I’ve celebrated by birthday with friends in Bali, and I kicked off my Career Break trip with Sakura season in Tokyo, but to date my most epic birthday celebration has to be in 2017, a year into my Career Break where I found myself in Peru and treated myself with a flight over the Nazca Lines on the morning of my birthday. Here’s a little about my experience and some tips to help you plan your own adventure.
What are the Nazca Lines?
The Nazca (Nasca) Lines are what we call the collection of ancient etchings carved into the ground of the Nazca Desert 400km south of Lima, Peru. The desert here is very dry and sees extremely little rainfall and wind, which is how these etchings or geoglyphs made out of exposing rock and sand have remained intact for an estimated 2,000 years or more.
Over 300 different geoglyphs have been identified in the Nazca desert, made out of various geometric shapes and images of people, animals and objects. Some of these stretch hundreds of metres in length. The sheer size makes it impossible to see from ground level – the geoglyphs were only discovered in the 1930s-1940s when planes started to fly over the desert and realised that these weren’t random lines at all. They were awarded UNESCO Heritage status in 1994.
What is so special about the Nazca Lines?
The Nazca Lines are fascinating – I wrote more about it in this article for Yahoo Travel Inspirations – but what intrigues me is that till this day, no one is quite sure what purpose these geoglyphs serve at all.
Some thought it was a plea to the heavens for more rain – the symbols were fertility-related and marked key water catchments, and not made to be seen by normal humans but sized for the gods above. Others thought that the shapes made were part of a prayer ritual, a path traced by human footsteps. There were theories that the positions of the geoglyphs were carefully calculated and lined up with the sun and stars, marking solstices and other natural phenomena. There’s a great detailed article here at NatGeo.
Now I was a curious child who read a lot, and one of my favourite books as a kid was the Childcraft Encyclopedia series consisting of 15 books covering everything from stories, science, maths and culture from around the world. I remember first reading about the Nazca Lines from those pages, thinking how impossible a sight it must be, this desert canvas of giant pictures in the sand. Never did it cross my young mind that I would one day fly over those strange lines for myself.
Getting to Nazca
I started off in Lima and took a bus that went down the southwest coast, where my coastal scenery slowly transformed into pure sandy deserts. After a brief stint of dune bashing and sandboarding in Huacachina near Ica, I took a local bus to the tiny town of Nazca.
The town of Nazca in itself is pretty unremarkable and quite small. This is a very dry region and all the sand means it is pretty dusty and hazy. I stayed in a place called Nasca Lodge [booking.com affiliate link] which was quite a simple guesthouse but had really helpful staff who helped me book my Nazca Lines flight the next morning on the day of my birthday.
Day of the flight
My guesthouse lady told me the best time to fly was early in the morning when the air is usually at its clearest – afternoons were usually hazier because of the sand and dust in the air, so I hauled myself awake for a 7am pick up by AeroParacas and took a short drive to the tiny Maria Reiche Aerodrome for the flight.
There were 5 people in total on my flight, and we squeezed into a tiny 6-seater propeller plane with 2 pilots. I was pretty lucky to be seated in the back without anyone next to me.
The flight takes about 30 minutes in total – we took off quite promptly at 8pm and landed at 8.30pm. You wear headsets in the plane so you can hear the pilots tell you what to look out for, and the pilots do a passover each geoglyph twice, one on the left and one on the right so passengers on both sides of the plane get to see the geoglyph out their window.
Now I don’t get motion sickness much, but this is a pretty small plane and I could definitely feel the movement of the plane every time it banked, so while I was super excited about the experience, I had a lowkey headache after it was done and needed a nap to recover from that plus the early start. So prepare yourself if you get motion sickness, rest as well as you can the night before, stay hydrated and pop whatever pills you need.
We flew over 12 geoglyphs in total – here’s a look at some of the major geoglyphs that I saw on this flight. We were lucky to have very clear sunny weather, and I saw most of these things pretty clearly in person, but they don’t photograph that well on an iphone, so I intentionally tweaked the levels of these photos so you can make out the lines more easily. These were all taken from the plane, so imagine the sheer size.
You can’t help but marvel at the precision of these lines considering that the creators wouldn’t actually have been able to see how it looked like.
The Nazca Lines Flight
I flew with Aeroparacas and the half-hour flight cost me US$70 (about S$100), and included pick-up and drop-off service from my guesthouse. Overall I had a pretty good experience with this company – my booking was done through my guesthouse Nasca lodge.
There is an additional mandatory Nazca airport tax of 30 Sol (about S$13) that you pay at the airport itself. You will need to bring your original passport with you to the airport.
There are other companies that you can fly with of course, each with their own booth at the airport, offices in Nazca, or websites for you to check out. The price listed I paid was in late March 2017 and was a pretty standard rate at that time – I did note that prices for Aeroparacas seem to have gone up to US$85 as I write this in March 2018. My was flight only and did not include any other land tours.
The planes are pretty tiny though for different companies it can range from 4-8 seaters. If you weight more than 95kg, you will need to pay for an extra seat – the weight matters a lot because these planes are so tiny and they will weigh you at the airport and assign you a seat to distribute the weight evenly.
Accommodation and Transport
I stayed 1 night in a 5-bed dorm room at Nasca Lodge for 35 sol (about S$15). I checked out after I took a nap and they let me leave my luggage while I explored town for a bit and just hung out in the common area until I took my overnight bus later that evening.
My bus from Ica to Nazca cost 10 sol (about S$4.50).
I took a taxi from Nasca Lodge to the Cruz del Sur bus station for 5 sol (about S$2.20) and my overnight bus from Nazca to Arequipa cost 115 sol (about S$50)
What else to do in Nazca
To be honest, there’s not a lot to do in this tiny town, but then again I only stayed for one night. I would have loved to go check out the 3-storey lookout tower and see what the view of the Geoglyphs looks like from there, but it was hot and humid and I ended up choosing to hide until things got a little cooler.
Museum Didático Antonini
After a bit of a nap, I met up with one of my fellow plane mates and we checked out the Museum Didático Antonini which was a bit of a walk from the town. Lots of artifacts to look at, and while most of the signs are in Spanish, there are English translations that you can get from the front desk.
It’s not a big museum, you can walk around it quickly and it does give you some context beyond just the Nazca story of the cultures in the Nazca region, but when I was there, it was the middle of the afternoon and it was HOT. This isn’t one of those nicely air-conditioned museums, and walking there in the heat and then around a stuffy room without any fans… my suggestion is to pick a cooler time so you can enjoy the exhibits without being too distracted.
Address: Avenida de la Cultura 600
Entrance fee: 15 Sols
In the evening, I headed over to the Nazca Lines Hotel also known as DM Hoteles Nasca [booking.com affiliate link] which is home to a little planetarium that has 40-minute shows every evening in different languages that explain the history of the Nazca Lines. It’s pretty cute, a little hemispheric dome with the show projected on the surrounding walls.
Normally you would also do a little stargazing after the show, but sadly it was too cloudy when I was there so I didn’t get to see any stars. The hotel is also where Maria Reiche, the German researcher who spent many years studying and protecting the Nazca Lines, lived in her later years when she got older and unwell. We were brought to her original suite #130 to have a look around at how she lived and hear a little about her story – she was here from the 1970s until her passing in 1998.
The hotel is conveniently next to the Cruz del Sur bus station which is pretty convenient if you are going to catch the overnight bus to Arequipa. I didn’t want to lug my bags around so I headed back to the guesthouse after and took a cab back to the bus station.
Address: DM Hoteles Nasca, Avenida Bolognesi
Planetarium Fee: 20 Sols
Some final thoughts
This was definitely an epic way to celebrate my birthday on the road, though I was far away from home and friends, getting to see one of my dream locations was definitely something special. I like to save on food and accommodation and transport, but I was quite happy to be splurging a little for this once in a lifetime experience. The Nazca Lines are one of those sights that you have to see for yourself to believe and I definitely recommend this for anyone passing through this part of Peru.