Visitors who want to see more than the Nasca Lines would probably benefit from arranging a group tour with one of the Nasca travel agencies because the major archaeological sites are scattered about the valley and complicated to get to. For flights over the lines, it's sometimes best to simply go to the airport and purchase tickets directly from one of the charter airlines there. The following agencies all offer city and regional packages and information on the area (as well as Nasca Lines packages): Alegría Tours, Jr. Lima 168 (tel. 056/523-431; www.alegriatoursperu.com); Nanasca Tours, Lima 160 (tel. 034/522-917); Nasca Travel, Lima 438 (tel. 056/522-085); and Nasca Trails, Jr. Bolognesi 299 (tel. 056/522-858; firstname.lastname@example.org). Going a bit beyond the standard Nasca Lines tours, offering helicopter flights over the Lines, dune buggy trips, and combo trips to the Cahuachi and Estaquería temples, is Mystery Perú, Ignacio Morsesky 126 (tel. 056/522-379; www.mysteryperu.com).
The unique Nasca Lines remain one of the great enigmas of the South American continent. The San José desert, bisected by the great Pan-American Highway that runs the length of Peru, is spectacularly marked by 70 giant plant and animal figures, as well as a warren of mysterious geometric lines, carved into the barren surface. Throughout the Nasca Valley, an area of nearly 1,000 sq. km (390 sq. miles), there are at least 10,000 lines and 300 different figures. Most are found alongside a 48km (30-mile) stretch of the Pan-American Highway. Some of the biggest and best-known figures are about 21km (13 miles) north of Nasca. Most experts believe they were constructed by the Nasca (pre-Inca) culture between 300 B.C. and A.D. 700, although predecessor and successor cultures -- the Paracas and Huari -- might have also contributed to the desert canvas. The lines were discovered in the 1920s when commercial airlines began flights over the Peruvian desert. From the sky, they appeared to be some sort of primitive landing strips.
As enigmatic as they are, the Nasca Lines are not some sort of desert-sands Rorschach inkblot; the figures are real and easily identifiable from the air. With the naked eye from the window of an airplane, you'll spot the outlines of a parrot, hummingbird, spider, condor, dog, whale, monkey with a tail wound like a top, giant spirals, huge trapezoids, and, perhaps oddest of all, a cartoonish anthropomorphic figure with its hand raised to the sky that has come to be known as the "Astronaut." Some figures are as much as 300m (1,000 ft.) long, while some lines are 30m (100 ft.) wide and stretch more than 9.5km (6 miles).
Questions have long confounded observers. Who constructed these huge figures and lines? And, of course, why? Apparently, over many generations, the Nasca people removed hard stones turned dark by the sun to "draw" the lines in the fine, lighter-colored sand. The incredibly dry desert conditions—it rains only about 50 centimeters a year, on average—preserved the lines and figures for more than 1,000 years. Why the lines were constructed is more difficult to answer, especially considering that the authors were unable to see their work in its entirety without any sort of aerial perspective. The scientist who dedicated her life to study of the lines was a German mathematician, María Reiche. For 5 decades, she lived austerely in the Peruvian desert and walked alone among the lines, taking painstaking measurements and making drawings of the site. She concluded that the lines formed a giant astronomical calendar, crucial to calculating planting and harvest times. According to this theory, the Nasca were able to predict the arrival of rains, a valuable commodity in such a barren territory. Other theories abound, though. Nasca is a seismic zone, with 300 fault lines beneath the surface and hundreds of subterranean canals; an American scientist, David Johnson, proposed that the trapezoids held clues to subterranean water sources. Some suggest that the lines not only led to water sources, but that they also were pilgrimage routes, part of the Nasca's ritual worship of water. Notions of extraterrestrials and the Nasca's ability themselves to fly over the lines have been dismissed by most serious observers.
An observation tower (mirador) stands beside the Pan-American Highway (about 19km/12 miles north of Nasca), but it allows only a vague and partial view of three figures: the hands, lizard, and tree. The view from the tower (S/3 adults, S/2 students) is vastly inferior to the multiple bird's-eye views one gets on the overflight, but it's the best you'll be able to do if you can't take the stomach-turning dips and dives of the light-craft flights. (Only 10 min. into one recent flight, the four French travelers onboard with me were all tossing their petits déjeuners into the white plastic bags that had been thoughtfully provided.)
A half-dozen small charter airlines offer flights over the lines from the small airport in Nasca. Flights last 35-45 minutes, and pilots give very basic descriptions of the figures as they fly overhead. The small aircraft seat between three and five passengers.
If you're interested in seeing the lines only and you don't have time for the town of Nasca or the surrounding area, by far the most convenient—although certainly not the cheapest—way to see the lines is as part of a 1-day or overnight round-trip package from Lima with AeroCondor's Nazca Conexxion, Av. Aramburu 858, Surquillo (tel. 01/421-3105) or Aeroparacas, Av. Santa Fe 274 (tel. 01/265-8073; www.aeroparacas.com). Unfortunately, there are no independent flights from Lima to Nasca (or from any other city to Nasca), so you'll have to get there by bus—an 8-hour ride.
For the best visibility, try to go in the morning or late afternoon, but be prepared for conditions that frequently delay flights and occasionally make taking off impossible.
Companies operating Nasca Lines overflights from Nasca's Aeródromo de Nasca (tel. 056/523-665) include AeroCondor and Aeroparacas . Your best bet for arranging an overflight is with one of the Nasca agencies; Mystery Peru in particular has quite a number of overflight options. Alegría Tours and Mystery Peru both permit advance online reservations and purchases, in some cases with discounts.
Also worth a look for those with an interest in the Nasca Lines is the small planetarium at the Invertur Hotel Nazca Lines.
Take It from a Cartographer -- Frommer's cartographer Nick Trotter highly recommends picking up the Instituto Geográfico Nacional's extremely detailed topographical map of the Nasca Lines, available from IGN (www.ign.gob.pe). Nick says it's a must-have for any traveler who's serious about exploring the lines.
Cahuachi & El Estaquería
Cahuachi, an ancient adobe complex west of the Nasca Lines -- said by some to be twice as large as Chan Chan, the massive city of the Chimú along the north coast -- was the most important ceremonial and administrative center belonging to the Nasca culture. The ruins, in poor condition and, in large part, buried under sand, are still undergoing excavation. Because of ongoing work, only a handful of temples and pyramids may be visited, and only by guided tour. (The major agencies in Nasca usually offer the site as part of a group tour for around $25-$35 per person.) Also on the premises is El Estaquería, a construction of rows of huarango trees that probably marked important grave sites. The ruins are 30km (19 miles) from Nasca. The director of the Antonini Museum in Nasca has unearthed a spectacular collection of painted textiles, made with seven different dyes, at Cahuachi that he hopes to eventually exhibit in a new museum in Nasca. Many of the finest examples of Nasca ceramics in existence were also discovered at Cahuachi.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.