Eleanor Hughes finds aque­ducts, pyra­mids and a city of the dead.

Herald on Sunday - - PERU -

Stand­ing un­der a tree out of the burn­ing sun, I find out the Nazca area re­ceives only one to two cen­time­tres of rain a year. This year it hasn’t come. No won­der it’s so arid and dusty. Cen­turies ago beau­ti­ful women were de­cap­i­tated and their heads of­fered to the gods to please them, in the hope they’d send rain. Watch out, beau­ti­ful women . . .

Cacti in the field to the left, play­ing host to cochineal bugs, look with­ered and brown. Splashes of cerise on a thriv­ing bougainvil­lea are prob­a­bly thanks to an­cient Nazca peo­ple. Fif­teen hun­dred or so years af­ter they were built, the an­cient un­der­ground wa­ter sys­tem here, known as the Can­talloc Aque­ducts, is still used by farm­ers. How did the Nazca peo­ple know wa­ter flowed un­der­ground here?

Did wa­ter di­vin­ers walk­ing the desert find it?

I fol­low the spi­ralling path down into one of a se­ries of grey rock-lined puquios, or wells, and find clear wa­ter in the small open­ing at the bot­tom. In the shape of in­verted mon­ster snail shells

15-20m apart, some 7m deep, the puquios look like gi­ant plug­holes in the earth. Re­cent stud­ies sug­gest the spi­rals pull air into the un­der­ground tun­nels be­tween them which moves the wa­ter through the network. The puquios also bring light and air to whomever over the cen­turies has cleaned the stone and wood-lined tun­nels be­tween each, so wa­ter re­mains pure.

From the puquios, wa­ter trav­els out into open zig-zagged chan­nels lined with stones. The zig-zag for­ma­tion slows the wa­ter in flood times stop­ping the banks be­ing de­stroyed. Ei­ther there’s been no flood­ing or the Nazca knew what they were do­ing — the chan­nels are still in­tact. Not far away I glimpse the wa­ter reser­voir among a green area of potato and other crops, like a mini oa­sis.

Leav­ing the aque­ducts, we travel through more sand-brown desert. Here and there ranges of crum­pled-look­ing red­dish brown rounded hills or a green val­ley break the monotony. Dot­ted along the high­way are sin­gle-storey, paint-faded, con­crete homes, their two win­dows like dark eyes look­ing out. Some­thing black lies dry­ing in the sun nearby a few. Pos­si­bly it’s sea­weed. The coast is not so far away, about 50km.

Dust from a pass­ing bus bil­lows in our open win­dows. We’re on a dirt road head­ing to Cahuachi Pyra­mids, 30km from Nazca. Who knew Peru had pyra­mids? Not me.

Aban­doned in the fifth or sixth cen­tury AD, they look more like dirt mounds with walls, ter­races and steps built on them. The mud bricks form­ing the struc­tures are of dif­fer­ing shapes

and sizes. Three pyra­mids have been re­stored, ex­ca­va­tions hav­ing been car­ried out over the past 25 years, but money is short and no­body is work­ing to­day. In fact, there is no­body around but us. Our guide im­parts lots of in­for­ma­tion, which is great be­cause there is no sig­nage. There’s also no shade and un­der cloud­less skies I can’t con­cen­trate in the heat. In the dis­tance Cerro Blanco, the world’s high­est known sand dune — 2078m above sea level — tow­ers white above hills in vary­ing shades of brown. At 1176m from bot­tom to top it’s not some­where I’d want to climb at this time of the day.

Leav­ing what feels like a ghost town, we drive fur­ther south to Chauchilla Ceme­tery, down a dirt road off the Panamer­i­cana high­way. The ceme­tery dates back to the IcaChin­cha cul­ture about 1000AD. It has as many peo­ple as the pyra­mids and aque­ducts. The brown flat­ness, with a few white specks here and there, is bro­ken only by red and pink tinged hills nearby and 13 dark brown thatched roofs. It’s 1pm and the heat has sapped my en­ergy. Drag­ging our feet, heads down against the sting­ing, re­lent­less blast­ing of sand and wind, we head for a thatched roof. The shade is heaven. I look down into the 2m-deep pit the roof cov­ers. An empty eye-sock­eted mummy stares back.

Did he, or she, die laugh­ing or scream­ing? The mummy sits with knees drawn up be­neath a still in­tact wo­ven burial cloth, which re­sem­bles a pon­cho. The other thatched roofs cover more pits, some like small rooms. The arid en­vi­ron­ment has pre­served the tex­tiles well. Some burial cloths still have colour, a hint of red, a lit­tle or­ange, one a deep bur­gundy. Through a tat­tered one I glimpse leath­ery legs, quite pos­si­bly those of a man, men had wider cheek­bones and larger eye sock­ets than women. The resin the bod­ies were painted with has helped pre­serve their skin. Some wear head­bands over black hair twisted thick like heavy rope, some­how still at­tached to chalk­white skulls. It hangs down backs, snaking around legs. Not a grey hair is in sight, pos­si­bly be­cause life was short back then, ap­par­ently be­tween 30-40 years.

The area has been plun­dered by grave rob­bers over time. The burial pits are a re­con­struc­tion. The mum­mies, with up to three in each pit, face east as they would have been buried. Re­mains of bowls and pots, needed in the af­ter­life are ar­ranged be­fore them. They look as if they’re about to en­joy a meal. I’m thank­ful I wasn’t around in In­caChin­cha times when told that if the hus­band died first his wife would be killed so they could be to­gether for eter­nity.

I’m also thank­ful I’ve got com­pany in this mid­dleof-nowhere burial site. The gri­mac­ing skulls are a lit­tle creepy and those white things I saw dot­ted across the brown land­scape are ap­par­ently bones. Thou­sands lie ex­posed across the desert un­earthed by grave rob­bers. Alone, I’d be watch­ing my back half ex­pect­ing the dead to rise. As we drive away, a layer of brown grime on my skin, I sur­vey the desert and won­der what else from an­cient civil­i­sa­tions lies be­neath cen­turies of brown dirt.

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