NASCA, Peru – Everyone here, it seems, has a theory about the Nasca Lines.
The mysterious markings on the desert floor are a massive astronomical calendar. That's a popular one.
Or maybe they point to hidden reserves of water, the source of life in the desert.Then there's my favorite: UFO landing site. Forty years ago, Danish writer Erich Von Daniken popularized that theory with his best-selling book Chariots of the Gods?
Now, strapped into a four-passenger Cessna circling over a figure called the astronaut, I'm not sure what to think. One of its hands points to the sky, another to the ground. His owlish eyes stare into mine.
Look at me, the 1,500-year-old seems to say. Can you solve my mystery?
Here's what's known: For hundreds of years, the Nasca people created lines on the ground. Some form familiar figures: a spider, hummingbird and dog. Others – a whale, monkey and parrot – don't belong in the desert at all.
The only way to see the Nasca Lines is from the air. That makes them even more mysterious. How did pre-Inca people make these images without being able to fly? And what was the point of forming lines if they couldn't appreciate their glory? The lines weren't even discovered until 1929, when a pilot flew over the area and was astonished to see eyes looking up at him.
Thanks to the ancients, the town of Nasca now has a veritable air force: More than a dozen companies fly planes over the lines. The tours are an industry, as indicated by the handwritten sign taped to my plane's instrument console. "Tips are welcome," it says in six languages.
Not bad for a dusty desert town of about 20,000, a six-hour bus ride south of Lima. The modern city of Nasca, a place that gets less than an inch of rain a year, owes its prosperity to the mysterious markings. Statues inspired by the desert figures decorate the town plaza. Sketches of the lines are everywhere else. Elongated hummingbirds mark store signs, while a lizard graces City Hall. On sidewalks, brass inlays of a monkey and spider reflect the sun.
But the lines might have been forgotten without Maria Reiche. She came to Peru from Germany in the 1930s as a tutor and eventually dedicated her life to documenting the creations. For years, she surveyed the area, measuring the markings and pondering their meaning.
"To the local people, she was the gringa loca, the crazy woman sweeping the desert," said Bruno Huancahuari, who works at the Maria Reiche Foundation, a museum built at her former home outside Nasca. Displays include her hand-drawn maps and the Volkswagen microbus she used for explorations.
The world came around to Ms. Reiche's way of thinking before she died in 1998. Her statue now overlooks the city plaza. UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site, but not before some lines were destroyed by development – the Pan American Highway cuts a lizard's tail in half.
Only a few spots allow visitors to get a close look at the lines. A roadside fire tower, built with Ms. Reiche's funds, provides a view of two figures: a tree and a pair of hands. Like the astronaut and monkey, the two hands have only nine fingers. Another mystery.
But the city is generous with theories. Here's one explanation offered to me by a guide: Nasca has nine months of blazing summer heat, thus nine fingers.
Maybe so. But to understand the lines, I wanted to see them from ground level. Half a mile from the tower, visitors can get a desert-level view of the creations. I kneel to look straight down a line. I see no monkeys, whales or spiders. Just a long, straight pathway bordered with stones and disappearing into the distance in the brown, dusty desert.
The markings were made by clearing away dark rock, exposing white soil below. Archaeologists have demonstrated that using sophisticated surveying techniques it would have been possible for the Nascans to create figures working from a small model expanded to a large scale. That's probably how they were built. But one researcher has shown that the Nascans also could have built hot-air balloons to supervise the construction from above. We'll never know. The Nascan culture disappeared, eventually absorbed by the Incas.
Ms. Reiche spent her final years at the Hotel Nazca Lines (Nasca has alternate spellings), where she received free room and board in exchange for nightly lectures, during which she wrestled with questions such as these.
The hotel keeps the tradition alive with a nightly planetarium show. I drop in one evening, browsing alpaca scarves and Nasca replica pottery in the lobby gift shop before a German couple and I are led outside to a circular wooden building for a presentation in English.
As Peruvian flute music plays, the lights dim and an astronomer reviews the theories behind the lines. Ms. Reiche, it's noted, came to believe the lines were a star calendar, and that gets a thorough examination as lines and stars trace across the planetarium screen.
The hummingbird figure, for example, has a line emerging from its beak that crosses the desert and eventually points to the spot where the sun rises on Dec. 21, the South American summer solstice.
But just a third of the lines can be linked to astronomical observations. It could all be coincidence.
Each figure is made from a single line, we're told. Some believe the Nascans would visit their drawings for religious ceremonies, following the lines as some worshippers elsewhere in the world walk labyrinths in prayer and meditation.
Another theory suggests that the lines point to springs. Water here is a constant worry. Peru's coastal desert is one of Earth's harshest environments. Summer temperatures often top 125 degrees.
The word Nasca means "hard place to live," but its ancient residents found ways to survive. They constructed a system of aqueducts, channeling water from underground springs to their crops. At one point, an aqueduct flows underneath a river channel.
The underground waterways would clog, so the Nascans built walkways spiraling down as far as 20 feet, making it possible to clear obstructions and keep the water flowing. I follow one path down to the water level, marveling at the engineering and the startling sight of water coursing through a desert. These were clearly sophisticated people.
That same day, I look them in the face at the Chauchilla Cemetery, about 20 miles south of town. The dead rested in peace here until a century ago, when grave robbers desecrated the huge burial ground. The criminals grabbed pottery and textiles, leaving bodies and bones scattered across the desert floor. And that's where many remain.
Mummies have been returned to 12 graves, which are open for viewing. I stick to the path linking the sites. Vertebrae, femurs and slivers of unidentifiable human bones lie exposed on the sand.
The Nascans placed their mummies in a fetal position. Many had long hair, some still attached to the leathery skin on their skulls. The scene is creepy even at midday, looking like a bad Halloween display. Then I see mummies of children, and I'm reminded that this was once a place of mourning and sadness. Their small bodies are heartbreaking centuries later.
Now all the bodies and skulls again face east, waiting for the rising sun and rebirth.
It's sobering, but I had come to celebrate the Nascan's genius, not their demise. I had come to see their lines from the air.
Nasca's airport is little more than an open-air waiting room. Visitors line up for flights, which last 25 minutes and cost about .
I share a plane with a couple from Spain, who take the back seat. I'm to be the co-pilot. Before takeoff, we're given a map showing our route and the dozen or so figures we will see.
The pilot introduces himself, then radios the control tower for permission to take off. I'm unnerved when he writes the runway coordinates on his hand with a pen. Before I can back out, we're airborne.
In moments, the city of Nasca gives way to wide-open desert. Lines stretch everywhere. There are literally thousands, covering hundreds of square miles, but only a small percentage form recognizable figures.
The pilot taps my shoulder and points. There's a whale swimming forever through the sand. We circle it twice before moving on to the next figure, like a game of aerial connect-the-dots. Next come a pair of trapezoids – Erich Von Daniken's UFO landing strips. Then we circle the astronaut, who looks forlorn on the hillside, his big eyes staring up.
The pilot taps me on the shoulder again and pushes his body against the yoke so I can stretch behind him for a view out his window. It's like the driver of a sports car leaning forward to let a passenger into the back seat. Except we're cruising several thousand feet above the ground.
We pass a dog and a monkey. That's when I make my own Nasca Lines connection: The monkey's spiraling tail looks just like the path leading down to the aqueducts.
As we circle the figures, the plane tilting and dipping, my head starts spinning. I feel the blood drain from my face.
The pilot guarantees his tip when he nudges my shoulder. He pours some alcohol on a cotton swab and hands it to me, motioning for me to hold it to my nose.
My head clears.
During the next 10 minutes, we pass a spider, hummingbird, parrot, hands and a tree. I had seen the last two from the tower the previous day, but now the altitude guarantees a spectacular view.
Then he circles one last time and heads back toward town. For the first time in my life, I feel a cold sweat pouring down my back.
Somewhere over a grove of tangelo trees, I officially lose my breakfast in a bag provided for the occasion.
Back on the ground, I take a shaky step down to the tarmac.
The Nasca Lines remain a mystery to me, but I now have a wish for the ancients.
If aliens ever did fly in circles over the desert in southern Peru, I hope they tipped their pilot well.
Why were the Nasca Lines made? Here are some theories:
UFO landing strips. OK, a little far-fetched, but the idea presented in the best-seller Chariots of the Gods? helped popularize the lines.
Astronomical observatory. Many of the lines point to constellations and can be tied to solstices and equinoxes. But most don't.
Water. The desert-dwelling Nascans obsessed about water, and the lines could map underground sources.
Labyrinths. Each figure is constructed from a single line, so they could be walked during ceremonies.
Sports stadium. The Nascans were great athletes, the thinking goes. Maybe the lines were running tracks.
For tribute. The markings can be seen only from the air, making them messages to the gods. (See first suggestion.)
The town of Nasca (also spelled Nazca) is about 275 miles south of Lima. It's possible to visit on a day trip, flying from Lima to the towns of Pisco or Ica, and then taking a smaller plane for a flight over the Nasca Lines. But that would give you time to see the lines from the air and little else.
Consider overnighting, and even adding an extra day if you're a lines nut. Nasca sites can be visited on day tours provided by many area agencies.
I used a bus to reach Nasca, Cruz del Sur (www.cruzdelsur.com.pe), that cost about each way from Lima and included movies, large business-class style seats, a snack and a game of bingo.
Avoid people selling tours and hotel rooms at bus stops. You'll get a better and more reputable deal from a hotel or agency.
FLIGHTS AND SHOW
Take my advice: Skip eating before you take a flight.
Flying over the lines costs about for 25 minutes. Or you could fly from Ica or Pisco, which is closer to Lima, but it's usually just a flyover and won't allow time for other sights. These flights are 0 to 0.
The planetarium show at the Nasca Lines Hotel is offered in English nightly at 7 p.m. Cost: .
One of the newest hotels, Casa Andina, offers boutique style and comfort. About . Contact: 1-866-447-3270; www.casa-andina.com.
The Nasca Lines Hotel is another standby. Rates around ; 011-51-56-522-293.
I stayed at the Hotel Alegria. 011-56-522-702. Cost: under . Some rooms are air-conditioned, important in the desert heat.
Peru travel information: www.peru.info