Psychedelic tourism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is nowhere on Earth where so many shaman serve such magical brews as they do in Peru. Since the start of this millennium, an increasing number of travellers have sought the magical ayahuasca experience, whether from simple curiosity or in search of ancient wisdom. These night-long shamanic healing rituals, with roots over 3500 years old, often involve the ingestion of psychotropic hallucinogens, and can produce a life-changing experience.

The San Pedro cactus, a mescaline-based plant common on the coast and in the mountains of Peru, brewed for hours, can produce very profound and extremely vivid out-of-body experiences. Seen as “sacred medicine” and a “teacher”, San Pedro has been used for millennia by priests and shaman to provide solutions to everything from physical sickness to broken-down relationships.

The ayahuasca vine, found in the rainforest, tends to provide an even stronger trip, notably when mixed with leaves in “jungle juice”. The typical setting for a session with an ayahuasquero, or jungle shaman, is to meet him at a rainforest lodge, usually a tambo (hut) on the edge of an Amazon tributary. The session starts at dusk in a small room or roofed platform. Shortly after sunset, the shaman offers his brew after blowing and smudging large billows of thick, tangy Amazon tobacco smoke over himself, his participants and, most importantly, the ayahuasca container. After giving each guest a bitter, small gourd-full, the scene settles down and soon the shaman begins to rattle, chant or drum.

The effects can be challenging – the drug’s purging qualities mean many people vomit, while the colourful visions may be spiritual, sexual or just plain terrifying – but most people, helped by the shaman’s guiding songs and vision, make it beyond this to a healing and ecstatic session. Many experience strange conversations or see loved ones from the past or present. The good vibes and endorphin-related elation continues into the next day. Watching dawn over the forest canopy with a river alive with fish and brimming with exotic birdlife is a cool way to start the rest of your life.

One-off sessions with a shaman are easy to arrange through lodges in Iquitos. Ayahuasca and San Pedro are legal in Peru, but both are strong hallucinogens and should be taken with a genuine shaman and treated with respect.

 

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Most visitors to the ancient Inca capital of Cusco in southern Peru are drawn by the extraordinary ruined temples and palaces and the dramatic scenery of the high Andes. But the only true way to get to the heart of the indigenous Andean culture is to join a traditional fiesta. Nearly every town and village in the region engages in these raucous and chaotic celebrations, a window on a secret world that has survived centuries of oppression.

Of all the fiestas, the most extraordinary and spectacular is Qoyllur Riti, held at an extremely high altitude in a remote Andean valley to the south of Cusco. Here you can join tens of thousands of indigenous pilgrims, both Quechua and Aymara, as they trek up to a campsite at the foot of a glacier to celebrate the reappearance of the Pleiades constellation in the southern sky – a phenomenon that has long been used to predict when crops should be planted.

At the heart of the fiesta are young men dressed in ritual costumes of the Ukuku, a half-man, half-bear trickster hero from Andean mythology, and if you’re hardy enough, you can join them as they climb even higher to spend the night singing, dancing and engaging in ritual combat on the glacier itself. Be warned, though, that this is an extreme celebration. Some years, pilgrims have died during the night, having frozen or fallen into crevasses, and when the pilgrim-celebrants descend from the mountain at first light, waving flags and toting blocks of ice on their backs, they bear the bodies, the blood sacrifice at once mourned and celebrated as vital to the success of the
agricultural year ahead.

Qoyllur Riti happens every year in early May. You can arrange transport to the start of the trek near the town of Ocongate with tour companies in Cusco.

 

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Embarking on a very personal and spiritual journey, Rough Guides writer Anna Kaminski shares her ayahuasca experience, after ingesting the hallucinogenic vines of the Amazon Basin.

The ancient Volkswagen Beetle climbs the hairpin bends high into the mountains, the lights of Cusco spread out in the valley beneath us.  On a particularly steep bend, it gives up the ghost and stalls. We follow the shaman up through unlit alleyways, accompanied by a howling chorus of the neighbourhood canines.

Behind a steel gate, a stone puma guards the steps down into the ceremonial hut with its thatched roof and skylights, lit by dim reddish bulbs and candles. Inside, there are several berths covered with thick woollen blankets, and an arcane-looking shrine covered with candles, crystals, giant dark feathers, mysterious little bottles and rocks. There are eight of us: Eddie and Katarina from New York, an Eastern European guy, an Aussie couple, a Spanish girl, myself, and an elfin girl with dark eyes who looks like she might be a regular. So what brings us all here?

Hallucinogenic vines

Associated largely with shamanism, the psychotropic Banisteriopsis caapi jungle vine Ayahuascaaya (spirit) and waska (vine) in Quechua – has been used as a religious sacrament for centuries by the indigenous tribes of northern South America and Brazil. The use of the brew to gain access to higher spiritual dimensions was described as ‘the work of the devil’ when 16th century Christian missionaries first came across it, but despite attempts to suppress the practice, it still flourishes, particularly in and around the Amazon Basin. Ayahuasca is not for recreational use; it is said that it’s best to approach it with specific spiritual goals or questions in mind, and also with an experienced shaman present – not just one who knows how to brew the vine in the correct proportions, but also to provide spiritual protection. Ayahuasca is not known to cause flashbacks or to have long-term side effects but it’s an intense experience.

Kush certainly seems suitably shaman-like – an aquiline nose, indigenous features, shoulder-length greying hair, outlandish clothes and a powerful presence that inspires confidence. We talk to him about what we’re hoping to get out of this experience: shedding the fear of failure, trying to decide on a career path, finding love… Kush then asks us all whether we’ve ever experimented with any mind-altering substances before, to see how much he should give us to start with. He checks that we all have plenty of water and hands out plastic buckets, since ayahuasca is a powerful “cleanser” it often purges you of your stomach contents.

Psychedelic colours

Kush lights a candle, takes a small bottle of liquid, pours it into a stone receptacle filled with ashes, and sets it on fire. It burns with a strong blue light. He lowers his head and says something that sounds like a prayer, in a language that I don’t understand. He shakes a bottle filled with pinkish liquid and pours different measures for us all.

The liquid has a strong, bitter and organic taste, with grit at the bottom. I gulp it down, wrap myself in blankets, lie down and close my eyes. I wonder if I’d made a mistake by not being able to resist an avocado salad that lunchtime; you’re supposed to avoid meat, sex, alcohol, spices, citrus fruit, sugar and fat for at least a day before ingesting ayahuasca in order to leave the path clear for visions.

Kush begins to chant. Almost immediately, I begin to see kaleidoscopic shapes, psychedelic colours, lime-green snakes moving, changing in time with the chanting. When the chanting changes tempo, so do the shapes. I feel strangely removed from my body; it’s as if something is raising my body up, while another force is pressing down on it. When the feeling gets too intense, I open my eyes for a second and it abates. When I twitch my nose, it feels like my face doesn’t belong to me. My body seems far away. There are shivers down my spine, creeping slowly; I don’t feel them, but rather see them as lines of light, slow and thick like electric molasses. The chanting is replaced by the playing of a reed flute – a repetitive trill that triggers more images, more changing colours.

Hearing voices

When I open my eyes, I see a giant dark figure in the middle of room that is half-man, half-wolf. Then the Peruvian wolf moves into the candlelight, shrinks, and turns into Kush again.

Even when the chanting and the music stops, the sounds reverberate inside my head, become voices, and build into a crescendo. When it becomes too much, I open my eyes, see Eddie sitting up, the shaman kneeling in front of him, holding giant feathers in the air, one in each hand, chanting.

I lose all sense of time; I don’t know if minutes have passed, or hours, whether I have been dreaming or hallucinating. More images come: abstract colours, the face of an Andean child, a woman, a wizened old person. Then an undead face covered in cobwebs thrusts itself at me – it’s startling, but not frightening. Everything seems to shake, and I think there’s an earthquake, yet when I open my eyes, all is silent and still.

More voices, more faces – tribesmen from the jungle; the forest green is encroaching on my space, it’s intense, the tribesmen not friendly, nor overly hostile. The sounds in my head turn into a ringing in my ears which builds up and up. A wave of nausea overtakes me. I open my eyes and throw up into the bucket next to me. Everyone else is lying still. My vision is blurred, the room is spinning.

Then it feels as if I’d dreamed it all. Not sure if I had even been sick; only the slight rasping in my throat makes me sit up and check the bucket. Affirmative. The candle above the door seems to be crackling with purple lightning. I feel immediate relief after purging, and sink back down.

More images come, obeying the repetitive chant, the reed flute of the shaman’s assistant, the light drumming. I don’t know at what point the shaman falls silent. I sleep a dreamless sleep until it’s morning, and I can feel the sun through the skylight.

The following morning, as we head back down into central Cusco, we’re all silent, each of us still absorbing the night’s experience. Kush tells us that we’d been under the influence for five hours or so. It has been an intense, uncomfortable ride, but most importantly, we all feel that we got what we came for.

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It’s midnight in Essaouira, and a castanet-like rhythm is drifting over the ramparts on the steely Atlantic breeze.

Tucked into a courtyard is a group of robed musicians playing bass drums, reed pipes and qaraqebs, metal chimes which are clacked together in the fingers. Their leader, the maalem, plucks a three-stringed gimbri lute. Singers in tassel-topped caps weave a polyrhythmic chant into the sound. The group is surrounded by a respectful audience: some standing, some preferring to sit cross-legged.

Suddenly, the beat quickens and one of the chanters launches into a dazzling sequence of lunges, jumps and cossack-like knee-bends. Finally, he spins on the spot, his long tassel whirling like a helicopter blade. An audience member joins in and ends up collapsed on the ground, seemingly in some kind of ecstatic trance.

This is a lila, one of the intimate musical gatherings that take place each night during the city’s annual Gnawa music festival. The Gnawas (or, in French, Gnaouas) are a spiritual brotherhood of healers and mystics whose ancestors, animist West Africans, were transported to Morocco as slaves. Their hypnotic music, a blend of sub-Saharan, Berber and Arab influences, is key to their rituals.

As well as these late-night sessions, the festival offers large-scale concerts. From early evening each day, crowds of locals gather around the stages in Place Moulay Hassan and other main squares to hear bands from all over North and West Africa. But it is the starlit lilas that make the festival unique. And it’s hard to imagine a more romantic setting for them than the rugged, windswept fortifications that protect the city from the sea.

By day, Essaouira has a different kind of romance. Seagulls soar over the sun-bleached rooftops and swoop down onto the shore, where fishermen sort their catch. The ramparts bake in the sun. This is the time for the festival’s more energetic visitors to browse the souks for glass beads, leather slippers and drums. Others, meanwhile, just snooze in the cool courtyard of a riad, waiting for another evening’s magic to unfold.

The four-day Festival d’Essaouira Gnaoua et Musiques du Monde is held annually in June. All concerts are held in public spaces and are free.

 

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Pine forests, wild mushrooms and a sunrise above clouds: not what you might associate with Mexico, better known for beaches, colonial cities and Aztec ruins. The mountains of the Sierra Norte, two hours’ bus journey north of Oaxaca, are home to a cluster of villages, a semi-autonomous community known as “Pueblos Mancomunados” (meaning “united villages”), where you can stay in simple adobe cabañas called “tourist yu’u” (pronounced “you”). This tourist accommodation is a community business venture that has provided an alternative to logging and helped develop schools, roads and health posts in the region.

Here, at nearly 3000m altitude, it is cool but often sunny and, if abundant growth of lichen is proof, the air is exceptionally clean. After resting in a hammock, admiring the alpine scenery, you’ll probably want to head off for an adventure. A guide from one of the villages will lead you through dappled groves on mountain bikes, horses or on foot, across kilometres of trails through pine forests, villages and valleys up to rocky viewpoints. The flora and fauna ranges by altitude and includes several endangered mammals, such as jaguar, spider monkey and tapir. In summer, you can pick baskets of wild shiitake or cep mushrooms.

Afterwards, sweat it out in a herb-scented temazcal – a Mexican sauna – before heading off to a kitchen-café in a villager’s home. While donkeys bray and smoke curls into the crisp mountain air, you can tuck into soft tortillas, peppers stuffed with goat’s cheese and refried beans, all washed down with herb and orange-peel liqueur.

You can get to the Sierra Norte by bus from Oaxaca City (2hr). For details of excursions  and rates see www.sierranorte.org; +52 951 514 8271. Cabañas sleep up to two adults and two children.

 

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Spend a few days in the intoxicating, maddening centro histórico of Mexico City, and you’ll understand why thousands of Mexicans make the journey each Sunday to the “floating gardens” of Xochimilco, the country’s very own Venice.

Built by the Aztecs to grow food, this network of meandering waterways and man-made islands, or chinampas, is an important gardening centre for the city, and where families living in and around the capital come to spend their day of rest. Many start with a visit to the beautiful sixteenth-century church of San Bernadino in the main plaza, lighting candles and giving thanks for the day’s outing. Duty done, they head down to one of several docks, or embarcaderos, on the water to hire out a trajinera for a few hours. These flat, brightly painted gondolas – with names such as Viva Lupita, Adios Miriam, El Truinfo and Titanic – come fitted with table and chairs, perfect for a picnic.

The colourful boats shunt their way out along the canals, provoking lots of good-natured shouting from the men wielding the poles. As the silky green waters, overhung with trees, wind past flower-filled meadows, the cacophony and congestion of the city are forgotten. Mothers and grannies unwrap copious parcels and pots of food, men open bottles of beer and aged tequila; someone starts to sing. By midday, Xochimilco is full of carefree holidaymakers.

Don’t worry if you haven’t come with provisions – the trajineras are routinely hunted down by vendors selling snacks, drinks and even lavish meals from small wooden canoes. Others flog trinkets, sweets and souvenirs. And if you’ve left your guitar at home, no problem: boatloads of musicians – mariachis in full costume, marimba bands and wailing ranchera singers – will cruise alongside or climb aboard and knock out as many tunes as you’ve money to pay for.

Xochimilco is 28km southeast of Mexico City, reachable from Tasqueña station.

 

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The pace of life is deliciously slow in Luang Prabang, but if you opt for a lie-in you’ll miss the perfect start to the day. As dawn breaks over this most languorous of Buddhist towns, saffron-robed monks emerge from their temple-monasteries to collect alms from their neighbours, the riverbanks begin to come alive and the smell of freshly baked baguettes draws you to one of the many cafés. It’s a captivating scene whichever way you turn: ringed by mountains and encircled by the Mekong and Khan rivers, the old quarter’s temple roofs peep out from the palm groves, its streets still lined with wood-shuttered shophouses and French-colonial mansions.

Though it has the air of a rather grand village, Luang Prabang is the ancient Lao capital, seat of the royal family that ruled the country for six hundred years until the Communists exiled them in the 1970s. It remains the most cultured town in Laos (not a hard-won accolade it’s true, in this poor, undeveloped nation), and one of the best preserved in Southeast Asia – something now formalized by World Heritage status. Chief among its many beautiful temples is the entrancing sixteenth-century Wat Xieng Thong, whose tiered roofs frame an exquisite glass mosaic of the tree of life and attendant creatures, flanked by pillars and doors picked out in brilliant gold-leaf stencils. It’s a gentle stroll from here to the graceful teak and rosewood buildings of the Royal Palace Museum and the dazzling gilded murals of neighbouring Wat Mai.

When you tire of the monuments, there are riverside caves, waterfalls and even a whisky-making village to explore, and plenty of shops selling intricate textiles and Hmong hill-tribe jewellery. Serenity returns at sunset, when the monks’ chants drift over the temple walls and everyone else heads for high ground to soak up the view.

Luang Prabang is served by flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Vientiane. You can also reach it by bus and boat from Vientiane and by boat from the Thai–Lao border at Chiang Khong/Houayxai.

 

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Holding the tiny cocoon in your fingers, it’s hard to imagine it contains a fibre of silk that will be 800m long when finally unravelled. And when you consider 100,000 silk worms are being cultivated here at Vang Viang Organic Farm, you’re effectively surrounded by 80,000km of silk – enough to circle the earth twice.

The farm was established in 1996, in the village of Phoudinadaeng, on the banks of the Nam Song River, as a model centre of organic agriculture: mulberry trees are cultivated using natural fertilizers and predators, and their leaves picked daily to feed the silkworms or to make mulberry tea and wine. Half of each silk harvest is sold for fabric production, while the other half provides income for village women, who weave it at home and then sell silk products back to the farm. Profits from the farm are also used to run a community centre and school, where volunteers can help with English lessons.

Travellers are welcome to visit the farm – you can stay in simple rooms if you wish – to learn about how the silk is processed or see how the fruit and veg is grown using traditional techniques. And if – having learnt that each harvest produces around ten kilos of silk which is then dyed with local plants – you buy one of the brightly coloured scarves made by the women, you’ll have gained a real appreciation of what your silk is worth.

For directions to the farm and details of projects and accommodation (dorm beds US$1, rooms without bath US$3) see www.laofarm.org; +856 205 523 688.

 

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After three hours trudging along steep forest paths, you come to a surreal sight. Hundreds of megalithic stone jars, large enough for someone to a crouch inside, are strewn all around. This group of 416 jars is the largest at the aptly named Plain of Jars, whose current tally stands at 1900 jars in 52 clusters, plus fifteen jar-making sites. They were made by a vanished civilization and their presence indicates that the mountains were prosperously settled at the time. Today the Xieng Khoung province is on the rise again, this time as a tourist hub.

Little is known about the jar-makers, except that the plateau was a strategic and prosperous centre for trade routes extending from India to China. Nearly 2000 years ago, possibly earlier according to new evidence, these jars functioned as mortuary vessels: a corpse would be placed inside the jar until it decomposed down to its essence, then cremated and buried in a second urn with personal possessions. Now all that remains here are the empty jars, set in clusters on the crests of hills, an imposing and eerie legacy.

At Phukeng, you can see where the jars were made. Dozens of incomplete jars lie on the mountainside where they were abandoned after cracking during construction. It’s a sight that evokes the magnitude of the effort: after many weeks spent gouging a jar from a boulder with hammer and chisel, the creators then had to haul the load of several tons (the largest jar weighs six tons) across the undulating, grassy, pine-studded landscape to the “cemetery” 8km away. How the jars were transported is another puzzle that serves to deepen the enigma that pervades the Plain of Jars.

Daily public buses connect Luang Prabang and Vientiane with Phonsovan. Auberge de la Plaine des Jarres ([email protected]) is the province’s best hotel, with private wooden bungalows.

 

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Kenya is the safari capital of East Africa. Elephants, buffalo and wildebeest roam across vast plains, flamingos in their thousands wade in lake shallows, lions doze on sun-baked savannahs and herds of hippos graze by river banks. Yet in the scramble to see the country’s wildlife, local culture often gets overlooked and tribal people have been marginalized from the financial benefits of their land’s natural riches. Happily, there is now a new breed of lodges where the local tribes manage the camp, train as guides and receive a share of the profits, which go towards environmental and wildlife conservation. Below are some of these progressive lodges where local guides will take you on some of the best safaris in Africa.

Lewa Safari Camp

Chances are you’ll tick off the Big Five while on safari in the 250-square-kilometre Lewa Conservancy in the foothills of Mount Kenya. Primarily a sanctuary for endangered animals, Lewa is home to all the big game, including about ten percent of Kenya’s black rhinos (about 45), twenty percent of its white rhinos (about 35) and 25 percent of the world’s Grévy’s zebras (about 500). As well as the usual game drives, there are bush walks and camel-trekking safaris led by local Maasai. All profits from Lewa Safari Camp go to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (www.lewa.org), which funds education and medical clinics in the communities adjacent to the conservancy.

The camp is closed in April and November. Lewa is approximately five hours’ drive from Nairobi. For directions and more information about the camp see www.lewasafaricamp.com.

Amboseli Porini Camp

Come to Amboseli Porini for some of the best birdwatching in Africa, to see elephants, lions, leopards, wildebeest and giraffes, and for spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro. The camp is in the Selenkay Conservation Area, a 60-square-kilometre private game reserve bordering the northern boundary of Amboseli National Park. It is co-owned by the local Maasai and Gamewatcher Safaris – a Nairobi-based travel company which organizes Maasai-guided walks as well as day and night safaris into the conservancy and the national park. Track game with the Maasai and you’ll learn a trick or two from the people who have lived here for centuries.

Gamewatcher Safaris also operates Maasai-guided safaris at Porini Rhino Camp in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Mara Porini Camp in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy and Porini Lion Camp in the Olare Orok Conservancy. For prices and reservations at each camp see www.porini.com.

Eagle View

Superbly positioned for a close view of the migration of wildebeest and zebra along the northern plains of the Maasai Mara, Basecamp’s Eagle View far off the beaten track. Set on an escarpment in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy – one of the most remote and undeveloped parts of the Mara – there are nine tented suites overlooking the Koiyaki river. The lodge offers day and night drives, and even walking safaris with the local Maasais. The game here is as good as anywhere else in the park – with all those wildebeest running around there are lots of predators about.

Fly from Nairobi to Siana (www.airkenya.com), from where you will be collected by arrangement. The wildebeest migration is from mid-June to the end of October. Wilderness Journeys runs safaris based at Koiyaki Wilderness Camp; for prices and bookings see www.wildernessjourneys.com,

Il N’gwesi and Tassia Lodges

Both these luxury lodges lie among the wild scrubland and ancient migratory routes of northern Kenya. Il N’gwesi is on a rocky outcrop by the Ngare Ndare River on the edge of the dramatic Mukogodo Hills. There are six double thatched bandas and an infinity pool with wonderful views of the Samburu Game Reserve and the Mathews Range. Tassia Lodge is perched on the edge of a rocky bluff, looking out over the Northern Frontier District towards Samburu, Shaba and the Lolokwe Mountain. The lodge has six rooms (including a children’s bunkhouse which sleeps six) and is a four-hour walk or a morning’s game drive from Il N’gwesi.

Both Tassia and Il N’gwesi are owned and run by local Maasai, who lead guided safaris and birdwatching tours in the Ngare Ndare River Valley – where you’ll have a good chance of seeing elephants, buffalo, lions, wild dogs, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards. This is community-owned pastoral land, so while you’re out on safari expect to come across herders and their cattle – and the real Africa.

For more information about the camp see www.lewa.org/visit-lewa/community-lodges. You can book both camps through Nairobi-based travel company Let’s Go Safaris (www.uniglobeletsgotravel.com).

 

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