Suitcase and World: Nazca - Mummies, Lines, aqueducts and more.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Nazca - Mummies, Lines, aqueducts and more.

I awoke to the sound of a rooster crowing and a pack of dogs barking. It was a crisp, cool, sunny morning in Nazca.

Khan had told me that a GAP guide named Simon would be meeting me in the lobby of the hotel at 8:00am. It was already 7:10am by the time I got out of bed so I quickly washed up and headed downstairs for breakfast - the "traditional" fare I had been having. I managed to get the last bite in and scurry to front of the hotel before Simon showed up. I quickly snapped a couple of photos of the street while I was waiting for Simon - looking to the left and then to the right from where I was standing outside of the hotel.

We got into a car and short distance later, got out of the car and into a van where there was another GAP tour group already on board. Our first destination was the Necropolis de Chauchilla where I would get to finally see the red haired mummies that I had been reading about.

We headed down the Pan American Highway.

The landscape of Nazca is high plains desert. For the most part, it's very arid land although every now and again, we would pass by an oasis so there would be a little bit of greenery. We also passed by a cemetary with the eery sight of crosses just sticking out of the desert ground.

After a short ride, we arrived at Chauchilla and began our tour at the museum. That's the small building on the far right in the picture below - we are in the proverbial "middle of nowhere"!

Once inside the museum, our tour guide gave us a brief explanation of Chauchilla. Though it was not obvious to my untrained eye, Chauchilla consists of several acres of both excavated and unexcavated Nazcan tombs. Over the years, grave robbers have looted the tombs and as a result, sun bleached bones and fragments of textiles and ceramics are littered on the ground. Now the graves are properly guarded so presumably, the looting has stopped. Inside the museum were two of the excavated mummies. We would see more as we toured the open tombs outside.

We walked to the first open tomb - about a 6 foot deep grave. Our guide explained to us that the mummies are the original though they have been "reassembled" and "repositioned" so that viewers can better envision how the original grave would have been laid out. Nazcan burial ritual dictates that the mummies are bound in fetal position and are placed into the grave facing east.

Seeing the mummies was somehow a bit unnerving - perhaps because all of them had particularly ghastly expressions owning to decomposed faces and dusty mats of hair. Their jaws appeared to be unhinged making them look as if they were smiling at you...and then there were the skulls and bones strewn everywhere. I decided then that I don't ever want to be mummified or preserved in any way, shape or form.

After the tour of the cemetery, we headed for the local airstrip to board the small, 6 passenger, single engine Cessnas that we would be in to fly over the Nazca lines.

Before we took off, the pilot handed each of us a flight map so we would know the route we would be flying and more importantly, the order in which we would be seeing the figures.

As soon as we were airborne, I got a bird's eye view of the land surrounding Nazca. Thanks to a shallow water table and aqueducts built by their ancient ancestors, modern day Nazcans can actually farm the land. Crops include potatoes, corn, fava beans, and artichokes. As we flew over the dessert, I could see that the ground was traversed with faint lines as though it had been tilled by giant plows.

Then, one by one, each of the famous Nazca line figures came into view. Before we flew near each one, the pilot would identify it on the map and then as we neared the figure, he would shout out which side of the plane to look out. Through the hazy heat, it was often difficult to identify the shape and often we flew past a set of lines before I could really get a good look at them let alone a photo! In the case of the more popular figures e.g., the monkey, astronaut, parrot, hummingbird, the pilot did circle back. Unfortunately, I don't have a good lens on my camera so I don't know how well you're going to be able to make out the figures. I've circled the figures to help you.

Here's the whale. How did people who lived far away from the ocean know what a whale looked like?

Here's the astronaut - that's what they call the figure though I'm certain there were no astronauts in ancient Nazcan times!

Here's the hummingbird:

....and here's the parrot. How Nazcans who lived miles from the jungle know what parrot looked like?

What's truly impressive is the size of the lines and the scale of the figures. It was an unforgettable experience flying over the lines. Once we completed the path, we returned to the airport. In all, it was about a 30 minute flight.

After every one had landed, we piled back into the mini-van and headed to a local restaurant for lunch. I had an opportunity to trade notes with another GAP group - they were on the start of their tour and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as I had on the beginning of my tour.

We parted ways after lunch and I headed back to my hotel on my own. Simon had told me that at 3pm, a local guide named Fredy would be picking me up to take me to see the remaining sights of my tour of Nazca.

Back at the hotel, I headed for the pool and found a shady spot to sit and read. At 3pm, I met up with Fredy.

We got into a car and Fredy gave me a run down of what we were going to see. We started with a quick trip to an ancient Nazcan site which had been badly looted over the years. With the giant sand dune, Sierra Blanca, in the background, we walked over ground where shards of ancient ceramic pottery were still evident. Fredy gave me a brief history of the Nazcan civilization.

Next, we headed for the Cantalloc Aqueducts. Built around 300 to 600 AD, the aqueducts were designed to provide a year round water source for the area. The aqueducts carry water from nearby mountain springs down to Nazca by means of underground canals. The canals, 36 in total, are S-shaped to allow the water to travel slower during periods of heavy rain. Of the 36 original canals, 20 are still in use by farmers in the area.

Next on the tour itinerary was a visit to a local family who make their living essentially panning for gold. Apparently, the majority of people living in Nazca make their living this way. In contrast to how they pan for gold in the western US, the way they do it in Nazca is tremendously laborious and time consuming.

The process starts with rocks being hauled down from the neighboring mountains. The rocks are then manually pulverized using larger boulders. The photo below shows the pulverization process. A wooden log is placed across the top of a large boulder. A person then stands on the log and rocks it back and forth. That motion causes the boulder to shift and as it does, it pulverizes the smaller rock beneath it. For lack of a better description, it's the human version of a mortar and pestle. The pulverized rock is mixed with water and the resulting slurry is then visually checked for specks of gold.

According to Fredy, on a "good" day, the family recover enough grams of gold to earn between 40 and 50 soles which is between $13 and $15. I left thinking what a tough way to eke out a living.

Our last stop was to a Nazcan pottery factory. Nazcans are known for their ceramics. Fredy introduced me to a young girl who is learning the art of making the Nazcan pottery from her grandfather. The passing of such skills from one generation to the next is typical of what I encountered throughout my travels in Peru. The girl explained the entire process - from gathering the clay in the desert, to mixing it with sand to make it pliable, using llama bones to mold and shape the clay into various types of vessels, sanding the surface of the vessels to smooth out the surface, mixing the paints which are extracted from natural materials such as minerals found in the desert, decorating the vessels, and finally, the firing process. Given how I was travelling, it wasn't practical to be buying pottery so I left empty handed. On the way out, I met up with two best friends who willingly posed for a photo. They are just too cute for words!

After our visit to the pottery factory, Fredy dropped me off at the hotel and told me that he would be by in the morning to take me to the bus station so I could catch the bus back to Lima. After my usual nightly routine, I had a quick dinner in hotel restaurant, watched some TV and called it an early night. I was tired.