Spider, Nazca Lines.
Why would anyone want to draw hummingbirds
the size of football fields?
Our first morning in Peru we left Lima
for the southern coastal desert and the Nazca lines. These are
the famous huge stylized figures and geometric lines in the desert
that have led some writers with highly developed imaginations
to conclude that they must have been fashioned by visitors from
outer space. (as in Chariots of the Gods). From Lima we took
an express bus with reclining seats, men's and women's toilets,
lunch, and 2 movies. Unfortunately, it also took 7 hours. The
first few hours were interesting as we gazed out the windows
at the traffic on the Pan American Highway -- small dented cars,
three wheeled bicycle carts, 3 wheeled cars, and 2 story trucks,
the sides constructed of wood slats or logs and tar paper, full
of produce or hay with a dozen workers riding precariously on
top. Peruvians seem to follow the same road rules I had encountered
in Greece -- the big guy gets the road, and the smaller one gets
the shoulder. Of course, there were always those adventurous
drivers who seemed to enjoy a rousing game of "chicken"
with our bus, especially on the one-lane bridges.
One of the most difficult things for
us to get used to, driving across Peru, was the amount of litter
on the road. It became obvious, early on, that there were no
sanctions for littering. But we didn't really realize that the
side of the roadway is the public garbage dump, until we saw
a truck with two men energetically shoveling trash from the truck
bed onto the shoulder of the road.
Usually I find the desert fascinating,
but this was a desert like none I'd ever seen: there was literally
nothing but bare brown rock. No cactus, no tumbleweed, no oasis
with palms and camels, no interesting geological formations,
nothing. Welcome to the driest desert in the world, with no appreciable
precipitation in the last 1000 years.
Humboldt penguins, Ballestas
Our bus finally arrived in Nazca, and
we descended to a small convenience store that apparently served
as the local bus station. My trusty travel agent had again secured
for us a driver, along with a guide who spoke very good English.
He showed us the amazing underground aqueducts that were still
in use several thousand years after their construction and pointed
out the first of many new bird species that we would encounter
on our trip. The exhibit of the Nazca lines, however, proved
somewhat disappointing. There were no museum exhibits, program
boards of explanation, or even close-up inspection of the construction.
There was, however, a grainy black and white video, available
in 6 languages, showing the lines and mentioning the "chariots
of the gods" theory of their origin. To their credit, the
local people obviously did not buy that explanation, and were
quite happy to credit the remarkable figures to their ancestors.
We took our scheduled late afternoon
overflight of the lines in a four-seat Cessna 172. By that time
of the day, the winds were rather blustery, and I was glad I
had had experience as a passenger in a small plane. We flew for
about 25 minutes over the lines, with the pilot pointing out
the various figures, such as the spider, the spaceman, and the
hummingbird. None of these figures was discovered until airplane
flight made it possible for them to be seen from above, as they
are several hundred meters in length. Even more fascinating to
us, there are huge geometric lines, rectangles, and triangles
"drawn" on the desert landscape. Current theory is
that these point to or follow the course of water that used to
come from the surrounding mountains. The lines are mysterious
and unique, but for us the 7 hour bus ride made the investment
a little too much for the ROI.
The next day we spent in Paracas, a
seaport three hours from Nazca. We visited a marine reserve where
we were enchanted by the hundreds of sea lions, flamingos, and
penguins wintering in the area. That's right, penguins. Even
though Peru is in the tropics and we were close to the equator,
the cold Humboldt current brings a strange assortment of marine
life to the area, including the Humboldt Penguin. Then we got
a close-up look at this desert that can't support even a trap-door
spider. The constant and steady wind made us wonder why there
wasn't an attempt to harness the wind power to desalinate the
ocean water for irrigation. It would seem there is an excellent
opportunity for an entrepreneur with vision in the south of Peru.
Mt. Misti, Arequipa.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.
After the southern coast, we headed
for the southern interior, to Arequipa, the intellectual capital
of Peru. At 7500 feet, this city was our threshhold to the Andes.
We were greeted at the hotel with coca tea, an infusion from
coca leaves that helps combat altitude sickness, acting as a
stimulant and diuretic. The effects were immediately apparent
to me; my heart started beating noticeably faster after the first
two sips. Steve, on the other hand, didn't notice any effect
Coca leaves have been used for centuries
in Peru for tea, in religious ceremonies, and as a good-will
gift. Bodies are even buried with tiny bags of the leaves. But
do you think we could bring one home as a souvenir? Even though
the connection between coca leaves and cocaine is a distant one
-- about the same as the connection between grain and whiskey
-- and you can get about as high from coca leaves as you can
from Coco Puffs, that doesn't stop our government from banning
them and trying to eradicate their cultivation in Peru..
The Andean highlands have changed little
in the last few hundred years. Not trucks, but llamas transport
goods from village to village. Barter is the primary means of
trade. Women wash clothes in the river, laying them across stone
walls to dry. Most people still make their living from agriculture,
plowing the fields with wooden implements as their ancestors
did. Just to make the land arable requires considerable work.
The land is rocky and steep, and the famous terraces are sometimes
only a few meters wide. We saw very few farms where tractors
and other such modern farm equipment could be effectively used.
With this rocky terrain for their home,
farm families rise long before dawn, at 3:30 or 4:00 am, to begin
their hours-long trek to their plots of arable land. There whole
families -- husband, wife, and children -- plow, gather crops,
milk the cattle, herd the sheep, and live much as their forebears
did. If the children are needed on the land, they are not sent
to school. In spite of the difficult conditions, the Andean farmers
produce hundreds of varieties of potatoes and high-protein grains
we have never eaten in the northern hemisphere.
They also produce chicha, a type of
corn-based beer, that the highland people drink every afternoon.
Red plastic bags adorn the front of houses where chicha is brewed,
and locals gather after the field work to drink, relax, and play
games of skill. (I thought it tasted rather like soap suds, but
I hadn't been working in the fields, either.) After a light supper
they usually retire by 8:00 pm. With little or no electricity,
when the sun sets at 5:30 or 6:00 pm, the day is effectively
Arequipa offered several fascinating
places to visit. The Santa Catalina Monastery was opened to the
public in 1970 after 400 years as a cloister. This was a convent
for the very rich; aristocratic families hoped offering a daughter
to God would help them gain a place in the hereafter. They paid
a princely sum for the privilege of locking their daughters away
in the convent and kept them well supplied with servants, fine
porcelain, and silver. The white, bright blue, and terracotta
walls lined with pots of red geraniums reminded me of a Grecian
villa, but the thought that these children, some as young as
8, were never allowed to venture outside the convent walls made
The archeological museum in Arequipa
provided an interesting counterpoint to the colonial monastery.
This small museum houses "Juanita", a 500
year old Inca mummy discovered just a few years ago when a nearby
volcano's hot ashes melted the ice on a neighboring mountain.
The "ice maiden" is encased in a glass box that is
kept at a constant temperature, many degrees below freezing.
"Juanita" was a girl of about 12 who was raised for
the express purpose of sacrifice. The most perfect children were
taken from their families as infants and raised to be special
envoys to the gods; it was considered a great honor for both
the child and her family. I couldn't help but notice the parallel
between this ritual and the colonial Catholics' sacrificing their
daughters to the convent. Both did so in the hope of building
a bridge to their god.
Next month: We visit one of the gods.
Marcia Brandes. All rights reserved.