When doing research for this trip, Lea found a long-term travel course on the website BootsnAll which suggested that instead of planning a rigid itinerary, one should pick “pillars” for the trip – stops along the way that you know you’re going to hit no matter what. If we were going to Peru then the biggest pillar for me, perhaps even more so than Machu Picchu, was going to see the Nazca Lines.
The Nazca Lines fascinated me all the way back to my school days in the 70s, when UFOlogy and pseudoarchaeology were going through a revival. Even then I never bought the “runways for flying saucers” theory, but the lines were there in the desert, laid out so that they can only be seen from above, by a people without the technology to view their own works of art.
So imagine my surprise when, on the day Lea and I were trekking to the Nazca airport in order to catch a flight and see the lines with our own eyes, I wasn’t even a little excited about it. When I realized this, it bothered me a great deal. What was wrong with me? This was one of the things I’d most wanted to see on this trip. Why was I in such a funk?
Lea pointed out the obvious: we’ve been doing some hard, hard traveling ever since we left Loja. The distances are longer, the cities are more confusing. The learning curve for Peru is steep, and it seems to reset itself with each new city we visit. We’d just followed up a seven-hour bus ride and late night arrival by getting lost trying to find the place we were staying. I’d had food poisoning once already (and little did I know would get it again later that very day).
But thank Apu and the other gods of the Peruvian desert, all my dreariness fell away once I climbed into an eight-seat “flying ceiling fan” of an airplane, took off, and saw the outline of a giant whale sketched in the desert, crisscrossed with perfect geometric lines that had been there for two thousand years.
(Side Note: After viewing the Lines, you should attend the planetarium show at Nazca’s DM Hotel. The cost is S/.20 per person, with shows in French, English, and Spanish. It goes in depth about the possible astronomical significance of the Lines as well as their relationship to nearby sources of water. It also talks about Maria Reiche, the German scientist who devoted her life to studying and preserving the Lines, and who once lived at the hotel that now houses the planetarium. If the sky is clear, the planetarium operator will point out the southern constellations and show different celestial objects through a telescope.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I left off last week we were still in Lima, though we had moved from the slightly shady port district of Callao to the Centro Historico. This gave us time to wander around the Plaza San Martin, the Plaza de Armas, the Basílica de San Francisco (with museum and catacombs), watch the changing of the guard at the presidential palace, visit the excellent Museum of Peruvian Art, and eat a bucket of Norky’s Fried Chicken.
We also went to Lima’s Chinatown, which had plenty of Chinese shops, iconography, restaurants, and not a single Chinese person that we could identify.
After a week in one place, the longest we’d stayed anywhere since Quito, it was time to move on. We took the afternoon bus to Nazca and took a chance on our accommodations. So far, aside from the two-week homestay that was part of our Spanish class in Quito and our one night at a posh resort in Papallacta, we’d made nearly all of our reservations at various backpackers’ hostels through Booking.com.
We’ve also been using the website Couchsurfing.com to meet people in various cities, just so we could have human conversations that aren’t business transactions. The results have been hit-or-miss: we’ve met some fantastic people who we’d love to stay in touch with and see again, but we’ve been stood up completely twice so far. The main deal with Couchsurfing, though, is that it lets you connect with people who will let you stay in their homes. We hadn’t bit that bullet yet, and one strange guy we met in Trujillo nearly scared us away from the idea. In Nazca we went for it, and we’re glad that we did.
Our host was Hendrie. (Hi, Hendrie!) Hendrie was awesome. He put us up in his house, told us where to get the best seafood in town, haggled with a tour operator to get us a deal on an adventure excursion, and even walked us to the bus station when it was finally time for us to leave. Remember when I said that the learning curve in Peru is steep? If you can get in touch with a guy as generous as Hendrie, everything becomes so much simpler. Experiences like this are why Lea and I plan to host travelers ourselves once we get back to the States.
Now about that adventure tour…
There are several archaeological sites around Nazca in addition to the Lines. We didn’t want to miss out, and a tour would hit several of them at once. Hendrie told us that the tours leave at 2:00 p.m. and if you get there a half hour before you can usually get a discount as they try to fill empty seats. We got one that was going to visit four locations, but we didn’t fully understand at the time what we were signing up for.
We went with a large group of Tahitians in taxis to the edge of town, where two dune buggies were waiting for us. (Say what?) The dune buggies took us off-road on bumpy trails to visit the Nazca aqueducts, an ancient burial site that had been looted by grave robbers (leaving the bones to bake in the sun), and the pyramid complex at Cahuachi.
Then our drivers took us out into the dunes. “So the dunes are the fourth location?” we wondered. “They’re certainly pretty. I wish they would stop so we could take some pictures.”
That wasn’t the plan. The drivers did stop, but only to let some air out of the tires for better traction. We climbed to a high ridge with our buggy looking out over a pretty damn steep abyss of sand. Lea and I realized what was about to happen when we saw the other dune buggy zip down the cliff.
“No. No no no. No no no no no….”
The other passengers let out a roller coaster scream as our buggy shot over the edge, down the valley, and up the other side. And again. And again. And again. After the third plummet I stopped shouting “No” and just accepted the fact that our buggy was going to roll and we were all going to die.
So here I am, reincarnated as a llama, typing my final blog entry before the farmer comes to shear my wool.
Well, it might have ended that way. Llamas don’t do stupid things like sign up for dune buggy excursions without realizing that if they stick you in a dune buggy it’s for one reason only. As it is, we survived (though our two buggies spent a bit of time helping a third get unstuck from the sand). By the time we headed back for Nazca the sun had set and we barreled along bumpy off-road roads with only the vaguest bit of faith that our driver knew where he was going.
We got back to town in plenty of time to pick up our luggage, say goodbye to Hendrie, eat a dinner of cow’s tongue spaghetti from a street vendor, and get on a fourteen-hour night bus for Cuzco.
With a pound of sand still in our hair, eyes, ears, and teeth.