Once developed as a rubber plantation city, Iquitos, Peru lays at the last port for the few ocean-going ships that transit the 2000 miles up the mighty Amazon River. Isolated by the Andes, this is the largest urban setting in the Peruvian Amazonia. Culturally it is distinctly different from the western and mountainous parts the country, and so remote that there are still uncontacted tribes residing deeper in the vast forest.
For centuries, indigenous people have incorporated shamans as an integral part of their societies. When accepted by their tribes these shamans play multiple roles. One important function is that of healers, especially in areas under-served by modern medicine. Disassociating from a spiritual nature, some shamans tread on the dark side invoking curses and casting spells, often for money when an aggrieved party wants to strike out against a neighbor for a perceived offense.
For 10 years an annual conference for Amazonian shamans has been held in Iquitos. Attendees, mostly young spiritual seekers, hail from around the world. Though dominated by Peruvians, shamans also arrive from Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil.
Experientially oriented, the conferences have incorporated a variety of ceremonies, each done under the watchful tutelage of a shaman of your choice. Most of the ceremonies are performed ingesting ayahuasca, a substance that often induces mystical visions. In Amazonia, ayahuasca is revered as a natural medicine instead of being vilified as an illegal substance. It, and other natural hallucinogenic plants, are formally acknowledged as part of the national heritage. The psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which has been clinically studied. (See The Spirit Molecule by Dr. Rick Strassman for details.) Concerns about ayahuasca being abused as a recreational drug are simply specious. Before inducing visions, the well-known effects involve a purging process that generally includes vomiting and sometimes running at the other end. All that would spoil any party atmosphere.
If one chooses to explore ayahuasca, finding the right shaman is essential. For English speaking searchers I'd recommend Ron Wheelock, also known as The Gringo Shaman. He has a 100-acre camp located in the forest several miles from Iquitos, but accessible by road. Ron was trained initially by Don Agustin Rivas Vasquez, a famed indigenous shaman who still practices his craft. For 18 years Ron has been in the area both learning and leading ceremonies. Quality control is a significant factor, and one totally reliant on the shaman you choose. Ron is respected for brewing high-quality ayahuasca to the point that many shamans in the area obtain the medicine from him.
The psychological effects can be quite powerful and sometimes it takes several sessions before the participant can get some control over the visions. Ayahuasca may induce some frightening experiences, but they do pass and are usually pared to the psychological needs of the individual. Unlike many other drugs, once rested with only a few hours of sleep, there is no physiological impairment. The effects of ayahuasca are complex and my observations suggest that psychopharmacology alone does not explain them.
It is certainly not for everyone, but ayahuasca has been used in treating various addictions. The ceremonies induce intense introspection in a manner that would take extensive therapeutic session under normal conditions. While the medical research on ayahuasca and addiction is limited, there are promising current studies that support a vast amount of anecdotal evidence. Only recently being discussed is the use of ayahuasca to treat PTSD. With the huge number of veterans suffering those symptoms from Iraq and Afghanistan, this is an option that combat-damaged people may choose to explore.
Art based on ayahuasca visions is fascinating and a few artists have become world renown. Two leaders are Eduardo Luna, of Florianopolis, Brazil and the late Pablo Amaringo of Pucallpa, Peru whom we met at one of the conferences. This year we were joined by Mauro Reategui Perez, a student of Pablo Amaringo who is continuing with his style. He claims that at times his deceased master takes over his hand and produces exquisite paintings.
Ayahuasca is not the only substance that is used to induce altered states of consciousness at these conferences. For several years we have witnessed investigative journalist, Peter Gorman, administer frog poison to willing participants. Peter has been researching in Peru for the past 30 years and takes people on extended wilderness jaunts. Using a Kambo stick, he careful inserts minute amounts of dried frog poison under the skin. The indigenous Amazonians have long used the substance to increase strength and endurance for hunting. This is something to be extremely wary of and definitely not recommended without considerable forethought.
Another ceremony observed this year was the use of snake venom. As with the frog poison, the venom was administered by pricking the skin with a sharp wooden stick. The volunteer indicated she felt her heartbeat increase dramatically, followed by a sense of calm and increased energy. The people involved made some pretty wild claims about the benefits on injecting snake venom that remain unsubstantiated.
The conferences have been coordinated by American ex-pat, Alan Shoemaker. When shamans gather some pretty amazing things happen. For all their talk about the spiritual nature of the natural substances, there is an enormous amount of jealousy openly displayed between shamans. For those wanting a real adventure, including inner exploration, travel to the Amazon and experiencing ayahuasca will meet your needs for a long time.