Shamans Cecilio and Rolando at Noya Rao. Photo by Chris Kilham
After decades of plying his finely-honed shamanic craft in the general Iquitos area of Peru, maestro shaman Rolando Tangoa has had enough of leaving his family for months at a time, and has opened Noya Rao, a shamanic healing center outside of Pucallpa. Other shamans who have spent years working the Iquitos area have returned to their homes as well, representing a whole new wave of activity in the ever-burgeoning Peruvian ayahuasca scene.
It is an irony that Iquitos Peru, with its tourist friendly amenities, its association with the famous Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo, and an avalanche of ayahuasca-related publicity over the past decade, has become the heavily trafficked epicenter of the Peruvian ayahuasca movement. Shamans, most of them of Shipibo tribal derivation, work at the various ayahuasca retreat centers, largely serving pilgrims from the US, Europe, and Asia who seek the healing and visionary properties of ayahuasca, the potently psychoactive rainforest brew. Yet what most of the pasajeros who drink ayahuasca in and around Iquitos do not know is that almost all of those Shipibo shamans derive from the river city of Pucallpa, over 330 miles south on the Ucayali River. They typically leave their families for long periods, working and staying in an area that is not home.
Noya Rao, one of only a few ayahuasca centers in Pucallpa opened by a well known and highly regarded shaman, offers a step in the opposite direction. Rolando Tangoa Murayari is somewhat legendary in shamanic circles, and Noya Rao is a powerful statement. If you want real, honest, no-nonsense ayahuasca shamanism old school, then come to Pucallpa. Rolando is not alone in this. Some other shamans are weaning themselves slowly from working in Iquitos while developing shamanic practices and retreats back home.
Pucallpa has never been an especially lovely spot. When I first visited there over 10 years ago, Pucallpa was grubby, conveying a pervasive sense of a city way down on its luck for a long time. But cash from petrol, mining and timber companies has revived the formerly decrepit city. Today there are good places to stay, nice restaurants, a walking mall, and a better atmosphere overall. Pucallpa is coming up. It is the capital of the Ucayali region, and is a major shipping port. Unlike Iquitos, which is accessible only by water or air, Pucallpa connects by highway to the legendary and lovely coca town of Huanuco, and on to Lima. So it is possible to arrive in Lima, and travel to Pucallpa by road.
My friends Craig and Sergio and I rolled into Noya Rao in a moto with Rolando, who met us at Pucallpa airport. After cruising for about 45 minutes out past the borders of the city and into the suburbs of Yarinacocha, we arrived at an area where palm oil plantations, now dormant, represented the latest failed regional development scheme. One plantation, still and quiet, bordered the road leading up to Rolando’s new center. Neglected palm oil plantations make perfect havens for snakes, which are abundant in Amazonia.
At Noya Rao, we were greeted by Roland’s wife Janina, his son Gino and a helper named Kati. They were cheerful and welcoming. At that time, we were the only guests. Accommodations while simple are clean and safe. This is not Blue Morpho or Temple Of The Way Of Light, where the amenities are much more geared to the needs of fussy travelers. This is more The Rough Guide to ayahuasca, basic and spartan. It’s not Hurricane Island, but more like a scout camp. Janina and Kati do the cooking, and Gino hauls water for the shower, which while we were there consisted of pouring buckets of water over ourselves after a good lathering with Dr Bronner’s soap. My friend Sergio, upon discovering that the toilet was a rustic outhouse, made plans for an early escape back to the Sol Del Oriente hotel in the city. Craig and I soldiered on, indifferent to the loo.
I had previously drunk ayahuasca with other shamans in the general area. Shaman Mariano, who I met around circa 2008 at the now defunct Espiritu de Anaconda, had me and my friend Sergio over to his home for ceremony. We sat in a quiet shack with Mariano, some chickens, his wife and son, listening to frogs bulling in the marsh just feet away, as potent medicine coursed through us. Shaman Marcelo Alvarez, who I met at Nihue Rao outside of Iquitos leads ceremonies in the Pucallpa area too. I sat with him last year in his brother’s living room for a ceremony. Wiler Noriega, the main shaman at the Ayahusaca Adventure center outside of Iquitos, now also has a smaller center in his home village of Limongema, right outside of Pucallpa just a short hop from port of Pucallpa on the Ucayali, the superhighway of the area.
But Rolando’s venture at Noya Rao is the strongest move yet in the balance of work and family for Shipibo shamans. Rolando is a big deal. He was the first teacher of celebrity shaman Ricardo Amaringo, whose center Nihue Rao is one of the most heavily booked of ayahuasca retreats in the Iquitos area. He is one of the trio of monster shamans to emerge from the Guillermo Arevalo tradition, along with Ricardo and another astonishing curandero named Jorge. In 2008 I first drank with Rolando at the old Espiritu, and he impressed me right away. He was announced there with some fanfare, and did not disappoint. When Rolando sings, medicine pours into the ceremonial space. He is gifted and practiced.
At Noya Rao, the beds are clean, the food is tasty, and the area offers virtually nothing to do. There is no gym, no wi-fi. But if you are there for the ayahuasca, if you are there for exceptional ceremonies led with skill and craft, then Noya Rao is a right place. Rolando has conducted thousands of ceremonies over the decades, honing exceptional shamanic skills. When he sings, energy moves. He is titanic, an almost supernatural ceremonial force. For our time there, he was joined by another shaman Cecilio Cauper. The two posed a yin and yang. Rolando sits down, adopts a cross-legged position, and pretty much stays put. Cecilio gets to his feet and waves his arms about. At first it seems a bit kooky, but then you get that Cecilio is moving energy all over the place, and the ride is exhilarating. They both sing marvelously, playing off each other in a spell-binding weave of Shipibo icaros. And they don’t mind at all blazing on well into the wee hours of the morning, pulling absolutely every energetic string.
Craig and I enjoyed three rocking ceremonies with Rolando and Cecilio. I felt stronger each night, and downright galvanic after the third, my channels blown crystal clean and deep energy moving within me.
Periodically in ceremony Rolando would ask “ola amigo Chris, como esta la ceremonia?”
“Muis fuerte’, Rolando. Muis mareado. Oh.”
And then Cecilio would start to laugh, and I would provoke him “Ola Cecilio! Eh, Cecilio!”
And that would be enough to crack him up, and then I’d kid him for a bit, and we’d all simmer down and maybe fire up a mapacho, and then the icaros would take us all over again. We went far, we crossed a multitude of dimensions, and we rode the medicine with exaltation.
At Christmas time, Rolando threw a chocolatado, an event at Noya Rao to which he invited about 100 local children. Janina made a huge pot of chocolate, and Rolando arranged gifts for all the children. Noya Rao isn’t just in the community, but part of it. And yes, Rolando could spend the money on spiffing up the plumbing, but putting it into the local children is worthier in every respect. Estranged in Iquitos, Rolando could not do as much for the people around him. But at home in Pucallpa, with his family, friends, community and ayahuasca center, he can do as much good as time and resources will allow. It’s a whole different scene, not only great for the pasajeros who want real down home medicine, but for the shamans and everybody around them.
There is nothing sustainable about shamans leaving their families, traveling hundreds of miles away for months at a time, and catering to the pilgrims who visit Iquitos. Pucallpa has the airport, the roads, the hotels, the restaurants, the transportation, the services. It has more of a feel of a cowboy town, definitely still rough around the edges. The general Pucallpa area was long ago cleared of its proud old-growth forests, so it is definitely not rainforest. But it is home to the most celebrated tribal tradition of ayahuasca shamanism, the Shipibo. Rolando is a rock star in that tradition. He has earned his excellent reputation as a superior shaman one ceremony after another for about thirty years, emerging as one of the great masters of the tradition. And if you want to see him, if you want to experience his medicine, you go to Pucallpa, to Noya Rao.
Noya Rao has no office, no staff waiting to email you back with a confirmation of your visit. Rather, Rolando has an email address. email@example.com
You can also find Rolando through Facebook. Just look up Rolando Tangoa Murayari. You can leave a message there. It works very well.