Nazca, Perú

Nazca is known primarily for the "lines" or "geoglyphs" in the desert, large depictions of animals and other designs etched into the surface by an ancient culture for reasons that continue to baffle scholars. Adding to the mystery is the fact that these designs can only be fully appreciated from the air (and except for a few amateur archeologists and UFO fanatics, no one believes this lost culture had developed flying machines). The Nazca lines are one of nine areas in Perú to receive World Heritage Site designation

My trip to Nazca started with an early-morning departure from a decrepit Lima bus station (there apparently is no central station and each bus company maintains its own – and I didn't see any I would call nice). The bus was rather comfortable with plenty of leg room (and all seats were reserved, unlike the airlines which typically offered general boarding). The trip gave an interesting view of the outskirts of Lima along the Pan American Highway. Views of some of the slums revealed living conditions that are hard to imagine. Once outside the city, I was struck by the utter desolation of the landscape. We could travel for miles without seeing so much as a single plant

The town of Nazca itself is very small, consisting primarily of the Plaza de Armas and a few side streets, and does not offer much to see (or at least I couldn't find it). I stayed at the Hotel Nazca Lines, which was very nice with a pool and an interior courtyard (which helps shield guests from the noise of taxis that drive around the streets honking their horns for no apparent reason – as if passengers had to find them by ear). One highlight of the hotel was an evening presentation by an assistant to Maria Reiche, who devoted most of her life to studying the Nazca lines

The next morning, I boarded a five-passenger (including the co-pilot's seat, where I sat) plane to fly over the Nazca lines. At first the designs are hard to see, but with a little practice they become easily visible. The plane flew over each figure twice, banking in each direction to allow passengers on both sides to get unobstructed views.

The Nazca lines, which are found in a thirty-mile area of the desert, truly are a remarkable sight. The hummingbird, for example, is approximately 250 feet long. Some of the straight lines run for miles. Other designs include a dog, a 300-foot monkey, various other birds, and a collection of spirals, triangles and trapezoids. Seeing the Nazca lines in person only deepens the mystery of how and why they were constructed. It is believed they were created between 900 BCE and 630 CE by three different groups of the Paracas people. They were drawn by moving surface stones and gravel aside to reveal the lighter soil underneath. But how the designers were able to create such complex figures and perfectly straight lines without aerial reconnaissance remains a mystery. No one really knows why the lines and figures were created. Speculation has included rituals related to astronomy, as well as elaborate tracks for terrestrial foot races

Another interesting sight near Nazca is the cemetery. Human bones are scattered all about, cast aside by grave robbers (huaqueros) who have looted the graves for the artifacts they once contained and discarded everything else. In the graves, the mummified remains of the ancient residents are remarkably well preserved, given that they are exposed to the open air. In many cases, textiles and lengths of human hair (up to six feet long) have survived. The climate is so dry (less than a quarter of an inch of rain per year) that moisture is not a problem. Although the area can be quite windy, the heat reflecting off the desert floor creates a "cushion" of stagnant air that shields the surface from the winds

My final stop in the Nazca area was a "backyard" gold mining operation. Two men used a teeter-totter device to crush a mixture of ore-containing rock and water into a slurry. This slurry was then mixed with mercury (a highly-toxic substance) that causes small amounts of gold to precipitate out of the slurry. After considerable effort, the workers managed to produce a small lump of gold about the size of a pinhead.