“A Journey through Putumayo” Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2020 issue.
I focused my attention on the path immediately in front of me — it was covered in damp, slippery leaves and clay-colored mud. With every step I took, my yellow rain boots made squishing sounds. They were too big on my feet — I had borrowed them from the hostel owner — but I was grateful for them as I walked along the jungle floor watching my footprints turn into little puddles filled with rainwater and leaves behind me. The air was moist and cool on my skin. My raincoat stuck to the sweat on my body as I walked deeper into the jungle surrounded by trees, vines and lush vegetation. I could no longer see the black and blue mountains rimmed with low-hanging, feathery white clouds that we left behind when we started our walk. I did not know where I was going, but I trusted the local guides to lead me in the right direction.
What awaited at the end of my jungle trek was a tin-roofed house on stilts — a common sight in flood-prone areas. Thin ropes strung between trees held clothes from an entire family. This was the shaman’s home. This is where people come from all over the region for healing and guidance. This is where I had ended up on my South American backpacking adventure.
The Putumayo region of Colombia is deep in the Amazon Basin. The depth of jungle is framed on the west by the Andes mountains that provide a stark, beautiful contrast to the dense lowland forest on the east. To travel in Putumayo is to journey through the richness of the earth. To have the opportunity to experience its full spectrum of color is an intoxicating meditation on the beauty of the planet. Putumayo receives all the gifts that the Amazon has to offer. Many traditional healers have lived here for generations learning to use the gifts of the jungle to cleanse and purify the mind and body.
It was these traditional healers that I was seeking. I had heard of their plant medicine and their ritualistic cleansing ceremonies — I needed this. I was on an intentional journey for self-discovery, and this was where that journey had led me.
That night in the Putumayo jungle was one I will never forget. As the sun set, I stood in line behind the handful of people who had also come to seek the shaman’s cleansing medicine. I drank the jungle tea from a tiny glass and laid in my hammock waiting for the brew to take effect. Slowly and subtly, as the sunlight disappeared, a kaleidoscope of colors materialized before my eyes.
For hours and hours in the darkness of the night, with indistinguishable animal sounds to accompany me and the shaman’s harmonica to guide me, I slowly and meticulously explored the depths of my psyche; it was as if I had been turned inside out and given a magnifying glass to examine every last corner of my being. That is the power of the plant medicine, ayahuasca. Leaving all sense of fear behind, I was forced out of the dark into clarity. With clarity comes alignment of intention and action — a sense of power and endless possibility. There is a deep knowing of the path you are on and the path ahead. I experienced the kind of clarity that forces action and gives you no choice but to change or suffer the consequences of turning away from the light.
When I emerged from the all-night ceremony, I felt dizzy with new insight. Days later, I continued to meditate on my experience during slippery treks to hidden waterfalls just outside of Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo. I hiked to mountaintop vistas that remind you how lucky you are to be alive. With so many opportunities to feel enveloped by nature, it was the perfect setting to sit with what I had learned during the ceremony.
Colombia is one of my favorite places to visit on this planet. Its unwarranted reputation keeps many tourists away from experiencing its beauty, and even fewer people make the trek to Putumayo. That is partly because travel around the region can be difficult when rain and mudslides make the roads impassable and local minibuses operate on unreliable schedules. But it is well worth the effort.
Sibundoy is a welcome town for travelers that provides a lovely jumping off point to visit sleepy neighboring towns. I loved meandering down one dirt road to the next basking in the lush green landscape and breathing in the cool, clean air.
The magic of Putumayo stays with me, and the clarity I gained during that ceremony still guides my actions today. I am grateful to have stumbled upon this place that so generously shares its gifts with wandering souls.
Photo by Marisol Cruz.