A guest post via Josh from My Seasoned Travels (blog no longer active).
Before booking my flights, I couldn’t wait to hit the road and go and explore. I had been to Colombia in the past to stay with my sister who lived there, but this experience was something new. I was going to visit my friend that I had made in Melbourne, to stay with his family in Lima. I’ve always found that visiting a country when you know someone there is by far and away the best way to get to know a place. Like all the Peruvians that I had met through him, he was very proud of his country. From the amazing history of the Inca, to the diverse nature and delicious food.
Travelling from Melbourne to Lima isn’t an easy route though and after three flights and nearly 40 hours of travelling, I just wanted to know what he had planned for us. Having just started a new job, he wasn’t allowed to take any holiday for a whole year (something I instantly realised that I took for granted) so it would be difficult for us to get to Cusco and climb to Machu Picchu over a weekend. The best option for us to explore the real Peru according to his friends and family was to go to Iquitos. I knew nothing about the place, but if the locals recommended it, then it must be worth it.
Iquitos is one of the largest cities in Peru but is unique due to its location. Deep within the Peruvian Amazon, the city is only accessible by air and boat. In fact, it is the largest city in the world which can’t be reached by land. It was only while flying over the thick Amazon canvas that I realised how inaccessible this city was. I was headed into deepest darkest Peru and knew that I had made the right choice to avoid the more obvious tourist traps in the country.
Not surprisingly, being so isolated by the Amazon means that a lot of the city’s past and present is tied to its geographical location. Like Manaus in Brazil, another city isolated by being in the rainforest, Iquitos was a major beneficiary of the rubber boom in the late 19th century. While this trade has peaked, the city still owes the majority of its livelihood to the Amazon. From agriculture, petroleum and timber, the fortune of this city is tied to the rainforest just as much as its location is.
This location also gives the city one of the most fascinating markets that I have ever been to anywhere in the world. To start with, it is a partially floating market which is not too dissimilar to ones that you may find in South East Asia. Being in the rainforest though means that you will see a variety of foods unlike anywhere else. We saw and tasted fruits which looked utterly bizarre but for the most part, were delicious. This experience may not be for everyone though, as the selection of meat and fish there were not what you would expect from a standard food market. Monkeys, turtles and caiman were all on the menu, no wonder when you consider that there is nothing except the rainforest in this isolated city. You can Google Belen Market if you don’t believe me, but you have been warned if it isn’t you kind of thing. For those willing to explore though, if nothing else it is certainly unique.
Another large industry for Iquitos is tourism, not surprising as it is considered the capital of the Peruvian Amazon. Being so embedded in the rainforest means that it is the perfect location to explore the river, jungle and to see its amazing wildlife. My friend and I had every intention of making the most of this experience, so through a friend of his, we were put in touch with a local tour guide. We were to be staying in a hut deep in the jungle, so deep that even the copious amounts of mosquito nets couldn’t stop me from having tens of fresh bites every time I looked.
Waking up at 5.30 a.m. to catch the sunrise over the Amazon river, we jumped in a typical Amazonian boat and headed on our way. The sunrise was spectacular but what really blew me away was the size of this river. As Peru is so far away from the mouth of the Amazon and not a country that you typically associate with it, it was obvious why this body of water could be the lifeline of the world’s greatest rainforest. Stopping off downriver, we had the chance to join in with some locals who were bathing in the mud. This is seen as being great for your skin, so it was too good of an opportunity to miss and join in a mud fight with some of the local kids.
We later ventured off through the jungle, passing local villages on our way to an animal sanctuary. It was spectacular to see how their proximity to the jungle meant a connectedness to the animals, where it seemed that each and every person had an animal with them. Monkeys, sloths and birds, none were tied up but seemed to want to be with the people they were with. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced and was very enlightening about our place in the world and nature. These people didn’t have much, yet they seemed to understand life in a way that I had never even conceived possible.
After getting to the sanctuary we got to see why the local people could have this affection with the local wildlife. There were so many different species of monkeys, from small to unnervingly large. We got to see their conservation efforts with turtles and caiman. The star of the show though, not surprisingly for anyone who has ever been online, had to be the sloths. They were soft and furry and just wanted to hang onto a branch. So if you put one onto you they are happy to just hang on, it was like wearing a hug! Holding a baby sloth definitely was an experience I’ll never forget.
In the past number of years, a traditional indigenous healing ceremony has become increasingly popular and well known. This involves drinking Ayahuasca, a drug which is made by boiling the leaves and vines of different plants. This produces a liquid which has high amounts of DMT, a hallucinogenic drug that can give the takers of it an altered state of consciousness. This experience can be both good and bad, causing deep anxiety or euphoria. It would be easy to instantly dismiss this as a recreational drug (like taking DMT), however, this is traditionally seen as a healing method and a number of studies have shown significant benefits of those that take it. These have shown improved mental and psychological health, as well as helping those suffering from depression, PTSD and addiction.
My flatmate back in Melbourne had tried it when he had previously gone backpacking to Peru and from his recommendation, I knew I had to give it a go. Travelling with a local made arranging this much smoother as he was able to organise a private Ayahuasca ceremony after our day in the jungle. I was told that for twenty four hours before I was only allowed to drink water and not have anything to eat. This is to cleanse your body before the ceremony begins.
Around 9:00 p.m. my friend and I went to where the ceremony was taking place, in an open outbuilding in the jungle which was covered in old mosquito nets. While my friend didn’t want to try Ayahuasca, he said he would like to experience the ceremony and to be there to make sure that I was ok. Even though I told him I didn’t mind going alone, secretly I was delighted that he was with me. The thought of hallucinogens has always made me anxious, a feeling I didn’t want before I started tripping. We then met the shaman who leads the ceremony, a short and quiet elder man with a kind face. Settling down into a very broken chair which I nearly fell through, the three of us sat around the fire in the pitch-black jungle.
Ayahuasca itself is a black liquid, not that I could see anything in the darkness. After drinking it, it’s expected that you will get severe diarrhoea or vomiting, sometimes even both. This is another part of why it’s considered a healing process, ridding your body of bad toxins inside of you. The shaman began his ritual of chanting in Quechua, rubbing me all over with leaves and smoking without a filter. Despite being a little old man, seeing him do his thing seemed both cool and terrifying in equal measure. After waiting for what felt like an age, I thought the time must have passed enough for me to have skipped the sickness. I’d smoked a few joints and tried a couple of drugs but I didn’t realise I was this hardcore. That was until it started. Going from fine to throwing my guts up in about 15 seconds, by the end time it finished I thought I wasn’t going to have any insides left. It did end though, leaving me weak, tired and utterly drained.
As the evening progressed we had some brief conversations with the shaman, who called me a polite young man. This was probably because I kept calling him by the formal Senor, as opposed to his name. I wanted to be respectful to him and not seem like a typical tourist that wanted to get high, the fact that I couldn’t remember his name also helped, which I felt terrible about. As for the high, it never really came. The mosquito nets that surrounded us did start to change colour and shape, but unfortunately, I never got the experience of travelling to the spirit world. This is considered fairly common for people on their first experience, I’m sure my anxiety didn’t help the situation either. I loved the experience though, something seemingly of another world. As a ceremony it predates the Inca, so I suppose it was.
My time in the Amazon was an experience that I have never lived through before, the life in the rainforest really is a world apart from the daily lives that we live in the west. To be able to see the lives of people who live there truly was eye-opening, particularly about the way that their entire existence is seemingly so tied into the rainforest. Their close proximity to the wildlife, which was all so comfortable in their presence was a delight to see. You often hear people saying “be one with nature”, if you’re like me you hear this and brush it off as a saying without any substance. The people in the Amazon seemingly were though, just not in a way that you associate with a stoner.
While you could call my Ayahuasca experience a bust, I don’t regret it at all. Ok, I didn’t get the hallucinations that are associated with helping people with a variety of mental disorders, it really did feel like a gateway to a historic past so entwined with the Amazon. It was this feeling that typified my time in Iquitos, a place I’ll never forget.
My Seasoned Travels are a group of adventurers, photographers and seasoned travelers sharing their tips, trips and stories from around the globe. You can get in touch via Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.
This article was published in June 2020.