Two years ago I had the great honor and pleasure of visiting one of the lesser known archeological sites of Peru. Having just spent nearly 5 weeks in the Sacred Valley, my partner and I were discussing where to visit next. As anybody who spent time in the Sacred Valley knows, the decision of where to go next is not an easy one as this beautiful region is quite difficult to top. Fortunately for us, Peru is full of historical treasures and if we could simply choose a direction to go then we would probably not be disappointed. We had recently attended multiple Huachuma (San Pedro cactus) ceremonies in Pisac and prior to that I had attended multiple Ayahuasca ceremonies in Iquitos, which got me thinking. Many people fly to the Amazon to drink Ayahuasca in her native environment, yet you rarely hear the same for Huachuma. Ayahuasca basks in the spotlight while lesser known, but equally powerful Huachuma sits quietly in her shadow. If people are flying into Iquitos to drink Ayahuasca then where would we go to imbibe the sacrament of Huachuma? As Pisac sits high in the Andes where the cactus grows, you might answer that we already found the place, and you would be correct, but we still wanted to explore this idea a step further. I recalled a Joe Rogan podcast when Aubrey Marcus discusses his experience at the SpiritQuest Sanctuary, where founder Don Howard explained the history of Chavin. According to Howard the Chavin people existed 3000 years ago and their culture was thought to revolve around the Huachuma sacrament. Furthermore, Howard said this society lived in peace for more than one thousand years, an amazing claim given the violent history of humans. I found this idea very intriguing and knew that listening to a podcast would not be enough, we would need to see this with our eyes, and hopefully feel it with our hearts. The decision was made and we planned to leave the Sacred Valley and begin this next adventure from Lima.
“Let’s hit the road and throw out the map. Wherever we go, we won’t look back. Cause we’re going places and we’re going there fast… Think how many doors we’ll open. Just as many stars are shining. Who knows where we’re going. Yeah who knows what we’ll find”
-Lyrics from A World With You, performed by Jason Mraz
From Lima we arranged for an overnight bus ride to Huaraz, which sits high in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range of the Peruvian Andes. The Cordilleras boasts the highest peaks in Peru, some over 6000 meters tall, and are the most extensive ice covered tropical mountain range in the world. The night we departed I could feel the bus wind up the mountains through a series of switchbacks as I rested in a nearly fully reclined position. We awoke to a new region of Peru called Ancash where Huaraz sits as the capital. Since we are not typical in and out, rush rush travelers, we decided to spend a week exploring Huaraz before completing the final stretch of our pilgrimage. Huaraz serves as a base camp for outdoor adventurers and mountaineers wanting to explore the Cordilleras. While we enjoyed our time in Huaraz there was nothing particularly worth mentioning there. The excitement was building as we reached the end of the week and boarded the bus for Chavin. Around the halfway point of the journey I noticed the road switch from pavement to gravel and realized this must not be a heavily traveled route. Contrast this gravel road with the route to Macchu Picchu which has a nice train dedicated to ushering tourists in and out of that popular destination. Around 3 hours later we arrived at Chavin and immediately noticed how small the town is. Chavin is certainly not a busy tourist destination, which by my standards was a very good sign. Despite being relatively unknown the ruins at Chavin are a national monument and it amazes me that more people don’t know about them, though I suppose the average tourist isn’t looking for ancient sites dedicated to sacred plant medicines like we were.
The town of Chavin
After checking in to a nice little hotel, which was empty except for us, we decided to get oriented in our new town. There were some restaurants to choose from, a farmer’s market, a town square, some small stores for supplies, but other than that it was a place for the locals to live more than a place for the tourists to be served. In stark contrast to Pisac, there were no businesses catering to people following the medicine path, no dreadlocked yogis walking around town, just the two of us. The only people resembling travelers seemed to bus in early and bus out late without spending the night. I should mention there is an excellent museum that displays many of the artifacts found at the ruins, but that would have to wait until after we visited the temple. I’m not sure if it was just our current emotional and mental state, but we both noticed a seriousness in this sleepy little town that was unexpected for being the home base of what is sometimes called a heart opening medicine. Regardless, with the first day coming to an end we would need to get some sleep, so we went to bed dreaming of the temple we had patiently waited to see the past few weeks.
I awoke the next morning excited to finally visit the temple and slightly nervous as I always am on ceremony day. I think it’s completely normal to feel a little nervous before consuming a powerful plant medicine and knew not to worry. We decided to begin our ceremony in the hotel room by drinking the fresh Huachuma juice that we had purchased from a dear friend in Pisac and carried in a plastic bottle all the way to Chavin. As an American it still amazes me that I packed a liter of a potent psychedelic substance into my luggage and flew from Cusco to Lima, even though I know it is no problem in Peru where traditional plant medicines are protected by the law. It would have obviously been ideal to drink the sacrament at the temple, but despite the liberal policies of Peru we simply didn’t know how the guards at this national monument would react to this. We decided to play it safe and drink our cactus brew in the hotel room. After bravely swallowing a potent yet still functional dose we walked down the street, bought our tickets, and entered the gates.
The Temple of Chavin
Before walking down the path to the temple we decided to stop one last time at the restrooms and were surprised to find Huachuma planted next to the building. We weren’t sure whether it was an insult or an honor to find this sacred cactus planted near the toilets, but either way we were pleased to see that it was allowed to grow at the monument. Next we followed the path to the river that flows adjacent to the site and saw a few giant clusters of Huachuma cactus growing across the river. They appeared to be growing on private property, so if you plan on visiting please be respectful and ask first before you start swinging your machete. Hopefully the locals will do a better job of sustainably growing and harvesting this sacred plant than a flood of tourists looking for free medicine. We continued down the path from the river and rounded a bend to see a view of the temple for our first time. Because the ruins are surrounded by a high fence and much of the view is blocked by large mounds of earth, it was quite dramatic to finally see the temple, and it truly felt like we were entering a sacred site. We walked around the plaza, viewed all the structures, read the informational signs, and felt extremely grateful to be there. Next we would enter the temple and go underground.
Everything had been going better than imagined and we had not even been to the best part yet, much of the temple consists of tunnels beneath the earth. As we descended those stairs I couldn’t resist thinking about one of my favorite movies as a boy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There I was, the star of my own movie, Minnesota Johnson and the Temple of Chavin. As we walked through these 3000 year old tunnels we noticed thick wooden beams that were installed by UNESCO and used to support the ceiling and hopefully protect us from thousands of pounds of stone and earth overhead. Eventually we arrived at the gallery of the Lanzon, which is where a very tall piece of white granite is carved in the image of the primary diety of the Chavin people. There we were, under the influence of Huachuma, in the heart of the alpine ecosystem where the Huachuma thrives, at the temple where Huachuma ceremonies were thought to occur, standing face to face with the God of Huachuma. I love to stack epic experiences on top of epic experiences, but to call this “stacking” would be an understatement! One can only imagine what occurred in this space thousands of years ago. We were probably witnessing a chamber reserved only for the priests of the Chavin society, and for this I felt humbled to be there. In that moment, with mescaline flowing through my body, staring face to face with the Chavin God of Huachuma… well, let’s just say I wanted to stay there as long as possible. Despite the sharp fangs, large claws and snakes for hair, there is also the resemblance of a smile, which felt surprisingly comfortable to be near. We were reluctant to leave, but eventually the guards politely escorted us away to make room for the next visitors to squeeze through that crowded tunnel. I doubt it was their first time dealing with travelers sky high on the medicine.
As I mentioned earlier most people seem to only make day trips to Chavin, but after our first visit to the temple we discovered that if we stayed for a couple more days we would have an opportunity to see the temple illuminated at night, which only happens once per month, and for this we decided to extend our visit. As we waited for sunset we visited the Chavin Museum and witnessed the amazing artifacts that were found at the site. There were many large stone carvings of heads, most of which had a half man and half animal appearance. They seemed very alien to me, and again there was a noticeable heavy and serious energy present. The feeling in the museum was partly the result of the grotesque and pained expressions on many of the heads. It made me wonder what the purpose was, and where inspiration for these carvings came from. A few hours later we walked to the monument for a second visit. The temple was mysterious at night, somehow both intimidating and enchanting at the same time. We came across an Andean ceremony in the middle of the plaza and received a blessing from the leader of the group. Eventually we found ourselves underground once again, face to face with the Chavin God of Huachuma. Same as before, we stayed too long offering our prayers and absorbing the energy of the giant statue, so the guards had to escort us away to make room for other visitors. After saying goodbye to the Lanzon we climbed up above ground and sat on a bench enjoying the peaceful night. I wondered how many more tunnels there were leading to amazing galleries that haven’t been discovered yet. The Chavin ruins have already been buried by at least one landslide early in the last century and I wouldn’t be surprised if this were only the tip of the iceberg, but more funding would be needed to make further discoveries. Regardless, we were grateful for what we did see, and satisfied to complete the pilgrimage. After spending nearly a week in this place where most travelers spend only half a day, it was time to move on down the medicine path once again.