Posted by: Jessie Kwak | December 21, 2009

Nazca desert blues

Nazca. It didn’t help that we arrived at 4am at the bus terminal, then waited another three and a half hours in the hotel lobby for rooms to become available. We all crawled into bed exhausted, promising to meet up for lunch, but by the time we woke up the midday heat had set in.

Rob and I had come from the mild tail end of a Peruvian highland winter into the cool spring days of seaside Huanchaco. When we arrived in Lima, the weather had the sudden joy of a Seattle summer day, where you dress in layers to shed if the sun comes unexpectedly out to greet you.

To wake up in the desert oven that was Nazca was a jarring surprise.

Adrian, our tour guide to the aqueducts, told us that the name Nazca comes from the Quechua word for “ouch.” The place of pain. For the Incas who first set eyes on this arid, scorching place with no visible water supply but the tantalizingly dry riverbeds, this place must have seemed a hell.

(From above, in the famous airplanes that daily grant tourists the magic of flight, I find myself captivated more by the sinewy knotwork of the dry riverbeds than the figures that are cut into the land around them. The riverbeds carve their way from the foothills and across the pampas, wrinkled and scabbed.)

Winding dryriverbeds amid the Nazca lines

The rivers only bring water a few months out of the year, when rain pours out of the mountains to fill them. For the rest of the year the Nazca people survive through an extensive series of 36 aqueducts that access and channel the vast aquifers flowing just below the baked surface. Spiral ramps lead down to the clear water, access points both to find and maintain the underground channels. Adrian tells us that the spirals represent Pachamama, that one enters the spring, the puquio, to receive the life-giving water.

Like most desert cities, Nazca is growing beyond the environment’s ability to sustain it. As the city’s need for water increases, the aqueducts are disappearing. “When the farmers get some money they decide to build a water well,” said Adrian. “They are taking the resource, the water, and the aqueducts disappear.” In the 70’s it was prohibited to dig wells, but that hasn’t stopped people from doing so, and now Nazca has more than 2000 wells diverting water from the aqueducts.

This hot, desperate city has been made famous for the lines that are carved into the pampas, made by clearing away the dark stones scattered across the surface to expose the white clay beneath. It has perfected the art of separating the tourist from the local—you can check into your hotel, eat at the hotel’s restaurant, swim in their pool, organize an overflight or tour of the aqueducts through them (with door-to-door service), and even book your bus tickets on to Lima or Arequipa or Cuzco through them. If you felt like it, you could see all the famous sights of Nazca without ever setting foot in the dusty, crumbling streets of the town.

Nazca aqueducts

Adrian drives us back from the aqueducts on a road that passes through the dry riverbed, empty of water but full of trash. I stare up at the foothills, where clouds are gathering. He has just told us that he thinks it will rain this next week, that when it rains in the mountains the rivers can rise to flood proportions, and people sandbag the doors to their houses and sleep on the second floor. I imagine a tidal wave of trash being pushed at the head of the floodwaters, washing away Nazca’s problem and passing it on to the people downriver.

The streets of Nazca were nearly empty around our hostel, the odd taxi creeping past piles of bricks and bags of cement. The sun beats straight down, and each passing car kicks up a choking cloud in its wake. We go out to the Plaza de Armas to sample the street venders, then we retreat into the gringo familiarity of our hotel to await our night bus to Arequipa. Another new city to wake up in.

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