The open roof of the timber structure I’m sitting under holds together more by its willpower than any real craftsmanship.
It’s hot, baking hot, and as much as I love this kind of temperature, I can’t wait to be out of here. It’s been a long day in the sun, the kind that sucks all the energy out of your brain. Or the brain has sucked all the energy out of my body – I can’t tell which, not with the plane of infinite beige shimmering inside my head.
The Chauchilla cemetery is one of those places that leaves you speechless – it’s an ancient burial ground lost in a vast expanse of desert, bizarre and fascinating at the same time.
Anywhere else, a place like this would be filled with tourists; here, in the middle of nowhere, it’s just you, the hard-blowing wind and the hard-flying sand.
And the mummies camping out in open graves, perfectly preserved by the heat of one of the driest places on Earth.
After an hour or so of running around attached to my water bottle like a calf to a teat, I decide to take refuge from the waves of hot air washing over me in one of the grave shelters and the little shade it offers.
A happy-looking skeleton winks at me from the pit. Hey, hon, give me a kiss! says its bleached smirk.
Not even the missing teeth will hold the cheeky bastard back!
“The flowers look really sinister, I have to say,” says a voice behind me.
She’s staring almost hypnotically at a cluster of flowers growing on a shrub before her, taking huge bites of the sandwich she was able to throw together from the meager breakfast at the hotel (she’s really good at that kind of thing).
Yeah, the flowers don’t look bad, I have to admit. Quite unusual for a place like this, actually, these extra-large alterations of orchids in shades from a juicy light green to a transparent yellow to a buttery brown.
But then again, the desert is famous for hosting some of the showiest flowers. And deadliest. It’s not for no reason that the psychoactive plants growing in it are some of the most intense. Give me half an hour more in this heat, and I’ll be calling one of those pits my home soon, too!
Still better than the idea Emily had – to walk 5 miles through the desert back to the Pan Americana, where we’d pick her up on our return to town.
“Need to do something about my weight,” was her reasoning, “and with some water, food and a hat, this is as good a hiking place as any!”
I turn back to the stark scenery of the stony plateau and its half-eroded hills with dunes on their slopes enveloped in a vast, empty silence. The scorching sun keeps beating down.
Hard to believe it by the look of it, but this place is really unique.
It’s hiding one of the world’s greatest mysteries.
Two thousand years ago, this arid coast of southern Peru was inhabited by the Nazca people, an ancient culture made immortal by creating the Nazca geoglyphs, hundreds and hundreds of gigantic figures and lines seen only from the air.
From what it seems, those ancient surveyors just went out into the desert one day to mark out in its surface straight lines, triangles and trapezoids, some of them 5 miles long and 100 feet wide, as well as plants, birds and animals, most of them native to the coast, jungle and sierra and never seen in Nazca region.
Why would they do that?!
The same question has been baffling the scientific world since their discovery in 1940s.
Perhaps the figures were formed to be seen by deities in the sky.
Maybe they represented stars and constellations, or were venues of agricultural ceremonies or markers for subterranean rivers. Maybe they were created as landing strips for alien spacecrafts, to attract aliens with images large enough to be seen from space.
Or maybe the Nazca knew something we don’t.
These ancient inventors also built an impressive system of underground aqueducts, produced highly complex pottery and textiles with potent imagery and performed skull surgeries and elongations.
Do really ancient cultures have to be brighter than we’d like them to be?!
“They look kind of scary, like they’re concealing evil, but are erotic-looking, too … ,“ the voice behind me pauses.
“They’re very suggestive and have an edge to them, like a dark side … I feel like they’re drawing me in to bite my head off … it’s not that I’m getting aroused but … “
Can really be someone taken with a flower like that?!
Looks like Emily’s emotional state is taking a toll on her. She’s more and more like a roller coaster with no safety brakes; like anything can trigger her now.
Seeing the lines earlier this day was pretty awesome. We did it the best way possible – by taking a 20-minute flight over them.
My general impression? Well worth the money and stomach churning.
Would I do anything differently next time? Skip breakfast.
What’s the best time to do it? Definitely early morning, before the nearby Pacific Ocean and the flat desert get a chance to screw up flight weather conditions; while the sky is still clear, visibility good and turbulence nothing-out-of-the-ordinary.
Any funny stories to tell? Several (even though I’d hardly call them funny at the time).
We’re about to embark the little Cessna, sitting on the airfield, when we hear this loud banging coming from the engine area, the sounds of a plane in its final throes.
That the machine looks as old as the lines is not really helping.
“Excuse me,” says the pilot, a funny guy, when we point it out. “I made the jet all by myself!”
After take-off, we head for the area of 6 by 2 miles with the most lines in it.
Passing down below is an irregular rocky terrain of dry riverbeds, alternating with patches of lighter and darker land. The desert looks as dry and inhospitable as the surface of Mars.
A mile down the road is the town of Nazca, a small dusty place, built by the Spaniards in a region with zero to ten inches of rain a year. One of those towns you’d just pass through without stopping, if it weren’t for the lines.
Two minutes into the flight, my abs start to tighten into a knot. I pin my eyes on the horizon, trying to ignore the pilot’s Top Gun stunts of tilting the plane from left to right at unnatural angles to allow everyone great views (allegedly).
“Sorry for the bump, I had to shift gears,” comes over the headsets when we hit another turbulent flow.
I want to laugh at this joke but don’t dare – I’m hanging in there by a thin thread!
“Hey, there’s the bugger!” exclaims the pilot and takes a wild dive.
I shudder as my stomach ties itself into a constrictor knot, the most effective binding knot known (and impossible to untie).
Then, I see him. The giant alien in an astronaut’s suit and a helmet with hypnotizing round eyes and an amused smirk. He’s waving his hand at us.
My heartbeat goes through the roof – if aliens don’t turn you on, you’re probably dead!
Someone blurs out she’s taking online classes to become a certified Ufologist.
This is how overpowering the sight of one of the most famous Nazca figures is – it makes you say things you later regret.
The next twenty minutes, we spend zigzagging over the lines, trying to keep pace with the pilot’s loud “sir, over the left wing,” or “sir, over the right wing,” while keeping down our stomachs.
They’re all here – the flamboyant monkey with a spiral-shaped tail that inspired Peru’s national logo, the happy, flippy-floppy sperm whale that is so out of place here in the desert, the famous hummingbird with its perfectly shaped wings, the spider with its four pairs of legs bent at identical angles.
Or the stunned parrot, looking like it just hit a window, the spooked dog, leaping up in the air, the creepy-looking hands, straight out of the Adams family. The pelican, the condor, the parrot, the heron, the lizard, the alligator … and all made from one continuous line, the largest 1,200 feet long.
And I’m not even mentioning the hundreds of straight lines and geometric shapes, running all over the place!
When we touch down, we stagger out of the plane green in faces and with buckling legs.
“Thank you, and remember – nobody loves you and your money more than we do!”
On my way to the reception, I run into Emily who’s in a rush for breakfast.
Emily’s on fertility hormones hoping to conceive, the only result so far being the tremendous food cravings they trigger. She’d basically pig out all the time, as she puts it.
“If at least the fat distributed evenly, but like this?“ she looks helplessly down at her body. Bulging unnaturally out between her slender trunk and slim legs is her waist, covered with layers of fat; sticking out like a pair of bizarre love handles on the sides are her hips.
A little Michelin man.
After some rest at the hotel and a hefty portion of French fries to settle my stomach, we drive out into the desert to check out the Nazca aqueducts, an incredible achievement of ancient engineering, probably even greater than the Nazca lines.
How could it not be? With an annual rainfall of 0.125 inches, the pre-Inca Nazca people figured out a way to tap into the subterranean water, accumulated from seasonal mountain runoffs. The only source of water they had in the desert .
They created a sophisticated system of underground canals with vertical funnels that carried water from underground rivers to man-made reservoirs. The funnels are 50 feet wide, and look like giant spirals carved into the ground.
Bizarre-looking as they are, more than 1,500 years later, these aqueducts are still in use, supplying local farmers with water.
Even the burial practices of the Nazca people were pretty complex, reflecting a thorough belief system.
Not everyone is able to appreciate it.
“That’s some bad Rasta hair!” A voice with an Australian accent breaks the silence of the empty desert.
We’re standing on the edge of one of a dozen preserved graves, and below us, sitting up knees to chest, are bundles of mummies of all ages, wrapped in layers of blankets. Their long black hair flows dreamily in the wind.
A perfect memento of human existence.
Just like the bones and bone fragments scattered around in the sand and making funny sounds when stepped on.
I take one last look around the desert before we leave.
Disappearing in the hazy distance is Emily, marching resolutely forward.
It takes a couple hours to find her – our 9-hour overnight bus for the Sierra almost leaves late.
“I don’t know, losing weight,” she says when asked what she was doing in the dry riverbed, where she was located removing the top dark layer of the soil to reveal the light-colored layer of lime underneath; just like the Nazca people did when they made their famous lines. “I was creating a flower,” she repeats.
When the bus finally pulls out, its headlights dazzle a dog crossing the street. The spooked animal freezes in mid-walk, mouth half-open, legs perfectly straight and parallel, ears and tail in an upright position.
Only the leap in the air is missing.