Published: October 2007
Did you Know?
In Did You Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.
The Nasca Plains of the Peruvian Andes may have been the site of the first hot-air balloon tours more than 1,500 years ago. Home to the Nasca culture from A.D. 100 to 750, the plains are famous for their enigmatic large-scale carvings on the desert floor, called geoglyphs. We may never know for sure why the Nasca people labored over the massive drawings, so large that they can only be appreciated from above, but theories abound. One man, explorer Jim Woodman, believed the Nasca were able to fly over the plains, and that the images may have served a ritualistic purpose, or even as a turn-of-the-millennium tourist attraction.

Though the theory is not widely accepted by archaeologists, Woodman, balloonist Julian Nott, and a team of several others single-mindedly set out to prove it could be done, and in 1975 Woodman and Nott made their first flight above the plains.

The team devised a fully functional hot-air balloon using only materials and techniques that would have been available to the Nasca. Since no records or evidence existed to build a template from, the team aimed to keep the design as simple as possible. They sewed an upside-down pyramid-shape structure out of tightly woven cotton, similar to the material used for Nasca burial shrouds. Chalk lines helped the team cut straight lines for the massive shape by hand. Then they attached a traditional reed boat from nearby Lake Titicaca using local fiber ropes.

To fill the balloon, christened Condor 1, hot air was redirected from a fire in a trench. Normally, cotton is too porous to hold air, but by burning meat on the fires—the same technique used by the first hot-air balloonists in 16th-century Europe—fatty soot particles plugged the holes, creating a surface more airtight than some of the best parachute silks today.

Condor 1 filled overnight, and in the daylight Woodman and Nott mounted the reed boat and cut the holding ties. Within seconds, they rose hundreds of feet above the plains, floating peacefully before cool air and strong winds returned it, unceremoniously, to the ground with a thunk.

—Gabrielle E. Montanez