Seeing the Nazca Lines, and more Peru, on a budget
Heading for Peru and Machu Picchu? It is fantastic. Even though it needs to be experienced through gasping under-oxygenated lungs, and it can be a budget buster. Then what? It’s a hard travel act to follow. But there is another massive attraction just a quick hop to the south that most travelers haven’t seen yet.
In the driest desert in the world lay the mysteries and history of the Nazca Lines and the archaeology of the inhabiitants for more than 14,000 years. The Nazca Lines are famous because the figures were only discovered in 1927 from a plane. Until recently they were hard to get to and there was little tourist infrastructure to be able to fly over them for a good view. But that has changed in the last few years.
What are the Nazca Lines and why are they there?
Why would people in the dusty corridors of time of 300BC trudge out into the searing heat to move stones to make drawings they can’t fully see? To view the entire figures you must be 1,500 feet (500 meters) in the air. How and why did they manage it?
Many a theory has been advanced including the idea that the lines were made to communicate with aliens. The most accepted science to date is that the lines are a huge astronomical calendar.
How to visit and see the Nazca Lines
The city of Nazca and the city of Ica are both jumping off points to see the lines and they have mostly free or very cheap museums and exhibits to explain how the lines were made and what they were detailing. So strike a blow for the budget on that one. Also the guides on the airplane rides explain their history and meaning.
In the same area are Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve. Attempting to count the flamingos, sea lions, penguins, blue footed booby and other wildlife is an act of lunacy that will create a headache of epic proportions. Save yourself the trauma and just enjoy snapping photos of the fantastically colored birds and lizards. Often dolphins and whales come by to visit as well.
This area is sometimes called the poor man’s Galapagos. It is a title lived up to quite nicely as prices are much more reasonable while the huge numbers and kinds of wildlife are amazing. Big international tourist companies just haven’t discovered and pushed it much yet.
Then there is the variety of ancient ruins and the lives and artifacts of these very creative and knowledgeable people in the Paracas reserve which are fascinating.
How much does it cost to visit and see the Nazca Lines?
Well there are a variety of trips available that range from a one-day marathon to several days exploring at a more leisurely pace. Personally I do not like the marathon one-day choice because the distance to be travelled means you get picked up at your Lima hotel at 4:30 am and are returned about 11:00pm which makes for a long day.
Some basic tours doing this were US$364 per person.
A one-day tour in a private car was US$442 per person.
A three-day bus tour was US$567 per person. None of these included food, Paracas Reserve, museums or Dune buggy rides. Also the airplane rides included were 30 minutes and we wanted longer ones.
Getting to the Nazca Lines
All tours leading to Paracas, Ballestas and Ica/Nazca originate in Lima.
To get there you can drive south in a locally rented car, which is reasonably priced at US$35 per day, which includes insurance but not local taxes. The roads are okay but the drivers are not!
Peru has a legendary road toll due to dreadful driving practices according to the Peruvians and statistics I consulted. So this is not recommended. However, we do know people who drive in Peru and they maintain it’s not that bad just trust that the other driver is a complete idiot and drive defensively. The price of gas in Peru (over US$5 gallon) is quite high (for some of us) though so adding that to your bill doesn’t make this a cheap option in the end.
From Lima to the Nazca area is about 200 miles/300 kilometers, which is too short for a flight and too long to drive comfortably if you have limited time. At this point there are no domestic airlines in Peru flying into any city near the Nazca lines. So your next option is to choose between the plethora of bus tours or arrange your own itinerary. (I bet you already know which one is going to save you wads of money.)
Local tour prices at the Nazca Lines
Our strategy was to find a Nazca Lines tour that we wanted to do and then look at prices.
After some study I found us a three-day ‘Explore Southern Peru’ plan for US$750 per person and that didn’t include hotels or food. Wow! Pricey!
We liked the good variety of activities and time frames. There was plenty of hours with all the exotic animals, seeing museums and ruins, riding dune buggies/sandboarding in sand mountains in the desert and a 40-minute Nazca fly over. So we ‘borrowed’ this itinerary.
We knew we could do better price-wise of course. We tweaked destinations and times a bit and were ready to head for Paracas.
We shopped online before we left and kept finding no options but the fancy tour companies. Thanks to the new ‘helpful search algorithms’ even when we typed Spanish queries we couldn’t get the local bus options.
Finally, after weird back door queries, we got the reservation link for the buses working Peruvians use. The thing to be noted here is that these buses are the same ones used by the tour companies. Comfy seats, bathrooms, a/c, you are fed a little meal and there is video if you want it. The front of the second deck is all windows and panoramic views and is the best seat in the house.
So prices on these luxurious buses? The first leg from Lima to Paracas cost US$21 per person. Then a bus from Paracas to Ica for the flights to the Nazca lines, dune buggies and some early Inca ruins, that’s US$12. Then Ica back to Lima US$21. So US$54 each for basic transport? That’s easy on the wallet. These were low-season prices. It is more December through February, Easter and other holidays.
Accomodation near the Nazca Lines
The lowest price we found for Paracas online at the moment was ‘Willy’s House’. A hostel that goes for about US$8 per night. It is very basic but boasts free Wi-fi. There are many others that look nicer and cost in the US$12-20 a night range.
A friend enjoyed staying at ‘Kokopelli’ right on the beach for US$11 with catamarans for free and hour lessons for US$4. His costs were a bit less than ours but he had to negotiate for all other tours and meals and was in a small dorm.
Most more comfortable rooms run about US$40-60 all over this region with the luxury places going for US$200 night. The luxury venues include tour fees to the nearby Ballestas Island and all the niceties of massages and hot tubs and full air conditioning.
We preferred the Hostal Santa Maria. It is very close to transport, on top of the beach and is super clean. It is next door to restaurant row – but don’t forget the cheaper, and often better, food is off the main tourist area.
Our quoted costs were US$100 which I negotiated down to US$90 but that included our dinners, live flamenco music they had going on in the evening and the full price of two of us going on a very nice speed boat tour to Ballestas Island.
Food and tour package costs
The normal price for that tour with the English speaking guide is US$35 per person so we saved at least half by getting that via the hotel. Dinner was good with appetizers, beef, salad, potatoes, dessert and wine. (This would have cost US$10 per person or more separately) So our US$90 less US$20 meals and US$35 savings on the tour means our room cost was about US$35. So, all in all, a great deal for two in a pleasant place with nice amenities. (Normal double bed costs there are US$40-45)
Food prices in the sandwich shops one street over are less of course. Be sure to ask for the ‘menu del dia’ which is all over South America, available during the day only. It generally includes appetizers, full meal, dessert and drink, often wine, for about US$5-8. Evening meals run about US$10 and up.
Our hostel did not have A/C but during spring/fall it’s very comfortable. We didn’t even need the fan. Be careful though as it can get very hot in this end of Peru in Nov-Feb.
Also holidays will fill the towns with locals so get a calendar of Peruvian/Catholic holidays online and plan accordingly.
The islands and wildlife were absolutely wonderful and they alone were worth the trip. Paracas Reserve had differing species and you could get closer to the animals. The speedboat trip kept us offshore but Paracas allowed walking right up to creatures you would otherwise never touch. Go There!!
On to Ica and the Nazca lines flight
The bus trip over to Ica takes just over an hour. We’ve had good luck consulting cab drivers for hotels in the past and so we tried it again. He directed us to a super hotel that is not widely known yet. The normal rate on the website was showing at US$38.00 for a double room and bath. We paid US$30. The rooms are new, lovely and clean. I bet this rate is for PR only and it will be up soon as it is definitely worth more. It was the best budget place we have stayed in for a number of years.
Next was the most excellent real life roller coaster ride ever! Dune buggies and sandboarding up and down massive dunes near the tiny Huacachina oasis. They are right outside of Ica about a 10-minute cab ride (US$4). Do a little shopping once there and a good ride will run you about US$13. (The tour price for this extra was standardly US$35.) Plan for the late afternoon as sands are too hot to go earlier.
Now for the Nazca Lines themselves. Finding a bargain for flying over the lines is easy. Wait till you get there and start consulting with your hostel when you arrive. Early in the AM the air is clearest and the ride smoothest. They should give you a map, a video presentation and a nice lecture while you are in the air.
If you are prepared to take a 4 or 6-seater plane without a/c rather than a fancier 12-seater with a/c, a trip can be had for US$25 per person. A big savings over the normal US$110 and up. They last from 30 minutes to longer 1-hour trips.
I wanted to see everything and I wanted the time for the pilot to double back over each figure so everybody got a good view of everything. That meant more time in the air. Also I wanted to see some of the newly found figures not in the old map.
So we went for an hour instead which cost US$50 per person. In safety terms the Peruvian government runs a pretty tight leash on the planes and operators. They know that one accident will create years of bad PR wiping out huge income for the whole country.
Other things to do in Ica
Taxi to Ica Regional Museum. It has a great collection of early textiles, beautifully painted pottery, mummies and other objects. Price is a mere US$2.50 entry while you cab from the hotel might be another US$2. One tour I found wanted US$15 for this little jaunt.
There are numerous ancient archeological ruins within easy reach of a cab or bus ride from Paracas or Ica you’ll need to research that a bit. We ran short of time as weather interfered with our Nazca plane ride so I saw none of the ancient ruins although I was desperate to see Cauchilla Cemetary. And here is a link for the geeks like me – Ica archeological ruins.
There’s also Pisco factory tour. Pisco is a finely distilled alcohol that I love as it never gives me a hangover plus it’s very tasty. They give pisco sour tastings on the tour of course. We didn’t do this as we had done one in Chile previously. I recommend it though as the process is interesting.
Ok pooped out and ready to head for home after this satisfying excursion it is time to add up the costs;
- $54 for long haul buses
- $17.50 Speedboat tour to Ballestas Islands (wildlife)
- $15 Paracas Reserve (wildlife, ancient ruins)
- $15 Dune buggy/sandboarding
- $50 Nazca flights
- $44 Food on Menu del dia + evening meals
- $25 Taxis, tips
- $32.50 $65 divided by 2 — Hotel Paracas and Ica + taxes
Total: US$253 each including hotels and food
Throw in another US$47 for the tours and travel we didn’t take to the ruins, ‘stuff’ or extravangances we might have done and call it an even US$300 each.
So the tour we wanted and got could have cost US$1,500 for the two of us, plus more for hotels and food. The less pricey excursions at US$567pp –($1134 for two) was still way above what we spent.
We were delighted with our side trip doing much more, paying way less and having a great series of memories to take home.
Homework pays off!
By Suzie Hammond
Suzie has written articles, ads and books for many a year. Her latest book is; “I am Not Sure Where I Want to Be – But it's Not Here (Easily Find Your Ideal Relocation Destination)”. She freelances and maintains a blog about the oddities of life in a different country at http://www.goodwriter.info/Blog/index.html
Photo credits: ilkerender on Flickr, P Szekely on Flickr, funkz on Flickr, speedygroundhog on Flickr, Proimos on Wikicommons, T Lange on Flickr, Spheniscus_humboldti on Flickr