900 BC to 200 AD – One of Peru’s earliest civilizations, the Paracas culture inhabited the Paracas Peninsula and the Ica Valley. The culture is renowned for its polychrome ceramics, intricately patterned textiles, and treasure-filled burial sites.
100 BC – 450 AD – Early Nazca period – the culture flourishes in the river valleys of Rio Grande and Ica.
The Nazca are most famous for the Nazca Lines, giant geoglyphs etched into the hard desert floor. The lines include geometric and animal figures and have remained remarkably well-preserved by the dry climate.
Nazca ceramics are valuable sources of information about the culture, depicting scenes of daily life, foods, plants, fauna, rituals, and deities. Examples of Nazca ceramics and textiles are on display in the Museo Arqueologico Antonini in Nazca, the Regional Museum in Ica, and the Anthropological and Archaeological Museum in Lima.
Ceremonial center of Cahuachi is inhabited from 1 AD – 450 AD. Archaeological evidence suggests this was not a city, but rather a pilgrimage site where agricultural, water, and fertility rituals were performed. Its abandonment is linked to ecological stresses including a pan-Andean drought that kickstarted the decline of the Nazca culture.
450-550 AD – Middle Nazca period – Severe El Nino event triggers widespread and destructive flooding across Peru. Erosion in the Nazca valley is worsened because generations of farmers cut down forests of the native Prosopis pallida tree to plant cotton and maize.
Emphasis for building projects shifted from the construction of monumental structures to agricultural and hydraulic technology. An extensive system of aqueducts (puquios) is built to tap into abundant groundwater for irrigation and allow the civilization to flourish despite the arid climate.
550-750 AD – Late Nazca period. Nazca culture wanes and Wari (or Huari) culture begins its ascent, shifting pre-Columbian civilizational power from the coast to the Andean highlands.
When Inca influence expanded to the coastal areas, they found the descendants of the Nazca culture still living in the desert valleys. Old irrigation canals remained in use and ancient symbols were preserved in textiles.
1470-1550 – Los Paredones served as Incan administrative complex and a crossroads between the mountains and the sea. Scholars believe that the original Inca name may have been “Cajamarca.” The site consists of three small plazas, a tower with views over the Nazca valley, and various temples.
During the Spanish colonial period, the Ica valley becomes a center for viticulture. The region’s wine and pisco (grape brandy) are distributed throughout the Viceroyalty of Peru and beyond.
In the Ingenio Valley, the Jesuit order had the largest vineyards including San Jose de la Nasca and San Francisco Xavier de la Nasca. Enslaved populations from sub-Saharan Africa worked these estates. In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish Empire and their properties came under the control of the Spanish Crown. Today, the towns of San Javier and San Jose are home to ruins of large 18th-century baroque churches.
Early 1900s – Max Uhle, a German archaeologist, begins studying Nazca artifacts including pottery, textiles, shells, metals, and objects made of wood, plant and animal materials.
1920s – Following a trail of Paracas textiles, the Peruvian archaeologist Julio C Tello begins excavating a large necropolis on the Paracas Peninsula. He discovers hundreds of mummified bundles wrapped in textiles.
The Peruvian archaeologist, Toribio Mejia Xesspe spots the Nazca Lines while hiking through the desert foothills. He believes the lines are sacred roads.
1939-1940 – The U.S. scholar Paul Kosok begins studying Nazca irrigation system and notices the lines. Finding that some of the glyphs align with the winter solstice and constellations, Kosok calls the lines “the world’s largest astronomical book.”
In 1940, the German mathematician Maria Reiche takes over study of the lines from her mentor Kosok. For the next five decades, she devotes her life to deciphering the enigma of the geoglyphs.
1994 – Nazca Lines designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1996 – Magnitude 7.5 earthquake levels the city of Nazca causing loss of lives, a great number of injuries, and massive structural damage. Since then, the city has been rebuilt.
The star attraction of the Ica region, the giant geoglyphs of Nazca are one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of pre-Columbian Peru.
Straight lines extend up to 12 kilometers (7 miles) and crisscross spirals, angles, wavy lines and concentric circles. More remarkable are the stylized representations of animals – the hummingbird, the spider, the condor, the monkey, a human with a head that some say looks like an owl and others an alien astronaut.
None of these are visible from the ground. To really appreciate the Nazca Lines, you must board a small aircraft and fly over them. Those who’d rather avoid the flight can climb to the top of the Maria Reiche Observation Tower on the Panamericana Highway.
Location: Pampas de Jumana, 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Lima
Antonini Archeological Museum
The small but extensive Museo Arqueologico Antonini displays artifacts, pottery, textiles, mummies, and more from the Nazca Culture. Learn about the geography of the desert coast where early civilizations flourished and how to decipher the symbols and iconography that decorate ceramics and textiles. Additional holdings include photos of famous Nazca lines, models of Nazca homes, and trophy heads found at Cahuachi.
Location: Avenida La Cultura 606, Nazca
Maria Reiche Museum
Formerly the home of Dr. Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who dedicated her life to the study of the enigmatic Nazca Lines, this small museum preserves a clutter of maps, diagrams, photographs, artifacts, and a scale model of the Nazca Lines, as well as Reiche’s personal belongings. Reiche moved to this humble house on the edge of the desert in order to be closer to the site. She is known to have swept dust off the lines with a broom and at one point she used her personal funds to hire a guard to protect the site from interlopers. The museum is located 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Nazca Lines Observation Tower.
Address: Km 421.3 Panamericana Sur, El Ingenio
One kilometer from the Nazca city center, “Los Paredones” represents the remnants of an Incan administrative complex that monitored passage between the mountains and the coast. Built during the reign of Tupac Yupanqui and on top of Nazca ruins, the archaeological site includes a central plaza, buildings for administrative, ceremonial, and residential purposes, and a mix of adobe and stone walls. The latter are rarely seen on the Peruvian coast and display the Inca style of polished stone architecture.
Location: Carretera Interoceanica (road to Cusco)
The Nazca people not only executed massive drawings, they also constructed amazing works of hydraulic engineering that allowed them to thrive in the arid environment. Nazca builders dug wells to reach underwater sources and then used stone and huarango wood to construct subterranean channels that carried the water to reservoirs. With access to water, the Nazca could irrigate the dry desert land for agriculture and grow crops including cotton, corn, beans, potatoes, and various fruits.
Just outside Nazca city, Cantalloc (or Cantayo) preserves the best examples of these aqueducts. More than 30 of these still function today. Locals still use them to irrigate their farms. Openings in the channels, called puquios, are arranged in spirals or concentric circles and provide access to the channels for maintenance and cleaning.
Location: Adjacent to Hotel Cantayo
Located 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the city of Nazca, Cahuachi was a pre-Columbian ceremonial center in use from 1 AD until 500 AD. The type and number of artifacts indicate that this was a pilgrimage site occupied for pan-Andean ceremonies. Its importance began to wane with the decline of the Nazca Culture around 300 AD. Significant structures include a large adobe pyramid 150 meters (490 feet) long and 28 meters (90 feet) tall, as well as 40 natural mounds topped with adobe structures.
A team of Italian archaeologists has been excavating the site since 1982. Access to Cahuachi is still restricted and visits must be arranged in advance. As an alternative, the Museo Antonini exhibits important remains found at Cahuachi.
Cemetery of Chauchilla
Situated 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Nazca city, the pre-Inca necropolis of Chauchilla is home to mummies and other ancient remnants perfectly conserved by the arid Nazca desert. Most of the site has been sacked of its archeological treasures, yet Chauchilla is unique because its mummies are still in original tombs — rare in Peru — and it was used successively by the Wari, the Poroma, and the Inca cultures. The site has been protected since the late 1990s.
Location: 7 km down dirt road from Panamericana Sur Km 470
Things To Do
Fly Over The Nazca Lines
On a tour to Peru, few can resist the temptation to see one of Peru’s greatest pre-Columbian mysteries. The Nazca Lines extend over 450 square kilometers (175 square miles) on a barren mesa between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. Hop on a small aircraft and let your imagination soar as you fly over figures including the monkey with a spiraling tail, a humanoid with a giant head, and lines that stretch straight for miles. Combine your Nazca Lines flight with a tour to Paracas and the Ballestas Islands, and get an in-depth view of the ancient cultures that preceded the Incas by many centuries.
Prefer to stay grounded? See the Nazca Lines without a flight
If the thought of sharp turns aboard a small plane makes your stomach flip, worry not, you have more options to see the Nazca Lines without flying. You do need to allocate more time to travel to Nazca city, but there’s really no better place to satisfy your curiosity about one of Peru’s most enigmatic civilizations. On the Panamericana Highway, climb the Nazca Lines Observation Tower to see figures including the spider, the hands, and the condor. Keep reading for more to see and do in and around Nazca city.
Visit The “Lady of The Lines”
For close to 5 decades, Dr. Maria Reiche went out into the desert to find lines and figures, measure and map their exact coordinates, and sometimes to sweep off centuries-old dust that had accumulated over the furrows. She was the unofficial guardian of the lines and a devoted scholar whose work led to the Nazca Lines’ UNESCO world site designation in 1994. See the clutter of Reiche’s papers and personal belongings at her former home, now the Maria Reiche Museum, located 3 km (2 mi) from the Mirador (observation tower).
Gaze At The Stars (Hotel Nazca Lines)
Expand your understanding of how the Nazca Lines relate to constellations in the sky with a visit to the Nazca Planetarium. Housed within the Hotel Nazca Lines on Calle Bolognesi, the planetarium is open to all visitors. Nightly shows are in English, Spanish, and a few other languages. Call ahead for schedules. Admission: S/.20
Sandboard Cerro Blanco
At 2,078 meters (6,820 feet) of elevation, Cerro Blanco (White Hill) is the world’s tallest sand dune and is certain to fill your need for speed. Dune buggies can’t get to the top. You have to walk yourself and your board 22 kilometers (3 hours) to the summit. The last hour on soft sand is especially tough, but the payoff is an incredible kilometer-long descent paired with astounding views of the desert landscape.
Nazca Airport: Aerodromo Maria Reiche Neuman is used mainly for Nazca Lines flights.
To save time, many travelers choose to drive from Lima to Pisco (237 km, or 150 mi) and fly out from the Pisco airport with a return to Lima the same day or with an overnight in Paracas for a Ballestas tour the next morning. Additional flights are available at the airport in Ica city.
Bus: Nazca does not yet have a central bus terminal. Many bus companies have their offices in the northwest part of town, near the roundabout 6-7 blocks from the Nazca’s Plaza de Armas.
Overnight buses connect to Cusco (14 hours), Arequipa (9 hours), and Lima (via Paracas and Ica) (6-8 hours). Peru Hop is a bus company geared to travelers and offers hop on hop off service to major destinations in southern Peru (between Lima to Cusco) and includes a stop at the Nazca viewing tower.
For travel between Ica and Nazca, small buses (colectivos in Spanish) depart regularly throughout the day and the trip is 2-3 hours.
Nazca is a small town. The Plaza de Armas is walking distance from most hotels. If you need a taxi from one end of town to the other, the fare should be about 3 soles. But be sure to negotiate beforehand.
- Stay hydrated: Nazca is in the desert. Remember to drink water throughout the day.
- Motion sickness is a big factor for Nazca Lines flights due to turbulence and sharp turns. Small aircraft of varying sizes carry anywhere from 2 passengers to 12 passengers. Pilots tend to make hard maneuvers and circle around glyphs so that passengers on each side can get a good look. Travelers with mild sensitivity to motion are usually fine after taking Dramamine or similar medication. Those with severe sensitivity should consider skipping this tour.
Nazca and the Ica region are fairly safe for travelers. Take normal precautions with your belongings. The biggest “threats” are the touts in front of the bus station who are always looking to arrange hotels and tours at exorbitant prices. It’s best not to deal with them at all.
Besides a flight over, what is there to do in Nazca?
If you’ve got some hours to spare before a bus ride to your next destination, visit the Antonini Museum on Avenida La Cultura 606. Scroll to the Activities section above for more ideas on what to see and do in and around Nazca.
Are there direct flights from Lima to Nazca?
No. The only way to get to Nazca is to travel by bus from Lima via Paracas and Ica. Flights over the Nazca Lines depart from small airports in Pisco, Ica, and Nazca.
Are safety issues a concern for Nazca flights?
A series of crashes and emergency landings in 2008-2009 prompted a governmental crackdown on aviation safety standards for Nazca Lines flights. In February 2010, all planes were inspected and only those found in compliance were allowed to continue flying. Since then, Nazca tour operators have updated airplanes and equipment, safety regulations are better enforced, and crashes have decreased significantly.
What should I pack for a Nazca tour?
Bring lightweight, breathable clothes for hot days, and a light jacket and pants for the cooler evenings in the winter. Remember to wear sunscreen and reapply often.