Ecuador is the land of the hat. Everyone has one here, most especially the women. Green, brown or black felt ones with a feather in the side; white or felt bowler hats – essential for daily wear to identify your tribe. Then of course there is the Panama hat – Ecuador’s most famous export and possibly the most famous hat of all, yet weirdly, irreparably credited to Panama. What do you do?
Archive for January, 2011
Vomiting, diarrhoea, nightmarish visions, serpents & spirits, fasting, restrictive diets, celibacy, mosquito’s and other bizarre insects…. strange things indeed to associate with a totally voluntary travel escapade really. So why I find myself wondering, have I pursued this quest to trek deep into the jungle to visit with a shaman and drink Ayahuasca?
I have been conscious of this summons for the last 15 years or so, ever since I first became fascinated with the wonderful world of hallucinogenic plants and trance states. But it’s only since I started travelling again, that the passion and ‘the call’ have been transformed into a more compelling spiritual quest. Now staring at the jungle, about to dive into another encounter with the ‘vine of the dead’, I suddenly have found time to ponder the obsession and attraction.
For those wanting to know, a shaman is a person who, in tribal cultures, communicates with the spirit world. As intermediaries, shamans ask spirits to intercede in the lives of humans, healing them of illnesses, or granting favors. While Shaman are located all around the world and work in many strange ways, the Shaman of South America are some of the most famed – spending years in the deep, immersive plant kingdoms of the jungle by themselves training to work with the plants. Theirs is a history and world passed from master to apprentice all the way back through time. Using the Ayahuasca vine (or the San Pedro cactus in the Andean mountain traditions), they roam the bridging dimensions of the spirit world in service to their communities. We have found shamans just about everywhere in Ecuador and Peru, every community has one, though finding true masters is much more of a challenge.
In an Ayahuasca ceremony, the shaman guides you in navigating the wonders of this plant and exploring the mysterious otherworld. Their Icaros (songs), music and chants performed during the ceremony caste a protective net around the participants; freeing them from darker or negative spirits preying on those being opened up by the experience to the universe and spirit-world. The songs and music holds and binds you to reality somehow, keeping your head above water and often controlling the tempo of the experience itself. Serpents (manifestations of the Ayahuasca plant) and other plants spirits are strong presences in this realm, but there are other more malevolent energies and spirits as well, able to be conjured by brujos (witchdoctors) for more sinister purposes. As largely ignorant savages, the white man is scores of generations out of practice and familiarity with the nuances of this world, so the shamans’ role is very important here, we are way out of our depth and need careful policing.
An Ayahuasca ceremony usually taking place after the sun sets around 8pm, in the twilight hours. After the shaman blesses and purifies his brew, you drink a small amount. The concoction itself is made according to the Shaman’s own recipe and tastes, but is typically made from boiling the vine itself for many hours or even days, along with a varying combination of other plants (including Charuna, a source of DMT that triggers the more visual experiences). How they have found these combinations from the millions of other plants available in the jungle is testament to the incredible knowledge and guidance they have received from the plants themselves. The taste of the Ayahuasca brew is horrid though – earthy and bitter, the stomach blanches at the very thought and after digestion it is a typical compulsion to then throw it up or occasionally purge it in other less pleasant ways. (It thus requires careful dieting and preliminary fasting as a result). As the Ayahuasca kicks in, you drop into an eerie halflight almost between worlds and often feel the presence of the Ayahuasca vine in various forms. It is an experience that can involve intense visions and insights or communications from the plants themselves, while sometimes this is comes with physical purging or cleansing – a process of removing negative energies, past experiences or personal blocks. All told the experience lasts up to 5 hours, though its resultant effects reverberate through you for days afterward.
Part of the appeal of all this is the ancient mystique of the activity itself. The experience of researching & collecting information on ancient / lost traditions; of tracking down local knowledge, finding personal encounters and recommendations on Shaman and the chance to wander deep into the legendary Amazonian jungle zone, it all just oozes with wow for me. It is the attraction of the adventure, the random, the ancient, the lost, the unknown and the unexpected; a thirst for ancient wisdom from traditions in stark contrast to and often of greater knowledge than our own. Most simply perhaps, it’s a call of the wild, a chance to return to nature in the truest sense.
More than that though, there is the urgent call of the experience itself – of experiencing the spirit world with all its unfathomable mysteries and legends. The hallucinogenic plant, Ayahuasca is felt as a living presence in spirit form by its imbibers. Its ritual consumption claims a myriad of effects from visions of the future and personal insights to deep ancestral connections or clear perceptions of spirits and astral travel. Its guidance can be used by shamans to heal all manner of physical, spiritual and emotional disorders with results that often stun modern science. Drinking the vine is also often described as akin to partaking in a form of natural communion, connecting you with the universes’ many sentient lifeforms – an interspecies union through sentient plants. ‘Food of the gods’ indeed to quote Terrence Mckenna, much like Mushrooms and Cactii – the vine’s sentient cousins. It can be a gateway to higher consciousness and much more.
I have done my research of course. William Burroughs, beat author and general pioneer of the strange, first did this pilgrimage back in the early 1950’s based purely on the merest sniff of legend and rumour. His friend Ginsberg and other psychedelic revolutionaries such as Aldus Huxley began to follow in his footsteps later in the sixties. But over the last 20 years or so it has started to boom in popularity, an almost mainstream form of psychedelic tourism has kicked in, with custom built centres opening up everywhere. Jungle shaman are now ‘turning professional’ as they focus on servicing the ‘gringos’ and gringo’s in turn are donning shaman colours themselves; conversely fakes and cons are rapidly incrasing, preying on the increased demand. Slowly it is bringing shamanism more mainstream attention – there are lots of recent books, documentaries and a yearly conference all reinforcing this momentum and sharing the wisdom – continued purveyors of the myth. In many ways it is saving the shamanic tradition, but it is also corrupting it as well and in some cases driving prices into the multi-star resort zone, out of reach of the average person. These days many centres in Peru have a webpage in several languages and I can network with shamans via Facebook,
What am I seeking or hoping to gain from it all, I find myself asking again? I think first, I selfishly crave the manifestation of the mystical experience, acquiring some tangible truths from this realm. Science, logic, glimpses of truth and an inherent instinct has led me here and it would be nice to have it confirmed, a curse of the rational mind I suppose. I have had many experiences with other plants and have explored similar realms in ways that I cannot dismiss as imaginative figments or induced irrelevancies. As I get older and filled with life experiences, these have taken on more spiritual meaning for me and remain true in the face of much else that I dismiss. Philosophically I have found that the science of chakras, energy points, planes of consciousness and existence as described in the Buddhist and Yogic traditions actually align themselves completely with those described by the shaman and accessed through sacred plants. A synchronicity that resonates with practical truth, at once incredibly both reassuring and compelling in their implicit agreement, albeit accessed in vastly different ways. The attraction with the plants though is the bypassing of the years of meditation, faith and training sometimes required by other forms to be able to experience and explore with these spaces directly. A shortcut, that doesn’t undermine the other pathways in any form, it just enables the opportunity for a more direct validation if you will.
So to navigate its depths perchance and in the process, feel the awe of connection with the universe and nature, injecting the spirit with the inspiration and motivation for true change. I see it as potentially seeking some kind of healing for myself of apathy, blockages and insecurities to better enable me to move forward and grow in this world, a catalyst for more applied daily channeling of such awareness, perhaps built upon through other means.
On rereading here, I realize I am likely building this all up to much – too much pressure and expectation perhaps. Good as it all sounds, I know that there is never a single solution or instant personal holy grail to be had. I’m sure plenty of issues will come up in the process – nothing is ever as simple as it appears.
And of course, none of this can be achieved in just one sitting either, so we are shopping a little. Ecuador is really just the first foray – this is also a perspective and experience hunt from a few different tribe’s and traditions. Over the next few months in both Ecuador and Peru, we are planning on spending several weeks with a range of shaman in different areas. The goal is to go deep, scratch the itch and give the universe the chance to do its work, then ask questions on the other side? So we are at the beginning really – exciting most definitely, well prepared perhaps, but totally ignorant of what lies ahead. It’s a fitting culmination to our travels. In many ways it has taken me 18 months to get into the right frame of mind for it. Yoga, meditation, fasting, changed attitudes to food / body and spirit and a renewed love and connection with nature have all manifested themselves along the way – it has been a long and integrated path towards such a union. The vine awaits….
To read some of our experiences in Ecuador, click here
To read some of our experiences in Peru, click here!
Some friendly felt puppets showing off the indigenous dress styles of the locals at Otavalo. One of the best markets in South America, Otavalo is famous for felt hats, leather-work, handy craft and the traditional wear / friendly demeanor of the locals. Unfortunately the puppets were easier to photograph.
There are some places that from the moment they are mentioned regale the senses with a certain mystique, appeal and promise – the Galapagos Archipelago is one of these and it doesn’t disappoint. Darwin famously visited this place as part of his 5 year voyage around the world aboard the ‘Beagle’ as a naturalist in the 1830’s. His discoveries, subsequent writings and contemplations as a result of what he found there, became a central piece in later moulding his revolutionary theories of evolution entitled the ‘Origin of the Species’. An idea spawned from the simple indisputable truth that all things must evolve to adapt to their environment by necessity. There is evidence for this everywhere in the Galapagos – a place where each island has evolved its own variations on single common species such as finches (same species, 4 different beaks), iguanas and tortoises amongst numerous others, all uniquely endemic to the islands. A ‘perfect evolutionary petri’ dish, crafted over time and apart from a few pirates and whalers, largely bereft of humans, enshrining it in legend.
Thanks to Darwin, in my minds eye I had envisioned giant turtles, exotic birds, vibrant sea life and lizards all independently going about life’s evolutionary endeavour, blissfully free of complication. What is most striking and perhaps unique amongst wildlife experiences though is the incredible timidity of all the animals. Birds you can walk up to and pick up; seals you can pat; fish you could touch; turtles and tortoises you can ride or iguanas that simply didn’t care you existed – not that you can do any of those things, but you get the point. Unlike anywhere else I’ve traveled it provides the opportunity to get intimate with a nature devoid of fear – pure photographer fantasy, Megumi was in heaven. While the diversity is not that great here, it is these micro details that fascinate, making it a superb naturalists encounter. Preserved if not identical to Darwin’s own experience, then a very close second and happily still able to invigorate the same evolutionary questions, wonder and awe at the mystery’s of life, even in spite of the packaged nature of the experience.
The Galapagos Archipelago is located just under a thousand klicks off the shore of Ecuador, right on the equator in the Pacific Ocean. You have to fly in obviously and given that there are 15 or so volcanic islands (5 major ones, 4 populated), up to 100km distant from each other and separated by major oceanic currents, there is a lot of ship-work involved simply to get around and see any of them. The most common way to experience this as you would probably expect then, is via a fully catered cruise aboard some kind of floating vessel, usually ranging between 4-8 nights (diving is extra) winding its way through the Islands and marine national parks. Cruises aren’t exactly amenable to the average backpacker budget, but this was one of those things (like Safari’s in Africa) that we had budgeted some cash to throw at and do properly.
In Quito, the capital of Ecuador, we spent several days scoping out Galapagos “last minute” travel agencies – they are ubiquitous here, busily discounting final places in various types of cruise ships (the majority luxury) to try and fill them up. It is the easiest way to get a cheap deal, usually 30-50% discounted from the prices you might pay back home. If you are really ambitious you can fly to the islands directly (about $400), stay in a hotel in Puerto Ayora and either do some day trips to the bigger islands or try your luck on a last minute deal directly with the boat captains to get the cheapest possible ride. It does take time and patience though and there are usually only limited possibilities from the island. Given it was New Years Eve and peak season, we played it safe, we tried for a yacht or catamaran but watched the only viable option disappear before we could secure it. In the end, we went with the cheapest 5 day option we could find, which also worked out to be the most opportune timing. All in, it cost $650 pp incl. snorkelling – plus flights & park fee’s, we skipped the diving unfortunately – got to draw the line somewhere. Give us an excuse to go hammerhead hunting some other time.
24 hours later, we are landing on a treeless, desert island, met by our guide at the airport and ushered along with a Columbian couple, 2 English guys, a Frenchmen and 3 Austrians aboard our small craft, the “Flamingo”. It quickly became obvious that ours was the cheapest boat afloat in the harbour that day, dwarfed as it was by the various yachts in its vicinity and most worryingly, heavily listing to one side! Our cabin was a double bunk with its own bathroom in the rear of the boat and quite honestly compared favourably with a Japanese apartment – this we could do. The 5 crew, our guide (required by law) and 8 fellow customers were all friendly and agreeable and within minutes we were all eating an impressive 3 course lunch in the small dining room and sitting on the roof lounge heading out to sea for our first look at a Galapagos Isle. We felt right at home, cheapest option it might be, but it felt like a great service.
For the 5 day cruise, we had chosen the Southern Loop, which has the better wildlife, apparently but there is also a 4 day Northern loop and when combined they form an 8 day overall program. It seems almost all cruises follow the same basic formula though. Quickly the days fell into a routine: Breakfast at 6.45am, land on an Island with our guide at 7.30am and explore the wildlife, travel to our next destination, lunch, another guided walk or some snorkelling, dinner, a few beers and an evening migration to the next Island on our itinerary.
The highlights and specifics of the islands I have journalized below.
After arriving, we headed an hour or so north of the airport on Balta to this Island, trailed the whole way by a fleet of Frigate birds – their distinctive silhouettes providing a secure escort. A guided walk around the small island revealed a bizarre desert landscape, Beaching from our dingy, hundreds of bright red crabs covered the black volcanic rocks and aquatic iguanas sunned themselves. Here we encountered frigate birds nesting in their hundreds; young juveniles sitting on bushes within easy reach and males in the midst of their own stunning mating rituals. Their red chests billowing out like balloons as they worked hard to attract a mate. The timidity of the wildlife is totally unique, I have never felt anything like it; both birds & lizards allow you to stand within cm of them without flinching. In the evening, we went for a snorkel and took in some of the marine life – we saw numerous sting rays, seals, some white tipped sharks and tonnes of colourful fish.
New Years Eve on a boat in the middle of the Pacific was a strange event, one of the English guys had a birthday so the crew cooked a cake. Afterwards everyone else crashed; a long day and the prospect of an early start overcoming any potential fervour for a new year. I stayed up with the English guys drinking beers for a while, before they too called it a night. Alone by 10pm, I took in the stunning night sky for a while before I joined them. On the equator you can view both the Northern and Southern sky together – the big dipper and the Southern Cross in one sky. So much for the countdown though – don’t know if I have ever missed it before. .
Arriving early in the morning on New Years day, this arid island was one of the prettiest. Covered in aging cactus tree’s, several metres tall yet growing only 1cm per year. Hiding beneath the cactus trees waiting for the cacti flowers or segments to fall from the wind – large, colourful, yellow Iguanas piled on top of each other. Along a cliff-face on one side, we saw thousands of birds – pelicans, frigates, nocturnal gulls and tropic birds (plus many more Iguanas) swooping over the volcanic rock faces covered with Red and black crabs. On the far end of the Island spread across bright red heath were lone male sea lions both aged and juvenile, striking lonesome poses in their exile. Near the beach complete families of seals played under the watchful protection of the large male heads of the family, patrolling the nearby ocean for sharks.
Isla Sante Fe (Barrington)
After watching eagle rays jump out of the water either side of the boat, in the late morning, we headed here, a trip of about 2 hours. We then went snorkeling for a few hours, before a later afternoon walk along the beach trail. We saw many more sting rays here lying in the sand, plus lots of large sea turtles and aquatic iguanas swimming – several seals also swam along side us. The walk revealed the by now usual array of seals, iguanas and bird-life – almost the same old thing already, but somehow always new and fascinating. Spent quite some time playing with the seals here – the young ones so fearless that you could almost lean cross and kiss the pups. Mothers, brothers and sisters all spooned together sleeping on the side.
Isla Espanola (Hood)
Travelled til late in the night to get here and woke up moored off a beautiful cove. Made landfall about 7.30am on 2 small beaches covered in Sea lions and cubs. There were Iguana’s absolutely everywhere here – but differently coloured, exotic variations of red and green. Further inland we found thousands of birds nesting along cliff paths, a Galapagos hawk, several blue footed & innumerable regular boobie families; yellow beaked albatrosses and numerous gulls and finches with their young, eggs lying around, some even abandoned on the paths.
Later we moved around the island to Gardner Cove to a beautiful long white sandy beach covered in seals with rocky outcrops and grasses. While it rained a little, we went snorkeling and found hundreds of large sting rays (Eagle & Golden Rays) buried in the sand along the ocean floor; numerous massive sea turtles grazing on the sea grasses by the shore; some sea snakes and other fish; a massive black sting ray and a Galapagos shark, it’s dark silhouette cruising by at speed as it hunted baby seals from the cover of the breaking surf.
Isla Santa Maria (Floreana)
Arrived late at night and got up at 6am for a snorkel from the boat. It was cold in. A strange way to wake up – but both the place and the ticking tour clock beckoned seductively. Had the pleasure of swimming with a dozen or so giant turtles though, all passively feeding on the sea grasses, some dwarfed me, almost 2m in length. Later we went ashore to explore a lava tube, a 300m or so underground tunnel and visited the post office – a barrel traditionally used by whalers and pirates to deposit messages to loved ones. The concept is still in play it seems – review the messages left and find one you can assist in helping on its way. Megumi sent herself a postcard and in return picked up a couple of other Japanese ones to deliver.
Later, we went around the other side of the island to explore a fresh water lake. We were hoping to see flamingo’s here, but it being only the start of the wet season there was no fresh water and none to be found. To be honest there was not much on this Island apart from turtles, nesting and laying eggs on the beaches and hovering in the surf offshore in their multitudes, plus a few stray penguins and seals, one of which jumped onto our boat. Later we had ourselves a snorkel at Devils Crown, a volcanic crater forming a ring just offshore – full of starfish and a myriad of other exotic fish, this was a great experience. A pelican unperturbed by me blocking its way snorkeling, decided to just leverage itself over my head with its webbed feet – not shy at all. We passed several huge turtles snorkelling on the way back to the boat – one was so unfazed by 5 wetsuited humans that we spent 15 minutes poses for photos with it. Later as we left the island, we saw a large pod of dolphins carving their way across the horizon.
Isla Santa Cruz
Our last stop was Puerto Ayora, the main city of the Galapagos Isles and absolutely wall to wall with t-shirt shops, tourist trinkets, restaurants and travel agencies. Here we visited the Darwin Centre, a research station focused on restoring giant tortoise stocks. The giant tortoises of the Galapagos where largely decimated by pirates and whalers. Darwin reports that when he was here, sailers would catch up to 100 of these in a day; slow and easy to track as they carved their wide paths through the undergrowth, some required up to 8 men to carry. Once tortoises were caught, they were usually stored alive in the holds of the ships so they could serve as fresh food during the long ocean journeys. Little wonder there are only a few left on the smaller islands. At the Darwin Centre we saw “Lonesome George”, the last tortoise of his species, from the island of Punta in the North and probably the most famous tortoise alive. He was shacked up with two female related species of tortoises from another island, trying desperately to entice him into some reproductive genetic action, poor bloke. After the tour, we said our farewells to both the crew and shipmates and moved into a hotel in town for a couple of days. This is an easy option if you want to extend your cruise with an extra day trip or some diving or simply soak up the island life a little more and the local cuisine.
The next day, we headed inland soaking up the cooler, wetter climate of the highlands to explore the El Chato tortoise reserve and Rancho Principia. Both play host to a ridiculous number of giant tortoises that are littered all over the place. Lumbering, huge and elephant like, they carve huge paths through the dense bush in all directions from water holes and are easy to find. We must have come across at least 100 In our wandering around. The highlight was probably springing a couple mating – a long slow 2 hour ordeal, where the male pins the female with his neck and tries to through a leg over. Poor chick, it’s a pretty uneven contest.
Afterwards, we headed to Tortuga bay, a beautiful white beach and sheltered bay covered in land iguanas, pelicans and sea turtles a 2 or 3km walk from the town; a perfect place to relax, ahead of a return to the mainland. In the end we decided to skip the 2 bigger Islands of San Cristobel and Isabela, but it didn’t feel like we had missed much, we left well sated and did not want to overdo it.
Gives a whole new meaning to ‘getting a leg over’. We were lucky enough to come across this encounter wandering around a tortoise reserve. Apparently the male (top) tries to pin the female (much smaller) with his neck first, so that he can then climb on top and pin her for the deed. Meanwhile, she is trying to run (tortoise speed) to the nearest tree which she will use to protect herself (him being to large to maneuver). Mating like this takes several hours, but we gave up after 20 minutes. Really didn’t know who to go for here either!
Every island in the Galapagos has a unique assortment of wildlife, but these guys were probably my favourites. The mating dance of the frigate bird is quite spectacular as he blows up his chest into a giant bubble and waves it around. The blue footed boobie is just visually odd (there is a red footed one on another island) and of course you can’t beat the giant tortoises, like mini elephant caravans – some are close to 2m long and live to 200 years old.
On top of every rock, under ever cactus, all over every island in the Archipelago. Iguanas of vivid colour – land or sea (and unnatural unions of the two), simply lie around, free of threat, focused entirely on soaking up the sun’s rays. This guy wouldn’t move no matter what we did so focused was he on the task at hand. His position would be the envy of any yogi – a perfect sun salutation.