Iquitos and Sacred Valley in Peru
Wow. I’ve never felt this way writing a review about anything ever so I’m a little overwhelmed. It feels like a million things want to be expressed all at the same time. So where to even begin. Well, I guess it’s always sage to kick things off with a bit of context. Though I am by no means an ayahuasca expert, I’m no greenhorn either. Counting the three ceremonies I did at Arkana I’ve now probably done somewhere around 60 in total. And of these 60 ceremonies, by my best estimation, I’ve sat with about 20 different groups/facilitators/shamans.
And right now, nearly three weeks after I’ve finished the retreat, with all the love and inspiration from the medicine still so present in me, with all the love and inspiration I feel for Arkana and their mission, I feel little need to beat around the bush. So I’m just going to say it. Of those 60 ceremonies I’ve done and of those 20 groups I’ve been fortunate enough to sit with, Arkana is simply by far the best. I mean, not even in the same league as the rest best. I mean, did not know one could go so deep with the medicine best. I mean, was not aware that ayahuasca containers like this could exist best. So excuse the sycophantic undertones that may permeate this review, but there’s simply no way to downplay the magic that is Arkana. So downplay it I shan’t.
I sensed that magic right from the go, I sensed that things were just happening on a different level. The first thing we did after the retreat kicked off was a private consultation with the shamans and support team, where we shared our intention with them. The shamans would then, based on each person’s intention and unique vibratory signature, craft icaros just for them. That’s right, these aren’t some songs they sing each night for a performance, they are living prayers. They are co-creations between these gifted healers and the plant spirits, icaros as instruments of healing crafted to serve the unique needs of each individual.
I’m really not a person to ever pedestalize anyone, but it was very challenging for me to not be in constant awe of the shaman. Maestra Justina is simply unlike anyone I have ever met. She is lovingly referred to as ‘Charrapita’ by the support team, in reference to a very small but very spicy local pepper. It’s an apt nickname, but only really becomes apparent once you’ve sat in a ceremony with her. It’s only then that it becomes clear that her being stretches way beyond the borders of her tiny frame.
I have this sense that all other shamans I’ve worked with in the past became a shaman at some point in their lives – in other words their becoming a shaman was hinged on a conscious decision. There was a time before being a shaman, a choice, then a path to become, and then being a shaman. But with Maestra Justina I have the sense that there was no such moment, no such decision. Maestra Justina did not ever become a shaman – she was born one. Being a conduit of the Jungle and a healer is part and parcel of her fabric – it’s simply who she is. She was born with this gift, born a gift, and even the word shaman, a concept, falls short. She just is – is that, the wisdom of the jungle, the healing prowess of Nature embodied in human form. And it is mostly her presence, deeply forged connections with the plant spirits, and otherworldly icaros that were the driving force behind these ceremonies being of a different caliber.
I would however be remiss to also not mention Maestro Cesar, Maestra Justina’s husband and the other shaman that lead the ceremonies. A phenomenal healer in his own right, and yet happy to take the backseat and allow his wife to direct the overall voyage. Individually they are two of the most powerful healers I have ever encountered, together they are a force simply without equal. And besides their phenomenal abilities as healers, they are two of the most bright, beautiful, loving and playful people I have ever met. They constantly laugh a real laughter emanating from the depths of their souls. They do the serious work, but at the same time remind us to not take it all too serious, that we’re all just playing our roles in the great cosmic drama.
In addition to these precious indigenous healers Arkana provided us with, they also had a bona fide team of eight all-star facilitators on hand. My sense of astonishment grew as the days unfolded and I got to know each one of them better, as I got to witness the depths of their gifts, as I got to see the true sense of service each one of them embody. They are like The Avengers of the sacred medicine world, anyone of them by themselves would have floored me as a facilitator, and then to have eight of them, it just felt unreal.
I could go on and on about every single facilitator and their unique gifts – Juan and his radiant, ever-present smile which only serves to foreshadow the depths of this warm heart. Teutli and all her subtle gifts and expert touches, showing us the power of the drum and the wisdom that it embodies, even for someone like me that “can’t drum”. Paco and his soft presence, cat-like, and yet always there to serve, to support, to share his knowledge. Angel with his impeccable presence, depth of knowledge and sharp, clear delivery thereof – thanks for letting me enjoy that moment with Pink Floyd in the ceremony! Ivan whose medicine is the music, who can pick up any instrument and transport your soul to a different time and place. Pamela, a true living example of what is meant by heart-wisdom. There are however two people at the centre of Arkana for whom I would I would like to offer a few more words.
Shantanu is the real deal. From the moment I met him, and apparently this is true for everyone else I mentioned this to, my heart just immediately warmed and opened to him. An affable chap if there ever was one, grounded, humble, present (PRESENT), and just absolutely overflowing with ageless wisdom. He is the “Chief Dharma Enforcer” of Arkana with a diamond mind which he only uses to crystallize the messages that are all clearly flowing from his heart. When Shantanu looks at you, you have no doubt that he is truly looking at you, and I have a sense when speaking to him it’s our hearts that are communicating.
With Shantanu there are no unnecessary words, and yet also no unnecessary silence – his speech carries a type of truth that gently cuts straight to the core of matters. For every moment he seemingly has the “perfect” words ready, spoken in a way that is warm and inviting, and in a manner which everyone can understand and relate to. As he reminded me, “knowledge without practice only strengthens the ego”, and it is clear that Shantanu has lived this wisdom, that his wisdom comes from a understanding of this work that stretches throughout all the layers of his being.
To truly understand what makes Arkana so profound you also have to know the backstory – why and how Jose started it. I’m not going to recount that here, fortunately his bio is available for you here – https://www.pulsetours.com/jose/. So if you have 2 minutes, I encourage you to open a new tab and read that now.
Jose is a beautiful living example that, no matter where you are in your life, what you are doing, how old you are, or how deeply embedded/invested you are in “the system”, you can completely transform your life. And not only will you transform your own life, but in so doing also become a pillar of light and catalyst for the healing and transformation of countless others. Such a remarkable and beautiful individual overflowing with love.
So potent in his ambitions and achievements, and yet when you hang out with him, Jose is “just one of us”. There are no pretenses, no holier-than- thou guru complex, no ego inflation whatsoever. He is playful, loving, open, and vulnerable like a little boy; and when appropriate attentive, insightful, and contained like some wise old sage. Jose is at once both completely relatable, and intensely admirable. In only six days I came to view Jose as just another brother on a parallel path, and also as a teacher pioneering ahead, encouraging and inspiring the rest of us to follow suite. In only six days, I literally came to love Jose with my whole heart.
It’s worth mentioning also that Arkana is not only completely and authentically committed to the healing of their guests, but also to the web of indigenous communities and natural environments they are embedded within.
I have been to many-a lecture and have read enough blog posts that intend to serve as a “call-to-arms” for the ayahuasca community. It’s no secret that, given the explosion of ayahuasca’s popularity in the West over the last decade or so, there is now tremendous strain on the natural populations of ayahuasca. Lots of talk on the onus now being on this new wave of retreat centres to start taking ownership of this overexploitation and address it by initiating concerted efforts to create sustainable systems for its production.
Talks are important, and they serve their role, so this is not a dig at the ones that have created the awareness regarding this issue. Rather, I want to just juxtapose it with what I learned about Arkana. After being in operation for only a handful of years, Jose and Arkana have already developed a number of amazing programs with the Shipibo community connected to their mission. Beyond the replanting of ayahuasca (employing local people in doing so), the Arkana Foundation also has a number of other programs exemplifying their commitment to giving back.
They have various programs working with the Shipibo communities to teach them valuable skills they believe would be able to benefit them economically. But what’s more, they are not just telling the Shipibo communities what it is they think would benefit them, but they are asking the communities what it is they need and also providing this – a communications tower in this case. In other word they are not just telling, they are also listening. A true partnership and a solid foundation on which to build a cross-cultural bridge, the type of bridges I believe we need now more than ever.
So when you invest in your own healing at Arkana you are not only not not having a negative impact on others (the privileged shifting of the burden, so to speak), not only a neutral effect, but indeed you are having a positive effect. Every dollar you spend at Arkana helps the growth of everyone and everything involved, both directly and indirectly.
As you’ve probably noticed the focus of this review is really to express my experience at Arkana specifically. I therefore decided not to espouse the pros and cons of using scared medicines and so won’t be casting any spotlight for a general, meta-level review. There exists ample information on this topic online, and it is really incumbent upon every individual to educate yourself as much as possible on this topic before deciding to see whether ot not this path is for you. I do however wish to share a few thoughts I believe would be value with one obvious caveat: these are all just my opinions. Though this is always true for everyone, I felt the need to highlight that here and now, so please keep that fact in mind.
Working with sacred medicines is a path in the truest sense of the word. It is a journey with no destination, where every arrival leads to the discovery of dozens more. Though the potency of it’s transformative potential is unmatched by any other path, both old and new, it’s still no silver bullet and to mistake it for such can only serve to hinder your progress on it. It’s a path and getting on this path, and even more so staying on it, takes tremendous commitment and courage. It’s a decision to willingly submit yourself, totally and utterly, to that which almost everyone else spends all their time and money trying to avoid. It’s to step forward, to open your heart, to stand there naked, and to receive truth. Truth in all its unbridled manifestations both small and big, raw and real, completely unavoidable and undeniable.
But on this path we consciously face the bitter truth because, though not pleasant, it is almost always beneficial. Committing to this path and to facing the truth has had a transformative effect on my life, and I have witnessed first-hand the same positive transformation in many others. And this transformation is available to anyone who approaches this path with humility and an open heart. It can benefit all wherever they’re at, from those affected by serious and debilitating trauma or other physical conditions, to those who seem according to society’s barometer to have “made it”, yet come as seekers because they don’t know exactly what it is they’ve supposed to have made. We can all walk this path to heal, to grow, to let go, to learn, to reconnect to our sense of humanity, to our sense of something greater with which we are connected. We can do this not to seek happiness, but to seek meaning, meaning which when glimpsed can then reveal where our true source of happiness may be found.
Ultimately however nobody can make the decision of whether or not to engage with these powerful alchemical agents but you yourself. The decision, like the only force that can bring about lasting change, has to come from the inside. The only things I can share with you here with complete conviction is that if you do decide to engage with sacred medicines, then there is likely no better place on face of the earth to do so than Arkana. There you may find, as I did, a spiritual home where open hearts, discerning wisdom, and an ever present sense of playful laughter all operate hand-in-hand to ensure the safest and most beneficial container for healing and growth.
A word of warning though: Arkana’s schedule is not for the faint of heart! It’s as full-on as full-on can be, and when you dive in you do so as deep as deep can be. If you’re of the resolve to only half-commit to this path, if you only desire to dip your toes in sacred medicine waters, well then Arkana might not be the right fit for you. If however you feel called and the will to commit to real change, growth, transformation, if you are ready to let go of that which does not serve you and become the best version of yourself, well then look no further than Arkana.
It’s been about three weeks and I am back home, still flying high with the magic of the medicine and Arkana percolating through me. I am filled with inspiration, guidance, and an expanded sense of humanity and beingness. I believe in Arkana, their team, Jose, Shantanu, Maestra Justina, and most importantly in the dream they are dreaming into existence. I have found a spiritual home, and I am so elated to have started what I believe to be a lifelong relationship, a place where I can continue to come with others to help each other grow and heal. And this is not true for only me, many others have already established this relationship, and of course the potential exists for you too.