Fear And Medicine On The Incan Trail

By Nick Polizzi

A few days ago, I found myself in a pickup truck on a one lane dirt road hugging the side of a cliff about 16,000 feet up, in the middle of the Andes Mountains of Peru. We were on our way to a remote region where the majestic highlands plummet suddenly into the flat sea of Amazon jungle green.

Nestled in one of the seemingly infinite valleys along this eastern slope is the new home of the Paititi Institute, our sister organization where the Sacred Science was filmed. We were going to be doing a few ceremonies with the shaman apprentices there, both Ayahuasca and Coca, and also filming some of the healers in the region.

Little did we know that getting to Paititi would be just as medicinal as the center itself.

Roman Hanis (medicine man and dear friend) was at the wheel, honking the horn as we went around each blind turn, to make sure any oncoming trucks would know to stop. We were in a bit of a hurry, with only 90 minutes of daylight left and a 2-hour hike at the end of this ride in order to reach “The Land”.

We would be descending 4000 feet on foot, through 3 different climate zones and into the Mapacho River Valley, then crossing 2 rope bridges before finally climbing part way up the other side into the camp.

As our Toyota Hilux rumbled down the narrow gravel road, the alpine vegetation around us began to change to a lusher, tropical variety. We were getting closer to the Amazon, and you could feel the moisture and warmth blowing up the mountain and into our open windows.

Twenty minutes later, we reached an outpost farming village of about 200 people – the closest semblance of civilization to Paititi. Roman has a contact in town who stores the truck on his land and also provides mules and pack horses to transport supplies down into the valley.

As we strapped our backpacks on, Roman asked a few locals if they could pack the food and equipment we had in the bed of the pickup onto a few mules and bring it down the following day.

An observation: It’s never reassuring when the local Quechua, who know these lands like the back of their hands, look at each other and chuckle at the prospect of a group of foreigners trying to descend into the unknown wilderness that lies beyond. In the fading light of a setting Peruvian sun, nonetheless.

But this trip was a lesson in trust. Trust in mother nature and trust in the divine plan.


As we began our descent, Roman warned that going down would be much more challenging than coming back up, because of the unrelenting and sometimes very steep incline. If you didn’t bend your legs with each step, using only your thigh and calf muscles to absorb impact, your knees would be shot in no time.

Down we went, carefully placing each foot on the path below, much more rapidly than we felt comfortable with on account of the disappearing daylight that seemed to dim every few minutes. Dropping into beautiful patches of wildflowers, golden blades of alpine high grass, and over clusters of wild strawberries – always with a weary eye on the ledge that was just one misplaced footstep away.

About 20 minutes in, we came upon the ruins of an ancient Incan fortress strategically perched on a ridge with a commanding view of mountains and valleys in all directions. But we had to admire it on the go, stopping for only a moment to take it in.

30 minutes later we began to hear the faint rumble of the Mapacho River far below. Roman yelled back to us, in a mischievous but kind voice that we were only halfway there. I yelled back that I didn’t believe him, but he stopped and gave me the medicine man look that I’ve come to know means “I’m not playing around.”

Daylight was just about gone and we were in a little bit of a pickle. We were tired – and being tired while traversing a pretty challenging mountain trail is a recipe for potential disaster. But if we slowed down, we would be trying to navigate the walls of this valley in complete darkness.

About 50 feet ahead, I heard Roman yell back “Ok, we’re about to enter the most difficult stretch. Pay very close attention to what you are doing. Pure presence, don’t get distracted.”

We traversed a ridge and saw what he was talking about. The trail went from packed earth to a steeper grade on loose rocks and an even steeper cliff to the immediate left side.

It got to a point where there was no room for any erroneous thoughts or conversation of any sort. One of those situations in life when you know your life may hang in the balance of each second that passes.

Breathing hard as we went, it became too steep to walk so we accelerated into a crouched trot. Our headlamps turned on and pointed at the ground directly underneath us.

I heard a subtle voice inside begin to chatter, “What in the hell have you gotten yourself into? You’ve gone too far this time.” I tensed momentarily, looked over the edge down into the ravine, and tripped over a rock underfoot. I lurched forward, and grabbed onto a small shrub to keep myself upright and on the path – close one.

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I involuntarily started repeating a mantra to myself:

“One step at a time. Eyes on the path, not on the edge. My breath is my friend. Trust in nature.”

I said these words over and over to keep any other thoughts out of my mind, and the fear at bay. As the terrain got harder, the trot turned into more of a dance, each step following the rhythm of the mantra, and conforming to the shape of each rock and curve ahead. No thinking, just doing, reacting, surviving.

The spirit of the valley was coursing through my body, as fear gave way to joy.

A spirit gliding through the night, began to ask some rather innocent questions of the body it inhabited. Whose nose was this that was smelling the warm high jungle breeze? Whose brow is this, dripping with salty sweat?

I had lost the understanding of who Nick Polizzi was – and had gained the understanding of who I was.

There was no ego left. I had become the valley around me. It might sound counterintuitive, but this built-in survival device was not needed to stay alive on the mountain.

Up ahead, I saw Roman’s headlamp stop moving and turn back at me. As I approached the bright beacon in the dark, he said in a winded voice, “Ok. The worst is behind us, we’re almost there.”

25 minutes later, we were crossing an old rope bridge, creaking as we walked over the fast waters of the Mapacho River. Moments later, we were entering the Paititi camp, greeting the staff and permaculture students that were waiting for us.

That night, as we ate dinner with Roman and three of his shaman apprentices, I told them how I had become no one on the mountain. Roman smiled a big toothy grin and said “It’s amazing how fast our illusions fall away when our life is on the line. Isn’t it? The Mapacho Valley is very sacred and it looks like it just gave you your first dose of medicine.”

Life is a ceremony in itself.

To be continued…

Nick Polizzi
Director, The Sacred Science

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6 Responses

  1. I so enjoy reading about your adventures, and learning about the Shaman people. It is fascinating
    Keep your stories coming

  2. “What in the hell have you gotten yourself into? You’ve gone too far this time.” 🙂 Easy to laugh over here, when reading this in a comfortable chair in highly developed Denmark. How awesome is your life Nick?!?

  3. I walked the Inca Trail for six days and it changed my life forever. I will always remember the details of that journey. It was me facing so many things that existed within, that I could not see in my everyday life. I remember barely being able to walk in the altitude and being sick in my tent, then getting up the next day, after laying with fever all night, and walking on. I came into the campsite last everyday. But, when I finally got to the summit at 13,380 feet, it was glorious and life changing. I stood there in the wind coming up over the pass, and a hawk was soaring over my head….and I had MADE IT! The next morning we woke up and the young shaman who had slept next to my tent, asked me how I slept. I told him he was in my dream. He jumped up and yelled, “yes!” The rest would unfold at the sacred site when the fog cleared and the ruins appeared. What a memory.
    Thanks for your story. Just a blessing to hear the magic again.

  4. Thank you for this beautiful inspiring piece of writing – just what I needed on a Monday morning, which is somewhat different from your adventure…… it allowed me to escape groundhog day. Can you write a book?

  5. Hello,
    I really enjoy The Sacred Science website full of wonderful topics and experiences. I would like to request please to be put on your email list so I receive information from you. Thank you! May you have a pleasant, peaceful day.

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