Scott’s Blog Archive


12 Days in Bolivia

We had originally planned on several weeks exploring Bolivia’s fantastic landscapes, but the universe had intervened and we had been forced to reduce things to […]

We had originally planned on several weeks exploring Bolivia’s fantastic landscapes, but the universe had intervened and we had been forced to reduce things to their basic essentials. Bolivia was not to be taken lightly though – it had loomed large in Megumi’s plans for most of the trip – two of her big travel “to do’s” were located here; accessible mountains above 6,000m and the salt lake’s of Uyuni – scenes from which had been haunting her desktop wallpaper for the last 2+ years, above all other locations, which says a lot.

A serpent shaped promontory on Titicaca

Our entry to Bolivia from Peru, came via the stunning Lake Titicaca – one of the earth’s truly sacred place’s. The largest, high altitude lake in the world, some 4,000m, it is home to the creation myths of the Inca’s and several more great ancient civilizations, most notably the Tiwanaku dating back to almost 3,000 BC. Arriving in Copacabana we stayed the night and caught a boat to the Isle del Sol (Island of the Sun) the next morning. Getting dropped off at the Northern end – we visited the sacred Incan creation stone and ceremonial centre, then trekked the length of the island, down an old Incan trail for 3 hours staying at one of the many hostals at the other end, all of which are kitted with wonderful views across the lake. Titicaca itself is an incredibly tranquil place, oozing with silence and memories of times past. Becalmed on the surface and ringed by snow capped peaks on its distant shores, it is an easy place to idle away days of time. Peninsula’s and islands jut out in different directions, many of which are in the distinct shape of animals – most notably serpents and puma’s. You can easily see why the place is so revered in the Andean cultures, it is very special.

Reliefs on the sun gate @ Tiwanaku

Boating back to Copacabana, we caught a bus the few hours to La Paz and settled ourselves into a hotel in the middle of the downtown tourist area, comfortably positioned amongst all the trekking companies, souvenir stands and fellow adventurers, whereupon Megumi began making enquiries about mountain climbing. Having picked up a bit of a cold already and remaining still scarred by my Killamanjaro efforts similarly encumbered, I had decided to sit this one out. Megumi, despite sniffling away herself was pretty unperturbed though – she sat through heart monitors, oxygen analysis tests and defied any of the “trying to be helpful” trekking companies or guides to tell her what she could or could not do.

View of Huayna Potosi from the bus window

The mountain she wanted to climb, Huayna Potosi is about 6,088m, located just outside the city and consequently one of the most accessible (and cheapest) 6+k mountains in the world to climb. Largely because La Paz is already located at 4,000m so the net gain in altitude and risks of serious altitude sickness are somewhat reduced. It is still a really tough climb though, 9 hours for the total ascent over 2 gruelling days with little oxygen, some parts of which requiring crampons and ice axes to get over the top of ice walls, plus at least a week at this kind of high altitude to acclimatize beforehand. Having spent almost 2 months in Peru at similar heights though – we were pretty used to this atmosphere level now and Megumi locked herself in with a good company, geared up and disappeared for three days. Leaving me weirdly alone to recover from the flu and wander the streets of La Paz solo.

View of Lower La Paz from a hill in the middle of the city

La Paz is a strange city, as you enter from the flat high alto plains, you are completely nonplussed at the fuss – the outer suburbs are all flat, poor and made from tan, mud, adobe bricks, its all rather bleak looking and featureless, until that is, you round a bend and see the centre of the city plunging steeply down into a valley – the red-roofed houses clinging to the high valley walls in all directions, yet surrounded by snow capped mountains on one side and strange, cream moon like landscapes on the other. Its breath-taking, Quito in Ecuador and Cusco in Peru are somewhat similar in style to this I guess, but none have the some impact.

One of the many mobs of protesters stalking the city

The other big notable thing about La Paz is that the place seems to constantly be in a state of social unrest. The socialist, reformist President has done some amazing things here I think, recently giving Nature the same legal rights and status as humans which I think is absolutely fantastic and a model for the rest of the world, but he still has a lot of work to do. Every day we were there, protests shut down large parts of the city – constant fireworks and bangers were going off in all directions among the marching masses at all times of the day and seemed permanently in the background. At night, these continued and were coupled with some huge explosions, that I later learnt where actually protesters dynamiting roads in and out of the city. The protests I was living in the middle of seemed to be all about pay rises for the rural education sector and had been going on for 2 weeks or so. Several times I walked out into the city for an explore and found myself in the middle of thousands of marching protestors waving red banners of identification and demands and blasting off fireworks, while heavily armed riot police looked on from side streets.

Riot Police waiting for protesters to get out of hand

Somehow around all this though, the city just carries on heedless, this is all obviously normal. Later we took a day tour to the great archaeological site ruins of Tiwanaku, an hour or 2 out of La Paz, ancestors of the Incas and the longest running ancient civilization in South America. The site itself was largely decimated and buried, but still features some fantastic architecture. Getting there was the adventure though – despite the roads being dynamited and the city exits closed down, the tour bus still found its way along weird city, dirt back roads (many of which were dead ends), until it found a way through – pretending the whole way, as though nothing here was slightly unusual.

We had heard lots of stories about La Paz, travelers getting mugged, stranglers that choke you til you loose consciousness then take your possessions etc, but by day the place seems reasonably safe by South American standards, of all the places we went, Quito in Ecuador was probably the most intimidating. At night though, it’s a bit different – wandering around by myself I was constantly harangued by dodgy characters trying to flog cocaine and other darker entertainments. As a result, I didn’t tast the nightlife much and mostly stayed in, using the time to catch up on some long overdue blogging.

Street zebras help kids cross roads. Handy in riots?

I had originally intended to do a tour of a cocaine factory come jail, made famous by the book “Marching Powder”. The jail is located right on a major square in the middle of the city; inmates come and go largely as they please, wealthy inmates living like kings, while the poorer ones work the factory – its a full cocaine production facility, as corrupt as an institution gets, but one that is easy enough to get into to have a look at apparently. At least it sounded like a fascinating experience – then of course, I bumped into a Swede who having found a guide who would take him through the place, arrived at the jail just as a riot broke out and the police started bombing the place with tear gas, (Including the school next door). He said he had had to run 4 blocks following the kids in uniform, before he was able to escape the gas and stop himself crying. On the back of that information, no-one seemed to be offering tours and given the protest situation I decided to give it a miss.

Bolivian street art in La Paz

La Paz is also very cheap and laden with authentic handicrafts from the regional populations and nearby Peru. Its probably the best place to pick up souvenirs in South America. The streets around Sagarnaga throng with traditional textiles, alpaca clothing, musical instruments and other souvenirs. There is also a witches market with hundreds of stalls lining either side of an adjacent street, stalls sell Llama fetuses (To be buried at your house for good luck), effigies, coca leaves and other customized preparations of despacho (Ritual offerings) items, (ie miniature food, money etc). The price of it all makes it an easy place to kill time and shop, including some great western restaurants – a welcome dive back into familiar foods at reasonable rates. For these reasons, I should also mention that it is a major hub for young Israeli travellers, (as was Cusco). They are camped out here everywhere here, all on extended world sabbaticals post military service.

Megumi fine tuning her Ice Climbing technique

When Megumi returned from her trek, she was jubilant but strangely silent. Totally exhausted, she had lost her voice, her face was windburn’t and she was burdened with a dreadful cough. Of the 7 in her team, only 3 had made it to the top, one of whom was a professional climber from Canada. Loving the experience though, she had somehow single mindedly forced herself up the ice to the top with her Japanese flag, despite her cold and general condition. She spent a day or two recovering, shopping a little ( Finally allowing ourselves to buy some souvenirs) and then started making plans to get down to Uyuni, the great Salt Lakes. Timings of which were kind of up in the air and subjective to the state of the protests and road blocks taking place, you should be ok to get out, we were nonchalantly informed. We stumped for the luxury bus, thinking that might improve our chances, and made ready.

At the summit of Huayna Potosi, above the clouds!

As luck would have it though, our “luxury bus” managed to get away no problems and we slept the night away cruising in the dark past more stunning mountains and dramatic countryside – Bolivia is really a stunning place nature wise. Waking up in the morning though, we found ourselves marooned in the middle of a high altitude desert plain and strangely immobile. The bus it seems had broken down sometime earlier in the morning, the optimistic guys running the service, thought they could probably fix it, as you do, and as it turned out had delayed calling for a replacement. So we were now stranded and needed to wait another 4 hours or so for a new bus to come. Somehow they egged another 15 km or so out of the smoking engine for about an hour and parked us in the middle of a small town, Huari, where a local market was happening.

Bus Number 2 breaking down

This at least allowed us to eat and get some shade from the high altitude sun while we waited, plus gave us the chance to bond with lots of fellow travels over the adversity. Everyone was in various states of distress over the incident – levels of which mostly revealed the acute traits of their respective nationalities – many were now missing their pre-paid Uyuni tours, causing havoc with tight travel agendas and seemed somehow surprised & shocked by the nuances of Bolivian transport. We quickly found a fellow Aussie and a Brit of better humour than the many Germans and Latino’s, to trade tales and pass the time with. Early afternoon, an old replacement bus arrived and we shuffled on and renewed our trip – only to cross a semi-flooded river road and have this bus breakdown severely overheating. With little likelihood of a second replacement coming, the seriously teenage driver and crew got busy under the bus and somehow fixed the thing after an hour or so and got us going again (minus some radiator hose). We ultimately got into Uyuni at about 4pm, 9 hours late and 6 hours after most of the buses occupant’s tours had started. It felt all part of the Bolivian experience really, but we have had much worse. While the bus company decided to shout us all lunch as compensation, a small riot ensued as some enraged fellow passengers optimistically tried to demand more significant compensation for lost tours, an effort which resulted in the police being called by concerned locals on the side of the drivers. Bolivia is constantly entertaining.

4WD-ing across the water covered salt plain

Uyuni the town is really a nothing much place, simply a launching pad for the adjacent huge Salt Lake and surrounding tour companies – flat as a tack, the lake itself is famous on traveller circuits for its unique visual distortions and landscape, allowing for great photography both the serious and the fun. Normally people do a 3 day tour that takes in the salt lake during the day, then heads further South to explore other lakes, deserts and mountain formations, some even continuing onto San Pedro in Chile. While we had initially been keen on that too originally, the bus travails meant that we had already lost a day and in the interest of giving ourselves some downtime in Buenos Aires before departure we reduced scale – really we wanted to spend as much time on the lake as we could anyway. With a pretty firm idea of what we wanted, we tried to find away around the standard packages and get a 2 day tour that allowed us to spend the night on the lake itself and give us the chance to take in the sunset / night sky effects and reflections on the mirror like surface of the lake – thanks to the thin watery deposits of the rainy season, a unique time to be here.

Salt pyramids drying in the sun

After checking out maybe a dozen travel companies, many of which wouldn’t consider 2 day tours, given that the rain had actually cut-off many of the standard destinations (The volcano and fish island) and there were no other takers. We eventually found someone that would drop us off at a Salt Hotel in the middle of the lake, for the night and then pick us up the next day. Really it was a 1 day tour program, but spread over 2 days. Good enough for us really – Megumi’s priority was photography on the lake, the rest was mostly a distraction. She had been planning and researching this for years and really seemed to know what she was doing. I was just a co-pilot on this one, mostly there to pay the bills.

Uyuni visual stunts

Next day, we climbed aboard a 4wd about 10.30am with 5 other folk and set out on our tour. This started with an old train cemetery out of town, full of old steam engines – dumped, rusting and pretty much covered in graffiti. It was probably once a great site, evoking memories of “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid”, which was all shot out here. But the place is covered largely in rubbish now (plus tourists) and most of the other backpackers on the dozens of other tours stopping here as well, had probably never even seen the movie. Next stop was an equally underwhelming visit to a village on the fringe of the lake, which bases their entire living on mining salt from the lake itself. Each house had a pile of salt out the back and a souvenir stand out the front, they did seem to be much more focused on fleecing tourists than packing salt in my opinion – one 8 year old kid after giving us a 2 minute, “this is how we bag salt” demonstration, then blocked the door out of his workshop and demanded cash payments.

Finally we were on the salt plain – fresh from summer rains, the 4WD’s of all the tour companies had to drive across 10cm of surface water on the lake for about half an hour, working our respective ways across the white, blue expanse to the salt mines and centre of the lake itself. Salt is scraped out of the water here into innumerable pyramid shaped piles in order to dry out. The locals then load these salt stacks into antiquated trucks using shovels, hauling the loads back into town for further refining and bagging. It’s an amazing site watching the work in progress, the quantity of salt here is enough to keep the world going for centuries, no matter how generous Maca’s are on their fries you figure. The salt just chunks up in crystals everywhere you walk and must be several metres thick. The place has the feeling of the arctic, a flat expanse of snow everywhere were you not better informed, it constantly catches you out.

Playing with reflections

After that, the 4WD tours, all head to the Salt hotel, a somewhat dry oasis in the middle of the lake and the only toilet for an hours’ drive at least in most directions. There are a good 50 tour groups there when we arrived, all happily picnicking out of the back of the 4WD’s. Most are on 3 or 4 day tours, either private VIP’s or backpacker groups thrown together; from all corners of the world it makes great people watching. Everyone running around trying to take stunt photographs utilizing the visual distortions or just playing in the salt.

The dreamy Frozenness of morning

We checked into the hotel, then hung around for a while chatting to other people we knew and waiting for everyone to leave so that we could finally get a photo to ourselves. By about 4pm the place was vacant just a myriad of murky, 4WD trails leading off in every direction across the salt flats. As the only people actually staying at the hotel it was a surreal experience, given the several hundred people that had been milling around the place all day. We waited for the wind to die down, stilling the waters a bit and then wandered far out into the salt / water empty expanses that seemed to surround the hotel to the horizon, enabling us to capture reflections in beautiful isolation. We managed to immerse ourselves in the constantly changing light and reflections right through until the sunset, a staggering psychedelic display of mutating colours that painted the sky and the water below us in equal measure. Truly breathtaking. Later the almost full moon and stars created stunning reflections on the mirrored surface, it felt like walking on the very fabric of the universe itself.

Our hotel - really all made out of salt!

The traditional family that lived in the hotel, gave us a basic meal and their kids to entertain. Somehow along the way we managed to get to sleep with some element of comfort in the cold night and still get up to see the sunrise. Finding as we did that the water that lined the surface had all but disappeared, frozen solid perhaps in the nights chills, it had created a whole new landscape to explore.

By mid morning  we had finally sated ourselves of all photographic possibilities and sat outside watching the flat expanse and awaiting the arrival of the innumerable fleets of 4WD’s arriving for the days’ tours. Appreciating anew the myriad tour forms, cars, people and perspectives that invaded the tranquillity that we had bonded so intensely with, we eventually found our tour company and were happy to leave all this behind as quickly as possible, before the invading hordes despoiled the memories.

Capturing the sunset

Salt invading every orifice and fabric, we retreated to the town, showered off in a cheap hotel and got up at 3am to catch a train to the Argentinian border. Limited in scope, we had done Bolivia to Megumi’s complete satisfaction. There is much more to see of course, amazing Amazonian jungles to access, innumerable great mountains and trails to trek, remote lost villages and traditional cultures, but we left without regret. South America remains unfinished for us in many respects, Patagonia, Columbia and Brazil not least of all and I know we will come back sometime in the near future. For now, we had an intense bus ride and journey to cart ourselves across Argentina to Buenos Aires to look forward to; a return to style, Western comforts and civilization in comparison to our last 9 months of travels; our last stop on the continent and an important decompression. Megumi has ticked her boxes now and we are finally heading home!


Connecting with the Sacred Incan Legacies

I wasn’t expecting much from the Incan sites to be honest, while I wanted to do Macchu Picchu, I hadn’t really given the Incan’s too […]

I wasn’t expecting much from the Incan sites to be honest, while I wanted to do Macchu Picchu, I hadn’t really given the Incan’s too much thought before arriving in Peru, distracted as perhaps I might have been by our shamanic explorations. But when you see the phenomenal architectural achievements in their stonework and their terraces, when you feel the special energy of the sacred sites and the locations that they chose to erect their temples and learn about the Andean mythology, much like the Pyramids and the Egyptians you are quickly captivated and brought under their ancient sway.

Face of an Incan king, roadside carving

While only in power a relatively short time before a couple of hundred Spaniards famously managed to defeat them, their architectural and spiritual legacy lives on in the Andean highlands even today. The Cusco and sacred Valley region represents the heart of the Incan empire and is covered with their ruins, but one of the most compelling things about the Sacred Valley is the active spirituality that surrounds these sites. Rituals, ceremonies and sacred traditions all continue to today and are not uncommon to encounter as you work your way around; it is also a real spiritual hub for new agers of all decsriptions and Andeans alike, one of the world’s great power spots and a fascinating legacy to explore.

As it turned out, despite a finely tuned schedule, we managed to visit many of the major Incan sights, attracted energetically to what had been put in place. I have tried to summarize some of the simple highlights below:


Cusco Incan wall - the big rock has 12 sides!

The holy Incan city, the word Cusco in Quechua or Incan spiritual tradition refers to the central energy point at the centre of the body. Thus the city of Cusco, capital of the Incans was a deep power place and still retains much of this magic. The original city was designed in the shape of the Puma, long since outgrown, amazing Incan walls still line many of the backstreets set off from the square, huge rocks, perfectly shaped at all sorts of angles and joined without mortar, sitting exactly as they have for more than 500 years. Similarly, many of the foundations of the palaces, great cathedrals and churches retain the Incan foundations, built by the Spanish on the sites of the Incans greatest and most holy temples such as those dedicated to the Sun or Wiracocha. The stone foundations are also still standing today, even after earthquakes have forced the churches on top, to be rebuilt several times. It is a fantastic city to explore, compelling sites, innumerable cultural attractions, museums and souvenirs – a mega-hub for tourists, spiritual seekers alike.


Part of the outer rock wall of 'sexywoman'!

One of the most sacred sites outside Macchu Picchu, located high on a hill looking down on the city of Cusco, it represented the head of the original cities Puma design. Designed as a fortress, the place is also the site of Cusco’s most famous festival, the festival of the Sun held on the Winter Solstice. While much of the site was scavenged for use in rebuilding Cusco by the Spaniards and only 20% remains, it is still a huge site and impressive. While only the outer walls remain the triple layers of zig-zagging, large stone walls here are particularly intimidating and once must have been a fantastic defensive network. How they managed to bring stone blocks as big as 360 tonnes up the hill, let alone cut them perfectly into place without mortar is one of ancient histories great mysteries, right up there with the pyramids.


The big rock of Qenko

The site of Qenko, a large cave – rock – temple kind of fusion on a hill located just outside Cusco, has a large stone sacrificial monument as its key feature with zig-zagging channels. Incan priests would apparently poor llama blood onto the altar and the direction the blood chose to flow down the channels would determine fortunes for the coming seasons.

Also known as the element temple of fire, it contains several cave spaces and some other symbolic carvings built into the rock faces. Our biggest discovery here was a Cuy (Guinea Pig) hiding discretely among the ruins – poor guy. Once we discovered him, our attention caused all the guards and vendors to leave their posts and try to catch him – they are a special delicacy here.

Salapunco / The Temple of the Moon

Puma shaped chamber entry

This site is really off the main trail and popular amongst younger people and those doing ceremonies just to be able to hang out and spend the day in proivacy. The temple of the moon itself is a collection of caves built into a hill, featuring a sacrifical platform on top. One of the main caves has a rock in shape of a condor at the entrance, a carving of a serpent following the wall and a central doorway in the shape of the Puma. Moonlight illuminates the cave once a month, where obviously sacred ceremonies where performed. Outside there are numerous carved spaces into rocks allowing for other ceremonies and gatherings to be accommodated.

It was one of the most special places we visited I think, partly it is the relative peace and isolation of the site, but also the obviously intricate purely ceremonial design and function of the site itself, means it just radiates with a very special energy. As you would expect we met other travelers there soaking it up, play instruments and spending the day – a very welcome change.


Elemental energetic zones, Tambomachay

Dedicated to the element of water, this site 8km or so from Cusco, was once a ritual bath house of the royals, guarded closely by another fortress on a hill nearby. While some of the irrigation is still working, flowing through the sit much as it was supposed to, its most outstanding feature are 4, man-sized windows built into a stone wall. They are said to represent the 4 elements and that if you stand in each, you can feel the unique energy of that element (thinking feeling light like air).

Also below are 2 large masculine and feminine energy windows, said to also emanate with their own respective gender derived powers. We never got a chance to test it and charge though unfortunately. All closed off to tourists for the time being and a there were a few too many tour groups, llama towing sales ladies and other folk about to risk jumping the fence!


Serpent irrigation in Pisac

Pisac is a small town, famous for its markets and as an the entry point to the Sacred Valley. Some 30 minutes from Cusco – it is also a bit of spiritual hub and full of all sorts of seekers, retreats and centres. On market days, particularly Sunday, just about every street in town fills up with classic Peruvian souvenir stands selling fake or real Llama and Alpaca wear, sacred rocks,  an infinite range of jewelery and panpipes. The locals are the usually traditionally dressed, colourful, well hatted array and there are a many pearls amongst the mundane nick-nacks to be had as well.

High above the town though are an extensive set of ruins, that represent several different Incan communities, interconnected but spread across several hills, including a central temple complex, burial grounds and a series of different villages surrounded on all sides by usual distinctive terraces. It is a fun space to wander around clamouring along the trail and cliff tops, it is so big and extensive across the hills, that many tour groups only just access the easy, accessible sites leaving the place largely empty and pristine. We cheated a bit and caught a taxi to one end of the ruins and then spent several hours working our way along , through, over and under them.


The stunning spectacle of the salt pans

A fascinating salt farm originally designed and carved out of the side of the valley by the Incans to take advantage of a salt water spring that continues to feed the pans today. Later expanded by the Spaniards using slavery, today there are some 3,000 salt pans, each pan owned and operated by locals, having inherited it from their slave bound ancestors. The scale is impressive and although we were there in rainy season, when the pans are largely left untended, it was still a fantastic sight. In dry season it becomes a sea of white fields, each pan drained and scraped dry of salt every 4 days.


The Incan lab, come alien landing site of Moray

Relatively adjacent to the Salt mines, the site of Moray – 3 circular terrace formations carved into a valley is said to represent a kind of architectural laboratory for agriculture. Each of the terraces are designed to emulate certain microclimates and environments allowing the Incans to grow crops from mountain, jungle and coastal environments in a single space. As you descend through the terraces the temperatures, humidity and soil all change noticeably to accommodate and achieve this.

There are the usual other theories on the site and its uses of course, but that apart it is also still seen as a sacred site and a key location by locals for worshipping Panchamama, mother nature, the provider of bountiful harvest and good seasons. Energetically it feels like a very special place and while we were there, an Andean Paqo shaman was performing a ceremony at the base of one of the giant circles, a relatively common site in the sacred valley.


Among the fortress ruins in Ollyantaytambo

One of the nicest villages in the Sacred Valley and still retaining much of its original character, the small town features large Incan stone wall lined narrow streets in several directions from the small main square, creating blocks of communal housing, with irrigation water channels flowing to one side of the cobblestone streets. Surrounding the village on both sides are mountains containing spectacular ruins. On one a former Incan fortresses, complete with terraces, temples and more stunning stonework as well as a complex network of irrigation for ritual bath-houses, all designed in the shape of a llama, with a stunning mountain backdrop. While on the other mountains guardhouses, terraces and villages spot the steep faces.

Ollyantaytambo is also the launching point for the Incan trail to Macchu Picchu and also features a train station for more convenient access. Despite the many tourists that come through here though, the place resonates with a genuine authenticity that is particularly special. Staying the night in the town, we were able to work around the standard tour schedules and time both sunsets and sunrises from either side, largely having the ruins to ourselves to wander about and soak up the atmosphere. It is a magnificent location and lots of fun to explore.

Macchu Picchu

The classic, but never tiring, view of Macchu Picchu

Hard to talk about Macchu Picchu, as one of the 7 modern wonders of the world everything has probably already been said and it totally lives up to expectations. Your first view and impressions as you enter the site either walking up or coming through the higher Sun Gate from the trail it is simply breath-taking. The site itself contains some fascinating architectural features – rocks shaped to mimic the design of the mountains and condors, the magnificent stonework of temple of the sun, an astronomical feature at the top of the main temple as well as a set of baths and many other features, but given all the tourists and tour groups coming through, it is really simply enough to sit back somewhere discreetly and just soak up the stunning location and views as its shifts through its daily routine of misty, sunny revelations.

We made the 1 hour climb up above the site to the holy mountain of Hyana Picchu and waited on the clouds for an hour to provide clear views of the site far below. From here you can really see the overall design of Macchu Picchu and in particular its shape in the form of a condor – the sacred bird of the upper world. From there we then made the 2 hour trek around Hyana Picchu down to the temple of the Moon, an incredibly tranquil location and sacred site built out of a cave, but resonating with a really special energy. In total we spent almost 8 hours at the sight, trekking around and enjoying its many different features and views. Truly a masterpiece and very special!

Isle del Sol

The last of the significant Incan sites we visited, this one is located on the Bolivian side of Lake Tititicaca. Isle del Sol (and the small island of Isle del Moon adjacent) are two of the most scared sites in Incan mythology. It is here that the found father & mother of the Incans were birthed through the rock of creation.

Ceremonial table near the sacred rock

Lake Titicaca itself is a very special place. Located at about 4,000m above sea level, it is the largest high altitude lake in the world and has been populated for many thousands of years. The Lake itself is incredibly tranquil, resonating with a serene, deep silence and sobriety that is very special. The Isle del Sol, Island of the Sun is accessible by about a 2 hour boatride from Copacabana in Bolivia and it is easy to get dropped off on one end near the sacred rock and do a 3 hour trek along an old Incan trail to other end of the island where there are more ruins and lots of hostals and restaurants, all with fantastic views of the lake and surrounding mountains in the distance.

The rock itself is obviously a powerspot and resonates with a special energy, while there are few significant ruins around the site. There is a large stone ceremonial table, stools and rock circle placed directly opposite the stone emphasising its sacred nature. But it is the shapes of the islands and rocks themselves that ooze with ancient mythology, Puma & serpent shaped peninsula’s are easy to recognize, but all the hills and rocks seems to suggest distinct shapes and face around here. We could easily have spent several days on the island and would have liked to get across to the Isle del Luna as well, though were reluctant to confirm to a tour package!


Of Earthquakes & Ayahuasca!

The exact moment that a giant earthquake ripped apart Northern Japan and crushed it under a Tsunami, I was an hour from Iquitos, one of the remotest cities in the world, sitting in the Amazonian jungle, deep into an Ayahuasca session under the protective gaze of a shaman, watching my body explode........

Synchronicity is a strange thing! We have dropped off the map a few times in our travels, but the mysteries and subtle wile’s of the universes timing, when the most important thing to have happened to many of our friends and family in our lifetime was going down back in Japan, I will never fully comprehend.

The exact moment that a giant earthquake ripped apart Northern Japan and crushed it under a Tsunami, I was an hour from Iquitos, one of the remotest cities in the world, sitting in the Amazonian jungle, deep into an Ayahuasca session under the protective gaze of a shaman, watching my body explode. As the world woke up to news and coverage of Japan’s tragedy and subsequent reactor meltdown, I was being shown a black mass in my stomach by the spirit of the Ayahuasca vine and subsequently becoming violently ill, with chronic diorhea and boiling over with an intense fever to the backdrop of monkey and frog calls. Our shaman, a famed curandero (healer) named Javier Arevalo Shahuano found a rock sized lump in my stomach, a huge ball of negative energy, perhaps undetectable to a medical exam but a cancer of a serious kind he said – to the touch it had an intense frenetic pulse and mass all of its own for all to see. Over the next few days, as nuclear hysteria, death and tragedy seized the world I was being healed. Javier putting his plants to work under the guiding hand of Ayahuasca; quelling the fever, removing the malignant energy, stilling the pulse and in the process fixing a slipped disc in my back, removing shoulder & back pain I had been enduring for years and healing a blood clot in my side.

After 6 days, I was feeling better physically and spiritually than I can ever remember and starting to re-engage with the world. Megumi had been by my side through-out, the medicine though was affecting her differently. While I had been rebuilding my body under the gaze of the plants, she had been building up a peace and inner strength obvious to everyone else in attendance. Experiencing no deep purging or intense visions typical of the Ayahuasca medicine, Javier said she was cultivating a special strength and calm he had not seen in many people, curious at the time it was all to make sense soon enough. Largely recovered, blissfully feeling protected and empowered with the bonds formed with our new family in the jungle, Megumi left me to venture back into the town of Iquitos and returned sick with worry and all the tragic news from home.

Again timing is something of a marvel here. The epi-centre of the quake and the tsunami was Miyagi prefecture, where Megumi’s mother lives in a mountain house with her long term partner Oki-san. Oki-san’s business is based in Sendai which bore the brunt of the Tsunami and he has a house there, a son from a previous marriage and many friends, they spend a lot of their time there. Fukushima where the nuclear reactor tragedy was taking place is also the next prefecture over, between them and Tokyo and really way too close. When Megumi heard the news and the locations of the disasters she was obviously in a panic, but given the time-zones and the distance it was almost impossible to get news. With no email updates of any note, she rang around her extended family and eventually was able to wake up Oki-sans brother (at 3AM) who was able to confirm that they had only just gotten hold of her mother and that they were ok. Had Megumi been following events earlier (even in Tokyo), we later realized, she would have had to endure almost 6 days of horrific anxiety, waiting to find out any news of them being alive and totally unable to make contact.

The next day we both made the 1 hour trip into Iquitos by boat and moto-taxi early, so she could try and make some more calls at a better time, hopefully with more success. Finally getting through to her mother she found out that they had been returning from Sendai by car when they quake had hit, almost flipping their car over as it was thrown from the road. They had safely made it back to their mountain house which was intact, but they were without water, electricity, gas, food and had only limited petrol. Phones had come back haphazardly the day before and they now had internet access, but were unable to leave the house as many of the roads were destroyed and due to the potential of radioactive fall-out, the dreaded black rain. They had been living on some stored rice for the last week, but they were cut-off from other food supplies. Thankfully they had only just put in a wood burning stove and a well, so were able to brave the snow with some warmth and cook what little food they had. Stoic and positive, like all the Japanese seem to be, they were able to reassure her they were ok and were much better off than most in the Miyagi area – surrounded by their neighbourhood of farmers, it is a strong, supportive community.

Relieved, we were able to turn our attention to the events themselves and start to piece together everything that had happened – sifting for real information through the myopic hysterical trash cast around the nuclear frenzy by the ravenous Western media was heartrending. With anger and shame we viewed the trauma and hysteria the Western media was creating for everyone in Japan with their misreporting of events and apocalyptic nuclear scenarios, burying the real tragedy in the North. With the wonder of Facebook updates though, we were able to gleen the tales of many of our friends own travails and their on the ground truths, as they dealt with the crises themselves and in many cases fled Tokyo in all directions for safer environs. Earthquakes are a constant reality in Japan, everyone is expecting something like this, but when a big one happens nothing can steel you for the impact it has at the core of your being. A big quake takes your heart beat along with it, it disconnects you somehow from the earth’s own rhythm, which is a shocking experience. I can’t begin to imagine what everyone has been going through over there and experiencing on this kind of scale – no-one outside Japan really can. Every successive quake no matter the size seizes your heart in this same way and after a while that gap becomes filled with the fear. The Japanese are somehow able to steel themselves to this reality from birth, its a necessity of life there, but for Westerners it’s almost an impossible hurdle to overcome, especially when you have an exit. Every day, the myriad of small aftershock quakes holds that threat and fear of an ever bigger aftershock or perhaps the promise of the ever present  mythical ‘kanto quake’, the even bigger one that everyone is still waiting on to hit Tokyo. Of a radiation and nuclear cloud I can’t even begin to speculate. We couldn’t have felt more distant, remote and helpless in the face of it all.

Somehow amidst all this though, for whatever reason, the universe has chosen us to be here, lost in the lungs of the world at one of its spiritual epicentre’s. Returning to the jungle and the Ayahuasca, I returned to my own healing, diving selfishly back into the peace and solidarity of an evolving new body, plant based purity and awakened consciousness, anxious to finish what I had started; Megumi also had Javier fix a neck hernia she had been grappling with, but the medicine also continued to give us protection and strength. While our Ayahuasca and shamanic explorations have been a profound process of discovery and awakening throughout our travels here in Peru and in Ecuador; it is not a topic I can explore lightly, so is perhaps something best blogged about a lot more extensively another time. For now, we finished up our program, said goodbye to Javier and his family and made the return to civilization & the wilds of Iquitos, anxious again for updates.

We both feel strengthened at a core level from our experience though, well beyond just the physical rebuild I have been given, more open and tuned into the world and ourselves in a much more profoundly higher way. It feels like our 2 years of travel, deconstruction and re-balancing  is drawing to its own natural conclusion or even final evolution here in Peru. With everything that has happened as well, our continued travel doesn’t feel quite right or a priority anymore either. In light of events affecting our family and friends it even borders on irrelevant. Megumi wants to head back to Japan ASAP to help somehow, volunteer with the relief effort and put her newfound self to work / reconnect with her family. Still cut-off and without food, her mother won’t hear of it – it would be an even greater burden on her to have Megumi back in Japan right now I suppose. For Megumi this is hard to take, her compulsion is real and her heartland is calling her again finally, after all this time away. Over the next few days, we will take stock I guess and re-evaluate our travels and plans from here. The world seems somehow to have shifted. This tragedy has opened up some kind of floodgate globally it feels to me, there is fear, tragedy & sadness yes, but empathy, greater community, a palpable opening of the heart consciousness one senses and a strong platform for real change on many fronts (ie alternative energy) and we feel different too. We have been living in the lands and realms of 2012 transformations and shifts towards higher consciousnesses for a while now and it seems to becoming more and more tangible. We are awake and listening to that inner guide more than ever, hard to fathom sometimes, its harder still to turn off and ignore – it will be interesting to see what the universe has in store for us next.


Jungle Medicine 2 – Peru

Iquitos, Peru Shaman Javier Aureilo Shuahano / Spiritual Dimensions Sometimes what you think you want and want you actually need turn out to be miles […]

Iquitos, Peru

Shaman Javier Aureilo Shuahano / Spiritual Dimensions

Sometimes what you think you want and want you actually need turn out to be miles apart. So it was with my sacred medicine experience in Iquitos, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. An amazing experience for a myriad of reasons, that if you bear with me I will try in my elongated way to narrate as best I can. It’s not a short story but the interesting ones never are.

Feeding the Manatees

We arrived in Iquitos after our original plan of travelling to Pulcalpa to work with some traditional Shipibo shaman there before catching a 4 day boat down the Amazon, was thwarted by floods and lack of transport options. Unfazed we decided to do the trip in reverse, some universal guidance that we couldn’t help but look at later in wonder.

Iquitos is only accessible by boat or plane, one of the world’s most isolated cities. Sitting at the airport there is a bizarre assortment of passengers, but I found myself surrounded by a bunch of 20 something American wanna-be missionary evangelists, off to save jungle natives and merrily swapping Latino jokes. It was enough to evoke in me a red mist, an incredibly rare state for those that know me well. Armed with nothing more than a felt tipped pen though, I was forced to stay my hand and livid imagination. We have encountered missionaries everywhere in our travels, still to this day intent on savaging ancient cultures and destroying thousand year old traditions with their god fearing ignorance. Occasionally I do get taken with the urge to event the score.

Everything is for sales in Belen

Iquitos itself is one of those frontier towns of legend. It is a sprawling metropolis of some 400,000 people, though you would almost never guess at its size. Located at the junction of 3 rivers, it is a hub for trade and jungle supplies, its waterways linking Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil and Peru along the highways of the great Amazon river. Cargo boats, tuk tuks and boats ply their way everywhere here and some of the town itself is a floating ramshackle ghetto set on the river. The central market features almost everything imaginable from the jungle expresses – every kind of exotic, illegal animal is for sale here, plus witchdoctor potions, shamanic supplies and an incredible array of fruits and jungle meats to name but a few. There are a few gringo’s around and a pretty gnarly wild west bar scene. Foreigners only come here for one of 3 reasons really – missionaries and volunteers, Amazonian jungle tours or Ayahuasca ceremonies. It is pretty easy to spot which is which as you wander around town. With the tourist dollars flowing in for shamanic experiences, the place is also home to all sorts of souvenirs, charlatans, scams and high end resorts preying on the naive. Thankfully though we are well informed and have some great introductions. After a day of exploring the town, some animal refuges (think anaconda’s, river dolphins and manatees) we were ready to embark on our next Ayahuasca adventure.

We had decided to spend some time with shaman Javier Aureilo Shuahano at Spiritual Dimensions. We had read about his work in numerous books and also been recommended personally by several friends, so we were pretty comfortable with what we were signing up for. This time if things panned out, we had decided to do a 10 day program and had been doing some preparation in advance restricting our diet of salt, sugar, alcohol, pork and other similar purification requirements. Javier actually met us at our hostel on the appointed morning, along with two other Sardinian (Italian) guests and his wife. Javier was referenced to me as a ‘smiling buddha’ personality with great psychic surgery skills and he immediately looked the part, greeting us with a big grin, hugs and welcome greeting “my brother”.

Spiritual Dimensions Centre

Under Javier’s personal escort we headed out to the centre. Located about an hour from Iquitos, getting to Javier’s centre required we catch a tuk tuk to the edge of town, a 30 minute boat ride up the Nappo river to the village of Padre Cocha and then a wild moto-taxi ride down a muddy, dirt track (that Javier had actually built for the community) into the jungle.

Javier originally came from much further up the river Nannay, a coupe of days towards Ecuador. From a family of shaman, he studied under his grandfather before heading the call to move to the city in his early twenties. For a long time he worked all around the Iquitos at various centre’s run by foreigners, as a shaman for hire or working with locals wherever needed. Well known, but not well funded, he realized that he needed his own centre after some bad experiences with other partners, the two Sardinians who also happened to be there at the time we were there, Alessandro and Roberto had actually helped him to get started setting up his own centre about a year ago.

Shaman Jose preparing herbs

On arrival, we were shown through the centre. In the year since they had acquired the land they had managed to clear a large area, build 7 or so private tambo’s (huts) for guests, a large ceremonial hall, a kitchen, shower and toilet block plus sculpted a stream through the centre of the place and its newly planted, rapidly evolving garden of medicinal plants and vines.

We were introduced to an older shaman Jose, who took us on a brief tour of the surrounding jungle introducing us to and picking up different medicinal plants and flowers which were then added to a pot to steam in a makeshift plastic encased tippee, our introductory herbal sauna and the start of our cleanse. Stripped down it took a while for the sauna to heat up, but the lovely aroma’s soon took over and the travel dirt and toxins quickly worked their way to the surface. Showering off, we felt cleansed and we able to relax in preparation for the evenings’ first Ayahuasca ceremony.

Having taken Ayahuasca a few times now, I felt I at least knew what to expect and really my goals here were to try and go further with it and build on the Ecuadorian openings we had had – gain some more insight, traction with the space and a personal clarity of purpose if you will. The environment of Javier’s centre seemed filled with the right mix of relaxation and focus to enable that.

Gathering for the ceremony that night we met Alessandra and Roberto the two Sardinians properly and immediately connected. Heading to the long rectangular ceremony hut for the ceremony, there seemed to be at least 6 or 7 other participants, but possibly more in the darkness. Lining the hut on each side were foam mattresses, each equipped with a bucket for purging, tissues, a cup of water and a blanket. At the end, sat a big throne surrounded by what appeared to be snakes in the dim light where Javier was seated. We lay or sat on the mattresses and at 8pm Javier started the ceremony, blessing the Ayahuasca brew with the now familiar ritual of tobacco smoke and then each person was called up to drink. It was a slightly more bitter and acrid taste than our previously experiences, not as smooth on the digestion. Settling in, Javier began singing a range of beautiful icaro’s – summoning the spirits of Ayahuasca and creating protections for the group. He kept this up for hours, working through an endless array of captivating tunes rattling his leaves with perfect rhythm throughout. Pure, light and supremely comforting it is a beautiful experience in itself. Javier is famed for the beauty and variety of his icaro’s.

A Shamans tools

After about 2 hours I purged and felt the shift into the half-light, an overwhelming familiar sense of space came to me, but this time never seemed to manifest itself in the visual realm. I felt slightly frustrated, pining for a repeat of the Ecuadorian experience, but I also became conscious of something moving subtely throughout my body and more prominently as a solid black mass moving in the area of my stomach, I felt cramps of pain there, but after a while it dissipated and I thought no more or it. Midway through the evening, Javier began shuffling almost blindly about the ceremony hut, stopping at each person, chanting and moving over them, seeing their energy / space and choosing to sing a specific Icaro over them, based on his own shamanic guidance. Later as the ceremony ended and everyone returned back to their huts I had an onset of diarrea, followed by intense stomach pain and more vomiting. I had read diarrea was common with Ayahuasca, another way of purging the body of impurities and negative energy. The continued vomiting and stomach pain puzzled me though. This was to last all night, getting progressively worse and evolving into an intense fever. By lunchtime the next day, I was in serious trouble.

Barely walking and in feverish agony, Javier lay me down in the ceremony hut and felt my stomach. Immediately the problem was obvious. A huge malignant clot of bad energy he called it was lodged in my stomach. You could physically feel it is as a big tennis ball sized lump below my solar plexis, with its own frenetic, crazy pulse. Javier said that it was akin to a cancer, but not medical or going to show up on a hospital scan. Something had been blocking my energy here for a long time and the Ayahuasca had felt it. Probably the result of extreme stress and pain forged over a long period he suggested. He said it was probably also manifesting as pain in my back, shoulders and hip areas. All were areas I had been experiencing intense pain for a long time and most especially in recent months.

Javier applying herbs

Make of the explanations what you will, but the Ayahuasca as I had sensed it the night before had found the blockage – the lump, pulse and intense pain were all real. Javier and his apprentices had a patient and set about the healing. Later as I reflected on it, I remembered some of my experiences in India. An Ayurvedic doctor in Rishkesh had felt my pulse and immediately diagnosed stomach and back issues, I had the same experience with an astrology there. At the time, I had acknowledged the back pain, but the stomach issue had puzzled me, here it seemed I had an explanation.

Immediately Javier, with the assistance of his apprentices put a heart shaped stone on the pulsing area and applied a poultice of herbs from a variety of specific plants across my stomach. Then they started treating the fever and high temperature with more herbs and plants to my forehead. Soon I was largely covered in plants and plant concoctions, but I started to cool down, the pulse began to dissipate a little and the nauseas died down to a more comfortable level; though this was all to return again just as intensely later in a few hours.

Javier wanted to focus on curing me at the ceremony that night, so they applied a bandage around my stomach filled with creamed aloe vera and some of other plant remedies and left me to my anguish for the remainder of the afternoon. One of Javiers assistants told me not to worry, Bon Jovi’s girlfriend had the same problem he said. She could barely walk or move and was totally racked with body pain. After several weeks with Javier he said she was able to do full body yoga. Never thought I would end up sharing a shamn with Bon Jovi – it’s a strange, strange world.

The new patient

Somehow I held on in my state of feverish delirium and pain until the ceremony started, everyone had drunk and the icaro’s started. At this point, my stomach, back and shoulders were all aflame with pain and I was losing track of time. At some point though, I became aware of Javier shuffling over to me. He sat over me in concentration and a cloud of tobacco smoke, then began muttering some chants or offerings in his own language, channelling the Ayahuasca spirit and sucking at the area of stomach. At this point I was so tired and delirious I lost track of things, but vaguely remember several such visits during the ceremony. At some point I must have fell asleep, because I remember coming to and finding the ceremony finished, the hut largely empty. I became aware that a lot of my back pain and fever was now gone, as well as the nausea. I needed to crap badly, so was still purging there and the stomach pain was definitely still present but it was a dramatic improvement. I bore through the calls of the diarrea as best I could and was able finally to get a good nights sleep. The next morning, Javier inspected the bandages and found them dry. He was excited, it mean’t that much of the toxins had been drawn out and the pulse was right down. It would take 3 more days he said to cure and then I could drink Ayahuasca again. By then you will have a whole new body he said.

Javier & Jessica applying bandages

So here I am in the jungle, at an Ayahuasca retreat as I have planned and researched for months and weirdly I am told I am not actually going to be drinking anything. Funny how the universe works, let alone the Ayahuasca medicine. I am learning first hand that Ayahuasca is very much a plant spirit with its own agenda, in this casse healing. It is a new education and perspective to my naïve notions restricted to higher conscious explorations and visions. I also have a new appreciation for Javier, he is much more a Curandero (focused on healing) than just a shaman. Shaman it seems tend to specialize as a rule and may be vegetalists (focused on knowledge of plants), brujo’s (handling curses etc), showmen focused on selling higher conscious experiences or else complete fakes. As I was learning their Ayahuasca brew was all adjusted and refined to suit and support their own focus and purposes – creating a wide range and variety of potential experiences as a result. Using less chacruna, the emphasis here was not as much on spirit connections and visions, though it was still present, as it was a tool focused to assist Javier in his healing. Whatever my original expectations or desires though, it seemed I was definitely in the right place.

The next night I had psychic surgery! Javier switched from Ayahuasca Cielo (sky) to a negro (black) vine for the ceremony and the change in energy was palpable. More conscious of events this time, and not drinking as the operative, I was able to lie back and appreciate the ceremony in itself. It was a much smaller crew this time – me and Megumi obviously, Alessandro and Roberto, an American apprentice Joey and another Brazilian apprentice. It was an intimate environment and after the last few days of mis-adventures, I felt bonded to all, everyone felt like family now. After everyone drank, Javier started singing much slower and different icaros to the ones he had used before. While I wasn’t drinking I could still almost sense the shift in atmosphere as the Ayahuasca took hold. People started purging quicker and more violently. Lying still as I was becoming used to now, waiting my turn, I tried to meditate, calm myself and clear my mind. A little more perceptive from this perhaps I could sense the energies tonight were different and there was a lurking, darker mood. The other guys were really going through some stuff.

After a while Javier stopped and came over to me, waving his fan and beads, shuffling slowly. Seated beside me he sang an icaro over me as he meditated and gathered his plant spirits / power, visualizing the area of my stomach. After a while he felt my pulse and began muttering over the area then carefully began sucking out the negative energy through my bellybutton blowing it clear. Each sucking process took a long-time as he cleared all the energy, taking some 5 or 6 attempts. I felt a slight reduction in pain almost immediately as the swollen spot subsided and simultaneously felt some gaseous movement in my stomach. After a satisfying examination, Javier moved on to deal with the others.

Roberto & Morenita

The next day Javier explained that the Ayahuasca had told him that he needed to cure my stomach, back and shoulders before I could drink again properly. I would drink a little Ayahuasca tonight though while he worked on my shoulders and then the next day my back. When he looked more closely however, as part of reapplying a bandage to my stomach in the morning he noticed I had a slipped disc in my back, a long term injury really, but one probably made much more serious with two years of backpacking travel, plus he detected additional shoulder and neck problem areas. This is going to take at least 3 more additional days he said smiling, all of it needed fixing to get the energy flowing properly.

The next few day I drank a little Ayahuasca and Javier resumed the surgery this time blowing into my stomach area, injecting and sharing his healing energy. The Ayahuasca itself kicked in late, but revealed a host of beautiful visions. For almost 30 minutes I saw serpents in many forms, the most common guise of the Ayahuasca spirit, as she revealed herself to me for the first time and almost seemed to be playing with me. It was a very beautiful, soothing and confirming experience.

Joey & Alessandra

By now I was also able to fully re-engage with everyone at the centre. The workers and chef, all locals were very happy people and felt like family very quickly, the place bubbled with positivity. Uncovering many of their stories was fascinating. Many of them had family members who were quite sick but subsequently healed by Javier, they work here some completely unnecessarily, ever indebted and happily returning the favour, creating the healing environment for others. It was also reassuring to see the money at work here. Immediately we paid Javier and his wife for some of our time here, wood started arriving and the workers happily began building more infrastructure, wood for a new Ceremony hut, more tambo’s and some outdoor furniture. The place was constantly, happily evolving before our eyes and we felt absolutely delighted to contribute.

My own experiences had really been an awakening in a many ways, but the time, sharing, conversations and energy exchanges going on with Megumi, Roberto, Alessandra and Joey outside the ceremonies were real soul connections in themselves – opening us up, exploring dreams, ideas and new perspectives, it all complemented the Ayahuasca medicine in the most amazing way. It was a healing all of itself and left lasting impressions on all of us I think, all subtlety changed and affected in completely different ways.

Aya-chan the sloth

Roberto, a die-hard Sarndinian seperationist, also had a side mission rescuing animals from the market in Iquitos and proceeded to add to the centre family by bringing home first Morenita – a small monkey with the personality of naughty child, bent on destroying branches, attempting escapes and faking crying as soon as he got in trouble. Everyone’s couldn’t help but like him, bubbling with oh to human personality, he also wore the scars of capture and sale trauma. He was then followed by a beautiful 3 toed sloth, with an almost human, angelic masked face and serene personality – we dubbed her Aya-chan. A real heartbreaker, she felt like a totally pure soul. Aya-chan either slept in complete bliss or moved slowly, surely and relentlessly in pursuing an escape. We could watch her captivated for hours as she slowly felt her way across the ceremony hut or a group of tree’s outside, following her fundamental programming to find her ideal tree or a hunt for food, we could never really tell. She let out a heartbreaking tiny scream whenever we foiled an escape attempt by prizing her off a branch, back into a manageable safe zone. One of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen or experienced – she really stole Megumi’s heart. Roberto also somehow procured a magnificent rooster and a chook as well for future service’s to the kitchen and later one of the apprentices brought home a rescued baby Boa Constrictor, a fascinating interaction of a whole other kind. While the new additions weren’t particularly welcomed by the resident cat and Parrot, Pepe – all seemed somehow perfectly synchronized with the goals of the centre. Animals create genuine heart interactions and easy, unattached emotional connections I think, a perfect complement and catalyst for healing.

Megumi & Aya-chan

On the sixth day, Javier performed surgery again and I felt a big release in my stomach. He grabbed my throat and worked down my front to my stomach throwing away the negative energy that he caught. A process he repeated several times. Later he told me that the plants had been excited to show him my stomach – “look” they said, “see it is gone”. While much of my back pain had already dissipated, he was now ready to focus on my back, shoulders and kidneys and he said he had also seen a small bloodclot in my side?

While my own progress here was amazing, Megumi had been having a very different experience. She had not been having strong visions, but the ceremonies were bringing her lots of peace and she felt a real strengthening and confidence that she did not really understand. Again counter to her expectations of intense visions and a perceived desire to purge issues and pursue psychological healing of her own kind. Javier said that she had a very rare, strong soul and constitution and did not seem worried at all by this lack of purging and releases of the level that many of the rest of us were going through. On the sixth day though, now that I was back on my feet, she went into town and checked the internet, plunging herself into the very peak of hysteria, as the full scale of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan seized the world. Realizing things had centred on her mothers hometown state of Miyagi, she was in a panic and unable to get in touch with her mother, although she eventually reached an uncle who reassured her she was OK, having only just been able to contact with them after 5 days of being cut-off with no phones. It was incredibly sobering news and really shattered the bubble of peace and healing we had been experiencing. In the ceremony that night, Javier sung some particularly beautiful icaros and a special healing one for Megumi which he said she was able to give him the words for. In a strange way, our sudden changed travel plan to Iquitos enabling healing for me and then providing Megumi with enough isolation so that she would only just find out the news now, in a perfectly prepared state, after her mother was finally able to get into contact with the world. Both were amazing co-incidences and far too convenient for us to ignore.

Local dance send-off for the crew


As this news and the implications settled in, we took a break from ceremonies for a few days. One evening, Javier put me on a course of plant medicines to help heal my back and kidneys. I had too drink a 4 litre jug of an amazing plant called Cats Claw that is used to heal cancers and does wonders for HIV apparently. It is horrid stuff to stomach though and much harder than Ayahuasca to drink. We also headed into town to connect with news on Japan and try and get our heads around the situation. The news was devastating and affecting so many people that we knew. Many of our friends were leaving Tokyo, it was totally surreal. While I still had several days of healing to go, we could feel everything changing, not least of all our travel plans which seemed almost irrelevant now. It was especially hard for Megumi – the strengthening and peace she had been cultivating was being called on in full. This also coincided with the break up of our family oasis, as Alessandra and Roberto left to return home. It was a sad and difficult parting, but it has been such a fantastic shared experience and connection that I am sure it will live on in its own amazing ways. Joey also decided to join them, feeling he needed to leave the centre and start actioning some of his own new clarity and revelations revealed to him while we were there.

Aya the Spirit Guide

With just us at the centre and the Japan cloud hanging over things, the final healings and ceremonies were more intimate and different now. Javier fixed my slipped disc and the blood clot that he felt was causing further energy dispersion and a key source of much of my pain. I was also given another bandage to draw out more of the toxins and negative energy and another 4 litre bucket of plant medicine – this time it was Setico bark (sloth food!), mixed with flax seeds to help circulation. I needed to drink it in full again, though this time much more digestible thankfully. Megumi also received surgery on the hernia in her neck, which she had been having difficulty with for years. The Ayahuasca visions themselves were very subtle now and difficult to maintain. One ceremony I sensed someone giving me 3 gifts, distinct colours (green, brown and purple) but it was difficult to perceive the exact face of the person or the nature of the gifts. Javier later pressed me for the colours and interpreted them for me, explaining that it was a gift from the Ayahuasca. Green is for the medicine & plants; Purple is for the healing, while the brown is for consciousness and energy. It is great thing he tells me.  Javier also tells me that in 3 days I will have a very vivid dream, which I distinctly do (unusual for me, as I don’t normal recall experiencing dreams at all), unfortunately the details of the dream slip away before I can lock it down.

In our final ceremony, an expanded session with several new arrivals and some other day guests from town – Javier gives us protective arcana’s to seal and protect our energetic bodies, it will help us to meet the right people and have the right experiences / connections as we venture back into the world. Javier also tells us is that he saw a giant sloth during the ceremony protecting me and Megumi. Aya-chan it seems has become our protective animal token, she has certainly found a place in our hearts.

The boat back to reality

As we start to break our diet – no sugar, oil, salt etc and prepare to leave the centre, reluctantly returning to a new and different real world, Javier gives me some final instructions. He tells me that the disc in my back will take 3 months to totally heal properly and remesh and that I need to be very careful with lifting heavy things (ie My backpack – gulp!). He also provides me with very careful guidelines on my diet which will assist the continued healing of my back and stomach. No alcohol for 25 days, no pork, spices or chilli’s for 3 months. Tough, but doable.

As we left and our thoughts turned more intensely to events in Japan. It was hard to reflect on the full scale of our experience here. The healing itself was amazing, physically my body felt better than I can ever really remember, but there were many other subtle changes as well – I felt more opened and awakened in lots of ways. Over the coming weeks as we visited and experienced some of the Peru’s sacred places, fast tracking our revised travel plans, I felt much more heightened sensitivities to the energies of certain places and natural environments – a noticeable shift in awareness, consciousness perhaps and perception. There were also the real soul connections with the other guys at the centre and then there is Javier and his team – completely loving, open and pure in their path.

While not complete by any means, our shamanic adventures had seemed to have reached their natural conclusion here for this trip at least. There was much more to learn and experience and we will definitely be back for more, but we felt we had been given everything we needed for the moment. In all a truly magical experience, completely unexpected and it really couldn’t have been more different to the script. The Ayahuasca medicine does indeed work in strange and mysterious ways.

Read also

More on our Ecuadorian experiences here

Some additional Ayahuasca background here



Discovering Peru’s Ancient Civilizations

Peru is one of those countries that I had never given much detailed consideration to really when it comes to ancient civilizations. Blinded by the […]

Peru is one of those countries that I had never given much detailed consideration to really when it comes to ancient civilizations. Blinded by the myths and stories of the Inca’s I guess, I had kind of assumed that was all there was. Mexico was the same experience really, a place where the Mayan’s take all the glory and the many other civilizations seem to get left in the dark. But just like Mexico, it made Peru a constant surprise to travel, rich and diverse in its captivating, historical cultures some dating back more than 3,000 years, each building and improving on the other, many leaving mysterious legacies ripe for vivid speculations. It made for fascinating explorations.

While I can’t really cover them all and am skipping over a few here (like the Huari), there are many better sources out there anyway, so I’ve just jotted some of our highlights below;


Museum Ceremony recreation (with shell horns)


One of the earliest major civilizations in Northern Peru is the mythical, shamanic, cat-worshipping Chavin culture. The Chavin empire once stretched from much of Peru’s Northern highlands and along the North and Central coasts and in many ways provided the building blocks for many of the subsequent civilizations. Artifacts dating back to 850BC, show that the Chavin were excellent artisans, with the dynamic and creative pottery styles very influential on later cultures, some almost picasso like. But it is the spiritual legacy of the Chavin which is probably most enduring.

The Chavin really consolidated the base for the Peruvian spiritual traditions that have continued in my forms through other subsequent cultures right  up to today. Their worship of the 4 elements, mother nature and the great animal spirits, particularly the Puma, but also the condor and serpent were expressed in shamanic rituals using the San Pedro cactus. All these elements remain prominent in Andean spirituality today and is particularly evident in Inca & Andean mythology.

Meg Transforming

Visiting the great temple site of “Chavin de Huantar”, near Huarez was a special experience. The layout and architecture of the site as the spiritual home of the Chavin empire is magnificent, even though thousands of years old and crushed by landslides and earthquakes over time. The site features several sacred zones as you make your approach to the main temple – a large square, a divided black and white marble stairway and a circular ceremonial area where the priests performed their San Pedro ceremonies and rituals. The walls of the temples contained a series of sculpted heads surrounding the site, each showing a different stage of transformation from human to cat form. A pseudo demonstration if you will of the process the priests emulated in their San Pedro ceremonies, gaining access to the spiritworld and undergoing transformations. Many of the frescos, reliefs, pottery and sculptures found on the site are also amazing in documenting these experiences and beliefs. Inside the temple is a labyrinth of caves, tunnels and rooms, believed to be once have been an extensive network linking to other sites underground. One room contains a giant rock sculpture shaped like a knife, called the “Lanzon de Chavin”, it is carved into the shaped of an anthropomorphic deity with fangs, claws, serpentine features and other symbolic representations. The site is hard to get to and the tour guides mostly only speak Spanish, but if you have the background and the imagination it is really a very, special place to explore.


Excavated Moon Temple decals


Coming to the fore about 2,000 years ago, the Moche managed to tame the arid coastal regions, by implementing extensive irrigation systems throughout the coastal region, turning the arid desert landscape into fertile, agricultural zones – an important basic infrastructure built on and emulated by all later civilizations. Their pottery and ceramic ware was also to my mind the finest of all the great civilization of Peru bar the Chavin, with many mesmerizing and creative designs.

The best preserved site is near Trujillo on the Northern Coast of the Peru. Here two great pyramids, looking more like sand mountains these days given they were built more than 2,000 years ago, but known as the pyramid temples of the Moon and the Sun. The Temple of the Moon has been extensively excavated and sits near a brand new museum, one of the best we visited in South America. The Pyramid itself was rebuilt on top of the previous temple site numerous times, created multiple shells over the original site which has preserved much of the original temples, sculptures and reliefs. Some of the excavations we saw revealed really florid designs, incorporating designs of their god, Ai-Apaec plus other motifs including dragons, still vivid in their colour and paintwork. Further North, near Chiclayo (though we didn’t get there to visit) they have also found the great tombs of Sipan, burial chamber’s of a great lord of Moche, the tombs were rich with gold trinkets, ceramics revealing much about the culture.


Entrance to the sacred square, Chan Chan


The Chimu arrived on the scene about 850 AD conquered the Moche and then expanded their empire extensively right up until 1470 when they were in turn conquered by the Incan’s. The huge mud city of Chan Chan, supposed to be the largest mud city in the world, once housed some 10,000 inhabitants is also located just outside of Trujillo. It is a huge expanse of mud ruins, large walls, once up to 10m high, but still commanding in their size, run off in many directions enclosing large sections of the former city –  its contents now reduced to mounds and little hills. The main centre has been partly restored and you can see some of the intricate designs built into the walls all along here – reliefs of fish, waves and other creatures. Its not particularly fascinating in itself, but the scale of the place is impressive to wander, some 20 square km of mud walls an ruins.


Nazca tree design, well kind of..


The Nazca, were quite a mysterious people that lived in the Southern Coastal region from about 500 AD – 1,000 AD. While the distinctive style of their pottery is also interesting, it is the Nazca lines and geomorphic designs that abound upon the planes surrounding the area that is their real legacy.

The designs themselves are best seen from the air, although flights were too extortionate for us while we were there, due to a perfect storm of recently improved safety standards, a lack of approved companies and then no petrol supplies – a total sellers market. The designs extend for hundreds of kilometres in every direction and mystify with their purpose or intent. There are fantastic animal designs (monkeys, hummingbirds), a spacemen and other more simple geometric shapes and straight lines that extend over huge distances. The why is still a mystery – part of a rain / fertility rituals perhaps, landing strips for aliens or complex constellation maps – there are innumerable fantastic theories and it’s a great place to let your imagination run wild. But honestly the town is not much and while there are a couple of look outs to view things from, you can’t really see or experience it, if you don’t pay the money and take the flight.


Shaman village, Kuelap


The warrior Chachapoyan culture of the Northern highlands, later conquered by the Incan’s, also left some amazing legacies spread across their remote mountain locations. The biggest site is the huge fortress ruin of Kuelap, a stunning architectural achievement, an entire city built on the top of a mountain and extremely well designed. Inside the fortress walls, there are several, well preserved village’s layouts, each based around a central Shaman main house, each displaying unique totems in their wall design. It is difficult to get to, but the wild several hour ride up through the winding mountain roads and villages, makes the journey particularly special – one of the best adventures, views and experiences to be had, despite the blisters.

Also dotted throughout the surrounding mountains are hidden all manner of smaller legacies – hidden temples, villages built into the sides of the mountains and several different sculptured sarcophagi containing mummies placed into amazing locations in the side of mountains. Off the beaten track, often undocumented, friendly people and cheap, with spectacular landscapes everywhere – the Chachapoyas region was one of the most pleasant and enjoyable places to explore that we visited in Peru.



Jungle Medicine 1 – Ecuador

Tena, Ecuador Javier – Apprentice Shaman (Jungle Tour) Our first attempt at meeting a shaman and partaking in an Ayahuasca ceremony wasn’t a particularly successful […]

Tena, Ecuador

Javier – Apprentice Shaman (Jungle Tour)

Our first attempt at meeting a shaman and partaking in an Ayahuasca ceremony wasn’t a particularly successful one. With some strong intel that Tena, a jungle frontier town some 5 or 6 hours from Quito in Ecuador, was a key hub for shaman we arrived to find the place completely shutdown for the weekend. The guides and shaman contacts we had contact details and introductions for turned out not to be answering phones or responding to emails and we were reduced to tackling things the old fashioned way. Hanging around for a few days and walking the town, we talked to a number of travel and tour companies, scraping together their recommendations on jungle / shaman adventures. Not an ideal way to do things but several seemed to have some options that they could put together – it was definitely low season. This was not the first, well-researched, beautiful introduction to the Ayahuasca medicine we were seeking, but we were here and working through the options decided on one anyway.

Our funky Jungle Hut.

Steering clear of foreign options, a local company said they would take us on a 3 day tour into the jungle near their traditional village, as part of which we would take Ayahuasca with a local shaman from the village or that was what we gleamed through our limited, heavily dialected Spanish conversation. It sounded quite authentic and was locally run so appealed – anyway it was cheap, we were here, why not?

As you would expect though, the reality didn’t quite match the expectations of our fervid imaginings. The village turned out to be located only some 20 minutes outside Tena, where we were dropped off on the side of the road outside town, each given gumboots and introduced to our guide / cook / shaman, Javier. Young, maybe mid-20’s, Javier was a cool looking guy with tattoo’s and a long plait of hair down his back, but little command of English. Not quite what we had in mind when it comes to our image of a shaman, but it looked like we could connect with him pretty well and we were kind of past the point of turning back.

We then set of on an hour walk through the jungle wading over numerous small streams in our gumboots and eventually arriving at a funkily crafted cabin in a well maintained clearing. The plan was to take Ayahuasca that night, so given the need to fast for the day beforehand we had little energy and nothing much to do except relax and rest. Relaxing in hammocks for most of the morning, we then walked went on a brief walk for a few hours while Javier introduced us to various medicinal plants, clays and their traditional uses. We were pretty impressed with ourselves simply in being able to follow most of what he said in Spanish.

Preparing the vine

Upon return we set about preparing the Ayahuasca brew. Under instructions and occasional intervention from Javier we cut down 2 x 2 foot lengths of a 12 year old Ayahuasca vine growing near the hut and chopped these into 4 x 15cm lengths each. We then stripped the vine of its thin covering of outer bark – the white inner wood of the vine reacting with the air, quickly turned a reddish brown. Apparently this is the strongest concentration of Ayahuasca in the vine. These pieces we then crushed into smaller, thinner strips and loaded into a large pot, covering with water. Javier then added several handfuls of Charipunga leaves to the pot and set it to boil for 3 or 4 hours, reducing the liquid to a couple of bowlfuls.

Around 8pm, with the moon lightening up the jungle night sky, Javier did a simple ceremony, blew some smoke over the broth and served us up a bowlful each. The taste was very earthy and bitter, but not nearly as vile as I was expecting. While we waited for it to take effect, he explained that his father was a shaman and that he had been taking Ayahuasca for 7 years studying under the 2 shaman of his village. At one point drinking Ayahuasca 20 days straight. Young as he was, it was re-assuring, we had had our doubts about the whole experience up until this point. Javier then began to softly sing icaro’s (sacred songs), play a flute and shake a fan made of leaves used for purifying energy and we settled back and waited for things to take effect.

Getting initiated by Javier

Megumi started throwing up right on schedule 30 minutes in, but I didn’t have the same compulsion. After 45 minutes I drank a little more – still no visions or nausea. After a little while though, I became dizzy, disorientated and unbalanced as though drunk. My thoughts quickened and started jumping around. I felt euphoric and perceived things in kind of an earie half-light, shadows and shapes appeared to move out of the corner of my eye. This continued for some 4 or 5 hours, it was all quite unusual, but not the visions and experience I was expecting. Javier later explained that it was not uncommon the first time, it took him several times before he experienced the visions.

Next day I tried eating and found myself throwing up as I should have the night before. Some delayed metabolistic reaction I guess, I was also still feeling a little weird and offbalance from the experience. But we headed off on a 6 hour jungle hike to a distant cave where we would spend the night By evening, following a big meal things were back to normal and we trekked back to the village and returned to Tena the next day.

In all it was a pleasant, if not really compelling experience. But the intimacy of cutting the vine and creating the brew ourselves, just us, the moon and the jungle for a first time seemed a beautiful orientation to the Ayahuasca experience. Even if the results had belied our expectations.

Tena, Ecuador

Shaman Don Luis / Kuyaloma

Returning to civilization we heard back from our original contacts, they had been caught up in a 10 day retreat during our previous visit, but had scheduled a ceremony for the following week that we could attend. It meant delaying our planned stay in Ecuador by another week, but it offered a more authentic experience and was too tempting to pass up, so we looped back around to Tena for another go. We have learnt many times on this trip that there is no point having regrets.

Our guide Feather Crown / Jan

At a meeting point by the river in central Tena, we met a group of 6 other ceremony participants (1 German, an older American guy, an older Austrian / American couple plus 2 local Ecuadorians) along with Jan, the guide and organizer of the experience. Jan who goes by the name “Feather Crown” is a Czech national that had been living in Ecuador for the past few years. In that time he had worked and studied with many of the shaman in the Tena area and occasionally put together guided experiences with some of them, such as the one we had signed up for.

Kuyaloma is located about 20 minutes from Tena towards Michualli, the other side of Tena to our previous adventure. It is a small community, presided over by the shaman Don Luis and his apprentice son Juan Andi. Don Luis is VP of the regional shaman council and considered one of the most respected and powerful shaman in the area. Jan had explained that there are more than 200 hundred shaman in the area, most villages and extended families have one, but many are alcoholics. There are few foreign Ayahuasca tourists here unlike in Peru, a large part of the reason we have sought out an experience here, thinking it would be more authentic. Jan has developed a relationship with Don Luis, partly because of the quality of his ceremonies and skills, but also because he is alcohol free and that the proceeds from the foreigners he brings here, are tangibly plowed back into the infrastructure. Located behind a large tin covered basketball court, which acts as the community refuge centre, Don Lui’s property is located on a hill, with the river and township below. Despite the proximity it still feels peaceful and somewhat isolated, surrounded by plants and jungle. He has recently built a 2 story block for simple sleeping accommodations, 2 stand alone tambo’s (huts) and a large circular ceremony hut. Recently covered pipelines and open dirt gutters show where sewerage for bathrooms had only just been completed.

The Ceremony hut - Malocca

Guided and translated into English by Jan, the ceremony starts around 8pm with an introduction by Don Luis who we had not seen in daylight. In the twilight, backlit only by glowing coals of the ceremonial huts fireplace, Don Luis castes an impressive figure – shirtless, wearing a grass skirt and a crown of feathers. He talks of how he came to his profession. A shamanic tradition handed down to him from his grandfather and fathers before him. Initially he was trained through stories from the spiritworld, until a visit to a sacred waterfall nearby led to a sacred experience and revelation of the spirits.

The ceremony space was a big, round, thatch-roofed hut, with a recessed fireplace built into the floor, and several fireplaces arranged outside with bench seating amongst the tree’s. We were all seated around the edge of the hut, cushioned benchseats, with foam mattresses behind on the wall so that you could lean back at a 60 degree angle comfortably. The Ayahuasca had been brewed that day from a Negro (black) vine and combined with Challipunga leaves, similar sounding to the brew we had made ourselves previously. When Don Luis had finished speaking, he began the ceremony itself , blessing the Ayahuasca brew by blowing tobacco smoke through the liquid and chanting some sacred songs (or icaro’s). We then each went forward, sat on a small wooden stool before him and after another blessing, drank a small shotfull of the Ayahuasca. The experience of this itself, castes a large mystical shadow – the feathers, grass, tobacco smoke and bare chest of the shaman in the dim light was transformative in and of itself. The Ayahuasca tasted much stronger than our first experience, though we are drinking considerably smaller quantities. After drinking, we are given Awasca, a plant stimulant to rinse our mouth and help rid some of the after taste, as well as some ginger to chew, also helping with digestion and nausea.

After a few minutes, everyone was leaning back meditating, relaxing and waiting for the brew to take hold. Don Luis started playing a small twangy instrument, a harmonica and singing songs, walking around purifying the space and the energy. The presence and atmosphere this created was captivating and magical all in itself. Within 15 minutes, several people fell heavily under the Ayahuasca spell, groaning and writhing on the ground, throwing up and grappling with all sorts of demons it seemed. It was intense and immensely distracting. Jan and some of the other family acting as assistants helped take these people outside, fanning them with leaves and feathers trying to calm them and remove negative energies. After an hour or so, I felt a sudden shift in the space, the twilight changed to a half-light, taking on an almost mystical aspect with slight visual inconsistencies appearing out of the corners of the eye, tinged with occasional flashes of blue fire – very subtle nothing strong or intense.

Preparing the Ayahuasca

After a while, with violent groans and purging still occurring outside I was called forward by the shaman for an energy cleansing. This is traditionally what shaman do for community members in Ecuador, whether or not you have even drunk Ayahuasca its really the key focus of the ceremony. Shirtless I sat before him on the small wooden stool while he set about balancing my energies. He started the cleansing by spit-spraying “agua de florida”, a perfumed alcohol over my body, front and back of my hands. He then placed his lips to the crown of my head and blew his energy into my being, sharing his knowledge and energetic strength, a process he later repeated at the end of the cleansing and by putting his lips to the palms of my hands. What followed next was a hypnotic, beautiful ceremony of sacred songs, instruments and ritualized fanning using dry leaves that were performed as an intense, energetic dance all over and around my body. The energy and intensity of the performance was both surreal and immense, it must have lasted a full half hour, during which I felt numbness and tingles over different parts of my body. When he finished I tried to stand and almost fell over, dizzy with the energetic transfer effect.

Cooking the brew

After relaxing for a few moments, I could stand and realized I felt totally euphoric, lighter and completely clear. Whatever had taken place during the cleansing had created a state of absolute clarity and bliss within me. I basked in it for a while and explored outside, even sensing the dark energies of the other participants still purging by the fire did not dampen my new found state. Not really feeling the effects of the Ayahuasca though I decided to take some more. Most people were outside now, groans, purging and bodies in different states littered the seats and fire areas. The shaman himself was by the fire, his wife and son hitting him with leaves, chanting songs and feeding him lemonwater. He was in very deep, as he later explained and they were trying to keep him in this world, to bring him back from the edge. Throat cleansing and purging echoed all around me in the night.

I still felt the twilight edge, but again the Ayahuasca seemed to have little effect – my new energy clarity seemed to have super-ceded the brews effects. I settled back around the fire as the evening started to calm down again, the shaman’s cleansing rituals, songs resuming as part of the others cleansing rituals, creating a harmonic and soothing background. About 4m we went to bed.

Breaking the fast the next day

The next day we shared a fantastic, Ayahuasca diet friendly breakfast cooked by Jan’s Slovakian partner. Then we sat down and shared experiences, everyone had a completely different perspective and story to tell it seemed, although myself and Megumi seemed quite aligned. No-one could believe I had taken 3 doses of Ayahuasca. Several people had lost all control and gone as close to the edge as they believed possible on the first. One American had done more than 40 ceremonies in Peru and rated this amongst the strongest he had ever had. Others had encountered spirits or purged deep personal issues. It’s a little disconcerting, I feel fantastic and clear – quite amazing really the energy cleansing must have really removed some significant burdens from me, but it was still not the deep, visionary, spirit world experience I was expecting. There is a sensitivity or attunement required with this particularly brew we are told from Jan – be patient. Deciding to ride the momentum, we agree to return the following day and sit in ceremony again.

Ceremony 2

Wow – what a difference a day makes. One of those total, revelatory, life changing experiences that you want to scream from the highest mountain tops with joy and new awareness!

Tobacco curing in the Malocca

The ceremony was almost identical in format, there were 9 of us, 6 returning from the first night, but all of us had a completely different experience. Don Luis started with a story again, telling us of a time when he was very young and had taken a journey 17 dys down the river into the Amazon somewhere in Peru. He had been given Ayahuasca and encountered a giant Anaconda which he rode and was taken on a journey that featured several outer world encounters. It was beautiful and mesmerising, even if I couldn’t really conceive yet some of the spaces he was sharing.

After blessing the brew, we imbibed. This time after 15 minutes, reality shifted completely. It started with a cold shiver that crawled up my body closing in like a veil, every core of my being vibrating. In front of me the light shifted and slowly everything transformed into a moving mosaic of organic fractals, a pulsing and shifting display of chemical structures before me. I was frozen and unable to move as the world started to kaleidoscope – buzzing with the intensity of this wave of transition. After a while I started to feel a wave of nausea and managed to find my way outside. Everything pulsed and moved visually, but as I made my way to the tree’s, I found them glowing with a bright purple energy field. Each emitted a discernable energy life force that I could see, sense and feel, it was totally Avatar like for want of a better description – a connection of the purest quality. Purging heavily I sensed spirits moving around me, one rose out of the ground right in front of me and beckoned me on. Of the earth, a weirdly shapeless form, dark brown, its arms like mittens waving my purging on, encouraging me to purge whatever negative energy or blocks I was trying to remove from my body. All over, I had a sense of dejavu of familiarity with this realm or space. But the sudden awareness, speed and intensity of the experience I was processing also created a sense of panic. I felt myself freaking out at the waves and intensity of the revelations. I found myself trying to analyse what I was seeing, experiencing, wanting to describe it, to document it, think about what it mean’t and in doing so I felt the experience begin to recede a little. I spent a lot of time trying to divorce the rational side of my brain – to free myself, to let myself flow fully and go with this new realm and experience, but felt firmly held back. In hindsight now there is a lot more work I realize I needed to do here to empty my mind and open myself up further to this experience (similar I guess to some of the meditations I have studied). At the time though, this was a big barrier, I kept finding myself in the face of this realm and these possibilities, being pulled back by my own rationality. There was a driving need to get outside of myself and separate myself from the moment to process it and in so doing compromising the experience.

Mascot - the ceremony only dog

Calmer as a result, but with everything still pulsing visually and trapped in this new spiritual realm, I was able to lie down and for a time flow with the visions and experience a little. After a while though, I felt a repeated compulsion to purge again and found myself in the jungle, leaning on my new tree spirit friend’s for support, as I dry purged, kind of vomiting air. Expunging something deep inside that I needed to be rid of, though I know not what specifically. This went on for some time, periodically Jan or one the family’s assistants would come over and fan me, cleansing me of the bad energy I was releasing and protecting me in the process. This tangibly felt better each time it was performed. I was still in a state of total wonder and amazement at what was happening, but slowly the purging and the fanning eased the intensity of what was happening. I was also consciously aware of the tree’s support and energy helping me as well, plus a mysterious dog that seemed to be always by my side. I found out later he was called mascot and only ever really appeared during ceremonies.

I then found myself back in the ceremonial hut and seated before the shaman for an energy cleanse. I was shaking and still nauseas, Don Luis on entering could barely walk himself, lost deep in his own communion with the spirits, he had to be helped to his place. Bowed before him, he fed me his energy through the crown of my head and my palms, sprayed me with the ‘agua de florida’ and began his cleansing ritual of songs, dances and fanning with full power and energy. I closed my eyes and was lost to this dark, shadowy, tobacco filled realm. Soothing, familiar and somehow peaceful I felt the shakes and convulsions and battles within slowly subside, dissipate and slip away altogether replaced with a calmness, strength and clarity. When I finished I sat back in the ceremony room and relaxed. The visuals and other worldly perception was slowly receding and I felt myself slipping back into a serene and peaceful clarity.

It had all happened so fast and so intensely it actually felt kind of frustrating. I had been shown the door and pushed in, I had perceived this otherworld, interacted with its messengers and affirmed the experience that I had been seeking. But I had also found myself not quite ready or unable to let myself go and release myself to go deeper. There is still much for me to resolve, remove here. It is inspirational and world view changing for me in so many ways, but at the same time incredibly humbling. I am just a baby at the gates of perception, dwarfed by the immensity of the things I do not know or understand it seems. I am committed to going a lot deeper though and here I have received the encouragement I needed, but also a sense of the reality and challenges s well. There is so much I do not know or comprehend, so much that I need to let go of and re-evaluate.

Sharing experiences

The next morning I felt a little dizzy, but clear, light, pure and simply euphoric at the new awareness, excited at the paths ahead. We share experiences again, everyone is different, experiences all commensurate with each persons various stage, experience or needs. Megumi’s has been largely similar to mine it appears – it has been truly groundbreaking for her as well. Jan shares what he perceived with many of us on the energy plane and we are all incredibly bonded by the experience.

Jan also explains that while we have been cleansed and intensely energized by the Shaman and our experiences, we are also totally opened up and therefore vulnerable to other energies and bad spirits, to people taking energy and losing momentum. There are therefore some rules to follow from here. No alcohol for 6 days, no pork for 4 days, no sex for a week. No shaking hands with people for a while (the palms are a key energy transfer point, where energy flows and is refilled). Basically eating lots of fruits, vegetables which we do anyway and avoiding crowds, busy city environments until our new energy bodies can settle. It’s a lot to absorb, but we are floating on a high. We would love to go deeper and stay for more, our new German friend signs on for a month with Don Luis, but we intend to go deeper and explore this more in Peru. While we will remain seared by the experience forever, it was time to move on.

You can read more about our Peruvian experiences here

and the some of the background on the why of it here



Chasing the Vine

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 […]

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!


Postcards from Galapagos

There are some places that from the moment they are mentioned regale the senses with a certain mystique, appeal and promise – the Galapagos Archipelago […]

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.

The Galapagos Archipelago

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.

Iguana posing for the sun

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.

The 'Flamingo' - note seal on back landing!

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.

Isla Seymour

Frigate birds playing escort

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.

Male Frigate Bird in full mating thrall

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. .

Isla Plaza

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.

Bird photography from the cliff

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.

Iguanas - mean looking up close

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.

Blue Footed boobies - oddly curious

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.

Seals are comfortably relaxing everywhere

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

Posing with Sea turtles

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.

No touching of course, but there is no fear here!

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.


Of Mayan Imaginings

The Mayans are one of those great mystic ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians and the Khmers of Angkor Wat, they suffered a demise so sudden […]

The Mayans are one of those great mystic ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians and the Khmers of Angkor Wat, they suffered a demise so sudden and mysterious that their culture remains an enigma. In the process they left behind a marvelous array of cryptic archaeological legacies across Central America – ruined cities, brutal sacrificial legends, alphabets, calendars and exotic predictions for the future. Half forgotten and shrouded in jungle, today they continue to confound, fire and inspire the imaginations of all manner of historians, travellers and conspiracy theorists.

Doomsday stone - the Mayan Calendar

The single biggest mystery with the Mayans of course was their sudden disappearance. At the very peak of their arts, architecture and civilization known as the classic period, their greatest cities such as Tikal, Palenque & Copan were suddenly abandoned around 900 AD and the entire civilization structure collapsed. While the entire area remains populated by their descendants to this day and mass migrations North fuelled development of later cities, largely they are but pale imitations of their former cultural heights – a deserting diaspora bereft of much of their knowledge and skill. By the time the Spanish rocked up in the 15th century to Yucatan in Mexico, many of the cities themselves had fused culturally with the Toltecs and Aztecs, the dominant Mexican tribes from the North. The cycles of repeated bad luck and tragedy manifested brutally as massive rituals of human sacrifice.

In what is a major echo of our own time perhaps, historians can now attribute the collapse of these great cities to a perfect storm of 3 factors. 1) Massive overpopulation as the cities reached their zenith 2) Complete environmental collapse from over-farming around the area of the cities themselves and 3) a long, extended drought that in effect lasted the better part of a century. In many ways the secrets and lessons of the Mayans lie not with their more famed futuristic astrological predictions, but with the manner in which they disappeared. You don’t have to think too far ahead to see that overpopulation, environmental collapse and severe water shortages are all that await us in the next 50 years.

Temple Cornice at Chichen Itza

Apart from human sacrifice and the disappearing act though, the Mayans are probably best known for their advanced writing, mathematics, incredibly accurate astronomy and time measurement. In an historic context, their calendars, perfected at the height of their classic civilization (250-900 AD), were the most accurate on earth right up until the late Renaissance period in Europe in the 17th century, almost a thousand years later. Famously, the Mayans broke the world’s time into 5126-year periods, the final epoche calendar cycle, or b’ak’tun calculated by the Mayans, ends in December 2012. Many of today’s apocalyptic dooms-dayers credit the end of the world with this key date and given the state of society today its’ easy to play along, but  there are other interpretations more reassuring. These read the importance of 2012 as not an end date in itself, but heralding the start of a new epoch of spiritual transformation and renewal – a new and final B’ak’tun that completes the cycle, one the Mayans never really had a chance to envision properly. We can certainly wish! Honestly speaking though, any civilization that didn’t see their own demise is hard to take too seriously in the prophecy stakes.

A stela from Copan

Back to us though, our Mayan adventures started in Southern Mexico with the people themselves. Then wound through the ruins of the great classic cities in Mexico to the most recent ones of the Northern Yucatan, diving into the great jungle cities and Mayan peoples of Guatemala, before finally finishing South in Honduras. A journey that yielded no magic answers on the question of 2012 and the fate of the world, but did provide for some fantastic locations, experiences and contemplations which I have summarized by location below:

The Modern Mayan Tribes

San Cristobel is a small, colonial town in the state of Chiapas. The cobblestone streets are a warren of lovely shops, café’s, restaurants, hostels and markets. It is a perfect blend of bohemian, colonial lifestyle in the heart of Mayan country and has trapped many a traveller. Not much of a danger for us in the height of winter though – the place is too bloody cold to sit still for long, but it is the villages that surround San Cristabel that enthral.

On a day tour from San Cristobel we visited 2 of them – San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan, both home to the still fiercely independent Mayan tribes the Tzotzil and Tzeltal. Now to be honest, I didn’t really know that the Mayan people still existed at all. I had naively assumed that they had all died out long ago and were now the stuff of legend, but they still occupy extensive parts of Mexico and Belize and actually make up the majority of the population in Guatemala. Many of the more remote tribes such as those around San Cristobel still hold tightly to many aspects of their culture such as the traditional Mayan calendars and methods of counting and have done so continuously in the face of hundreds of years of ‘civilizing’ forces. Being able to witness this firsthand was an experience that resonated particularly strongly with me. Too often in our travels, we have encountered cultures quickly being over-run and trashed by globalization and that even greater cultural destroyer – Christian missionaries. It’s nice to see some still able to fight.

Mayan women from San Lorenzo

In San Lorenzo, the towns’ spiritual elders stand out the front of the local church with telltale grey and red hats demonstrating their various ranks, the elders wearing a unique kind of sandal. They stand there taking turns to chant, dance and administer the towns’ finances, a process that covers the better part of a 24 hour period every Sunday. The local women in the town all congregate in the square, opposite the church to sell their fruit and vegetables and brightly coloured woollen fabrics at the market. They all wear the same blue/purple woollen shawls with pink floral designs beautifully embroidered. Each Mayan village or tribe wears a different, distinctive colour combination like this to demonstrate where they are from – the same applies in much of Guatemala. There is no individuality here – their identity is all about the community, tribe or group and everything is managed collectively, hence the elders gathered at the church. The town also prohibits outside police, buses or taxi operators so everything is controlled and administered by the community itself – by the people for the people, necessary to protect themselves culturally from outside forces. It could not make a starker contrast with our own western imperative to set ourselves apart.

A special Mayan church

The next town, San Juan was even more striking. Here the locals wore a kind of black haired skirt and jacket, with a white variation to differentiate the spiritual leaders. We spent some time in a spiritual leaders’ house and learnt how they give up a year of their life for the honour of the role, paying for all the ceremonial dues, incense and other daily requirements out of their own personal savings. They spend several years of savings in fulfilling this role, but in doing so ensure their place of honour within the society.

The community concept here also ensures that there is almost no crime. If there is, criminals are publicly shamed and humiliated – we walked passed the cages where this occurs, but they are all empty. Seemingly minor transgressions from the community are dealt with harshly here. If you marry without family blessings, you are expelled from the town and community; with an even more severe excommunication for anyone that converts to Christianity. Changing religion or taking on obligations that prioritize things over the tribe, means you can no longer function in the community and are forced to leave. It is a harsh rule, but a necessary one to survive the constant cultural purges that the missionaries in particular bring. It is a lesson and solution that has been refined constantly over many centuries. San Cristobel itself is home to many generations of former village members thus removed, we are informed appreciatively by our guide, he is himself one.

View from the Sun Temple in Palenque

Perhaps the most striking experience of the community here though was a visit to the local church. This was a former catholic church reprised by the Mayan community after expelling the priests from the town over some major ideological conflict. Now, with no meddling priests in place, it is open 24 hours a day and the villagers are able to visit with their own respective shaman, midwife or spiritual healer in order to conduct their own special rituals as needed. The floor of the church itself is covered in pine needles and statues of catholic saints line the walls in old glass boxes. Throughout the church villagers sit on the floor, burning candles in front of themselves (both the colour and number of the candles is important), but also facing various directions toward the relevant saint that embody the values that they might be looking for some help with. Some of the villages have bottles of coca cola or soft drink next to them – these are used in special rituals to ‘burp out’ evil spirits. (Apparently coke worked a lot better than the corn syrup they used to do this with, so they happily switched over). Elsewhere there is a chicken trussed up on the floor, next to a small family, a husband, wife and child seated together with their local shaman. The chicken will soon have its neck broken as part of another sacrificial ritual, perhaps an offering for another child, perhaps for a harvest, it is hard to tell and impolite to ask.

Waterfall in the Palenque ruins

The hybrid nature of the rituals is uniquely fascinating as they integrate useful bits of the external world that happens to work in nicely with their own ideas. Equally impressive is the apparent indifference the towns’ people show to our presence here. They are confident enough in their own rituals and culture that they can open it up this way. While we are not permitted to photograph anything, we can watch and they are happy for the small contributions we make in return financially to their community. Living under the shadows of an encroaching modern world, they know what we are about fairly intimately and have still chosen their own path – they accept that they have their way and we have ours and leave it at that. They do wonder though why we can’t simply respect them the same way. They constantly have to repel missionaries. The strength of conviction to do this is quite enviable and it really is a delicate balance this cultures survival treads. I wish them all the very best!


Jaguar King Stella, Yaxchilan

Our first ruin stop if you will was the great ancient city of Palenque – at its peak one of the greatest Mayan cities of the classic period before being abandoned in 900 AD. It was not rediscovered until the late 1770’s. The great temple of the inscriptions and the Palace here make a commanding sight – it’s hard to conceive of the sight of all these huge buildings around the central square at their height, painted red. The square around the temples of the Cross, Sun and Foliated Cross further atop the hill overlooking the great Palace and surrounded by encroaching jungle, casts a spell over the surrounding countryside and resonates with a sacred energy. It was easy to linger for hours here. Further south as you wander around the surrounding city, waterfalls and streams work their way quite spectacularly through the ruins of old courts and houses. In the museum, the great tomb of the King Pakal is on display, which was found buried beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions. The funerary details and inscriptions on the tombstone are simply amazing and one of the great finds of the Mayan kingdom – effectively its own Tutenkhamen.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak

Sacrificial temple square, Yaxchilan

These Mayan ruins sit on the Guatemalan border some 3 hours or so from Palenque. 10 years ago you could only access these by plane, but now you can travel an hour or so by boat up the river (past crocodiles on the bank) to the jungle site itself with the assistance of a local Mayan guide. The easiest way to get there is to sign up for a day tour from Palenque, but you also have the option of continuing on a multi-day tour to Tikal in Guatemala from here. Renown mostly for the important revelations deduced from the various carvings & inscriptions found here, these sights were magical to me more for their location and isolation. Bonampak is a small site, but there are a series of rooms recently uncovered in the small acropolis that are covered with murals and original paintings in great condition, depicting detailed scenes of war, torture and decapitation unlike those found anywhere else. At Yaxchilan, the spell caste by the sound of Howler monkeys in the trees all around the site is unforgettable. Like the distant throng of a horror movie in full force they enshroud the place in a mystique that is more Jurassic park than archaeological wonder. The ruins themselves though are still impressive with lots of ornate facades still clinging to the various temples and houses; extensive steps grafted into the mountainside leading to fine temple on top and another sacrificial temple located off some distance through the jungle. Sprinkled throughout are standing stellas or sculptures with Mayan inscriptions. With very few other tourists around it’s a special place to explore.


An Uxmal serpent at night

Located a few hours from the thriving city of Merida in the Yucatan, this was another classic era city. Featuring several great pyramids, palaces and other intact structures with many ornate carvings built into the temple walls and squares, this site was quite impressive once too. It is hard to get too though if you want to stay late in the evening (ie there are no buses), so we joined a tour that enabled us to explore the site during the afternoon and then stay for a “sound and light” show set within the grounds after dark. While the music, story and headset translation was pretty amateur and lame. The sight of the lights and lasers pouring over distinct features of the architecture and lighting up embedded forms in the carvings on the temples, such as those of the large serpent God Quetzalcoatl, was particularly memorable and intimate. Dark, shadowy, devoid of people, key buildings pleasantly illuminated – the night experience was a nice take to have on a Mayan site, fertile ground for the imagination.

Chichen Itza

The Great' Castle Pyramid' of Chichen Itza

Rated a modern wonder of the world, this was by far the most touristed of all the sites we visited. Located in the heart of Yucaten it is easy access for a day trip from most beach and resort tourists. The site itself is quite extensive and has many compelling features. The great Castle Pyramid is its signature and a stunning example of Mayan architecture with all the tricks. If you clap in the vicinity of the pyramid, a gap in its design creates an echo that mimics the call of the sacred Quetzal bird, something common to many pyramids we visited but still impressive. On one side though, two serpentine Quetzalcoatl railings are designed in such a way as to catch the light on the Spring or Autumn equinox respectively, these light up square by square so as to appear to be moving. Hard to imagine how crowded it would get here on those days, but the astronomical and archaeological precision of it still leave architects in awe. Amongst the ruins, decapitated sculls and other gruesome carvings abound; there is a sacrificial cenotes (water filled open cave) where bodies where disposed of and also the largest ball-court in MesoAmerica, with many intact sculptures and inscriptions (Ball-courts are common to all Maya, Aztec, Toltec, Olmec and Zapotecan sites). Throughout the site though, there are literally craft and Mayan souvenir stands everywhere you walk and thousands of tourists on guided package tours clamouring for photos. Fantastic as it is, its hard to appreciate when you are part of a seething, surging photo mass. We probably didn’t spend as much time here as we would of otherwise.


The main plaza at Tikal

Though it was one of the last remaining occupied Mayan sites, there is nothing exceptional about this ruin at all, except that it is located on a cliff, right above a beautiful sandy beach, next to about a million beach resorts. Strangely this makes it the most popular Mayan ruin of all,. The place is literally covered in both Iguanas (which were actually pretty interesting) and half-naked tourists (definitely not interesting), there to swim at the beautiful beach onsite and all trying to get a ruin shot, nicely contrasted with the beautiful azure, waters and white sand. The ruins are boring though, really not much there at all, but still, its very easy to visit. The ruin shot was simply too hard for us to get though – way too many strange bums in the way.


Getting cloud level at Tikal

The most impressive city by far in terms of its scale and location, it is too big to describe in detail and its marvel is the scale of the city and overall design. Located deep in the jungle, Tikal is one of those sites lost until the mid 1800’s and the jungle is constantly fighting reclaim it. The complex is huge, at its height it extended some 30km and housed 100,000 people, less than 1% of which has even been excavated today (there are some 4000 structures in the central city alone). As you walk around on the thin paths through the jungle linking the main excavated plaza’s, you pass many heavily forested little hills that you start to appreciate are really other temple pyramids completely reclaimed by the jungle and waiting one day to be restored. At the main sites you can climb some of the steep sided, towering pyramids, (the highest some 61 metres high) and poke your head above the clouds and forest canopy where you can perceive other distant structures and start to comprehend the amazing scale and alignment of the various temple complexes.

Great stairway of Copan

Tikal was also magic for the wildlife on display here, this is proper jungle and as you wander around you can spot numerous birds including flocks of Tucans and Macaus. We  also saw a giant tarantulas, numerous peacocks and other odd animals, all appeared quite tame and immune to the typical compulsive fear of the hunted. We did the trip in a tour from Flores, a very pleasant former Mayan city built in the middle of a lake and arrived at sunrise to explore Tikal in the misty early morning light and the main structures in the clearer sunlight of mid-morning. However, you can also stay at one of the inns right outside the site itself, which would give you flexibility to  visit later in the evening when you could have the place largely to yourself. The place is so big, it could easily occupy several days of exploration so this would probably be a great option.


Artists image of the temple /stairway, Copan

Probably my favourite of all the Mayan sights we visited to be honest. Located right outside the town of Copan just over the border from Guatemala in Honduras, it is an easy walk away and simple to explore. At the entrance a squadron of giant pet macaws make for a lot of interactive photo opportunities. But it is the sculptures and artwork on display that dazzle, by far the most intricate and beautiful of all the sites we visited. The engravings on the giant stella’s occupying the main square and the incredible staircase of inscriptions were really the highlights and left you in awe of what the Mayans had achieved and somehow lost all in one go. Every square on a step of the stairway is a beautifully engraved Mayan character all put together to tell some tale or prediction that I confess to having forgotten. Viewed together as the detail of all the characters rises up the hillside to the temple top, you can start to conceive of the awe and reverence that Mayans must have held for this place.   It is quite a compact ruin, although it was a huge city once, it remains largely un-excavated so comfortable to walk around and you can explore with ease the various plaza’s and temples. There are also several underground tours you can do that explore some of the excavations and secret locations beneath the city. None of which were given a positive wrap in our research so we skipped them, but certainly would have offered a different view of things. In all it was an inspiring way to finish.


Volcanic Communion

There is something simply breath-taking about volcanos. Perhaps it is the beautiful, distinctive, tell-tale pyramidic shape that betrays their identity – perfect geometric symmetry in […]

There is something simply breath-taking about volcanos. Perhaps it is the beautiful, distinctive, tell-tale pyramidic shape that betrays their identity – perfect geometric symmetry in motion. Or rather the constant veiled reminder and “threat to life” they cast over the surrounding countryside and its inhabitants, humanoid or not. Either way, I have seen a few in my day and climbed many. I have seen flowing lava, a moving road of flame and witnessed pressure geysers that burst with precise repetition up onto the landscape. I have literally bathed and soaked up its causal forces in the onsens of Japan, hotsprings of Nepal and many other places. But seeing them erupt in all their glory is something else.

After several weeks, immersed in Spanish study, we took the chance to climb a dormant volcano outside the city of Xela in Guatemala. The 3 hour trek to the summit (3,800m) of Santa Maria was physically demanding, but not overtly so. It was a trip we had done without any planning or foreknowledge, so on reaching the summit we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the view commanded sweeping panoramas of the entire highland region of Guatemala, across to Mexico and Honduras in the distance. Distinct volcanic shapes pierced the seas of clouds in every direction including the highest mountain in Central America, Tajumulco (4,220m).

above the cloud layer

A fantastic view, but not nearly the peak of the experience. As we sat down to catch our breath and take it all in, a white / grey atomic shaped plume erupted from a distant volcanic peak. Wow – wasn’t expecting that! Over the next hour or so though, we witnessed 4 or 5 other significant plumes break through the cloud layer and then a second from the distant peak. Right below us (well more like 1 km below anyway), was also Santa Ana another active volcano. A pillar of brown, shattered rocks and crevices, a twisted step-child from the 1902 eruption of the very volcano we were gazing from. As we watched and waited, small pillars of smoke waded their way from the various craters into the atmosphere. Other travellers had also gathered at the top for the spectacle plus an odd group of Mayan evangelical Christians. These guys were dressed in traditional Mayan costume, but kneeling in a circle and prostrating themselves toward the centre, while a minister held sway in melodic, accented Spanish. We had already passed a similar group half way up, completely consumed in their own small service, swaying away in the Holy Spirit.


After about an hour or so of watching the distant eruptions and just as we were contemplating heading back down, the sound of a jet engine flying close overhead consumed us and the volcano below suddenly spewed forth a huge geyser of ash, dust and lava into the air. Within seconds the mushroom cloud was way above our heads, the entire eruption lasting several minutes, a continuous raw rush of energy and power that penetrated every living fibre within a close vicinity, giving vibrational meaning to the term a true ‘force of nature’. Everyone remained spellbound throughout, each of us lost in silent worship in all our different ways, united in awe of Mother Nature. It is a humbling experience, yet another reminder of our tenuous custodianship and the fallibility of our delusional pretenses at mastery.

Heading down the mountain, the former steep icy paths had been transformed into dangerous, mud slides by the late morning sun and ash was floating everywhere in the air like the finest flakes of snow. Everything seemed much sharper, focused, intensity and awareness honed by the spectacle above. We pass another convoy of Mayan women in traditional costume. A vibrant montage of bright, rainbow coloured dresses and white tops surging energetically upwards towards their own ceremony. In the middle, one lively old lady carried a burning bowl of incense on her head, regaling us all with laughter. The melodious cackle continued to float like a concerto far above our heads until long after she had passed. It’s a fitting final image…