For me, the most interesting and thought-provoking experiences in all of Peru (take THAT Machu Picchu!) were unplanned visits to two Nazca burial site. One had been protected and preserved while the other had…not.
We arrived at Chauchilla and found that we had the place to ourselves, with the exception of a French family trailing a teenage daughter who was clearly UNIMPRESSED at her father’s insistence that she traipse around a field of corpses snapping family photographs. “Mais…c’est trés dégoûtant papa,” echoed through the air and was adopted as our quote of the day.
Chauchilla was fascinating. While the majority of graves lay undisturbed beneath the sand, a few tombs hiding under the shade of straw huts had been opened for public viewing. The mummies were well-preserved and it was interesting to see the assortment of objects each corpse was interned with, carefully organized around dozens of bodies folded into eternal fetal positions. It was an open air museum like no other! Although a bit run-down, the tombs were tastefully displayed. We were impressed that the Peruvians had done such a good job at protecting the tombs and we were happy to pay the seven-dollar entry fee that covered the cost of security for the site. We wandered around for an hour and decided that we’d had our fill of history for the day.
As we drove south through the barren hills, it became obvious that human burial sites peppered the desert. Shards of white bone stuck up through the sand and, on a few occasions, I caught glimpses of human skulls, sand drifting through empty sockets, grinning into the piercing blue sky.
Our guide suddenly halted the dune buggy at a small necropolis that had been ransacked by grave-robbers with bulldozers two days earlier. He became increasingly agitated as he described the brazen attacks on Nazca’s cultural heritage and outlined his government’s apathy and unwillingness to intervene. “This is legal,” he explained in fiery Spanish. “There is high demand in the Eastern-European market for Nazcan artifacts…people here view robbing tombs as a valid way of making extra money! We need laws to discourage this!” He gave a frustrated wave at the bulldozed sand around the buggy and left us to explore the area.
Thus began some of most surreal moments of my life. Dani and I ventured into the churned sand and picked our way through the debris. Pottery shards littered the ground and mixed with decaying clothes, weapons, and bits of wood. Human remains were interspersed with the wreckage; Dani and I treaded carefully, trying to avoid stepping on body-parts. It was a futile effort. I pointed out some colourful bead jewelry hanging from a skeletal wrist that the looters had missed. We could discern different shades of hair-colour hanging from millennium-old scalps. We saw one twisted face so well-preserved that she probably would have been recognized by someone who had known her centuries ago. It is eerie to stare death in the face but unnerving when the dead smile back! I felt something wedged between my toes and gingerly picked a mummified finger from my flip-flop. I decided that I’d had enough. Feeling uncomfortably like a voyeur who spies on something intimately private and personal - I’m not sure I would be stoked about camera-wielding tourists tramping on my remains, even if it is a thousand years in the future - we trudged back to the dune buggy and continued on our way.