The highlight of a tour of Peru a decade or so ago was a three-day trip to Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most legendary ruined cities and the supposed summer retreat of the Incas.
The lost city was officially rediscovered in 1911 by the archaeologist Hiram Bingham, who was the inspiration for George Lucas’s figure Indiana Jones.
By great good fortune the former head archaeologist of Machu Picchu, Ruben Orellana, was willing to accompany me and my two companions Heike and Günther. A train brought us from Cusco to kilometre 88, where began our mystical journey on the Inca trail – a network of paths across the Andes laid down centuries ago by the Incas to connect their towns and villages.
And so we hiked along these ancient paths, feeling almost like pilgrims on the Camino Di Santiago.
Our goal, however, was no cathedral, but one of the most important and beautiful ruined cities of all, magically situated on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley, some 75km from Cusco, the former capital of the Inca empire.
During his years as a field researcher in the jungles surrounding Machu Picchu, Ruben uncovered dozens more ruined cities.
He was therefore not only an exceptionally gifted explorer, but also skilled in botany, zoology, and other branches of science, to which our numerous questions related. New species of plants and animals continually cropped up about which he always had something to say.
It was our intention to reach the Gateway of the Sun, where devout pilgrims catch their first glimpse of this divine city, by the early morning of the third day. To this end, we spent the night before in a simple hostel, an hour or so’s walk from the gate. At dinner we found ourselves in a discussion about Shamanism, during which Ruben revealed
that as well as being an archaeologist he was also a shaman. Totally thrilled by this revelation, we asked him if it might be possible to conduct a shamanistic ritual in the ruined city the following day.
Sure enough, our guide had anticipated our wishes and had brought the necessary utensils for such a ritual. We were delighted and could hardly wait for the next day.
Sunrise at the Gateway of the Sun overlooking Machu Picchu. This experience branded itself onto my memory. I had seen this city so often on photos, but to behold it at this hour for the first time with my own eyes was simply indescribable.
In the following hours until early afternoon we looked around the city without our guide, who was preparing himself for the upcoming ritual. As the tourist buses only ran until three, we found ourselves all alone, save for a few alpacas, and had Machu Picchu all to ourselves.
Suddenly Ruben appeared out of nowhere and led us into one of the many houses without roofs, and invited us to make ourselves as comfortable as possible on the floor. He removed a bottle containing a viscous concoction from his rucksack, from which each of us was required to drink a small beakerful. He explained to us that this disgusting, bilious green juice was extracted from the San Pedro Cactus, and that the effect of the hallucinogen mescaline contained in the drink was supposed to open our ostensibly fully stunted senses. Next, he took a rattle out of his bag, asked us to close our eyes, then began to shake it in a fast and rhythmic pulse. Simultaneously he sang a strange chant in Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas.
In the moments that followed, I became acutely aware of the curious situation I found myself in, without in any way having planned it. I really had to keep a hold of myself to stop bursting out laughing. It was somehow bizarre, I felt as if I was in a film. It also now dawned on me what a stroke of luck it was to have met Ruben and my two friends in the first place. A ritual of this kind, in this city – fantastic! My excitement gave way to a pleasant feeling of calm, which suffused me more and more, and I allowed myself to drift amongst the strange sounds. After a while they became quieter and eventually died out. He told us to open our eyes, we gathered our things together and left the ruins.
The next stop was a place inside the city, where he showed us how the neatly hewn stone blocks, some weighing several tonnes, had been moved. Underneath one of the stone giants the wooden rollers could still be seen. We walked on, and came to an even bigger rock. Ruben asked us to place the palms of our hands along its flanks without actually touching it, and to sense the subtle energy known in far-eastern cultures as Chi. My considerable scepticism at that time regarding such phenomena made it difficult at first for me to feel anything. As an inveterate natural scientist, Günther had quite a different problem – he couldn’t take the whole thing seriously at all. And yet even he was gripped by a curious fascination and didn’t let go.
Heike was clearly the most advanced of the three of us. It all seemed a little easier for her. But after a certain amount of practice we were at once all convinced that we could feel a little of what this stone was supposed to exude. We were thrilled, but at the same time unsettled. Our Shaman was revealing a whole new world to us, which we had previously only known from hearsay.
Ruben then led us to Machu Picchu’s central square, where we settled next to a wall to do further exercises to train this sixth sense. Although it must have been two hours since we swallowed the magic potion, up until this point I didn’t appear to feel the effect I had long been expecting. However, Ruben made a random funny comment which triggered a painful attack of the giggles in us all which lasted for several minutes. Somehow we were a bit “drugged up”, but in a very pleasant way.
As we continued, to my surprise, I did suddenly start to feel sick, and I mentioned this to Ruben. Out of his rucksack he fished an “Agua Florida”, a herbal schnapps, knelt down in front of me, took a hefty swig from the bottle, and without hesitation lifted my T-shirt and spewed it all over my belly. I was bewildered. “What was this guy playing at? The audacity…” He interrupted my rising anger and asked me if I still felt sick. I struggled to find the feeling again, but it had given way to a soothing warmth, which spread throughout my entire abdomen.
Darkness began to fall, and in the following minutes we experienced the most spectacular sunset of all time – or at least that’s how it seemed to me.
It was not as if we were hallucinating – Ruben had explained it at the outset – simply the longer we experienced something, the more intense it became: colours, noises and sounds. As a rule I had almost always been concerned with thinking and judging, and found myself mostly somewhere in the past or future. Now I realised that a force was bringing me inexorably into the present, the here and now. We walked on, climbed a small hill and happened upon the altar stone, which had been damaged in one corner a few weeks earlier by falling scaffolding during a filmshoot.
Night began to fall fast and we took our places on a large slab of rock. Ruben invited us to choose a star in the firmament and to make it our own, to take it into our hearts. From now on, this would be our lucky star, he told us. Anyhow, everything became more and more magical.
After a long meditation we continued further, and reached after a few minutes a small cave, closed to tourists, the place where supposedly all children are born. We sat down, and with the help of his torch, Ruben illuminated before our eyes a transparent stone in the shape of an egg. We were to imagine that a luminary in exactly this form was enveloping our alluvial bodies. He explained to us that the more we visualised this picture, the more we would be protected from negative energy. By this point we were really in the realms of “The Celestine Prophecy”, the well-known esoteric adventure novel written some years earlier by James Redfield, the ending of which, as it happens, is set around Machu Picchu. I was quite simply overwhelmed – what an adventure!
We left the city and crossed a square, in the middle of which we were faced with a monster: a spider the size of my hand with infinitely long legs. Ruben knelt down, laid his hand next to it and began to mumble. “She is my friend” he then informed us. We were speechless.
Ruben pressed us to move on. He headed for a hotel right next to the square. Once inside, he marched into the bar and we trotted along behind him. My eyes were drawn first of all to some Peruvian musicians – three pale, puppet-like figures playing away for themselves. I turned to the barkeeper, who had struck up conversation with Ruben, and who exuded happiness and vitality. Out of the corner of my eye I then spotted three women, who appeared more like three grey dolls, grinning at me with glazed eyes. Now I really was in over my head – was I dreaming? It seemed as if I could actually see through all these people. I asked Heike and Günther if they also had this impression, and to my surprise, they were both experiencing more or less the same.
Ruben, to whom we also described our experience, explained to us that those three women were apparently seriously ill, one even in the final stages of cancer. Even Günther, the tough management consultant who had previously cracked jokes about everything, was numbed by the strange developments of that evening, one which had completely changed my own perspective on life.
Somehow shaken up, we made our way into the valley towards Aguas Calientes and I went through again in my head the events of the past hours. Only now did it become clear to me what I had experienced before in the ruined city – it was life itself. Later in that hotel, it was death into whose eyes I had briefly looked. In order to really seal the initiation process, the gods had evidently intervened, and had further illustrated to us through these stark contrasts, the extraordinary moments of happiness which had been granted to us in this legendary city.
And what can we learn from this story? “Keep off the drugs, guys! ;-)))!”