Dangerous Sightseeing in Peru

There is really only one way to take in the full majesty of the Nazca Lines, immense pre-Columbian images of animals and symbols outlined over miles of ground in the Nazca Desert in Peru: From the air. It’s only from there that the most complicated designs—a stylized monkey, say, or a hummingbird—are visible, making it clear why clear why this is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Unfortunately, for at least some of the 250,000 tourists that visit per year, that view has come with a price beyond the approximately $60 ticket charge. Since 2007, the 14 flight operators that operate out of María Reiche airport here have suffered 10 different airplane emergencies, including three crashes. In that time, 17 people have died, including four British tourists and two Peruvian pilots in the most recent incident, this Oct. 2.

“When we heard the news [of that crash], we were crushed,” says Fernando Ramírez. His son Matías was one of the seven victims of a similar fatal tourist-plane crash in Nazca just eight months before, this past February.

Despite public clamor, Peru’s Ministry of Transport and Communications has allowed the fleets to continue operating. Ministry officials did say, though, that they are investigating the cause of the crash.

“We are determined to find the causes that originated the accident and are waiting for the inspection reports,” announced an official press statement. Ministry officials declined to comment as to when the findings would be divulged, or to comment on any of the preceding accidents.

Local media, however, say mechanical problems are suspected to have caused the craft’s engine to malfunction. Fuel shortages and engine shutdowns have been reported to be among the causes of these situations.

“Unfortunately, it is a system in which the airline companies aren’t really profiting enough to re-invest in equipment,” says Peruvian aviation attorney, Julian Palacin, President of the Peruvian Institute of Aviation Law. “And a tight budget forces them to make cuts on maintenance and workers, so the system doesn’t work.”

Tourists are beginning to take note. This April, the U.S. Embassy in Lima forbade U.S. military personnel on liberty from a visiting naval aircraft carrier to take the tourist flights. The Ministry of Tourism reported 30,000 fewer tourists overflew the Nazca lines in 2009 and expects an even further reduction in 2010.

The family and friends of those who perished in last February’s crash are have done their bit to spread the word, setting up a blog titled “Danger in Nazca: The killer airlines.” There, they’ve posted photos and updates on the crashes, hoping to make people will think twice before they board the planes. After the last crash, “my wife, daughter and I embraced crying and feeling hopeless because we felt our mission to prevent another tragedy had been thwarted,” says Ramírez.

The sheer beauty of the pre-Columbian marvels may be working against him. While the Nazca geoglyphs can be viewed by climbing 43 feet up a metallic “mirador” or balcony, eschewing a flight means seeing only a few straight lines and geometrical figures, as opposed to the whole wide horizon.

So the billboards along the nearby Panamerican Highway continue to offer inexpensive trips into the sky, and thousands still queue up to get on board. Making the airport open for business, as usual, until the next accident occurs.