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Peru’s Enormous Ancient Line Drawings

The condor geoglyph of Peru's famed Nazca Lines

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is under threat from a surprising source — those who want to see it.

Journey 220 miles south from Lima, the beautiful capital of Peru, and make your way along the Gringo Trail, climbing to an elevation of a mere 1,700 feet above sea level. There, in one of the most arid regions in the world, you will find a mystery as compelling and enduring as the pyramids: the Nazca Lines. These geometric patterns and animal figures are of such a scale they can only be truly discerned from the sky yet were created by people approximately 2,000 years ago.

Here the desert itself is a 190-square-mile canvas, covered with real and fantastical figures, from the famous hummingbird — damaged by a Greenpeace stunt gone awry in 2014 — to a lounging, sphinx-like cat, first discovered in 2020. These huge desert drawings were etched into the ground when people removed rocks and dirt from the surface to reveal a different color soil beneath. (This is part of why they are so delicate; if the soil gets scratched away next to a line it can alter the shape).

Theories as to their purpose have ranged from the astronomical to the astrological. While a Japanese research team uncovered evidence that more undiscovered glyphs exist, studies of the known designs have found no correlations to star patterns. The general consensus is that the glyphs served different purposes for the different cultures that built them.

This World Heritage Site, which UNESCO describes as “the most outstanding group of geoglyphs anywhere in the world,” is now endangered by a variety of sources, ranging from the aforementioned Greenpeace action to drivers ignoring signs or careening off the road that runs through them. Over-tourism — more people visiting than the local infrastructure can handle — has also played a role leading to their inclusion on the 2012 World Monuments Fund’s watch list of most endangered cultural heritage sites across the world.

This piece originally ran in Out Traveler print magazine. The Spring 2022 issue is now available on newsstands.

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