Central America (Panama) - 

The Shamans of Central America Hold Answers to Spiritual Enlightenment

by Karla Fetrow & Josh Linnes - 25 may 2013
The explosive of the sixties was ignited by the discoveries of lysergic acid’s mind altering performances. Timothy Leary, Carlos Castenada were the hip trend. The spiritual enlightenment took global wanderers into the mountains of Tibet and into the tropical rain forests of Central America.

Photo ©Josh Linnes for Micmag

What is Shamanic Tourism?

When the decade of the 1950's sighed to a close, blissfully healing from the wounds of a second world war, the house in the suburbs and two-car garage were no longer enough for the American dream. The explosive era of the sixties was ignited by the discoveries of lysergic acid’s mind altering performances. Timothy Leary, the Koolaid Gang and Carlos Castenada were the hip trend.

It was no longer about material assets but spiritualism. The quest for spiritual enlightenment took global wanderers into the mountains of Tibet, among the Bwiti tribes of Africa and into the tropical rain forests of Central America.

Huatla and the Psychedelic Journey

As LSD turned into an underground scene, psilocybin mushrooms became an above-ground quest. Toted as the strongest hallucinogenic mushroom in the world, journeying to Huatla, Mexico became a necessary part of the spiritual agenda.

Traveling there wasn’t easy. Huatla is a small village in Oaxaca, high in the rain forest mountains. It meant driving or taking a bus on one of the most hazardous gravel roads imaginable. Around each curve was a small crucifix and bouquet of flowers to commemorate those who didn’t make it.

While the town is rich in indigenous culture, including beautiful handcrafts such as richly embroidered clothing and woven blankets, travelers came for one reason only; to try the mushrooms.

Today, there is a paved road leading into Huatla, but the inhabitants still cling to the mushroom culture. Their list of spiritual seekers include Bob Dylan, the Doors, Peter Townsend, John Lennon and Mick Jagger.

Defining Shamanism

The word, "shaman" is not a part of any North American or South American indigenous language. It is used universally to encompass a wide variety of ritualistic practices designed to promote spiritual and physical healing. Shamans may be found wherever there are indigenous tribes; Northern Asia, Africa, Russia, Australia and the Americas.

In the Latin American countries, the healer is a curandero. In Huatla, a healing session can be seven hours long, with the patient taking small bites of mushrooms at a time until the visions, and consequent spiritual awareness come. The Huichoi use dried peyote for their spirit quests. Among the Amazon rain forest people, a mixture, called ayahuasca, is imbibed.

Some Things Don’t Change

It seems that the desire to discover the spiritual self is as natural a drive in humankind as to invent, create and make music. It could be argued that they’re tied together. Although increasingly more restrictive laws, along with a clever policy of politically correct instructions lending an aura of reasonable governance that siphon the ability for independent evaluation, nibbled away at the psychedelic phenomena, the interest in drug induced spirituality did not die.

It simply sifted. The new neo-shamanism concerns itself with the cleansing of psychological disorders and addictions. Adherents claim their experiences, under the guidance of a shaman, have cured them of alcohol abuse, depression and dependencies on pharmaceutical drugs. They credit the affects of ayahuasca.

Legalized by Brazil in the 1980's as a spiritual sacrament, ayahuasca’s popularity began to quickly spread, establishing itself in Europe by the 1990's. The legal status of ayahuasca is still under debate in many countries as the plants used for acquiring the psychoactive substances are not under International control.

In Latin America, centers for shaman guided ayahuaska ceremonies are popping up like mushrooms. Although Peru seems to dominate the field, ayahuaska centers can also be found in Brazil, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

Finding Your Shaman

Tourism shamanism in general, can be found through-out Latin America, and specifically in Ecuador. Of the 120 identified psychoactive drugs known world-wide, one hundred of them were found in the Americas. If this fact wasn’t peculiar enough, there is another oddity that arises in perception. Through most of Western development, pharmaceutically active plants were studied for their medicinal properties, keeping in mind that the difference between medicine and poison was often a matter of dosage. Among traditional Native American society, these plants are a vital part of their religious/spiritual enlightenment.

Even in the busiest and most modern cities of Latin America, you can find the avenue of "witches"; stalls catering to the broken-hearted, the unlucky at finances, the truth seeker and the ailing. Wherever you’ll find a traditional society, you’ll find a curandero.

Self-Appointed Shamans

In traditional society, the curandero is often the acknowledged healer through blood line. The shaman is taught the disciplines from early child-hood, and develops a keen knowledge of medicinal herbs and psychoactive plants. With the phenomena of tourist interest in shamanism, an entire industry of self-taught shamans have flooded the tourism centers with media attention. Their credentials are often founded on experience with the use of ayahuaska, and very little else.

For the curanderos that follow the old ways, this is somewhat problematic. For them, it appears that shamanism has taken on a market value, undermining the qualities of true spiritualism. While they feel that for the most part, self-made shamans are beneficial to society as many of them help in over-coming addictions, and keep shamanism a living part of modern culture, they also feel many that have capitalized on tourism and the media are fake.

Ancient Custom

Ayahuasca is created by boiling two plants together; the ayahuasca vine and the DMT bearing shrub, chacruna. Neither of these agents have addictive qualities, and neither will work by itself, but combined, they create the powerful, hallucinogenic ayahuaska tea.

How early Native Americans discovered this combination remains a mystery. Evidence, through the discovery of ritualistic stones in Panama, support the theory that shamanism was practiced as early as five thousand years ago. According to the tribes that practice ayahuasca rituals, the secret to their tea was revealed to them by the plant, itself, in those far-away, pre-historic times.

The Ayahuasca Scandal

In 2011, a shamanistic temple made headlines when a young American died during an ayahuasca session. Although the direct cause of his death has yet to be ascertained, his father suspects that another powerful agent, called toe, was mixed with the brew. Toe is a potentially dangerous drug, used sometimes by skilled shamans, but only after years of studying and understanding its properties.

Although deaths from ayahuasca are rare, they can occur. The particularly vulnerable are those who suffer from high blood pressure, a heart condition or who are taking anti-depressants at the same time they are experimenting with ayahuasca.

More common are the stories of women who claim to have been sexually assaulted while under the influences of ayahuasca. Their predators are quite often the false shaman who had promised to guide them.

Despite the negative publicity, it hasn’t detoured shamanism tourism any more than incidents of acid tripping superman believers jumping from high towers stopped early exploration with LSD. For those who take the journey into the jungles and rain forests, with startling reminders of a civilization so old, it rivals the history of Egypt, something is lacking. Something has disconnected them from who they were supposed to be and estranged them from the society they represent.

They want something more. They want to know what it’s like to embrace life to its fullest, to find meaning in the smallest things. For them, shamanism represents recreating a natural bond with earth and surrendering to its healing properties. Something has been lost in the world of marvelous technology, able to split the atom and view far away galaxies. But maybe, something has been gained by a renewed interest in spirituality and the practice of shamanism.

Editor's Note: Today's post was co-authored by Karla Fetrow & Josh Linnes. Josh is an american expat living in Latin America. He writes about Ecuador for Viva Tropical and is the founder of property investment company Emerging Terrains. You can reach him on Google+.

Also on  : http://vivatropical.com

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