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I spent 16 days at Ayahusca Perú, a centre located in the Western edge of the Amazons, a geography that spans through, Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador, Colombia and Brasil. Ayahuasca is a traditional indigenous medicinal psychotropic drink brewed from the thick bark-like vine of the ayahuasca plant and the leaves of the chacruna plants. Well the version I drank and prepared was. I was told by the caretakers of the centre that the vine makes you ‘dizzy’ and the leaf gives you ‘visions’. You can read all about the active ingredients DMT and Harmaline online to know how it actually affects your brain. And though I read a lot of literature (see reading list at end) before and during this journey it still felt completely unique and unexpected. I may be open-minded enough to find my way to the amazons to experience ayahuasca and have my own philosophy of the larger picture and meaning of the universe and our place in it, but I also maintain a healthy scepticism, a western-educated rational brain and a constant need to define and explain things logically. All of which I could easily do with this experience, yet would make for much less interesting reading material than if I just admitted that it was the most tangible experience of an alternate and magical world that I have ever experienced. Any comparison to recreational drugs seems superficial and disconnected, experiencing the effects of ayahuasca was directly connected to the ceremony and the curanderos or healers, as well as the intense level of detoxing and fasting that accompanied the experience.
Before I tell you about the actual ceremonies some context. Ayahuasca is considered a medicine that is administered by curanderos through ritual ceremonies that include icaros or mystic chanting, tobacco smoked through a ritual pipe, palo santo smoke (a type of scented wood) and Agua de Florida, a kind of perfumed flower water. The curanderos are the pilots, ayahuasca is the vehicle and you are the passenger. I cannot really imagine separating these three integral parts. Before arriving at the centre I was told to begin detoxing by reducing salt, sugar, eliminating fat and meat from my diet and no sex. During my stay I ate very simply, fruit for breakfast, boiled rice with some basic veggies for lunch and dinner, no salt or any condiments. Ceremonies were held every other day and on those days lunch at noon was a simple vegetable broth with some bits in it, no salt of course, and no food til the next morning, so you basically fasted every other day. I did quickly lose some weight! Was impressed how fast I dropped and then how my body shifted my metabolism to slow down from its usual faster speed. The simple diet and fasting alone gives you a certain lucidity. I was staying in a cabin that was a bit removed from the rest of the centre. Though there was a capacity of up to 17 guests, there was only one other person, a French Canadian woman who mostly like me, kept to herself in her cabin. Over the course of 16 days I completed 7 ceremonies, drinking ayahuasca 6 times. All of the ceremonies were at the centre except one, where I ventured out to visit a local curandero to have a different and more local experience. More on that later...
The centre was located on a large island bordered on one side by a huge lagoon and on another by a river. Inhabitants on the island were limited, as there was no electricity and two months out of the year the island was covered in about a metre of water, so all constructions on the island were elevated. This was located a short distance from the city of Pucallpa in eastern Perú near the border with Brasil. I flew to Pucallpa where they picked me up in a mototaxi and drove me to a boat which went across the lagoon to the centre. This is the most diverse region of the Amazon, as the jungle meets the foothills of the Andes mountains. Ten acres of jungle here have the same variety of trees as all of Europe. An acre of land has the same amount of variety of ants as all of Britain. The jungle is teeming with iguanas, lizards, chameleons, monkeys, sloth bears, huge amounts of colourful birds, majestic birds of prey, crocodiles, abundant fish, dolphins, piranhas and that's just what I saw…
On the ceremonies themselves… Each ceremony was completely different. There was the caretaker of the centre always present, and two lovely curanderos who were part of the Shipibo tribe. They had Shipibo names but I was introduced via their Spanish names Antonio and Alejandrina. Antonio is 92 years old and Alejandrina, his wife, is 80. They seemed quite old and frail, yet had a real spark to them when they spoke. Their accents sounded a bit Portuguese to me, I have no idea if this is because we were close to the border of Brasil. There was a special ceremonial room that was circular, and we began around 21:30 to 22:00 and were usually done by 2am. The entire ceremony was held in the dark, and you lay down with your head towards the middle of the room. Antonio would whisper incantations into the agua florida and the ayahuasca, which the caretaker would then bring over, bless you with the water, anoint your forehead, wrists, nape of your neck, and top of your feet with ayahuasca cream, and then give you a small very old ceremonial Inca clay cup to drink the ayahuasca from. I was told that Antonio’s chants sent you ‘travelling’ and Alejandrina’s chants brought you 'down'. I can’t totally attest if this was true, though I can definitely say that there singing affected the experience and there was the sensation of being taken through a vortex through the song and the effects of the drink, and also of returning and becoming aware of your surroundings when the chants paused or ended.
On the first day you drink a small amount of a green grassy tasting extract of the plant Piñón Colorado, and a large pitcher of warm water which activates the purging. Depending on your levels of toxicity affects how much you will purge. I was told young people who arrive full of toxins from drug use purge quite a lot. I was quite content feeling totally fine and then suddenly threw it all up. But it wasn’t at all painful, more like an immediate reflex. Luckily the cabin had an outhouse as the purge really cleans you out through and through. You feel pretty lucid after and I wondered why we don't get to do that more often! Especially with the lifestyles we live in the big cities I’ve spent my life in, I think it's a healthy kick start.
My first ceremony was mild, I felt dizzy and I fell asleep. I didn't realise the ceremony was over, until the caretaker called my name and told me so. He had told me that they take it easy the first session. I did awaken later in the night and was extremely dizzy, but fell asleep again until morning. The second and third session were absolutely intense. I had extremely lucid visions which felt like a cross between reality and a dream state. I was aware I was in a trance like state, but was completely involved in the world I was seeing. Every once in a while you zone back into reality and could if you wanted go out to the bathrooms, but I never did, I was quite happy to lay there and zone back out again. DMT is found in our Pineal Gland and is released when we dream, so you can imagine what a spike in this does to your brain. Unlike dreams you remain aware you are in a vision state during ayahuasca, and can actively make choices, change scenarios and receive and give information. One of the things I had been told about was the animal archetypes that come during ayahuasca like jaguar, birds of prey and serpents. These were intense and very real. I saw the ayahuasca vines as serpents inside of me, not frightening at all, I could see the way the serpents moved as electrical impulses and they travelled throughout my entire body, something many sometimes one giant one. Sometimes coming down through my head and sometimes in through my stomach. I also saw the two curanderos as large anacondas each singing their icaros behind me… Sometimes they chanted in unison, sometimes two different chants which weaved together like a pattern, sometimes one then the other. I spoke with my deceased relatives, some I never met, and saw situations from my life in a total other context and light. I saw myself transform into a black jaguar which at times I embodied, fully feline and strong, and a times was me, but sat above me protecting me as I lay there. I flew out over the ceremonial hut and went travelling around the world, where I saw different times and cultures and places, anchored into the eyes of a person... Most of all I saw an incredible network of interconnected systems of energy that made up the 99% of the reality around us that is not material. This alone was fantastic, a sense of total connectedness and a feeling of deep understanding. Visually it resembled the kaleidoscopic patterns we may see when we shut our eyes, or the traditional Shipibo pattern-making which are all influenced by ayahuasca.
At the end of one of the ceremonies when I felt myself return to reality and the icaros ended I was so happy… I sat up and thanked the curanderos whom we called maestros. Alejandrina said to me: "we haven't taken the ayahuasca out yet" I didn't understand what she meant… They starting singing and I sat with my eyes closed feeling quite content and suddenly it felt like the plant just leapt out of me, I vomited into a bucket, I could see it as a vine exiting my body...
My fourth ceremony was rough. I felt quite sick and often vomited. One of the things I did realise is that when you visit anything negative in your mind, a memory, an event or situation, you feel a twist on your gut and you usually get sick. It is as if you expel the negativity of that out of your body in a physical way. The medicinal belief is that 80% of illnesses in the human body are psychological and can be cured through ayahuasca. The curandero puts a hand on you and tells you what you need healed. But there are times they may lay hands on you and recommend you go to the hospital, sometimes stating the illness before its been diagnosed. As I didn't go for healing I went for the experience I cannot attest personally, but I did speak with a local man who ran a small shop of artisanal handicrafts who told me how he was on his deathbed and was healed by a local curandero. He mentioned his sister-in-law was unwell and was going to visit the curandero across the lagoon so I left the centre one evening, got on a canoe across to a small village, and ended up in a curanderos house who was of the Campa tribe. The village had electric and shops though rudimentary. Behind the house was an open wooden thatched roof structure, and about 10 locals who had come for a cure to various ailments. We positioned ourselves jigsaw laying along the wood floor which had corse blankets on them. When everyone was settled the curandero gave everyone a shot glass of ayahuasca, which they drank in a single gulp. I tried but the bitter taste was difficult and did it in two. He offered a two other young men a second drink as well as myself. One lad took another, one refused, and I decided to go for it. He didn’t sing icaros like the other curanderos. He sort of did a whispered whistle and was mostly quiet. The trip was strong, I felt very out of it, in and out of touch of the physical world. I saw the curandero as a large bird that was hopping around the space going to each person and blowing smoke on them. I was content to be laying there, on the edge of a village in the amazons, surrounded by locals and having a real intense journey.
The next morning we went back to the island with the sister-in-law and her husband. She told me she felt nothing, it had been her first time. In an elated state I walked with them through marshland and low jungle to a canoe where two lads were sleeping waiting for us. I sat at the bow and watched as we slowly emerged from a jungle river into the lagoon as the sun came up. The world seemed so alive, water, plants, air, animals and people all part of this intricate system, a fabric of energy that underlines everything and connects everything and for the first time seemed tangible and visible and comprehensible to me… That one moment I will really carry with me and revisit...
My final ceremony at the centre I didn’t drink ayahuasca, I told the caretaker I was quite happy with the experience and would only listen. Taking part of ceremonies and healing through song is also part of the culture. I’m really glad I did too because I wondered what the ceremony would feel like, was taking a psychotropic drink enough? This was my closing ritual where they place the ‘arcana’ or shield to protect you, as post-ayahuasca you are clear and clean and thus vulnerable. The ceremony was short, and as they sang and came to me with smoke and agua florida I definitely felt like they were operating on my inner being. I was happy to know that I could genuinely feel the effects of the curanderos even without the ayahuasca to convince myself of their crucial role in the process…
The magic of the jungle became real and tangible. I couldn’t say that's a world I'd want to be in more, but I am happy to have experienced it. There is so much more I am leaving out, but this is the beginning of my story. The experience was really challenging and also enlightening, but all great leaps require effort. I don't think I could even recommend this to everyone, I’m still processing my own experience and I can imagine it being incredibly difficult for some. Perhaps I would recommend it for its purpose, to heal, both physically and emotionally. Or to give someone a deeper perspective on life.
But that is of course if that's what you’re seeking…
Claudio Naranjo - Ayahuasca: la enredadera del rio celestial
César Calvo - Las Tres Mitades de Ino Moxo: y otros brujos de la amazonia
Carlos Castaneda - Las Enseñanzas de Don Juan
Jeremy Narby: Intelligence in Nature
Guillermo Arévalo Valera - Las Plantas Medicinales y sus Beneficias Para la Salud.
Charles Darwin - The Expressions of Emotion in Man and Animal
Joseph Ledoux - The Emotional Brain
Hermes Trismegistus - Kybalion