443km (275 miles) S of Lima

Nasca (also spelled Nazca) would just be a dusty little desert town of little interest were it not for the strange presence of massive, mysterious drawings -- the famous Nasca Lines -- etched into the sands of the pampas more than a millennium ago. Ancient peoples created a vast tapestry of "geoglyphs" -- trapezoids and triangles, 70-odd animal and plant figures, and more than 10,000 lines -- that have baffled observers for decades. They are so large, with some figures reaching dimensions of 300m (1,000 ft.), that they can be appreciated only from the air. Over the years, theorists have posited that they were signs from the gods, agricultural and astronomical calendars, or even extraterrestrial airports. Some believe that the drawers of the lines must themselves have had the ability to fly, perhaps in hot-air balloons, over the designs below. The wildest theories, today discredited by all but fringe-dwelling true believers, prompted the old book and movie The Chariots of the Gods.

The town and the drawings are named for the Nasca culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 700), which succeeded the Paracas civilization along the southern desert coast. Little was known about the Nasca until the beginning of the 20th century. Today the Nasca are renowned for their exquisitely stylized pottery, among the finest of pre-Columbian Peru. The small town of Nasca was devastated by a monstrous earthquake in 1996 and is just getting back on its feet. Most constructions in town were adobe, which crumbled and were replaced by hastily built concrete houses. The new construction adds to the dusty frontier feel of the town.

The surrounding desert is a strangely impressive place. Flying over the Nasca Lines, you see an unending expanse of craggy, dusty, origami-like folds in the sands, like deep wrinkles in a wizened face. Certainly, nothing in the region equals the impact of a flight over the lines, but the town does have a couple of good museums and two archaeological sites that evoke the Nasca culture that flourished in the area.

Say What? -- The Nasca people were evidently deeply rooted in the hot and painfully arid southern desert landscape that they inhabited in spite of numerous earthquakes and that they fought valiantly to farm. The word "Nasca" comes from the Quechua nanasca, which means pain and suffering.