By Timothy Scott
What takes the town from bearable to beautiful though is the impressive Hotel Paracas, run by the Libertador group. An architectural wonder staffed by bilingual workers mostly from Lima, it appears just down the beach like an aesthetic fantasy, something conjured up to refresh the eyes and body.
From this base, it’s easy to explore the islands nearby on a group trip or on a private yacht through the T’ikariy Tours office in the hotel. If your time is really tight, they can even set it up so you see 1,000-pound sea creatures by boat in the morning and then fly over the Nazca lines in the afternoon. With more time, they can arrange Pisco distillery tours, ATV desert tours, or visits to the full Paracas Nature Reserve. While it is possible to view the Nazca lines from Nazca itself or Ica, doing it from here has huge advantages: you can stay at the best hotel between Lima and Puno, plus you don’t have to go overland through a hot and dusty landscape with little to see.
Flying Over the Nazca Lines
I always get excited about taking a prop plane trip where I’ll see things from a close vantage point, but this one had me giddy as I watched the pilot and copilot start the single engine and go through their departure checklist. Our 12-seat Cessna is going to reach an altitude of 3,200 feet on the half-hour trip to get there from the Paracas area, then will swoop down to 2,200 feet as we get a look at the famed Nazca Lines.
Since man began flying over Peru, the Nazca Lines have been one of the world’s most intriguing mysteries. They’ve spawned many competing theories, none of which makes total sense. What we do know is that the lines and figures were carved into the crusty desert landscape around 300 B.C. The most outrageous theories insist they were done for aliens visiting Earth—how I first heard about them as a boy, reading Chariots of the Gods. Others say they were appeals to the gods the people prayed to, those controlling the weather. Perhaps, some say, they were water source maps or had some relationship to the constellations.
On the way there, we pass a landscape so barren and forbidding that it’s hard to imagine how or why anyone ever settled here to start with. Where man hasn’t taken control through irrigation, the only patches of green are next to the rare streams and rivers. The rest is a sea of brown and gray, with steep mountains devoid of vegetation, looking like they would be perfectly at home on Mars. This is Peru’s diversity on display again, this region so very different than the lush Amazon jungle and the spectacular Andes Mountains in the clouds.
I had wrongly assumed that the lines were clumped together in one small area, but it was often a few minutes’ flight over the desert floor to get from one figure to another. The plane tours of Nazca hit them in a specific logical order though, starting with an image of a whale, then passing what looks a lot like an airport runway and past “the astronaut.” (See where those alien visitation theories come from?) After that our flight ziz-zags past a string of spectacular figures: a condor, a hummingbird, a monkey with a curling tail, a spider, and “Alcatraz,” a 300-meter bird with a snaking neck. During the summer solstice, it points to the rising sun.
To see the carvings well, the plane curves and banks around each site. This way each passenger gets a good opportunity to see the figure head-on or to attempt a photo through the plane window. Naturally there are air sickness bags in each seat back pocket. Nobody on my flight has to use them, thankfully, but a few were looking a little pale after one too many steep turns in the air. Anyone expecting trouble should take the right medication before the trip.
It’s hard not to be awed by the Nazca Lines. The care, design planning, and engineering skill it took to create them is amazing coming from a civilization of some 2,300 years ago, out in the middle of nowhere.
After we land and deplane, the pale riders get their color back and everyone seems to have a big grin on their face. I get back to Hotel Paracas and have a cocktail as the sun sets over the hills by the bay. From this vantage point, after seeing strange sea creatures and strange figures in the desert, the appeal of Paracas is suddenly clear. It’s hard for any place in Peru to compete with the big draws of Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Pichu, but this Paracas region tour is another illustration of the big payoff that can come from exploring the rest of the country.
If you go:
If T’ikariy is booked up for Nazca flights, contact Aerodiana, which also flies out of the same airport nearby. When checking flights to Peru, be sure to include Copa Airlines, which offers some of the best fares—especially in business class—with an easy connection in Panama City from Canada, Europe, and multiple U.S. cities.
Story and photos by Timothy Scott