Back in 2016 I did one of the most amazing things, if not the most amazing thing I've ever done. The Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru is something that has to be seen to be believed. It had taken me more than ten years to make it to this destination. I remember thinking of it and getting goosebumps even back then, so I guess that intuitively I knew the place had some amazing things in store for me.
The first moment that I touched down on the runway in Cusco, a feeling of coming home washed over me. I travel a lot, so I tend not to get overly excited about my trips. Yet somehow this place was different. A land full of promise. I was there not only to explore the magnificent land, but also to explore myself through sacred plant medicines.
I took a taxi to the Sacred Valley and as I descended into its depths, I was quickly overwhelmed. I was choking back tears in the taxi, such was the beauty and presence of this mountainous terrain. I was quite right in my assumption that this would be the trip of a lifetime. I had gone to work in the Sacred Valley at at ayahuasca and huachuma retreat centre/community, which was an experience I will never forget.
This was the place that I made the most intriguing and exotic friend I'll ever know, Shawan, the intuitive, intelligent Guacamayo (the Peruvian word for a jungle Macaw). Shawan was to become a close companion of mine and we bonded quickly and firmly, spending as much time together as possible.
Unfortunately that story ends in a very sad way, but I will always be forever grateful for the unique experience that permanently cemented my awe of nature and the unfathomable power of our creator.
Suffice to say that Shawan lives on in a geometric tattoo on my shoulder, and since he departed this realm, he has visited me in exactly that form in a couple of ayahuasca ceremonies.
The Sacred Valley was full of surprises
So much happened here that I couldn't possibly do it justice in one blog. So I'm just going to tell you about one of the best experiences I've ever had with one of my favourite plants on Earth: the huachuma (San Pedro) cactus.
Over thirteen hours I climbed a 3800 metre mountain, which is a pretty big feat for a non-hiker like myself. The thing is that I did this after having drank a very potent huachuma brew; one we had lovingly made over a four day period, tending to it day and night.
I was excited to drink it and embark on this novel adventure into nature. I went with the crew from the retreat centre, and two of their gorgeous dogs. The dogs were real warrior spirits, attending ceremonies and navigating paths through the tricky mountain terrain when we didn't quite know where we were.
The mountains are beyond description
The nature here was mesmerisingly beautiful, with cacti all over the mountains, and wild flowers, greenery and trees like I've never seen in my life.
Nothing I could say would go a fraction of the way to describing how beautiful it was there... vistas that were beyond belief.
We climbed and climbed, stopping to dip our feet into cool streams, allowing the medicine to settle in. At times we barely spoke, and at other times, the mischievous huachuma spirit had us in fits of laughter, or bursting out into song.
After a nine or ten hour climb, we reached the top of the mountain. We rested under a tree that was like a work of art, and as I gazed down into the multicoloured valleys below I found that I could not imagine a more beautiful place in the world.
Seeing God through God's eyes
With the huachuma vision, the valley looked like a patchwork quilt of colours. It was undulating, silken and mysterious. I suddenly felt that I was seeing God's creations through God's own eyes... I was moved to tears.
This was nature, alive and vibrant, silently communicating a mystery beyond anything the human mind can comprehend. There are some moments in life where your awareness of self just disintegrates. In that moment, I was at one with nature and it was total bliss. Total peace.
The people I was with, well they were part of the blissful experience too. It's impossible not to bond when you share such an epic experience. No words needed to be spoken; we all understood how fortunate we were. The gratitude was palpable.
These people were pure-hearted and caring, adventurous, brave and integral. I felt so safe and comfortable with them.
After dark we made a fire and sat roasting potatoes and plantains on it. We had so much fun laughing with (and at) each other, stumbling around comically and cracking jokes all day.
Duality popped up to remind me of its existence
Unfortunately, duality wanted to play a part. Thanks to the combination of strong sunshine and exertion, I succumbed to heatstroke... it seemed to come out of nowhere and completely panicked me. To make matters worse, my knee also gave out. Not ideal when you have a five hour hike down unfamiliar mountain terrain in the dark, navigating paths full of giant cacti.
The group took care of me and between them managed to nurse me back to a state where I felt ready for the descent. As ready as I could be, anyway. Fortunately for me, the huachuma had not only connected us to nature and added wow-factor to the already sublime scenery; it had also given us energy and drive - the two things I needed to get me down that mountain.
Somehow we made it. After a stunted and precarious descent (thanks to me), we got there. We were tired and weary, but elated. Being met by a buffet of delicious, warm vegan food compounded that elation.
Would I do it again?
Without a shadow of a doubt. It's certainly not an everyday experience, but it was worth the effort and the risks involved. Although what we did might be considered insane by some, we loved every moment of it.
Besides, there was something surreal and fun about balancing precariously on the side of a mountain like a mountain goat, looking down thousands of feet of steep drops... while munching on a banana! Definitely a bucket list thing.
Had I thought about it at the beginning, I would have said I could never have climbed that mountain, let alone while under the influence of huachuma... and especially not back down the entire thing in the dark!
It just goes to show that we are capable of so much more than we imagine in life. If there's one thing the sacred plants have taught me, it's that. I will never, ever forget it.