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Maria Reiche and the Nazca Lines

13th March 2022

On a visit to Peru, I visit the scientist who spent her life uncovering and charting the ancient Nazca Lines carved into the desert floor....

In Nazca I am welcomed by the touts
who pester me with rates for hotels and
for flights above the Nazca Lines but I
ignore them and with heavy bag go off 
to find my own accommodation and
enjoy the last laugh at the Hostal Mirth
which offers clean rooms, decent shower with 
hot water and a flushing loo for eighty 
intis nightly. Nazca's Lines are drawings
and designs etched on a massive scale ,
some stretch kilometres, into the hot 
and thirsty red dust of the desert. No
one knows exactly when they were created 
or by whom although the earliest 
is dated at a thousand years B.C.
The Swiss ufologist Von Däniken
suggested in The Chariots of the Gods 
(Erinnerungen an die Zukunft) they
were flying saucer airstrip markers which
seemed plausible and reaped much hype or so-called
Dänikitis in the space-mad ninteen
sixties. Millions sold and made the author
rich, but, jailed for fraud, his reputation 
suffered and was further damaged by
the revelation that his übersetzer 
was a former Nazi journalist.

Enough of him. More modest is Maria 
Reiche who has given her entire
life to Nazca and the desert lines. 
She's eighty-five and lives in Nazca, racked
by Parkinson's and blindness. Four years back
her sister Frau Doktor Renate Reiche 
came to live with her. The have adjoining 
bedrooms at the Hotel Turistas
as permanent non-paying guests. They bring
the curious. Maria used to give 
twice daily lectures, free of charge, on her 
life's work but now that she's infirm Renate
does it for her, even speaking diff'rent
languages according to demand. 

I don the panama and poke my nose
around the Hotel Turistas. I squeak
along red polished tiles around the swimming 
pool enclosed within a colonnade
and shaded by date palms. By happy chance
I come upon the last few minutes of 
Renate's midday Vorlesung. I stand 
in shadow in the hotel lounge and listen
to the conscientious Yanks outdoing
one another asking details of 
dimensions, dates and soon forgotten facts. 
The questions dry and everybody queues
for  hardback copies of Maria's book
Geheimnisse der Wüste - Desert Secrets.
I buy postcards and in small talk tell
the sister I enjoyed the lecture, was 
a journalist and that I'd love to meet
Maria if that were permissible. 
Renate said, Wir können etwas machen.
Meine Schwester macht gern. Interviews.

The afternoon is hot. I turn up for 
the interview, sweat trickling from my brow,
the panama a fan. A chair has been
arranged for me beside aria's bed.
She sits majestic'lly, erect and proud,
her freckled skin still taut across her handsome
physiognomy, her full white hair
tied back into a bun. She ears a long 
blue nightdress for the interview. Her legs
are covered by a milticoloured rug
which slips from time to time because she twists
and wriggles from her parkinsonia
and which she with an effort hauls back up.
Assistance is refused; she treasures what
she has of independenceand regrets
not bitterly but with a sigh, the loss
of her abilities. She's also blind.
Her eyes, no irises, are misty blue.
They look straight at me only when I speak
which isn't often or for long until
I read to her post-interview and then
their solemn, opaque luminosity
is fixed on me unfalt'ringly. She stands
between insanity and genius.
It was an act of madness when she left
her home in nineteen thirties Germany
for South America, but she achieved 
her goals with academic thoroughness 
and scientific clarity of thought, 
writing up her findings for the press.
Her voice is level - no senile vibrato -
though it weakens as each tale extends. 
Her head rolls and her eyes enliven as 
the images of long ago revive. 

Renate sits nearby for the duration
present like an overbearing censor.
A Peruvian assistant nurse
lurks in the background also but Maria
needs none and will push herself back up,
controlling with a little difficulty
flailing arms and unresponsive frame. 
She spoke with little interruption for 
an hour and when. her sister thought she'd gone
on long enough, Maria contradicted 
her and said she would continue as 
she never tired of opportunities 
to talk about the beauty of the desert
or the strangeness of the lines drawn on 
the Atacama pampas. Here's a strange 
coincidence: I'd noticed that a finger 
on her left hand wasn't there and asked
about it. Gangrene, said Maria, from
a cactus needle. Odd thing is, she said,
the monkey has a missing finger too. 

Her ground floor room is small, has access to
the hotel gardens and looks out towards
the mountains. On the wall are plaques
of her achievements and certificates 
of honorary doctorates. Some books
and magazines for want of shelving 
fill an archotect's white drawing board
turned flat. Maria's diagrams and sketches 
hang from clothes pegs in the corridor.
A tape recorder and cassettes of music 
of the Andes share the bedside table.
Maria loves the desert but she states
this drily, unemotionally. There's 
no passion in her voice. These are the cold,
hard facts. She loves her sister too and Reiche
junior reciprocates, but there
is envy and resentment in their sibling
mutuality. They give and thn
they take. 'She speaks French with a better accent,'
says Marua of her sis, 'but not 
as fliently as I.' Renate makes
no comment at this tempered compliment.