High up in the Andes immersed in cloud forests, the magnificent ancient city of Kuelap sits astride the mountain, ruling the land in all directions. It takes a 3 hour winding drive from the nearest sizable city to get here, but the views are absolutely stunning and the ruins themselves captivating! Too difficult to get everything in the same frame, I settled for a shot of the view.
These brilliantly sculpted sarcophagi near Chachapoyas in the Northern Highlands of Peru, are placed impossibly high up on a cliff-face – each contained a mummy and is in excess of 2m tall. All around this area are similar burial sites (some are entire cities) most from unknown times. Forgotten people of lost civilizations guarding the magnificent mountain landscapes from their seemingly inaccessible vistas.
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!