People travel to the town of Nazca (spelled Nasca in Peru) to see the famous Nazca Lines and marvel at their mass (up to 1,200 feet / 370 meters long) and their mystery (why were they made and who was meant to see them?). Here’s what we saw (and wondered) during our flightseeing tour to see the Nazca Lines from the air.
To fly or not to fly?
We were surprised when some fellow long-term travelers said they thought flying over the Nazca Lines, which were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, wasn’t necessary. True, there are a few viewing platforms over a few of the lines around Nazca (more about them in our next post about exploring the Nazca Ines on the ground), but the Nazca Lines are so enormous that they’re virtually impossible to see except from the air.
For example, despite existing in the desert for hundreds and hundreds of years (most researchers agree that the glyphs were made by Nazca people between 500 BC and 500 AD), yet the lines and designs weren’t really discovered by modern science until someone spotted them from a plane.
We decided to fly.
Flightseeing tour over the Nazca Lines
There are many fight tour companies in Nazca. Alas Peruanas took us up for their 30 minute flight (US$80 per person) to view 13 different figures in a Cesna 206 four passenger plane with a pilot and co-pilot. All passengers got headphones to cut out some of the engine noise and allow us to hear the running commentary about the shapes we would be seeing (in Spanish) from the pilots.
These tourist flights travel in a set circuit over an area with a high concentration of geoglyphs (man-made designs in the earth). To ensure that everyone gets a good look at each of the images, the planes dip their wings on one side, then circle the glyph and dip their wings on the other side.
Seeing the glyphs, including The Hummingbird, The Spider, The Tree, The Dog, The Monkey, The Flamingo, The Parrot, The Astronaut, The Frigatebird, The Hands, The Condor, The Baby Condor and The Whale, in their entirety was undeniably powerful.
After half an hour of dipping and circling, we were ready to be on solid ground. Small shops selling sodas at the airport do a brisk business to travelers (including us) anxious to settle wobbly post-flight stomachs.
Wear sunscreen and sunglasses for the flight and you must show your passport before boarding. Flights are often delayed if it’s cloudy or foggy (we waited for more than an hour for our take off), so be prepared to wait. Also, there’s also a 25 PEN (US$10) airport tax that’s not included in the price you pay the tour company.
Naza Lines flightseeing safety
While we felt safe during our flight, on any given day there are a lot of small planes in the air flying close and low and accidents do happen. Many, many people have died. The worst year was 1986 when 28 tourist aircraft crashed into the Nazca Desert, killing 130 people.
Safety and oversight have improved since the cowboy days pre-1999. However in 2016, there were still reportedly 19 tourists death in Nazca Lines flightseeing accidents.
Get a glimpse of the Nazca Lines from the air in the video we shot from our flightseeing tour, below.
Nazca Lines mysteries
Seeing some of the glyphs from the air only amplified our questions about them: How were the Nazca Lines made? And why? Many people far smarter than us have been pondering those questions for a very long time.
The easiest question to answer is about how the glyphs around Nazca were made. There are about 700 glyphs composed of straight lines plus another 300 or so that depict geometric shapes and stylized animals. Researchers say dark pebbles, which exist naturally on the surface of the desert, were removed to reveal the light-colored sand beneath, thus creating shapes in the ground (which is the basic definition of a geoglyph).
Crude surveying tools, like wooden stakes, have been found around the glyphs hinting at how the precise designs and straight lines might have been mapped out and achieved.
That leaves the trickiest question of all: Why were the glyphs made and who was meant to see them?
The lines were created long, long before humans had the ability to travel through the air so the Nazca people may never have seen the images in their entirety since many of the hills in the area aren’t high enough to provide a vantage point. Some theorize that the Nazca made the designs for their Gods to see. Others think the designs might make up some sort of astrological map used by the Nazca people. Or perhaps the glyphs marked ceremonial areas.
Also, aliens. You can’t have a proper archaeological mystery without someone suggesting that aliens were involved. Recent controversial alien theories in Nazca inspired this necessary-read in The Atlantic.
The Nazca Lines under threat
New glyphs are still being discovered around Nazca and despite protections, all of the glyphs are still threatened.
When the PanAm Highway was built it bisected a huge glyph called The Iguana and we can’t help but wonder what the Nazca spirits (or the aliens) think about this new never-ending line in the midst of their own. Wind continues to erode the glyphs and humans are still doing damage as well. In 2014 Greenpeace, for example, apologized for damage done to The Hummingbird glyph by activists who unintentionally walked over it to install a message about climate change.
Where to sleep in Nazca
It must be said that the dusty, ramshackle town of Nazca is pretty grim, but thousands of travelers come anyway to see those famous lines. That means there are a lot of hotels in town from extremely basic hostels to higher-end offerings catering to organized tour groups.
Somewhere in the middle is B Hotel Nasca Suites (doubles around US$40). Opened in 2017, this place is right across the highway from the airport (convenient for morning flight seeing) but about a mile from town. There’s a pool and full breakfast included, along with Wi-Fi, and more style than most mid-range places in Nazca.
Here’s more about travel in Peru