A Spiritual Tourist in Peru

More travelers seeking a vacation that gives them a spiritual boost are making pilgrimages to holy Incan sites and spending time with shamans in the magical mountains of Peru.

In the past two years spiritual tourism has boomed in the South American country, according to guides and tour operators in the region outside of the World Heritage site, Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incans.

Guides are seeing increased pilgrimages to Incan holy sites and interest in the Incan end of times myths, growing in conjunction with curiosity about the Mayan calendar marking the end of the world in the year 2012.  Unlike Mayan myths, Incan myths don't predict a moment in time when the world will end, but rather believe that the glaciers atop the Andes will melt and the Incan kings will return to save the world.

“According to our elders and some shamans from the mountain, when the glaciers will melt down then our Inca King will get back to the power and walk and live everyone as in the past, and heal mother Earth, cleanse Mother Earth and help us find harmony in the natural world,” explained Contiki Tours guide Gaby Puma, who herself hails from a small village high in the Andes mountains.

In addition to the visitors may be lured by a desire to fill a personal spiritual bankruptcy, says Mandy Kalitis, a tour guide with Etnikas which operates a Shamanic healing center in Cusco City, Peru.  “People are trying to find some way to connect with something real again, so we are seeing more and more people coming to Peru for a spiritual awakening,” she said.

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So how do you achieve that spiritual awakening?

The basis of traditional healing in Peru is similar to psychotherapy -- looking beyond the ego to see personal flaws and showing people a path to changing their perspective on their lives. This is coupled with lots of chantings, coca leaf chewing and the occasional imbibing of a hallucinogenic substance.  Some of the services provided tend to be more of the hippy variety -- including oracle readings with coca leaves, cleansing and flourishing ceremonies, offerings and blessings to mother earth, crystal cleansings and music therapy with Andean melodies.

You would think it would only attract a certain type of adventure traveler--but spiritual tourism is now attracting an older, more conservative group of travelers than in years past.

American visitors are asking Puma to take them to spiritual pilgrimages around Cusco, referred to by the natives as the belly button of the universe, and El Valle Sagrado, or the Sacred Valley. These sites include the Incan Pisac ruins, where the visitor enters the walled Incan city through a narrow slit in the rock wall, meant to symbolize the birth canal of the Earth.

“It is to symbolize a cleansing and rebirth when you walk through,” Puma explained. On the opposite side of the passageway is the old Intihuatana, or Temple of the Sun.

Also getting a lot of foot traffic are the ruins at Ollantaytambo, which includes a terraced temple sector with another Sun temple, and is a traditional starting off point for the three or four day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu.

But it's not just the sights.  There is also the rush to enjoy interactive spiritual tourism, whereby local shamans are employed to help cleanse the evils of the modern world from a visitor’s soul.

On a recent trip to Peru I experienced my own Andean cleansing and Earth Mother (also known as Pachamama) blessing on a recent Contiki tour of South America that stopped through the Sacred Valley.

The ritual employed three shamans, Karos, Claudio and Manano.  When it was my turn I was nervous to approach Claudio. He spoke no English, I spoke no Quechua (the traditional Incan language) so we were relegated to hand gestures and grunts. He indicated I should kneel. He first cleansed my head with a generous splash of Florida water--a type of cologne that blends an array of floral essential oils. It was chilly. He then began to wipe his hands up and down my body, like a frantic TSA employee at an airport security checkpoint.

He went into a trance-like state as he chanted and violently wiped the negative energy from my knees to my calves. He placed two sacred stones, or cuyas, from Machu Picchu in my hands. He indicated that I should bow my head and he placed his mouth over the crown of my head, right above my widows peak and blew, the way a mother will blow on a child’s hands to warm them up, sending a tingly heat through face.

He then put three perfect coca leaves in my hand and indicated that I should put them in the side of my mouth and let them marinate in my saliva. I did, and stood there dumbly before he ushered me back to the fire where I would be able to stay warm.

The whole ceremony was simple, and I walked away feeling not terribly healed or cleansed.

But there are other shamanic rituals that can be much more intense, including the ingestion of Ayahuasca, the spirit vine a hallucinogenic plant-based potion that facilitates mystical visions in order to bring about mental clarity.

As I was leaving for Peru a close friend said to me, “Don’t drink anything the shamans give you.” He had imbibed a mixture of Ayahuasca months earlier and apparently, “still wasn’t right.”

I asked Angel Herrera, Etnikas’ general manager, about choosing the right Shaman who knows his way around these seemingly dangerous substances. His recommendation to travelers is to be wary of people who talk too much about their spirituality and how they can help you.

“We work with many traditional healers from the Andes and the Amazon and unless asked none of them openly talk about what they do.  When asked they will answer questions and be helpful ,but it is not something that they advertise,” Herrera said.

He added to be careful of centers that charge much less than others.  If a center is charging much less, their shaman are likely not being paid well and therefore they will likely not be working with very skilled healers.

“If you are dealing directly with a local healer this is different, as they will set their own pricing and do not have any other overhead. But as mentioned before they often do not advertise what they are, and so as a Westerner it can be difficult to connect with authentic healers on your own,” Herrera said.

Lastly, people should always be aware of the ratio of participants in a ceremony to the number of people leading it.  As with anything else, no matter how good a master shaman may be they will only be able to work effectively with a certain number of people.

Kalitis added that the boom in spiritual tourism is something of a double edged sword.

“It has given rise to charlatans. People need to be incredibly careful who they work with, particularly the Shamans who work with the sacred plants and the mind shifting experiences,” Kalitis said. “Ask for recommendations, ask around and just be careful.”