the Nazca Lines is via small airplane, there are no commercial flights to Nazca’s Maria Reiche Neuman Airport. You can only get to Nazca by car or bus.
Getting There By Car
It’s certainly possible for visitors to rent a car and drive the 7 hours to Nazca from Lima via the Pan-American Highway. There are plenty of beautiful places to stop along the way, including Pisco, Ica, and Huacachina. However, driving can be quite different in Peru than in the United States. The State Department cautions against driving in Peru due to poor maintenance of roads and other drivers' lack of consideration for traffic laws.
If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of driving in an unfamiliar country, you can hire a taxi or private driver through your hotel or a booking platform. Hiring a car will provide more flexibility for stopping for breaks or points of interest along the way.
Getting There By Bus
Traveling by bus is one of the easiest and most common modes of transportation in Peru. Several different bus companies offer trips to Nazca, including Cruz del Sur, Movil Bus, Civa, and Oltursa. With an average of 15 departure times per day, Cruz del Sur is a safe, affordable, and comfortable option ($25 to $32). The bus offers VIP seating with reclining seats, blankets, pillows, entertainment, and snacks. This is an especially great option if you decide to make the lengthy drive overnight. Considered public transportation, these buses depart from Javier Prado Station. Most of the staff members do not speak English, however.
Alternatively, you can reach the Nazca Lines on Peru Hop, a hop-on, hop-off bus that picks you up at your hotel. It also offers the chance to purchase multiday bus passes that include stops in cities like Paracas and Huacachina. The guides on Peru Hop are bilingual, which can be helpful for those who don’t speak Spanish.
Seeing The Nazca Lines From An Airplane
Maria Reiche Neuman Airport, named for an archaeologist who studied the Nazca Lines, is the only airport that offers flights from the city of Nazca to the Nazca Lines. Flights from this airport are more common and cheaper (about $80) due to the airport’s proximity to the geoglyphs. Airlines include Aeronasca, AeroParacas, and Movil Air. These flights feature a jam-packed 30 minutes of geoglyph-gazing from above.
If you’re short on time, airports in Ica and Pisco also offer flight tours of the Nazca Lines. These tours usually include other activities as well.
The airplanes are small, usually accommodating only eight to 10 people. Each person has a window seat for optimal viewing of the ground below. The pilots lean the plane to each side, allowing every passenger to see the desert and geoglyphs from the best angles. However, this can induce nausea in some passengers. Make sure to bring motion-sickness medication!
Seeing The Nazca Lines From A Viewing Tower
Although you’ll be able to see many more geoglyphs from the sky, climbing the 42-foot Nazca Lines Observation Tower just off the Pan-American Highway is also an option. Unfortunately, only three of the geoglyphs can be seen from the top of the viewing tower. However, there are several advantages to being closer to the ground.
First, you’ll be able to walk in the red desert on your own two feet, and you’ll get a better sense of the scale of these geometric shapes and animals. Imagine the Empire State Building (standing at 1,200 feet) laid on its side -- that’s how long some of these geoglyphs can be! There are also small hills within walking distance of the observation tower that provide additional vantage points of the desert.
Just 16 miles from Nazca, the tower is easily accessible via car, bus, or tour. There is no limit on how long you can stay at the tower. Plus, at about $1, it’s considerably cheaper than an airplane ride.
If you have the time, take the flight and climb the tower to experience the Nazca Lines in every way possible.