A sighting of the rare great Andean condor – the largest bird in the world and highly endangered. The Colca Valley in Southern Peru is the second largest canyon in the world, (the largest is 50km over) and home to some stunning landscapes, vibrant traditional cultures and agriculture, but it is also one of the few places where you can almost always see condors. We were lucky to see 6 while we were there, several juveniles and this fine adult, gliding up the steep cliff-faces, playing with the air currents in the morning sun.
South America Archive
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.
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;
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3000 years ago the Chavin consolidated the ancient religion of Peru and its shamanic traditions. Famed for their priests use of San Pedro cactus in sacred ceremonies to communicate with the spirit world – these Sculpted heads located on the outside of the ancient temple site of Chavin de Huanter collectively demonstrate the process of transformation from human to feline (or jaguar) form as experienced by the priests in ceremony…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
Ecuador is the land of the hat. Everyone has one here, most especially the women. Green, brown or black felt ones with a feather in the side; white or felt bowler hats – essential for daily wear to identify your tribe. Then of course there is the Panama hat – Ecuador’s most famous export and possibly the most famous hat of all, yet weirdly, irreparably credited to Panama. What do you do?
Vomiting, diarrhoea, nightmarish visions, serpents & spirits, fasting, restrictive diets, celibacy, mosquito’s and other bizarre insects…. strange things indeed to associate with a totally voluntary travel escapade really. So why I find myself wondering, have I pursued this quest to trek deep into the jungle to visit with a shaman and drink Ayahuasca?
I have been conscious of this summons for the last 15 years or so, ever since I first became fascinated with the wonderful world of hallucinogenic plants and trance states. But it’s only since I started travelling again, that the passion and ‘the call’ have been transformed into a more compelling spiritual quest. Now staring at the jungle, about to dive into another encounter with the ‘vine of the dead’, I suddenly have found time to ponder the obsession and attraction.
For those wanting to know, a shaman is a person who, in tribal cultures, communicates with the spirit world. As intermediaries, shamans ask spirits to intercede in the lives of humans, healing them of illnesses, or granting favors. While Shaman are located all around the world and work in many strange ways, the Shaman of South America are some of the most famed – spending years in the deep, immersive plant kingdoms of the jungle by themselves training to work with the plants. Theirs is a history and world passed from master to apprentice all the way back through time. Using the Ayahuasca vine (or the San Pedro cactus in the Andean mountain traditions), they roam the bridging dimensions of the spirit world in service to their communities. We have found shamans just about everywhere in Ecuador and Peru, every community has one, though finding true masters is much more of a challenge.
In an Ayahuasca ceremony, the shaman guides you in navigating the wonders of this plant and exploring the mysterious otherworld. Their Icaros (songs), music and chants performed during the ceremony caste a protective net around the participants; freeing them from darker or negative spirits preying on those being opened up by the experience to the universe and spirit-world. The songs and music holds and binds you to reality somehow, keeping your head above water and often controlling the tempo of the experience itself. Serpents (manifestations of the Ayahuasca plant) and other plants spirits are strong presences in this realm, but there are other more malevolent energies and spirits as well, able to be conjured by brujos (witchdoctors) for more sinister purposes. As largely ignorant savages, the white man is scores of generations out of practice and familiarity with the nuances of this world, so the shamans’ role is very important here, we are way out of our depth and need careful policing.
An Ayahuasca ceremony usually taking place after the sun sets around 8pm, in the twilight hours. After the shaman blesses and purifies his brew, you drink a small amount. The concoction itself is made according to the Shaman’s own recipe and tastes, but is typically made from boiling the vine itself for many hours or even days, along with a varying combination of other plants (including Charuna, a source of DMT that triggers the more visual experiences). How they have found these combinations from the millions of other plants available in the jungle is testament to the incredible knowledge and guidance they have received from the plants themselves. The taste of the Ayahuasca brew is horrid though – earthy and bitter, the stomach blanches at the very thought and after digestion it is a typical compulsion to then throw it up or occasionally purge it in other less pleasant ways. (It thus requires careful dieting and preliminary fasting as a result). As the Ayahuasca kicks in, you drop into an eerie halflight almost between worlds and often feel the presence of the Ayahuasca vine in various forms. It is an experience that can involve intense visions and insights or communications from the plants themselves, while sometimes this is comes with physical purging or cleansing – a process of removing negative energies, past experiences or personal blocks. All told the experience lasts up to 5 hours, though its resultant effects reverberate through you for days afterward.
Part of the appeal of all this is the ancient mystique of the activity itself. The experience of researching & collecting information on ancient / lost traditions; of tracking down local knowledge, finding personal encounters and recommendations on Shaman and the chance to wander deep into the legendary Amazonian jungle zone, it all just oozes with wow for me. It is the attraction of the adventure, the random, the ancient, the lost, the unknown and the unexpected; a thirst for ancient wisdom from traditions in stark contrast to and often of greater knowledge than our own. Most simply perhaps, it’s a call of the wild, a chance to return to nature in the truest sense.
More than that though, there is the urgent call of the experience itself – of experiencing the spirit world with all its unfathomable mysteries and legends. The hallucinogenic plant, Ayahuasca is felt as a living presence in spirit form by its imbibers. Its ritual consumption claims a myriad of effects from visions of the future and personal insights to deep ancestral connections or clear perceptions of spirits and astral travel. Its guidance can be used by shamans to heal all manner of physical, spiritual and emotional disorders with results that often stun modern science. Drinking the vine is also often described as akin to partaking in a form of natural communion, connecting you with the universes’ many sentient lifeforms – an interspecies union through sentient plants. ‘Food of the gods’ indeed to quote Terrence Mckenna, much like Mushrooms and Cactii – the vine’s sentient cousins. It can be a gateway to higher consciousness and much more.
I have done my research of course. William Burroughs, beat author and general pioneer of the strange, first did this pilgrimage back in the early 1950’s based purely on the merest sniff of legend and rumour. His friend Ginsberg and other psychedelic revolutionaries such as Aldus Huxley began to follow in his footsteps later in the sixties. But over the last 20 years or so it has started to boom in popularity, an almost mainstream form of psychedelic tourism has kicked in, with custom built centres opening up everywhere. Jungle shaman are now ‘turning professional’ as they focus on servicing the ‘gringos’ and gringo’s in turn are donning shaman colours themselves; conversely fakes and cons are rapidly incrasing, preying on the increased demand. Slowly it is bringing shamanism more mainstream attention – there are lots of recent books, documentaries and a yearly conference all reinforcing this momentum and sharing the wisdom – continued purveyors of the myth. In many ways it is saving the shamanic tradition, but it is also corrupting it as well and in some cases driving prices into the multi-star resort zone, out of reach of the average person. These days many centres in Peru have a webpage in several languages and I can network with shamans via Facebook,
What am I seeking or hoping to gain from it all, I find myself asking again? I think first, I selfishly crave the manifestation of the mystical experience, acquiring some tangible truths from this realm. Science, logic, glimpses of truth and an inherent instinct has led me here and it would be nice to have it confirmed, a curse of the rational mind I suppose. I have had many experiences with other plants and have explored similar realms in ways that I cannot dismiss as imaginative figments or induced irrelevancies. As I get older and filled with life experiences, these have taken on more spiritual meaning for me and remain true in the face of much else that I dismiss. Philosophically I have found that the science of chakras, energy points, planes of consciousness and existence as described in the Buddhist and Yogic traditions actually align themselves completely with those described by the shaman and accessed through sacred plants. A synchronicity that resonates with practical truth, at once incredibly both reassuring and compelling in their implicit agreement, albeit accessed in vastly different ways. The attraction with the plants though is the bypassing of the years of meditation, faith and training sometimes required by other forms to be able to experience and explore with these spaces directly. A shortcut, that doesn’t undermine the other pathways in any form, it just enables the opportunity for a more direct validation if you will.
So to navigate its depths perchance and in the process, feel the awe of connection with the universe and nature, injecting the spirit with the inspiration and motivation for true change. I see it as potentially seeking some kind of healing for myself of apathy, blockages and insecurities to better enable me to move forward and grow in this world, a catalyst for more applied daily channeling of such awareness, perhaps built upon through other means.
On rereading here, I realize I am likely building this all up to much – too much pressure and expectation perhaps. Good as it all sounds, I know that there is never a single solution or instant personal holy grail to be had. I’m sure plenty of issues will come up in the process – nothing is ever as simple as it appears.
And of course, none of this can be achieved in just one sitting either, so we are shopping a little. Ecuador is really just the first foray – this is also a perspective and experience hunt from a few different tribe’s and traditions. Over the next few months in both Ecuador and Peru, we are planning on spending several weeks with a range of shaman in different areas. The goal is to go deep, scratch the itch and give the universe the chance to do its work, then ask questions on the other side? So we are at the beginning really – exciting most definitely, well prepared perhaps, but totally ignorant of what lies ahead. It’s a fitting culmination to our travels. In many ways it has taken me 18 months to get into the right frame of mind for it. Yoga, meditation, fasting, changed attitudes to food / body and spirit and a renewed love and connection with nature have all manifested themselves along the way – it has been a long and integrated path towards such a union. The vine awaits….
To read some of our experiences in Ecuador, click here
To read some of our experiences in Peru, click here!
Some friendly felt puppets showing off the indigenous dress styles of the locals at Otavalo. One of the best markets in South America, Otavalo is famous for felt hats, leather-work, handy craft and the traditional wear / friendly demeanor of the locals. Unfortunately the puppets were easier to photograph.