How to access the Peruvian Amazon?
The Amazon Rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in the world. It extends over the territory of nine countries – the majority of it, 60%, lies in Brazil, followed by Peru, Colombia, and minor areas in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
Peruvian Amazonia (that forms 13 % of the entire Amazon Rainforest), occupies 60 % of Peru, a territory larger than France, Switzerland and the Netherlands together, or Texas.
There are two main gateways to visit the Peruvian Amazon – Iquitos, a port on the Amazon River in the north of the country, and Puerto Maldonado, a port on the Madre de Dios River in the south.
Iquitos is the largest city in the world that cannot be accessed by road.
Travel is only possible by river (on cargo ships for the hardcore traveler) or air (flights from Lima take about 1 hour 45 minutes).
The local Amazon wildlife and national parks can be explored from a number of jungle lodges or by river cruises. On the rise in recent years is also ayahuasca tourism.
Most of the city’s archi-tecturally significant buildings (mainly European-style mansions) date back to the rubber boom of the 1880’s. There is a massive, open-air street market of Belén in the river port where people live in stilt houses.
Local transportation is provided by motocarros (tuk tuks), modified motorcycles on three wheels with a cabin, and peque peque boats, public motorized boats.
Puerto Maldonado is a small border town near the Bolivian and Brazilian borders, and a gateway to the southern Amazon Basin.
It was named after a Spanish adventurer who died in the rapids of the river he was exploring.
Travel here is possible by air (flights from Cusco take less than an hour, flights from Lima take 1.5 hour), or by road from Cusco (10 hours by bus).
Puerto Maldonado gives access to the Tambopata National Reserve and Manu National Park.
Covering almost two million hectares, Manu National Park is the largest and most pristine jungle area in Peru. It is believed to have the highest level of biodiversity in the world – the park contains over 15,000 species of plants, 1000 species of birds, 1300 species of butterflies and 400 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, including giant otters, capybaras, peccaries, tapirs, jaguars, caiman and 13 different species of monkeys.
Manu is split into three main zones: the Manu National Park (or the Restricted Zone), the Manu Reserved Zone and the Manu Cultural Zone.
The Restricted Zone is an area of pristine forest, home to a number of uncontacted tribes. It is not open to tourism.
The Reserved Zone is an area set aside for scientific research and ecotourism. To access it, the most common route involves 6-8 hours of travel by land from Cusco descending into the Amazon Basin, and then an additional day of travel by land and river.
The length of travel, the specialist nature of the guides, the higher standards of lodges and the isolated location make the travel more expensive, approx. 2-3 times more than trips to Tambopata. Travelers should expect to spend US$200-US$300 per day; a trip of 9 days minimum is needed.
The Cultural Zone can be entered independently – there are several native farming communities that welcome tourists.
A visit here includes a cloud forest, a tropical lowland rainforest, a coca plantation, a rescue center for animals, and a lagoon.
Due to its proximity to Manu, the Tambopata National Reserve has almost the same levels of unspoiled biodiversity and flora and fauna.
It is accessed by a 2-3 hour boat ride from Puerto Maldonado along the Madre de Dios River or the Tambopata River. Since Tambopata is easier to reach than Manu, it is cheaper to visit. Most trips take 3-4 days.
Psychedelic jungle plants
Ayahuasca (from Quechua aya-soul, waska-vine), or yagé, is traditionally used by the indigenous people of the Amazon Rainforest across Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru for spiritual and religious purposes.
It is a dark brown concoction made of two Amazonian plants – the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis shrub (chacruna).
Consumption of ayahuasca causes altered state of consciousness, visual and auditory changes and psychological introspection that may lead to great elation, fear or illumination. People have mystical experiences and spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth and the true nature of the universe. They can also access higher spiritual dimensions and contact various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings that act as teachers or guides.
Due to its potential to heal depression, alcohol and drug addictions, and posttraumatic stress disorder, the practice of ayahuasca drinking began spreading to Europe and North America. Some evidence suggests that ayahuasca helps increase immune cells in the body that fight viruses and cancer cells, and can restore brain cells which might be useful for people with Parkinson’s or other neurological conditions.
Traditionally, ayahuasca was taken only by shamans. Shamans are medicine men of great experience with the vine they use as a tool for the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses.
To become a shaman, they spend months or years in isolation in the jungle, following a strict diet of bland and limited foods, and maintaining a fast with ayahuasca and other jungle plants to learn their powers and healing potential.
A shaman or curandero prepares the ayahuasca brew by boiling leaves of the ayahuasca and stalks of the chacruna in water. Other plants can be also added – that varies from one shaman to the next. The preparation takes several hours up to one day.
Ayahuasca ceremonies are usually held at night. Prior to the ceremony, participants should abstain from spicy foods, red meat, salt, caffeine and sex.
The effect of the drink lasts for about six hours, beginning half an hour after consumption and peaking after two hours. Vomiting is considered an essential part of the experience, as it represents the release of built-up emotions and negative energy.
The visual effects of ayahuasca range from increases in one’s brightness and sharpness to vibrations in the visual field and rapidly moving patterns and scenes, visible with eyes either closed or open. Hallucinations are intense and typically experienced suddenly, coming and going in waves.
In some areas, brujos or ‘witches’ masquerade as real shamans to steal one’s energy, of which every person is believed to have a limited stockpile. Therefore ayahuasca should be consumed only in the presence of a well-trained shaman.
The legal status of the plant is somewhat ambiguous.
While in South America it is legal, in most Western countries, brews made of ayahuasca plants are illegal or in a legal grey area since they contain the internationally prohibited substance DMT. In 2019, Oakland, California, decriminalized plants containing natural psychoactive substances, including ayahuasca.
San Pedro cactus, Echinopsis pachanoi, or wachuma in Quechua, is a fast-growing columnar cactus, native to the Andes.
While ayahuasca is a lowland Amazon jungle species, San Pedro prefers the mid-elevational slopes of 6,600–9,800 feet (2,000–3,000 meters) mountains. It is found in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
San Pedro is the South American cousin to peyote; it contains mescaline, one of the longest-studied psychoactive alkaloids by science. Just like ayahuasca, San Pedro is a non-toxic and a non-addictive plant that has been used by traditional medicine for spiritual and physical healing for over 4,000 years. It treats a wide range of physical, emotional and mental disorders, as well as addictions.
After the Spanish conquest, Roman catholic church attempted to suppress its use, but the natives carried on with their wachuma ceremonies in secret. The name of San Pedro cactus (Saint Peter cactus in English) is attributed to the belief that the effects of the cactus allow users ‘to reach the gates of heaven while still on earth.’
Healing with wachuma is similar to healing with ayahuasca; it is usually facilitated by an indigenous shaman who prepares the cactus brew by boiling its green sliced sections in water. A dried cactus can also be eaten.
The effects kick in within 40 minutes after ingesting the brew, and may take 3 hours to peak, with the whole experience usually lasting 10 hours. Just like with ayahuasca, the whole time, walking, talking and other mental and sensory faculties are kept about. There may be nausea and vomiting.
Visual effects include whirlpools of colors, kaleidoscopic patterns and ‘out-of-body’ experiences, accompanied by mild depersonalization, clear and connected thought, self-realization and euphoria. ‘Bad trips’ may happen to people with histories of mental illness.
In most countries, San Pedro is legal to purchase and cultivate for ‘ornamental purposes,’ but illegal to prepare and consume as a psychedelic. This also applies to the US.
In the Andean countries (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, etc.), San Pedro is legal, even as a psychedelic.
The coca plant and cocaine
Many myth surround the coca plant; ignorance prevails among the western public as for its uses.
Coca plant is a small, shrub-like tree, endemic to South America. It grows to a height of 8 feet, and thrives in moist, frost-free valleys between 5000 and 20,000 feet above sea level. Harvesting begins in the third year, and the plant can be harvested up to four times a year.
Coca leaf, in its natural form, is harmless – it contains a complex array of minerals, essential oils, and compounds with pharmacological effects. One of them is the psychoactive alkaloid cocaine – one leaf contains between 0.27% and 0.77% of it.
Coca chewing or drinking coca tea don’t cause any harm, on the contrary, they are beneficial to human health – coca tea can help overcome altitude sickness. Coca chewing suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, fatigue, and increases physical stamina.
For over 8,000 years, coca has been cultivated and used by millions of Andean people as a medicine and stimulant. The plant was viewed as having a divine origin, and its cultivation was subject to Inca state monopoly with its use restricted to nobles and favored classes. As the Inca empire declined, the leaf became more widely available.
Nowadays, the native people use it like we do coffee – as a mild stimulant and an energy source. Typically, a wad of dried coca leaves is places between gum and cheek, moistened with saliva and gently sucked. Lime-rich materials such as burnt seashells or cereals are used to accelerate the separation of the leaf’s active alkaloids.
Cocaine, one of the active alkaloids, was first isolated by the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855. Its greatest medical value by then was in ophthalmology – eye-surgery needed a good local anesthetic because in eye operations, a conscious patient has to be able to move his eye without flinching. Cocaine was ideal for that.
Until the early 20th century, coca was mainly used in manufacturing popular medicines, beverages and ‘tonics.’ Coca-Cola used coca leaf extract in its products until about 1903.
In those years, snorting cocaine became very popular. So popular, that by 1922, the drug had to be banned due to a high rate of cocaine-related deaths.
When cocaine reappeared in the 1970’s, it was touted as the champagne of drugs because it was expensive, high status, and said to have no serious consequences. Gradually, it was discovered to be highly addictive and dangerous.
In 2012, nearly 4.7 million Americans reported using cocaine regularly, and almost 38 million reported ever using cocaine in their lifetime.
The street drug is produced in small laboratories, scattered throughout the coca-growing areas of South America. Since the production is a lengthy and tedious process, hence the high price.
In remote jungle areas, laboratories are set up to extract the cocaine alkaloid from the leaves and to convert it into cocaine. There are two types of processing labs: pozo pit labs that use acidic solutions, and the more common labs that use metal drums and gasoline.
The hand-picked, dried coca leaves are dusted with an inorganic base like lime or a carbonate salt and moistened with water. Then an organic solvent – gasoline or diesel – is added to the slurry and mixed in metal drums. The gasoline, containing now the cocaine alkaloid, is then drained and filtered into barrels with diluted acid. The gasoline is removed and sodium bicarbonate or ammonia added to make a cocaine base that is filtered through a cloth.
The cocaine base is dissolved in solvents like acetone or ether, and heated until it boils. When boiling, another solvent is added, as well as hydrochloric acid, which results in crystallization.
After that, water and excess solvents are pressed out in a hydraulic press, and the cocaine hydrochloride placed in a microwave oven. The dried powder bricks of cocaine hydrochloride are then sent to collection points and shipped to markets in the U.S. and other countries.
Cocaine hydrochloride is available on the streets either as cocaine, a powder-like, water-soluble substance that can be snorted or rubbed on gums, or crack cocaine, a solid rock crystal that is heated and smoked.
Cocaine is rarely sold in its pure form – street dealers usually dilute it with other substances like cornstarch, bicarbonate soda and talcum powder to increase bulk and make profits. Some add psychoactive stimulants to magnify the numbing and stimulating effects. Street cocaine contains only about 40-50 percent of cocaine hydrochloride.
The most potent form of cocaine is crack cocaine.
It is produced by dissolving cocaine hydrochloride in water and baking soda, boiling it until it forms an oily solution, and cooling it to a hard-rock substance.
Users heat it in a glass pipe and inhale the vapors.
The cracking sounds produced when the rock crystal is heated inspired the name.
Consumption of cocaine is generally followed by an intense euphoric rush, increased energy and heightened self-confidence. The effects don’t last long, with the user becoming irritable and craving more of the drug.
Although the coca plant is widely cultivated in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, the lead producer of cocaine is Colombia, currently the source of some 80 % of the world’s cocaine. It is estimated that Colombia produces 400 million dollars’ worth of cocaine each week. South America currently exports some 1000 tons of refined cocaine per year.