Five years ago Francesca Cassini, 59, didn’t even own a passport and was nervous traveller. She has just returned from a 23 day Peru odyssey, visiting some of the most sacred sites on our planet. The journey transformed her body, her self-esteem and how she views getting older
What was I thinking? My heart pounded. The floor shifted under my feet. I was 4000m above sea level overlooking Lake Titicaca and altitude sickness had me in its grip. The Peru Odyssey is described as a ‘tour with very little walking’ so it is far from being the Inca Trail. But, nonetheless, to visit Peru’s ancient sacred sites, strung along the spine of the Andes, you have to hike hard. “I’m 59, too old and too fat,” I wailed.
You see, I’ve been a laptop adventurer for years so traveling in Peru on a twenty-three day sacred tour was a huge step beyond my comfort zone. Beneath that was a deeper fear of the final week when we would go from exploring ancient temples in the Andes to ingesting the mother of all sacred plant medicine, ayahuasca, in the jungle. I was the oldest and weakest in our sixteen strong group, but my intuition had given me a sense that this trip would give me back my body, and my femininity, so I was determined to give it a go.
Peru, and its Andean strongholds, were once home to the Incan Empire. They spread across the country through the middle of the last millennium – and they did it without the help of the wheel. Yet, as our group explored these ancient sites it was impossible to believe that they are Incan. If they didn’t have the wheel how could they have wielded such precision and expertise with the massive rocks they used to build temples?
“I’ve been a laptop adventurer for years so traveling in Peru on a twenty-three day sacred tour was a huge step beyond my comfort zone.”
Take Aramu Muru: a massive wall, with an odd shaped doorway flanked by two vertical shafts, over which a series of rocks represent the condor. The doorway leads nowhere. But when I knelt down with my hands on either side, touching the wall in front with my forehead, I knew instantly that it was an altar – a gateway to higher levels of consciousness. The energy was so intense that I shook like crazy. Each one of us began our trip by undertaking this Andean initiation, helping to forge an immediate bond within the group. Our soul family, as we called it, was born.
Next we rode the breast of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, birthplace of the Incan god Viracocha and reputed resting place of an alien crystal city in its depths. This enormous lake, stretching across to Bolivia, is home to the beautiful floating islands of Uros where residents make everything out of reeds – tiny homes, boats, even the islands themselves.
Three hours beyond the floating islands we landed on traffic free Amantani to participate in a sunrise ceremony, in which we would offer our service to Viracocha, in the temple of Pachatata high above the island. As I huff and puff, old women herd their sheep effortlessly past me. I thought it was beyond my physical capabilities, but with support from my new family, and a friendly caballero and his pony I eventually made it.
Walking in the dark up the steep hillside with just the soft clop of the ponies’ hooves, birdsong, and the light slipping over the horizon was biblical. I wept. Too often I’ve let excuses get the better of me – the ‘too fat, too old, too tired,’ ones. This morning marked a moment of change. When the sun appeared, a lone cloud spread its wings like a condor flying directly towards us. It was magical.
Over the next week, we weaved our way slowly downhill taking in some of the most powerful sacred sites on the planet. Ancient buildings built out of huge stones which fit together like giant jigsaws; Sillustani, with its strange round burial towers – the tallest of the temples dedicated to Viracocha; and the extraordinary walled complex at Sacsayhuaman, with over 200 archeological sites inside and overlooking the Incan capital of Cusco. According to our shaman, water erosion proves it was built prior to the last ice age and must have been discovered, rather than built, by the Incas. And then, finally, the crown jewel, Machu Picchu perched on top of a mountain, surrounded by high jungle and guardian peaks – a place of immeasurable power and intensity.
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For our final week we crossed into the humidity of the Amazon rainforest. Ayahuasca, a plant medicine used for millennia, is big business in Peru. There are unscrupulous people, posing as shamans, who are willing to take your money and brew you a potion. But we were in the safe hands of Don Lucho, a pot-bellied man with gentle and infinite eyes.
At Kapitari, his centre, we were each given a mat, pillow, blanket and a bucket – to purge in! The ceremonial space, a round thatched hut, was lit with incense, tobacco and soft music. We were then invited to kneel individually in front of the shaman and take our cup. It tasted like an unpleasant combination of very dark chocolate and coffee and is not easy to drink. Down in one! Purging is part of the healing process, cleaning out mental and emotional toxins as well as physical. This is not something you do for psychedelic fun. It is a deeply profound path of growth. Between the purging ayahuasca shares her wisdom.
Ayahuasca seems to know what we want and, more importantly, what we need. I had visions of past lives and understandings about this one. A number of us received the answers we came for. One man with chronic back pain from a severe accident ten years ago reduced his pain medication by about eighty percent without any withdrawal symptoms after only three ceremonies.
Our outer and inner journeys were now complete. Our new family had bonded and many of us will be friends for life. I have changed too: I now have a taste for real adventure, not just on my laptop. I’ve lost 15lbs and know my body doesn’t have to be ‘old’. I feel confident that I can access all the strength and vigour I choose. The tour was a phenomenal gift. One of our group said it best – “remember you are the sun and you can fly!”
Francesca Cassini traveled with Outer Travels Inner Journeys on The Peru Odyssey: a 23-day complete spiritual adventure to the sacred sites of Peru including Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Cusco and The Sacred Valley combined with ayahuasca ceremonies deep in the Amazon rainforest. The next Peru Odyssey runs 10 October – 1 November 2015 and costs from £2,225 per person. www.outertravelsinnerjourneys.com / 0051 988 683 624
Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar, he writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.