Ancient Nazca: Much More Than Just Flying Over The Nazca Lines

The plane’s shaking, I’m shaking even more and that’s all I hear before we start to go down! I wake up with a sudden gasp of air and realise I’m securely in the same shitty hostel that I fell asleep in the night before. A 24hr stomach bug is taking its toll and leaving me with sweaty night terrors about flying the Nazca lines in the morning.

 

That’s right, I forked out for the Nazca lines to check out all the fuss. But isn’t that expensive? Hell yeah it was, and I knew it was going to be, but if we don’t check these things out, how else could we write about them? Besides, I was in the area, and I knew that there was a lot more to Nazca than meets the lines.

As well as flying over the expensive lines there are also a number of budget activities that will intrigue your sense of travel (and go easy on your wallet). Two of the better ones include a visit to the pre-Hispanic mummy cemetery of Chauchilla and the ancient fresh spring water Aguaducts de Cantalloc.

 

 

When I first heard about the Nazca lines in Peru I was drawn to the mystery and intrigue of these age old inscriptions etched into the rocky desert. I’d decided to tackle the lines from the sky, which meant cashing out a little more than I’d planned on a tight budget. Luckily with a few well known haggling techniques I managed a flight for $70USD, which wasn’t too bad compared to prices of up to $100USD, but if you’re on a budget it still hits the account pretty hard.

After being rushed onto the plane by a busy pilot, (not exactly the thing you want with a flimsy looking 4 seated Cessna plane) we were up in the sky and our plane was shaking on route to the lines. After 10 minutes you reach the lines and commence a very short aerial tour. First the right side passengers fly over a dozen lines and shapes, before the pilot does a U-turn and shows the left side passengers the same route.

 

{ I would’ve put up more lines pictures, but it’s pretty hard to see – can you spot the monkey? }

 

You have a little map to help you make out the vague patterns in the desolate desert, but by the time you’ve made out the shapes you’re already onto the next one. Granted, the bird’s eye approach is the only true way to grasp their enormity, but within 10 minutes you’re done, dusted and flying back to the airport for a total flight time of 30 minutes in the sky.

Is it worth it? In my opinion it’s an individual call, which depends on a number of personal factors. Do you have the money? Is it something you really want to see? Do you have a fascination with pre-Hispanic civilizations? If you didn’t answer ‘yes’ to all three of those questions, I’d probably reconsider paying that much for a half hour activity.

Luckily Nazca isn’t just about the lines, and if you’re on a tight budget you can easily find some cheap activities and sights while visiting. Just outside of town is the pre-Incan cemetery of Chauchilla that contains an impressive display of underground tombs and real life mummies still intact. Encased in the dry desert conditions for centuries, the tombs were first discovered by thieves in the 70s and ransacked, before restoration efforts helped restore the tombs to their former glory. Well worth a trip out there to see the petrified smiles on their faces and long dreadlocked hair that would make the Caribbean jealous.

 

 

After the afternoons excitement head back into town and pop past the fresh spring water Aguaducts de Cantalloc. They’re an awesome collection of ancient stone wells that spiral down into fresh natural spring water pools. In a country where tap water is a no-no it’s a little scary to be assured that you can literally scope safe drinking water from the ground. But it’s all good, and by that stage it’s a refreshing end to a busy day.

 

 

After walking back to the center I was well and truly ready for a nap. A day of uncertainty turned into a lot of fun and I was glad I had the opportunity to check out Nazca. Whether you take the lines or not is your call, but if Nazca is on your way remember there’s always a lot more a town has to offer. You just need to be willing to find it.

 

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Ayahuasca: Down the Amazonian Rabbit Hole

Before I left for backpacking South America in 2012 I had a small, but determined, bucket list. Getting to Rio for Carnival (without going completely broke), check out Foz de Iguaza, swim in the Caribbean in Colombia and trip balls in an Ayahuasca ceremony. Kidding! Well, kind of. I told my friends about my desire to try this mystical jungle plant, painting a picture of fire-lit ceremonies out in the Amazon, guided by an authentic indigenous shaman who would take me on a wild ride through my psyche. I Googled the hell out of it and when I finally got to South America I got first hand accounts from other travelers. Turns out Ayahuasca is a pretty common South American travel bucket list item. I heard stories of spiritual awakenings, hallucinations and vomiting, lots and lots of vomiting.

 

 

What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a brewed mixture of various Amazonion plants. It’s Quetchuan for “vine of the soul” and has been used by shamans for hundreds of years to cure almost every ailment. It’s said to be able to cure everything from cancer to mental illnesses. What I was hoping to cure, I still wasn’t sure, but I was hoping Ayahuasca could identify something inside of me that needed to change, hoping that afterward I could feel somehow lighter.

 

Where are Ayahuasca Retreats in South America?

So after my trip to Macchu Pichu, I crossed the Sacred Valley into a small hippy town called Pisac. The location of the ceremony was behind a beautiful two-story house. A group of cabins (for those doing week long or even month long retreats!) were grouped around a small dome structure, where the ceremonies take place.

The dome was a bit like a giant igloo, with a entryway in front to leave your shoes and belongings, and behind the door a big circular room. Comfy pillows lined the edge and pictures of Ganesha & the Dalai Lama hung on the wall. When I walked in, I grabbed the pad and blanket that each participant takes to their seat. And the vomit bucket, can’t forget the vomit bucket.

The room began to fill up with a variety of people. Young, old, gringos and Latinos. A group of white people, mainly Americans made up the majority. They all seemed to know each other and had obviously done this before. They entered in couples or small groups, most wearing woven ponchos, each one more elaborately designed than the last. They weren’t exactly the native Peruvians I had hoped to be surrounded by at the Ayahuasca ceremony, but whatever. They chatted about upcoming parties and previous Ayahuasca trips until the shaman called our attention to start the night.

 

The Best Ayahuasca Shaman

On several recommendations I chose Diego Palma as my shaman. The ceremony started at about 9. He began by asking who the newbies were and we all shyly raised our hands. He also asked the group if anyone was taking prescription medication, to which I even shier raised my solitary hand. All 29 heads turned in my direction. He asked me what I was taking and I reassured him that his wife had emailed me with approval of my medications. He seemed to be happy with this answer, but I was left more nervous than ever and my thoughts started to race. Dear God, please don’t let me die in this dome shaped room full of hippies in overpriced ponchos.

The ceremony began with the shaman thanking the spirits and asking them to guide the ceremony. His started a type of sermon, guiding a theme for the ceremony.  He discussed the importance of silence, both during the ceremony and in life afterward. We were told that Ayahuasca is a very solitary medicine and were instructed not to interfere with anyone’s journey. He explained that our end goal is to be in a state where we didn’t have conscious thought, but let our unconscious take over.

One by one we were directed to come up to the front and sit in front of Diego, the brew of Ayahuasca between us. At this point we should have had an intention in mind; a personal problem or theme we want to focus on. When it was my turn I nervously slinked up to the pillow. The shaman looked at me, sizing me up, then poured a bit of Ayahuasca into the cup. I stared blank faced back at him, completely unsure of anything at this point. He continued his gaze and poured a bit more into the cup. Then he handed it to me and I held the cup to my heart and closed my eyes, mimicking my predecessors. I tried to focus on my intention fighting off last minute nerves, and croaked out “Causaypaq.” A toast meaning “to life.” No backing out now, I thought, and swallowed the liquid in one gulp. It tasted like rotting seaweed and the flavor consumed my mouth and sinuses.

I shook my head and tried not to gag on the way back to my seat. I closed my eyes and tried to let myself go. I found myself searching for a sign that the medicine has kicked in. I took every passing thought as the start of a hallucination. My stomach burned and I could feel the brew rising up in my throat. I breathed and try to relax.

About 15 minutes later, although I don’t think my sense of time was exactly on point, the shaman said it was time for seconds. He previously instructed that anyone who was still thinking conscious thought at that point, should come up for more. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be feeling at that point, but I didn’t feel like I was starting my path to spiritual healing. So I waited my turn and scooted up in the dark for another cup.

Shortly after my second drink I began to feel a very physical high. I started slouching further and further into my cushion until I was pretty much laying down. I felt like a strong gravitational force was pushing me against the wall and down to the ground. It felt like I was traveling through space at light speed and the momentum had thrown me to the back of my spaceship. Was this the emotional weight of my demons I was meant to breakthrough? I wasn’t sure and at the time I didn’t care because I was thrown into an instant state of euphoria. I was completely in the dark but I knew I had a ridiculous giant grin on my face.

 

 

All around me I could hear sounds of violent vomiting. I could hear some retreating to the porch to vomit. I could hear the distant sound of others gagging in the bathroom. I could hear the guy next to me puking loudly, his bucket echoing the noise.

 

Do You Vomit During the Ayahuasca Ceremony?

My nausea, however, hadn’t kicked in yet. I felt ecstatic and started thinking about all the amazing people in my life. My mind started running through a list of all the friends and family I missed from home and wished they were there. I thought about how much I loved my (then fairly new boyfriend) Jules.

Then the nausea started. At the beginning of the ceremony our shaman had said that nausea was expected. Vomiting was the expulsion our demons, but he mentioned that we shouldn’t force it. If it happened, it happened, but we should definitely not stick our fingers down our throats to coax it. With that in mind, I laid on my cushion with my stomach churning. I pulled the bucket up to my face a few times, in hope of some relief but it never came. I sat in an uncomfortable state of nausea, but was comforted and a bit jealous of my fellow Ayahuasca takers vomiting all around me.

The next hour or so (again, my sense of time was probably drowned by the brew) I spent in a weird dream state. Honestly, I might have fallen asleep. It was around midnight by that point and I had barely eaten anything all day.  I think I fell in and out of sleep, although the Ayahuasca induced a sort of dream like feeling. I began to hallucinate a bit of geometric, fractal images.

Then the shaman and some other participants who had brought musical instruments began to play in the dark. The songs, many in Quechuan, we’re beautiful medicine songs. The voices of the participants were stunning and I let them guide me through the rest of the night.

Soon some candles were lit in the center and the music became livelier. A group of three women came up and danced. They moved their bodies to the music and their fluid movements flashing in and out of candlelight triggered more hallucinations. I saw more intense fractals projected onto the curtained wall in front of me. I laid back and fully enjoyed being a spectator to the impromptu performance without any pressure to participate.

Eventually the music transitioned into a soft lullaby and people started to fall asleep. I slept restlessly, transitioning between dreams and Ayahuasca strangeness. In the morning I could hear several people packing up their cushions, but did not have the energy to fully awaken. I dozed until I heard the sounds of something scraping against the floor near me, the sounds coming closer and closer. It sounded like it was about to approach me, then stopped, moved to my other side and continued. Was I still hallucinating? I poked a cautious eye from beneath my blanket to find the room empty except for my heap of blankets and a cleaning woman sweeping the floor.

I checked my watch and saw that I had slept until 10:30 and everyone had left. Embarrassed I folded my blankets and thanked the very impatient looking cleaning woman. My eyes were still playing tricks on me as I found my way to door. A small group was lingering outside and I can only imagine how I looked to them, my eyes bugged out searching for a returned sense of normalcy. I tried to ignore the geometric patterns I was seeing in the grass while they asked me how my first time was. Clearly I wasn’t fooling anybody. They were seasoned veterans and noted that the previous nights ceremony was one of the best they’d ever experienced. I had nothing to compare it to but was glad to hear the shaman was one of the best.

I reunited with my friend, who had been in the shower, to wander back into town. After not eating for almost 24 hours I was unstable on my feet. We grabbed a collectivo back to Cusco and then hopped on a bus back to Pisco. The whole day I felt shaky and odd, but wasn’t sure I had experienced a true spiritual healing. Overall, it was a far cry from the indigenous jungle ceremony I had prematurely bragged to my friends about. Participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony has definitely become a popular stop on the gringo trail. The experience was intense and I’m glad I tried it, but it’s not something I’ll be trying again in the immediate future.  Perhaps I hadn’t gone deep enough to fight off my demons, or maybe I don’t really have demons to fight off, but I was reminded that, in general, I’ve got it pretty good.

For more info on Diego Palma’s retreats, check out his site at Sacred Valley Tribe.

Amazon River Boat: The Authentic Tour

Amazon River Boat Story

My hammock rocks and sways as we make our way down the Amazon River in Peru. It’s been a few restless nights to say the least. The top deck becomes freezing, as the evening breeze creeps in through the holes of the protective canvas. Now I see why the locals don’t go for the open air view at the top.

The hammock is too small, and I’ve already put a rip in it. I should have known better when I purchased it for $7, somethings just aren’t worth the bargain. I’ve done a quick repair job, but now I fear it’ll snap at any moment in the middle of the night. I suggest forking out a couple of extra bucks if you’re going to be using it more often, especially in South America. A decent double sized hammock is definitely a good investment. Not only is it comfortable, but it’s super light weight and packs up to be tiny. Sometimes you just can’t substitute quality.

We’re waiting for dinner when some young kid comes up up to chat. I don’t mind, but he’s fascinated by my blonde leg hair and keeps trying to stroke my legs. He’s a nice kid, but after seeing all the preventative sex predator posters I get the feeling this kid is working undercover. ‘Wooh wooh wooh’, I shout loud enough for people around me to hear, as I detach his inquisitive hand from my ankle. I have to shoo him away politely before I’m caught on some secret camera and extorted by the authorities.

 

 

The bell rings for dinner and everybody rushes down to form the line for gruel. Christine doesn’t join me after she had a little run in with the kitchen staff. I’ve got no problems though, I can even get extras. For some reason all the kitchen staff are cross-dressers and I seem to have caught their eye. I feel slightly exploited as I bat my eyelids and make small talk for an extra piece of bread, but hey, free is free.

Up at the deck we pick through our meal and determine what is edible. We try to eat as much as possible because it’s a long time between meals. It’s now dark and there isn’t much to do but read. After a few hours we try to nestle in for a sleep, but you don’t really sleep on this boat, more like a long disrupted nap.

At the back of the boat a drunk game of cards continues late into the night, making it even harder to drift off, but eventually even they get bored. The night is a mixture of weird dreams, midnight stops with lots of shouting and gathering of items and then eventually the morning breakfast bell rings at 5:30am.

Now here’s the good part, and no it’s definitely not the breakfast soup. We’re up early because there isn’t anything else to do, but as a result we get to watch as the sun rises over the Amazon River. The morning sun busts out of the darkness to warm the frigid air. The bright rays dance on ripples of the water and brighten the murky morning. Lush trees of the jungle around us light up and the calls of the waking animals echo across the water. We climb up on top of the roof to let the sun defrost us and take in a new day.

A new day, a new adventure! Even though the nights are tough, it shouldn’t be any deterrent for the days that follow. Get yourself on board the boat, string up a hammock and leave the rest to the unknown. And while you’re there say g’day to Roberto for me, or is it Roberta?

 

Islas Ballestas Peru: SNAPSHOT FROM

The first time I went to the Islas Ballestas Peru I was decently hungover after a massive night on the Pisco. At $2 a litre, and rumoured to make you go blind, it certainly gets the job done. I had planned the trip with a bunch of friends, and not wanting to disappoint, I reluctantly dragged my still drunk ass out of bed at 7am. As a result I spent most of the time with my head over the edge of the boat waiting to bring up breakfast.

Determined to give it another go, a few years later I found myself in Pisco again and able to go round two with the islands. Ballestas might not have anything on the famous Galapagos islands, but for the price, duration and ease of access there’s no wonder they’ve been nicknamed The Poor Man’s Galapagos. All up the trip to the islands cost about $15 and takes 2 hours. What I discovered this time was a set of islands much more enjoyable when you’re not slouching in your seat with your head between your knees.

 

 

We boarded the boats at Paracas Pier early in the morning, and while they didn’t make a stop on the islands, at least this time I got close enough to enjoy the marine wildlife. First stop on the trip was a visit to the island shores, where thousands of sea lions lazily lounge about. Maybe it was mating season, or maybe they’re just massive players, but the papa sea lions seemed to be pimping out at least 4-5 lioness at a time. You get to hear the grunting and barking of orders as they kick it like kings on their rocky thrones. We also saw seals, Humboldt penguins and I swear I got a glimpse of a whale.

 

 

After bearing witness to the voyeuristic sea lions we made our way round to check out the local colonies of birds that call this place home. On the way there I literally had to duck and weave like a boxer to avoid the white droplets raining from the sky, as what felt like a million birds flew above me. The birds, who nest in the rocky crevasses of the islands, are also responsible for covering the islands with a snow like layer of bird poop called guano. They produce so much or this stuff that it’s harvested yearly like crops and sold off as boutique fertiliser. I’m talking hundreds of tons of the stuff a year. It’s certainly puts a new spin on the phrase ain’t worth shit!

 

 

After the birds we headed back to shore with a trip past an ancient inscription which has been carved into a mountain side that shoulders the Paracas bay. It’s shaped like a giant trident, and has some old historical links to the ancient Paracas culture. It’s just a preview if you’re headed down to Nazca check out the lines, but cool all the same.

With feet on dry land again I can definitely say that Isla de Ballestas is worth the time and money if something like the Galapagos isn’t on your itinerary or in your budget. My only word of advice, save the Pisco for after the boat trip!

 

Snapshot From: An Amazon Tri-Border

It’s 2pm and we’ve hit the end of the road in northern Peru. Actually it’s the end of the river, and by this stage it has taken us 4 idle days of slow boats to arrive in the middle of nowhere; a town called Santa Rosa. A grass trodden path leads us to a thin wooden plank bridge that we must cross before getting into town. The wood bends and bows under the weight of our heavy backpacks and we’re cautious of falling into the murky waters. After 10 shaky minutes we step off intact and still dry. In the midst of our celebration we turn back to witness an older lady, who appears to be pushing 80, cross carrying a basket of clothes on her head with ease. We tell ourselves she’s obviously had a lot more practice and shrug off the spectators giggles from afar.

We’re on the Peruvian side of the Amazon River and are looking for the immigration office to stamp out, not an easy task. There are barely any signs to show it’s location and we manage to walk past it a number of times before finally discovering it. From the outside it simply looks like a residential house, with pealing paint on the weatherboard from a blistering sun. There is an instant presence of lethargy in the building and from behind the desk a man raises one eye from a magazine, clearly bothered by us interrupting his “work”.

This tri-border is home to all the dark and dangerous things that you associate with the depths of the Amazon jungle. Sex trafficking, the trade of endangered species, black markets and all the other mysterious activities that come with a city on the edge of the unknown. If you’re on the run or looking for those less conventional market items, you’re come to the right place. It’s no wonder this has a reputation as one of the dodgiest places in South America.

In the morning we leave Peru and take a rickety old boat across the narrow river and enter Colombia territory for the first time at Leticia. Across the main highway we can walk into Brazil at Tabatinga. 3 different currencies circulate the area, making conversions a nightmare. We have 24 hours to officially check in, but nobody seems too rushed in the suffocating heat of a city surrounded by dense jungle.

At the airport we see faded posters warning travellers of the penalties for partaking in any of the illegal activities that make this region infamous. Somehow I feel these warnings aren’t very usefully positioned. It’s hard to imagine a man trying to check a baby tiger into his hand luggage and then being surprised once he spots these preventative posters. However, as a man at the airport tells us, stupider people have been caught.

After a few days we were ready to get a move on. The opportunistic temptations of the dark jungle don’t entice us to stick around and we’re over the heat. We’d already completed a jungle trip, so there really isn’t too much to see except the inner workings of a multicultural city that trades in much more than an assortment of currencies . We board our flight to the north of Colombia and farewell The Amazon from the clouds.

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