I remember reading a Lonely Planet blurb about shamans in the Peruvian forest, and needless to say, it peaked my curiosity. A little over a month into my extended backpacking trip around Latin America, I was slowly meandering into Northern Peru, toward the misty mountain town of Huancabamba. It is said that Peruvians come from all over the country to pay the shamans a visit and to bathe in the huaringas – the lagoons.
Huancabamba is the slow-paced town you imagine, where locals sit on storefront steps in the Plaza, farm animals roam with the illusion of freedom, and people take midday naps, drunkenly sprawled out on grassy patches.
After finding a hotel on the edge of the Plaza, my focus shifted to Shopping for my Peruvian Shaman. Seeing as I arrived in Huancabamba during the Semana Santa holiday, combined with the limited tourism infrastructure, I knew that finding a shaman would be a bit more challenging. Still, I’d heard that the best way to find one was by asking locals for recommendations.
My search began at the bus terminal, and before I knew it, a driver was trying to rush me to get into his truck so he could drive me to a shaman’s house. Ahhh, the magical powers of commission! After grilling the driver with questions and a mental game of ping pong, I hopped in his truck and ten minutes later we arrived at the house of shaman Jorge. We walked into a room with cement walls, a dirt floor, and a conglomeration of assorted shells, swords, and bottles of cheap perfume arranged in the centre. Jorge strode in, donning a plain brown poncho and a cowboy hat on his jolly head. He was noticeably taken aback when I started asking him questions about his training and experience, his medical knowledge, and details of the ceremony. It seems he was just expecting me to hand over my Peruvian soles freely. Jorge was too pushy and wanted to charge me three times the going rate, plus the driver was hitting on me, so I made my exit as quickly as I could. When I later shared my experience with the locals, they said Jorge was a drunk and had only five years of experience – not the 22 he claimed to have had.
In and around the plaza, I explored, snacked, and chatted with the people of Huancabamba. Locals swear by their own specific shaman, and I became increasingly unsure of whom to pick. Over the next several days I met three other shamans. Some had a fixed price, while others said I could pay whatever I wanted.
Around the same time I landed on my choice, José, I also realized that I needed to withdraw cash as I running low. The problem is, Huancabamba only has two ATMs, only one of which accepts international cards, and it just so happened to be out of service. I was under a time crunch, so I made the snap decision to catch a 6-hour bus to Piura – just to use its ATM. It’s the type of hassle nobody hopes for, though as a result I was privy to a stunning sunset with bright yellows and purples floating above a sea of clouds.
It was close to midnight when I arrived in Piura, so I went to find a hotel straight away. With poor air circulation, and the loud TV in the lobby, I struggled to sleep before my 6am alarm. After the relief of getting cash out of an ATM, I took the 6-hour bus ride back to Huancabamba.
The rest of my stay was spent at José’s house. I was in the basement, which had 6 beds and a TV. José’s wife and four kids were upstairs, and turkeys, ducks, chickens, parrots, dogs, and a cat mingled in the backyard outside my door.
At 6am, José, our driver, and I drove for two hours to Laguna Negra – one of the most popular huaringas. Along the way, José spotted an owl perched in the trees. We arrived at a small community and a dozen guides with their horses and donkeys surrounded and chased our car as we inched closer toward the base of the trail. Since the lagoon is only accessible by way of a steep, narrow trail of mud and rock, we rented horses to take us through the drizzling rain and bone-shaking winds, up into the mountains. Roughly half an hour later, at an elevation of 3500m, I was shaking under my poncho as I looked at the choppy surface of the dark water. To my right, a small group of people were near naked in the lagoon as their shaman delved deeper into his ceremonial trance. I wasn’t even in the water, but I’d already lost feeling in my toes.
The pre-bathing ceremony involved me standing at the edge of the lagoon, José chanting fiercely while dipping swords into the water, blowing on a whistle-like instrument, eating half an orange, and pouring perfume into his mouth, only to spit it out, spraying it like a liquid fan all over me. He poured a concoction of tobacco and aguardiente into a shell and proceeded to drink-slurp the liquid up his nose.
Then came the part where I stripped down to my undies in front of three Peruvian men, high in the mountains, and I climbed into the piercingly cold chill of the lagoon. I was instructed to completely immerse my body in the water during this part of the ceremony. When I got out I was not allowed to pat dry my hair with a towel – I had to control my shaking limbs and change into dry clothes in front of the three Peruvian men, get under my poncho, and back onto my horse for the trip back to Huancabamba.
Back at José’s house, I tried to take a nap, but I ended up playing with his two young daughters instead. At 9pm we began the night ceremony, and our driver, his wife, and his two children joined. The ceremony lasted until 5am and staying awake required a constant effort.
Shamans generally hold ceremonies at night, and this one was conducted in a special room at José’s house. The components were similar as to what happened at the lagoon, however this time we drank the bitter juice of the San Pedro Cactus and sat in meditative silence in darkness for an hour. Actually, the entire ceremony was held in the dark. I’ll never forget sitting in that pitch-black room and hearing three noses drink-slurp tobacco and aguardiente. I opted out of this part, though at a later time with a different shaman I did try it and I can attest to the stinging sensation.
Other parts of the ceremony involved José chanting while using four different swords to outline the silhouettes of our bodies. In this one-on-one session he would ask us questions, present his insight, and give advice with his words, facial expression, and moments of silence.
Each time my shaman spit perfume on me – and there was an abundance of spit – I’d hear a big whooshing sound as the scented liquid stickiness slowly soaked my fleece hoodie. He spit perfume into my hair and into each palm and told me to rub it in.
At one point, there was a group talk where José discussed deeply personal aspects and problems in our lives. His shamanistic advice followed, and it ranged from specific herb recommendations, to surgery to prevent pregnancy, to the importance of holding steady employment.
It is interesting to bring up the topic of shamanism, as plenty of naysayers are quick to dismiss it without making an effort to find out more first. The people I met told me that the lagoons are believed to have healing properties, and that success stories from afflicted people are why people keep coming back. Shamans told me that the ceremonies are a limpieza and a florecimiento – a cleaning and a flowering, respectively. Having spent time in Huancabamba, it was fascinating to see how shamans and communities interact and depend on each other and confront obstacles. While some search for solutions and seek solace in religion, a therapist, a getaway, or a friend, others turn to their local shaman of choice. Sometimes being in a foreign land shows you just how universal the human experience – with desires, needs, and fears – truly is. My first ‘shaman experience’ is memorable to me for many reasons, but I think the most important thing I took away from it is the confirmation that there is always value in being open to completely new experiences – no matter how wacky they may appear. Getting outside your bubble and giving yourself the opportunity to explore – without that bucket of preconceptions and judgement – why wouldn’t you?