Saturated with Spirit at Nihue Rao
Back when Ricardo Amaringo was apprentice to maestro ayahuasca shaman Guillermo Arevalo at Espiritu de Anaconda, I used to jokingly refer to Ricardo as "the hardest working man in the shaman business." I could set my watch to his 5:45 a.m. preparation of ayahuasca, the thwhank, thwhank, thwhank of the metal pipe he used to pound the tough, fibrous pieces of caapi vine. Not everybody was comparably enchanted by Ricardo's work ethic and the ringing of the pipe at sunrise. Some just wanted sleep after a ceremony that lasted until an hour or so past midnight. But there Ricardo would be, making ayahuasca, putting his back into the work, making sure that the brew was made right. He not only got to work early, but he made potent brew that assured a strong journey. At night, he would sing spellbinding icaros, a spirit man cooing and keening and calling the spirits, moving about the malocca from one spot to the next, driving energy, casting a spell. Over a period of several years, I sat in at least twenty-five ceremonies with Ricardo, and was always enchanted by his icaros, his sacred healing songs.
Over a year ago, Ricardo departed from his many years of work with Guillermo, to start his own shamanic healing center south of Iquitos, Nihue Rao. Bill Grimes of Dawn on the Amazon Tours in Iquitos commented wryly "I wish they'd name these places something you can pronounce and remember." Be that as it may, Nihue Rao (pron: nee-hwee-rao), which is the name of a plant whose spirit purportedly connects the user to maestro shamans who have passed on to the spirit world, is the name of Ricardo's center, which he founded with US doctor Joe Tafur MD, and Canadian visionary artist Cvita Mamic.
"There's no structure or formal way of an apprentice leaving the maestro," explained gringo ayahuasca shaman Hamilton Souther, founder of Blue Morpho. "So usually there's chaos, and it can get pretty weird." Sitting at the Amazon Bistro restaurant in Iquitos, Hamilton, his wife Wendy and my friends Craig, Sergio and Jim and I discussed Ricardo's transition from apprentice to maestro in his own right, with his own center. "It's hard," says Hamilton. "There is a lot of envy and in-fighting among shamans, so when someone leaves and sets out on their own, there can be a lot of turbulence."
Turbulence indeed. Ricardo's departure from Guillermo's tutelage brought some rough passage for several months, especially when some of the long-time staff people from Espiritu de Anaconda migrated to Nihue Rao to work with Ricardo. That stung. But apparently the roughest period is over, and things have smoothed out appreciably. You would hope so. After all, shouldn't all that down-home ayahuasca shamanism engender positivity?
To get to Nihue Rao, you head down the Nauta Road (isn't every shamanic center in the Iquitos area down the Nauta Road?) and turn onto the road to Zungara Cocha. My friends and I would have banged and jolted along for the entire rutted trip in our moto's, but the massive flooding that has submerged much of Iquitos recently also made the road to Zungara Cocha disappear as if by magic, so we transferred to a small boat, headed a while up the Rio Nanay, and then hiked the last half mile through mud, across a couple of streams, and through fields, to Nihue Rao. Our journey had the feel of a real pilgrimage, a somewhat tougher approach resulting in emergence onto the tidy property of a shamanic center that, to put it mildly, is rocking.
Our happy quartet consisted of middle-aged guys who had previously drunk ayahuasca, except for Jim. This was his first time, and I figured that Nihue Rao would be a great place for him to get booted out into the mysterum tremendum. Correct. Each of us were there for different reasons. In my case, I wanted to dive deeper into the pool of ayahuasca shamanism. As I have participated in ceremonies over the years, I have wondered -- where does this road go? Ricardo had been an important part of my first ceremony over five years ago, and the continuity felt right to me. Craig, Sergio and Jim were there to journey, and to tackle health issues. We all had our purposes.
At Nihue Rao, ceremonies are conducted typically three nights weekly, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. When we ran into Joe and Cvita, they informed us that Ricardo would do an additional "private" ceremony for us, so for our week stay we would get in four ceremonies. The new and very lovely Nihue Rao shamanic center looks a lot like Espiritu de Anaconda did during its most healthy times. The centerpiece is the malocca, an exquisitely built , high-roofed ceremonial space with a complex interior beam structure and a friendly, inviting feel. Ricardo is Shipibo, and the malocca reflects the classic Shipibo design for a ceremonial house used for ayahuasca journeying.
To add to the overall juice of the place, Ricardo is not the only practicing shaman at Nihue Rao. He is joined by maestro ayahuasceros Marselo and Julian, a triumvirate I rightly assumed would make a potent combination once the night's festivities got going. Correct.
After a lunch of rice, river fish and plantains, we hung out, got in hammock time, and chatted with others at Nihue Rao until ceremony at 8:00 p.m. Including the shamans, we had about fifteen people, all on mats, all ready to journey into the spirit world. My friends and I sat together, side by side on our mats, enthused about what was to come.
I have never heard anybody remark, even once, at the delicious taste of ayahuasca. Often first-timers will say "That's not so bad," but that sentiment usually departs after a few nights of drinking. Ayahuasca is a lot like wheat grass juice. Every time it passes your lips, it gets a bit worse. The ayahuasca, poured by Marselo, was not delicious. It made the skin on my neck crawl. I wanted to vomit it out on the spot. Not delicious indeed, but fuerte', strong.
In the classic Shipibo ceremonies, everybody sits around in the dark once the ayahuasca has been drunk. Then about forty-five minutes later, just as the air is beginning to sparkle, the shamans begin to sing. Ricardo, Marselo and Julian know how to get the evening going, open up the portals to the spirit landscape, and drive the energy of the room. Each of them sang separate icaros, weaving together their songs in a way that turned the inside of the malocca into a vast territory of visions, spirits, the medicine teachings pouring into us all until we were as full as we could get.
Every evening, the night was punctuated with the spasmodic eruptions of la purga, the purge, as participants not only vomited up what little ayahuasca they had swallowed, but also hurled up fears, grief, toxic feelings, poisons from deep in the body, nasty phlegm contaminated with bad energy. In operatic fashion, the barfing sounded at times like mortal cries induced by torture. At other times, it had a sadness to it, as heads went into plastic buckets and the release of crud was muffled. Since there was also plenty of posterior purging taking place, a steady stream of wobbly ayahuasca pilgrims shuttled back and forth to the conveniently located -- and clean -- toilets outside near the malocca.
But purging is the least of what took place at Nihue Rao. If most shamans are pilots, these guys are astronauts, hurtling through space like Silver Surfer, finessing their way out through the Milky Way and beyond, banking sharply against black holes, and shooting back to Earth again. They are all medicine, these three, singing the full force of the ayahuasca into the ceremony, driving dark energy to its infinite end, and blasting open the channels within all of us.
On the third night of ceremony, I had one of those radiant, extraordinary nights, when all the work, all the previous years of the medicine, came together in a spectacle of spirit and light. Sitting on my mat, my chest blew open with a gigantic gaping hole, and a tractor beam of pure, clear love blasting from the center, perfusing everybody and everything. The icaros from the shamans made my energy as straight as a nail. The radiance cleansed me to every corner of my being. Busy psychedelic snakes ate up every last crumb of dark energy inside me. At the beginning of the ceremony, I had asked the ayahuasca to fill me with the medicine teachings. Later on as I lay suffused with radiant love, as I felt an infinite and perfect compassion for all beings, the ayahuasca said to me "This is the highest of all the medicine teachings." Listen well, grasshopper.
When it comes to the medicine at Nihue Rao, descriptions convey only a dim sense of the true grandeur of the work. Just as the map is not the territory, so too any tale only hints at what is taking place out there at night, as the shamans light up the malocca and everybody goes for a ride. The sheer saturation of spirit there reminds me of swimming in the ocean, in a place where the water is thousands of feet deep. But in this case, the water is luminous, an ocean of unbearably beautiful radiance. That ayahuasca has leapt over its previous cultural boundaries is a matter of curious fact. That the medicine has embraced many hundreds of thousands of non-natives is testimony to its profound healing and integrating power. We apparently need this now. And at Nihue Rao, down the rutted road past Zungara Cocha, the canny shamans Ricardo, Marselo and Julian, are fulfilling the true mission of ayahuasca shamanism, saturating those who journey with the profound power of La Medicina.
For a deep dip into the pool at Nihue Rao, visit www.nihuerao.com
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter, author and TV commentator. He is the FOX News Medicine Hunter, and is the founder of Ayahuasca Test Pilots, a group dedicated to safe and healthy journeying with ayahuasca. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife Zoe and their dog Boo.