Unconventional Sight Seeing – The Sacred Valley, Peru.


Unconventional Sight Seeing – Peru

Ayahuasca in The Sacred Valley 

Family Friendly Entheogenic Tourism

By: Charlie Leigh Gamble

The final destination on our boarding passes was Cusco, Peru. From there we would drive an hour into the Sacred Valley, straight through the heart of a landscape that boasted both the charming grunge of the third world and the raw defiance of Mother Earth. From the van’s window I watched the changing scenery, Taking in the novelty of lamas gazing in front yards and barefoot, smiling, children playing soccer in muddy fields. I marveled with disbelief as little old men and women, brightly adorned in traditional clothing, effortlessly traversed the rugged sidewalks, hauling on their backs bundles of produce that were twice their weight. There was no doubt that this was Latin America. The landscape was completely alien, the people strange and hardy, either genuinely happy or very good at putting on a song and dance for the entertainment of their tourists. Dogs walked the streets with all the rights of man, and images glorifying Che Guevara could still be found in abundance. The only pollution in the fresh mountain air was that of native chatter, an exotic fusion of Spanish and Quechuan peppered occasionally with hypnotic melodies of andean flutes.

The boutique hotel we had booked for this (much needed) vacation was a stark contrast to the world on the other side of it’s security fence. Hotel Aranwa was as close to my imagination’s portrayal of the Garden of as any five star resort could dare to be. The splendor made it easy to block out the grandiose dwelling spaces, juxtaposed with a certain awkwardness, inside a lush oasis of tropical flora and brightly colored birds. The opulence was sickly but the tranquility was seductive and infectious. For the cost of a mere $15,000 an ordinary family of three could live like royalty for 10 days straight.

10 days in Peru, personally, was a welcome escape after the string of disasters that cursed the majority of 2012. I shamelessly admit to spending the better part of the year silently cheering on the apocalyptic Mayan prophecies with hopes that the world would either end or be invaded by aliens on the 21st of December. The disappointment of the non event, was unsurprisingly, short-lived. How could anyone not be excited about traveling  to a tropical climate to indulge in strong cocktails, breathtaking views and the unrelenting luxury of a spa resort. It was just what the doctor ordered. But this isn’t a write up on tourism in Peru. This is the story of a girl who, through a series of mishaps, found herself signing up for some unconventional sightseeing in the humble home of a Peruvian Shaman.

We didn’t choose to travel to Peru specifically to seek out a shamanic experience. Machu Picchu was the initial draw, and the passing thought that it might be fun to ring in the new year on foreign soil, with a bottle of champagne and a gram or two of “peruvian flake”. After a couple days of asking around however, it became apparent that the search for cocaine would be to no avail. Admittedly, I was taken back by this, given South America’s reputation for being a hotbed for all things dodgy and all things coca. The variety of coca containing products was indeed never-ending, which was a good thing. Without the raw medicinal properties offered up by the humble coca leaf to combat the hellacious brutality of altitude sickness, one might otherwise find staying in the Andes borderline unbearable. Cocaine of course was a different kettle of fish altogether. If this seasoned trouble maker couldn’t even find it in a back alley peruvian disco, it either didn’t exist or it was indeed so good, the locals didn’t want to share. This only made me more determined in my efforts, not because I am an addict or a drug fiend, as terrible as it sounds, the inaccessibility of readily available debauchery gave rise to a twisted challenge of sorts.

And so the mission objective shifted to something stronger, something more exotic. The hunt was on to find ayahuasca, the completely legal psychedelic brew mentioned on page one of the guide book we had purchased prior to taking our trip. I of course had heard of ayahuasca before. It has achieved somewhat of a cult status in America as the controversy surrounding the religious freedoms of the Santo Daime Church instantly captured the attention of the mainstream media. Interestingly, despite having legal protection and a great deal of cultural hype north of the border, ayahuasca was almost as difficult to find as cocaine. One could of course spend thousands of dollars to pre-book an ayahuasca retreat online, but I had only one free day to spare, and personally feel wary of any “shamanic” experience that doesn’t come with a word of mouth referral. That being said, the topic of ayahuasca clearly made the hotel concierge uncomfortable. When I asked our guide about it, he was quick to look at me like I was crazy, he had tried ayahuasca before but was not a fan. Even the lady in the market selling pulverized san pedro cactus powder, which is similar to southwestern peyote in the sense that it contains the alkaloid mescaline, urged us to stay away from ayahuasca. There is of course a good reason for this. Feed psychedelics to the wrong person with the wrong intent and you’re (as the shaman himself put it) “liable to make an atomic bomb go off in someone’s head.” Believe me, I understand this better than anyone else. I’m not proud to admit it, but there have have been times when I’ve fed myself psychedelics on accident and luckily, for my sanity’s sake, started to come down just as I was reaching for the big shiny red button that makes everything go “Boom!”.

In a place where tourism is the lifeblood of the economy the last thing these people want or need are horror stories of backpackers thinking they can fly off the top of Wayna Picchu, or worse, rich tourists feeling “ripped off” because they spent thousands of dollars to go to Peru, only to have their happy travel memories tarnished by a bad trip. Peru does not need drug tourism to sustain itself because the sheer experience of being in the Andes is a natural high that can hold it’s own against any psychoactive compound known to man. I can attest to that, it’s no secret that I’ve tried most of them. While my adventure into amazonian folk medicine was indeed a highlight of my 10 day stay in The Sacred Valley, it was nothing in comparison to the wonder and awe I felt viewing the world from the home of the condor, a literal high, amidst the cloud ringed peaks surrounding the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.

I do not know what changed our guide’s mind and why he finally decided to arrange for us a meeting with a shaman to partake in a ceremony. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that after spending 3 days with my family he realized that ayahuasca ranked pretty low on the scale of crazy things we had done throughout the combined duration our lives. Either that or he genuinely didn’t know where to find one in Cusco and had to ask around.

The hows and whys were of course irrelevant at that point. At last! I had found what I was looking for! I had finally found my escape in the form of someone willing to grant me access to the front door of the “screaming cosmic abyss.” Seeing as I’d had a rough year, and that I consider myself to be open-minded when it comes to spirituality, I figured I’d take advantage of this opportunity by marching up the steps to that front door, ringing the doorbell and demanding answers.

The ayahuasca trip is unlike any other. The leaves of the Chacruna Plant (Psychotria viridis) are to be credited for the magic that is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine. Combine this trace amine neurotransmitter / neuromodulator with the “Vine of the Soul” and someone who knows what they’re doing (a shaman) and suddenly you have in your hands all the makings for something so beautiful, mysterious and profound that at the end of the day there really are no adequate words to describe it. Ayahuasca takes you into her motherly arms, and carries you away to a world where absolutely anything is possible. It grants you access to the halls of knowledge and inner truth. It temporarily removes you from all worldly distractions and, with the guidance of a shaman, places you into a state of hypnosis at the center of the cyclone of one’s being. The very spot where our resonant frequency shifts to match that of the divine. A spot in which we have the power to heal ourselves. A place where neuroscience and magic collide and blossom into a code that I personally believe could unravel all of life’s mysteries If only there were enough brave souls willing to explore the landscape of this non-ordinary reality and report back with their findings.

When I found myself face to face with the mother of all plants I could not help but to pose the question, “Why me?!” Personal and spiritual insight is the benefit of the shamanic experience after all, if one is going to pay large sums of money to trip, one may as well get their money’s worth. It was then that the ayahuasca coursing through my veins responded to my question by showing the full strength of her powers. I felt myself shape-shifting into some sort of large predatory cat. My bones moved, my teeth grew long and sharp. I could feel their new form as I ran my tongue across my newly acquired set of fangs. I wanted so badly to stalk around the room, to flex my new muscles, to sharpen my new claws, but I remembered the words of the shaman, I was to stay in my place, and so I stayed there, tapping my tail against the ground in feline disdain. It took a moment for me to realize what had happened, that my question was in fact being answered through a curious means of non verbal communication. Once that was clear, it was as if the very universe was screaming into my ear so that there would be no further confusion on this topic. Let’s ignore how bizarre all this sounds, and the question of wether or not I really shape-shifted into an animal. The real significance is in the meaning of it all. In that state of non-ordinary reality the jungle cat was a metaphor of strength, fearlessness and perseverance. Cats don’t worry about falling, because they always land on their feet. Of course symbolism is open to a wide range of interpretation, but at moment, in the inner depths of my heart, I felt like the universe was giving me a sign, that no matter what, everything will be okay. Everything really does happen for a reason (as cliché as that sounds). Perhaps one could say that my inability to find cocaine in Peru was divine intervention of sorts, something that had to not happen so that I would find myself on the floor of the shaman’s house on that particular evening, puking my guts out along with my ego and a year’s worth of self loathing (and loving every minute of it). The events of that night gave me a renewed sense of inner peace that is worth more than anything money can buy, and certainly more enriching than the cheap thrills offered by a certain white powder that is, without a doubt, a dirty word within the borders of Peru.

But that was not the most important of teachings bestowed upon me by Mother Ayahuasca. In the safe hands of the shaman I learned a valuable lesson about learning in general. That night I learned that I still have a great deal to learn about life, love and the world as we know it. What we perceive as everyday reality is just the tip of the iceberg and we are seeing that iceberg in the distance through the dusty lens of someone else’s old telescope. This is a lesson that I believe any entheogenic substance has the ability to teach to those who approach the experience with an open mind and open heart. Admittedly, the initial draw to ayahuasca was the psychedelic properties the combination of plants had to offer, when I let go of that allure and opened myself to the possibility that there was more to this than temporary escapism I found myself able to take away from the ceremony the kind of ancient and ineffable wisdom that makes the idea of shamanism so intriguing to those of us living in the modern world.

I want to give special thanks to Ayar and his lovely wife Laura for conducting what I can only describe as a beautiful and life changing ceremony. Moreover, thank you to Ayahuasca for sharing with me her motherly wisdom and for showing me the things I needed to see in order to let go of the past and evolve into a better human being. There are not enough words in this world to adequately describe the deep sense of gratitude I feel.


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