I'd been standing in the reception of my Isla del Sol hotel for at least ten minutes, waiting for a girl to bring me a bottle of water, when two figures stumbled in through the door. He collapsed onto the nearest sofa immediately; she stepped cautiously towards the narrow trestle table that held a thermos full of hot water for complimentary coffee and tea.
It looked like she was pushing against an invisible enemy; her legs bounced awkwardly, puppet like. Lifting the thermos, her hands shook so much I was afraid she'd drop it.
“…Are you alright?”
I don't know why I spoke in English to her. I'd been speaking Spanish all day during my tour of Lake Titicaca, but something told me it was the right thing to do.
She turned at my voice, but her eyes didn't focus.
“I just need water… we're lost… I'm so thirsty…”
I could barely hear her, but the English accent was unmistakeable.
“Hang on, I'm just getting some. It'll be here in a minute,” I said, as the girl from the hotel appeared round the corner with a fresh bottle.
I guided this female stranger to the sofa where her friend lay, his eyes closed. She took big gulps from my water bottle, droplets rolling down her chin; and when she passed it back to me, I spoke hesitantly to her friend.
“You need some water too?”
One eye flickered open. He looked up at me, an expression of faint amusement (combined with a look of utter confusion) on his face.
After a few minutes of silence, I couldn't help but broach the subject of what had happened to them. Why did they look like they'd escaped from a war zone? Which is when he said,
“We've been walking around the island all day… We haven't drunk any water. But we took San Pedro this morning…”
I stopped him mid sentence, as a sudden thought occurred to me. A coincidence I couldn't believe was happening.
“Hang on – are you guys on the Allkamari retreat?!”
He nodded at me, smiling. And suddenly everything made sense.
The craziest of coincidences
I'd been emailing Miguel, the man from the Allkamari retreat centre, the week before this trip I'd made to Lake Titicaca. He'd suggested that I join him and his retreat group for an ayahuasca ceremony, followed by a San Pedro pilgrimage to the lake at the weekend. Initially I was tempted, but the more I thought about it the more nervous I became – until eventually I just let our email communication slide.
I'd never experienced San Pedro before, and I'd drunk ayahuasca for the first time only recently – and only ever with one shaman, and one group of people. I was worried that things might be too different another time, and I wouldn't enjoy the experience in the same way.
But if there's one thing the ayahuasca taught me, it's that things happen for a reason, the way they're supposed to. So I felt sure that I'd get some kind of sign if I was supposed to go to Allkamari.
I wasn't exactly expecting that sign to appear in the form of two living, breathing, San Pedro-disorientated people, literally knocking on my door. And for it to happen on Lake Titicaca's Isla del Sol – a place so heavy with spiritual energy that the Inca people hailed it as the birthplace of the world?
There aren't many coincidences that have given me shivers like this one did.
But that's the beauty of these plant medicines; even when you think the effects have worn off, they're still hard at work to guide you in the direction you need to go. And when I realised what these two strangers were doing in that hotel reception – lost, tired, and in need of help – I didn't hesitate. My hotel room had two single beds, so I offered up the space for them to crash. And while the woman, Deanne, fell asleep immediately, I spent the entire night deep in conversation with Jeremiah, who was so charged on his experience with San Pedro that sleep was an impossibility.
Amongst other things, we discussed the incredible power of plant medicines, and the chance we have to surrender to their teachings. I told him about my recent experiences with ayahuasca and he spoke about San Pedro. All the nerves I'd felt about trying this new medicine disappeared as he explained how life changing it had been for him.
I'd been looking for a sign, and this was it.
So a few days later, I packed up my things in La Paz and caught a succession of taxis to Allkamari, a retreat built against a backdrop of the most stunning Bolivian landscapes. And right opposite, the mountain of Illimani.
As soon as I arrived at Allkamari, I felt at home.
That very evening was an ayahuasca ceremony – which included both the people from the month long retreat, and a few newbies who'd come up from La Paz that day to experience the medicine for the first time. Because I'd drunk ayahuasca before, I felt like my role was somewhere in the middle of these relationships; not an old hand, but certainly not new either.
I prepared myself mentally throughout the day, getting increasingly nervous as the evening approached. But despite my fears about what the ceremony might hold for me and how deep I might be taken, the actual experience was a complete surprise.
The medicine offered absolutely nothing. No visions, no loss of the self, no colours, no light, no self realisations. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed.
Thankfully, because of my earlier experiences with ayahuasca, I knew there was a reason for this lack of enlightenment. And I reasoned with myself that I was most likely supposed to have met these people, and come to Allkamari, for something other than ayahuasca this time around.
Namely, to meet San Pedro.
What is San Pedro?
I'd heard about the medicinal properties of the San Pedro cactus before arriving at Allkamari, but because my first work with plant medicine was with ayahuasca, I'd never really contemplated trying it.
The general opinion is that, while ayahuasca is a feminine energy, San Pedro is the masculine. And while ayahuasca takes you inside to connect with your internal self, San Pedro makes you more external, allows your senses to be heightened, and shows you the deep, innate connection with the world around you.
Both medicines, however, connect you with Pachamama, the mother of the earth – just on different kinds of planes. While I felt very connected to the people and the world around me during my experiences with ayahuasca, it was ultimately a very internal journey: performed at night, helped and guided by meditation, and giving me glimpses into the way my ego, my body and my thought processes affect the ways I live my life. I emerged from ayahuasca with deeper knowledge of my own self, but not necessarily of others.
San Pedro delivers a different journey to ayahuasca. You're more external, and wholly more aware of the energies around you – and normally, a San Pedro ceremony will be conducted in the day, to further illuminate the natural world and your awareness of your connection to it.
So why, then, was I about to drink San Pedro outside, in the dark of night, and spend eight hours walking in circles?
The San Pedro Long Dance
My arrival at Allkamari coincided with the last week of a month long course, where participants had met with ayahuasca over nine times, and twice with San Pedro. My first San Pedro ceremony was to be their last – and performing a San Pedro Long Dance would be the ultimate culmination, designed to pay thanks to the spirits who had helped them on their month long journey, and to lay to rest the elements they no longer wanted or needed in their lives.
The Long Dance involved eight hours of walking and dancing: four in one direction, and four in the other. Half the night spent walking clockwise would send our prayers towards the centre of the earth and purify us of what we wished to leave behind. The opposite, counter-clockwise direction, moving in an upward spiral, was to send our prayers and blessings out to the universe – and also to receive them, through the energy set in motion by the dance.
It was crucial to keep the energy moving, Miguel told us – which meant that even if people felt they needed to rest, or pray, or vomit, we had to remember not to do so for too long.
As we spent the day preparing for the ceremony, I was partly nervous but strangely calm. Like my first time with ayahuasca, I had no idea what to expect – a blessing in disguise, really. We painted flags with the things we wanted to leave behind and the things we wanted to take forward in our lives after the ceremony, and then readied ourselves for the night ahead.
I layered up in every piece of clothing I owned, and met with the others at a broad stretch of grass, overlooking the valley. A crude corral shape had been set up, with wooden posts placed in a circle, and joined together by three lines of string that stretched around the circle. Our flags were attached to the strings, surrounding us – except for one gap in the string between two posts, which served as our doorway. It faced out towards the mountains, and beyond it, outside our circular corral, sat a statue dedicated to Pachamama – the mother of the earth.
We gathered inside the corral, shivering a little, pulling at scarves and gloves and hats. In the centre of the corral a six pointed star was marked out with stones; a fire burned in the very middle. Miguel, our shaman, sat amongst animal skins and blankets, preparing various elements for the start of the ceremony. His three assistants moved quietly; unpacking their bags, checking musical instruments, blessing the fire, muttering words to all four directions of the landscape around us.
Eventually, the offerings began – each of us taking candies distributed by Miguel, praying with them, and placing them down on a sheet of paper near the fire, with other components already laid.
“Flora, Stephan, can you come here please?”
Myself and another attendee approached Miguel at his command. On top of the candy offerings, Miguel's assistants placed a llama foetus.
“Lift the paper with the offerings, please, and take it to the fire. The head of the llama must face towards the doorway, towards the mountains.”
We carried the paper to the centre of the stone star circle, and watched as the offerings began to burn. A thin white smoke spiralled its way around the corral, mixing with the cloudy night.
Above us, the full moon shone, weakly but still present. I looked up at it for some sort of unknown help as I was handed a tall plastic glass, filled with green liquid and a metal spoon.
“You need to mix it a lot…”
Just like I did with ayahuasca, I breathed deep, raised the glass to my lips, and didn't stop drinking. The taste was foul, in a different way this time; bitter, gaspingly so, and with chunks of vegetation hiding at the bottom.
All around me, others were wincing and choking. I begged for the tiniest sip of water to ease the taste.
And then, in the darkness, under the pale light of a full moon, the walking began.
For the first few circuits I felt normal. Apprehensive, yes, but not aware of any changes to my vision, my feelings or my senses. As people began to stick their heads beyond the string of the corral and vomit, I knew the bile was rising in my throat too. But for the longest time I felt in control of myself, and even felt like I could protect my fellow walkers by continuing the process for them while they succumbed to their bodies.
Eventually, though, the San Pedro made itself known – but much more subtly than with ayahuasca.
I began to realise the string encircling us was multi coloured, and shot through with light. It pulsated as I walked, and I felt the energy from each wooden post vibrating against me whenever I passed.
The need to vomit increased; but every time I attempted to give into it, I simply lapsed into a hacking cough, a dry heave, a glob of multicoloured spit that landed in the dirt with a thud. But looking at that earth was fascinating; there were strings connecting the plants, like lines of faint spider web, but denser.
People began to slump down around the fire and on the outskirts of corral, like the bones holding them together had disappeared. Like the earth was calling them down. I kept walking.
I kept walking.
I kept walking.
Eventually, I had no idea where I was. Numerous times I would look to my feet, stepping and scratching and shifting through the stones and bare earth, and I knew I was on the longest challenge of my life. I knew the walking was never going to stop. But I couldn't remember what I was doing it for.
Things became nightmarish. A dog appeared in the corral, nuzzling at the ground, and as Miguel's assistant ushered him under the string I saw the myriad of other creatures beyond our string walls; dark, shadowed, twisting, melting shapes that advanced ever closer to us. But because I could, I kept walking – and having the focus and the rhythm of the walking kept me safe.
More than once I stopped beside the string and felt the energy beyond it, of unknown things that seethed at us. I knew they wanted to be inside, and I knew I was going to do everything in my power not to let them. My focus shifted; I started off by thinking about how I was going to last through the night, but eventually I was only concerned with making sure the others were ok. So every time I needed to stop but I saw someone else resting, I kept on going. I knew it wasn't my turn yet; though there would be time for my rest later, for now I needed to keep them safe.
The vomiting, when it came, was horrendous. My body moved involuntarily through the string barriers and out into the open space beyond, where light, insubstantial mesh made up the air around me. The taste was hot, bitter, sharp, with no time to breathe in between. I found myself crying, stumbling with each heave.
When I felt it was almost over, my feet had led me to the edge of the rocky outcrop that overlooked the valley. In the moonlight, the land was pockmarked with distorted shadows; shapes that moved and breathed. Behind me, the corral was filled with stumbling bodies, and I knew my place was with them.
The hardest part by far was the change in direction. Just before that moment, I had a moment of clarity after what felt like hours of unawareness; sitting around the fire, the light from the flames flickering against each drawn face, as we chanted in unison.
Until, with the most casual attitude, Miguel spoke.
“And now we walk in the other direction!”
The only way I can explain the acute difficulty of such a shift in direction is with pain. The air was thick and heavy – or maybe my body was – and though I knew the ground was flat, I pushed against it with all the struggles of walking up a steep incline.
The trance like state was with me throughout the dance. At times I felt compelled to smile, to laugh, and that felt incredible; at others I was miserable inside myself, fighting with my body to make each next step. But I always took it.
Eventually, there was dancing. The basest kind – a type of step-shuffle that I fell into without even noticing. And sometimes, when I came across other people making the same movements, it felt wonderful; all of us in sync, no resistance in the air around us, exulting in the ability to match our feet and our bodies to the music.
The music was a godsend. Every time I felt I was slipping away, losing touch, the focus of the singing and the instruments, played by Miguel and his assistants in turn, kept me. Whenever I fell downwards, exhausted, to the animal skins around the stone star, that same music and the rhythm of the walkers passing me have me firm instructions; rest, but then get up.
And even though part of me didn't want to, my body mutely understood and obeyed within minutes.
Others weren't so lucky. One of our group sat at the fire with his back arched, head twisting, snarls erupting from his mouth. The possession lasted all night: each time I looked at him, a fresh wave of pain and sorrow would wash over me as I understood what was happening to him.
All the negativity we were ejecting from our lives was running through him, each difficulty and struggle and painful memory using him as a channel to escape. Like a sacrifice. He said afterward that he had felt every single one of us so strongly; that he knew us by our pain.
At times, I felt like the walking was never intended just for that night. It was, in fact, a chance for us to walk away the pains and struggles of countless people. We were spending one night of hardship to help alleviate the pain of so many more, and that was what made it worth it.
The rising of the sun
When I realised the light was starting to get brighter, it was the first moment I truly knew the dance would have an ending. And looking upwards and outwards to the blooming clouds, to the kaleidoscope of colours that filled the sky; it meant more than a sunrise ever has before. It was like I was seeing it for the very first time.
My feet steered me towards the corral's doorway; I stood, gasping, at the edge of the outcrop, tears falling down my cheeks, and shuddered with the enormity of how beautiful the landscape in front of me really was. The hills, the grass, the stones – all of them living, breathing, being.
With my hand in my pocket, my fingers felt two stones I must have picked up during the night. I grasped them both; they were full of energy, full of the same earth I was staring at and standing on.
Even as I breathed and cried and breathed again, I knew I'd never be able to explain how incredible I felt. The experience of being so completely connected and in tune with the world – the sense that everything is perfect, and nothing can harm it, and the feeling of love running through you and everything and everyone – transcends description.
Though I wish I did, I simply don't have the words.
My first sweat lodge, and being born again
Somehow, the walking faded away, and just like that the ceremony was over. After giving it so much importance for so long, the ease with which we stopped going in circles was wonderfully casual. We smiled hugely at each other around the embers of the fire, taking turns to bless the earth with drops of beer from a bottle of Corona. We spoke a few words, breaking the silence, and giggled and blushed with incredulity at the events of such an incredible night.
Bearing animal skins on our shoulders, we followed Miguel up the hill to the skeleton of a sweat lodge, threw the skins across the low dome of the wooden structure, and prepared ourselves for the final part of the Long Dance and the San Pedro experience.
The sweat lodge is an intrinsic part of many ceremonies, used to purify the body and soul, and serves as a representation of birth and being born out of the darkness, warmth, heat, wetness, and the small space in the womb.
When I entered, the lodge was already full. Cramped bodies, reddened cheeks, damp skin; surrounding a small pit filled with heavy stones. After I had kissed the ground and crawled in a clockwise direction to an empty patch of dirt, Miguel's assistant pulled the animal skins down over the doorway, and tucked them tight against the ground.
Darkness. Breathing. A sense that I could feel the echoes, touch the thoughts of the others around me. Miguel poured ladles of water onto the stones, and they spat and hissed in response. The sound of breathing intensified as we adjusted to the rising temperature.
I marvelled at the fact that I didn't really feel overwhelmed by the heat. It was certainly intense, and at times it hurt to breathe such hot air into my lungs; but then I accepted it, and revelled in it, because I knew there was a bigger reason for doing this.
We prayed to Pachamama in succession, thanking her for the opportunities we'd experienced that night. For the rest of the people inside the sweat lodge, this last ceremony was a culmination of a month's work, and their realisations of this fact were palpable.
The faint light around our sweating bodies was orange, red, pink; the stones glowed softly in the central pit. Even though I knew it was designed to feel like a womb, I was still overwhelmed by the truth of it.
When the skins were parted and light flooded in, it was only for a short moment. Just enough time to gather new stones from the heart of the fire outside, and we were plunged back into darkness once again. The process was repeated four times – each time with bigger stones added to the circle, and each time getting hotter. By the last round, my mind was strangely split; one part near-delirious, the other wonderfully calm.
Emerging from the sweat lodge to the beauty of the open air truly felt like being born again. We lay in the dirt, first on our fronts then on our backs, revelling in the solidity of the earth, and finally a bucket of cold stream water was poured over the head of each person.
I thought I'd gasp as the water hit; but in actual fact I kept my eyes closed and merely relished the feeling. It was freezing, and in another setting I would've hated the experience – but here it was perfect. Standing in the morning sunshine in my underwear, surrounded by a group of strangers I knew so well.
At peace, inside and out. Everything was utterly perfect, and exactly as it should have been.
San Pedro, ayahuasca, and now..?
God only knows what the next part of this journey is going to be. When I left England all those months ago, I never would have envisaged my mind, my awareness and my heart being opened to the level that they have.
I remain sure that the coincidental meeting at Lake Titicaca was meant to happen. Orchestrated by who, or what, however, I can't honestly say.
I get the feeling, though, that ayahuasca, San Pedro and the whole host of these plant medicines continue working within you long after the final traces of the drink itself has left your system – and they have the capacity to teach you things you've never even dreamed of.
It just depends on how willing you are to listen.