Cahuachi, a Nasca temple in Peru's desert
We walked over the desert sands until we came to the top of the largest pyramid in this area. I stared down at hundreds if not thousands of holes left by grave robbers Sun bleached bones and broken pottery shards lay scattered across the landscape. The dry desert wind whispered past my ears. If I tilted my head just right I imagined I could hear the anguished voices of the ghosts that occupied this land. Their mournful screams begged for the return of their belongings, things necessary to carry them through the afterlife promised by their priests. At my feet a skull lay partially uncovered. The coronal sutures not fused, it belonged to a baby.
I had heard about the temple complex called Cahuachi after my original visit to Nasca. Feeling bad that I had missed it and the aqueducts built in a later period, it was important to me that I return and see this incredible site. The ceremonial complex covers 370 acres and is one of the largest in the world. Very few people actually lived in this city. It was used mainly for ritual purposes relating to agriculture, water and fertility.
Although the Nasca culture spanned the time period from 300BC to 700AD, the temples were only in use from 1AD to approximately 500AD. Much of what is known about the Nasca Culture has been deduced from finds at this site.
The Temple of Cahuachi as it appears today (Photo by Rodney Dodig)
The site is being excavated and one temple has been partially restored by the Italian archaeologist Guiseppe Orefici. The first excavations started in 1950. Orefici has been working at the site since the early 1970’s, bringing his team for three months every year. The following quote explains the demise of the site:
"What happened at Cahuachi? Between 300 and 350 A.D. there were two natural disasters. A great, very powerful flood - we have found the evidence in all the excavations - and an earthquake, an earthquake which split the temples in two. We have also found dead bodies under the fallen walls.
"That\'s when the Nasca religion seemed to lose its power, at least some gods or the ceremonial center itself lost power and that\'s when the place was abandoned. But before they left, since everything was ceremonial, everything was ritual, everything had religious significance for the Nasca, they completely sealed all the monuments. If we examine the higher levels we can see that a crust of clay has been deliberately applied on top of a man-made layer.
"They left behind a sacred place, called a \'Huaca\'. Absolutely everything where we are standing has been covered by men themselves."
Afterwards they moved up river (Rio Aja) to other areas. It is theorized that this is when the aqueducts were built (500AD – 700AD). The aqueducts are another important site in this area that you should take the time to see. After this period, the Nasca (actually a Quechua word) were conquered by the Wari and remained under their rule until the Inca empire moved in.
Our guide, Orlando Flores (“call me Vito”), arrived a few minutes early to pick us up. We were heading out about 3pm to the site. Vito recommended this time, as the heat during midday is torturous. Also, the light for photography is best in the early morning or late evening hours. The drive there took us through a desolate desert that bordered lush farmland next to a river.
Forty minutes later we arrived at the beginning of the complex. Vito pulled over to the side and we walked out among the unexcavated archaeological remains. Vito told me they no longer call them ruins. It has something to do with how people perceive the sites. They are more likely to destroy something called a ruin.
As we made our way through the destruction caused by the grave robbers I couldn’t help but think that the desecrators cared nothing for what they were doing. The image of gold was the only thing in their feverish brains as they dug with their hands and crude tools. Hundreds of years later, farmers would leave their fields with their tractors and plow through the tops of the temples. They destroyed their heritage in their lust for things to sell on the black markets of the world. Later, self styled archaeologists came, little more than grave robbers themselves. A countries heritage and culture crated and shipped to museums around the world.
Now Peru and other countries cry out in the courts of the world to have their artifacts returned. Things have changed considerably since then. In modern times, archaeologists dig to discover. They take photos and cover the sites with sand in an effort to preserve them for future study. Important artifacts are turned over to the museums of the host countries for study and interpretation.
From there we loaded ourselves back in the vehicle and headed to the area where Orefici and his crews have been working. We pulled into a parking lot next to a campground for workers when the dig team was on site. Entry to the restored main temple complex isn’t allowed at this time.
Although the work is slow, restoration continues, as do significant finds. Vito told us that a recent dig uncovered a wall with paintings still intact. Mythical creatures reminiscent of the ones found in the Templo de la Luna in Trujillo. It’s still impressive to see, from the outside the ropes marking off the area.
As we climbed over partially-destroyed temples, we could see that some straw mat roofs, as well as the ropes that held them together, remained intact under the sand. Tunnels that connected the temples had been cleaned out. Holes in the roofs of the tunnels to the surface provided light for the people coming and going between them.
Visiting this site was an emotional experience for me. The damage done, and the knowledge lost, is immense. In particular, it was affecting to see the bones scattered on the surface, tossed aside like trash. It doesn’t bother me when bodies are removed for study and treated with respect, but this was something else entirely. Still, enough remains to help tell the story of the Nasca Culture.
Ancient bones scattered on the site (Photo by Rodney Dodig)
Archaeologists like Dr. Orefici have a great respect for the sites that they work on. I can appreciate that.
This archaeological site should be on everyone’s list if you plan to come to Peru, especially if those plans include an over flight of the Nasca Lines. Cahuachi was as important if not more so to the Nasca people as the Lines. Lastly, I would recommend the following if you intend to go.
To help arrange your trip:
Orlando Vito Flores – offers an excellent guide service to Cahuachi and the aqueducts of Nasca. His contact information is:
Nasca Oasis – an excellent hostel located on the edge of the city. It’s quiet, has a swimming pool and excellent service. Many of the staff also speaks English. Aaron arranged the stay here for us. Their website is: http://www.nascaoasis.com/
For more information, visit this website about the Nasca religious center.
Since 2009, Rodney has been living in Peru and writing about travel, archaeology and more. He is a true Lima enthusiast. He chronicles many of his experiences in Lima on his blog. You can read his fiction at the Peru Writer\'s Group. He is also the co-author, with Larry Pitman, of the forthcoming book The Prince Charming Murders.