A taut mosquito net and a dusty yellow curtain are all that stand between my head and a spider the size of a bread plate on the window a metre away. The day’s first light has created the perfect, albeit terrifying, silhouette.
Is it on the inside or the outside, I wonder. Freeing the edge of my carefully tucked-in mosquito net, I slip out, move closer and ever so slowly pull back the curtain. Inside! My inner sook screams as I dive back into bed and tightly stuff the mozzie net back in.
Finding myself within arm’s length of hairy, scary arachnids is something I expected when I signed on for an eight-day Amazon eco-adventure with Pulse Tours. Still, it’s one thing to conceptualise encounters with such creatures, another entirely for it to become a daily reality. When jungle guide Victor takes a large pink-footed tarantula from a thatched roof and offers it to the group, I demur while the others snap photos of it walking up their arms. Victor even lets it crawl across his face.
For four days, our small group will trek into the Amazon jungle before spending the remainder of the tour at a spiritual centre participating in the region’s shamanic rituals. The route is a twenty-first century reprise of parts of the more rugged Gringo Trail blazed throughout the 1960s and 70s by seekers like brothers Terence and Dennis McKenna – psychonaut pop philosopher and leading ethnopharmacologist, respectively – and Beat Generation poets William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. In those days, gringo ‘seekers’ stepped off the plane into a true unknown, cultivating allies and bartering for information among mestizos (people of mixed race) and Indians from more than 50 tribes. For many of these people the Spanish language was exotic, never mind Inglés.
There are just eight of us – all men, all in their twenties except for me (53 in chronological years, 23 in my mind) – accompanied by Pulse’s owner Dan Cleland and his partner Tatyana. The combination of eco-adventure and spiritual quest was the siren call for everyone in the group, which I later nickname the Ayahuasca Test Pilots, after a sign painted on a mototaxi. Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss had already been snagged by Dennis McKenna as the title for his autobiography.
Our group bonded in Iquitos – first over cerveza (beer) at Al Frío y Al Fuego, a restaurant and bar floating on the Itaya River, then at the vast open-air Belén Market, where we recoiled at the oddities on display. There were pickled vipers in jars, freshly butchered tortoises with twitching limbs, and the splayed corpses of ‘jungle rats’ on the footpath. Jungle rat is nothing like you might imagine. While alive, the dog-sized guinea pigs are actually quite cute, and guilt almost stops me from trying a roasted one at a roadside barbecue. For the record, yes, it does taste like chicken. The others buy hand-rolled mapachos, the sacred tobacco used by Amazonian shamans, although there is very little sacred about the smell when you’re downwind.
My eight-legged friend and I are temporary residents of a rustic lodge on the banks of the Peruvian Amazon, about a half-day by mototaxi and motorised canoe from Iquitos. Not being able to return to sleep in my new pal’s presence, I shake out my boots, pull them on and shuffle along the plank bridge to the bathroom. It’s about three metres above the ground, so I concentrate on not falling. Today’s plans include a morning, afternoon and night jungle trek and I need both ankles intact.
Over the coming days I discover that, unlike the African veldt, where the creatures are big and impressive, the Amazon’s wildlife is small and unexpected. It’s a mural versus scrimshaw kind of thing. Sure, jaguars, anacondas and croc-like caimans are impressive, but they’re also elusive. We see neither big cat nor huge snake, but find a pitiful baby caiman immersed in a mangrove swamp during a night-time boat excursion. Yet there’s no disappointment – just being out in the wild is reward enough.
When your vision narrows there’s also plenty to find. We spy an army of cutter ants carrying large bits of leaf in an endless line along the forest floor. Their domed anthill is the size of a baseball diamond and shoulder high. Another interesting animal we encounter is an anteater-like rodent called coati that can climb trees like their raccoon evolutionary cousins. Alipio, the assistant guide, climbs a tall tree and knocks down a giant lizard hiding up there. He makes the mistake of holding it by the tail to show it off; the tail falls twitching to the ground and the lizard scurries away.
I get to hold a three-toed sloth and see a giant iguana up close. At one point, I step off a boat to pee wearing only flip-flops. Big mistake. Punishment ants sneak between my toes and start biting. They are almost invisibly small, but their venom is so strong each nip smarts like a bee sting. Their name comes from their punitive application. They are known to have been set loose on men caught cheating by their partners, for example. I can’t even imagine.
One time Alipio uses a machete to cut a branch and bring a black viper to the jungle floor. Guide Victor holds it, wrapped around his forearm.
“This snake can kill you,” he says rather casually. For the first time I wonder if there’s antivenom back at the lodge.
The most common deadly creatures we encounter are black scorpions (sometimes attached to leaves at eye level). The numerous pink-footed tarantulas we spy are not as toxic, but they’re creepy as hell when viewed during night-time treks in the light of a small headlamp.
Now and again during day trips we stop the boat mid-river for a cooling dip. The deeper water away from the banks means less chance of encounters with the piranhas and anacondas that tend to hang out near the water’s edge. We spot the famous pink river dolphins breaching the surface of the river and I wonder how they manage in the zero visibility of the brackish water.
This aggressive serpent is so poisonous there’s almost no hope of survival if you’re bitten, and if their heat sensors mistake your foot for a jungle rodent they can strike hard enough from four metres away to break your leg.
The thought of piranhas and anacondas doesn’t freak me out enough to prevent me swimming, but Victor’s description of the bushmaster snake – which he talks about on night jungle walks, naturally – terrifies me. This aggressive serpent is so poisonous there’s almost no hope of survival if you’re bitten, and if their heat sensors mistake your foot for a jungle rodent they can strike hard enough from four metres away to break your leg. Shivers.
One of the highlights is a visit to La Isla de Los Monos – Monkey Island – where howlers, capuchin and other primates climb aboard our canoe, eating the fruit and necking the water we hand them. They also try to make off with anything shiny we mistakenly have dangling around our necks or, worse, looping though our earlobes. They are as fun as a barrel of… well, you get the picture.
By the time we come to the end of our jungle expedition, the three daily treks – some have been on foot, others in canoes powered by two- stroke engines that scuttle over the river’s surface like noisy water bugs – have taken their toll. Still, on the last night, we challenge the guides to a game of barefoot soccer in a nearby village. Needless to say, we lose spectacularly, but the guides have a grand time, as do the village onlookers.
When it’s time to pack up early the following morning to head to the shamanic centre, my spider friend has disappeared for the first time since our introduction. This is more unsettling than actually seeing it there, splayed across the window. Thankfully my backpack is strapped tight and my clothes and other belongings sealed in their own waterproof kayaking bags. No room for a hitchhiker in there.
Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre is deep in the jungle, close to the small village of Llanchama along the Nanay River. It’s still quite basic, but there are warm showers and the spiders are on the outside of the windows. Curandero Ricardo Amaringo and his assistants are the real deal, leading us through three shamanic ceremonies. We listen to the beautiful and rhythmic icaros (sacred songs) late into the night after drinking small cups of ayahuasca, the sacred brew that opens the mind to spirit-world visions. Everyone in the group will later agree that this part of the adventure is the most life changing.
The ceremonies take place in a large, round temple-like structure called a maloka. Each person lies on a mat around the interior edge, propped up on pillows, waiting about 40 minutes for the psychedelic effects to kick in. The shamans drink the brew too, dim the candles and begin their sacred songs.
Over a period of four or five hours I experience waves of profound visions, at first seeing complex geometric forms made of precise lines of neon-bright colours as intricate as any Persian rug. Everything is moving. Over time these shapes morph into animal forms and ‘energy beings’ that I interact with. I’m shown events from my life, and lessons in how my actions affected other people and how they felt. Sometimes the images are nightmarish, other times I see landscapes so beautiful I weep. I refuse to call them hallucinations: these are real events in another dimension made entirely of consciousness. I interact directly with a universal consciousness that feels like a female creator, analogous to what some people call God.
This affects me profoundly. I used to be an atheist but am no longer, although my concept of ‘God’ is very different from the one in Sunday school. I no longer fear death, believing this life is but one of many incarnations.
But I’m still afraid of spiders, and I never want to meet a bushmaster snake. There are apparently some things even shamanic medicine can’t change.
LATAM Airlines flies between Australian capital cities to Lima, with onward connections to Iquitos.
Vancouver-based Pulse Tours runs seven-day Amazon Ayahuasca Adventures year round. There’s a maximum of 10 people on each trip. Tours cost US$1,580, including accommodation, transport, most meals, jungle tours and shamanic ceremonies.
Get in the Amazon mood with the book True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise by Terence McKenna.
For more information on travelling to Peru visit their tourism website.