“No meat. No spice. No alcohol. No sex.”
No fun, I thought.
We were dining at the Yellow Rose of Texas in Iquitos, Peru, and a sign above our table taunted us with the rules for the Ayahuasca retreat.
“Do you think we’re hippie enough for this?” Claire asked me.
I answered with a doubtful glance and continued to push tasteless boiled vegetables around my plate, resisting the urge to reach for salt.
I’d arrived in Iquitos after spending a week exploring the Amazon Rainforest from Leticia, Colombia. I’d come to experience the natural wonders -- the world’s largest river, the sprawling rainforest, the pink dolphins and the arapaima, a prehistoric-looking fish that can grow up to 15 feet in length.
It was in Leticia that I first heard talk of Ayahuasca and the stories of spiritual awakening at the hands of healing shamans. Backpackers had stumbled into my hostel one night, looking wary and sleep deprived, having just returned from an Ayahuasca ceremony.
“It was crazy shit,” was all they could summon.
In a flurry of research, I learned that Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic concoction used for healing purposes by the native people of Northern Peru and the surrounding Amazon region. It’s made by mixing chacruna leaves, which contain the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), with the ayahuasca vine. Ayahuasca has been used to achieve spiritual clarity and healing by shamans and their followers for centuries. In the past few decades, its popularity has been spreading well beyond the thick jungle walls.
After a 10-hour boat ride down the Amazon River, the only way to reach Iquitos unless you fly, I noticed a young woman with blonde hair who also appeared to be traveling alone. We gravitated toward each other in the chaos of passengers catching bags as they were tossed from the roof of our boat. Her name was Claire and the sound of her friendly, British accent was a relief. Claire was equally relieved to hear that I’d already booked a hostel, and asked if she could join.
“Have you heard about this?” I asked Claire as we checked in, pointing to a flyer for an Ayahuasca retreat at our hostel’s front desk.
“That’s actually why I’m here. I’ve got some numbers of recommended retreats in the area. You should join me.”
My stomach twitched.
My research had also exposed me to the concerns surrounding Ayahuasca’s recent popularity. The surge in tourists coming to Iquitos for the jungle’s medicine has led to increased reports of sexual abuse, excessive potency and even deaths. But these frightening tales have not thwarted the thriving industry -- tourists continue to pour in looking for everything from spiritual guidance to a cure for cancer.
Yet Ayahuasca is a trusted medicine in the communities that call the Amazon Rainforest home. In 2009, the Peruvian government even declared it an official pillar of the national culture.
I agreed to a six-day Ayahuasca retreat with Claire. I figured, what harm could there be in experiencing local culture?
Of course, I still had some anxiety. There was the troubling “cleansing” aspect. Not only does Ayahuasca allow you to see, hear and feel things beyond your present reality, but you also purge, physically. I was haunted by tales of violent retching and uncontrollable diarrhea, on top of frightening visions.
Now we sat in front of another flavorless meal, quiet, hungry and eyeing each other between uninspired bites.
On the banks of a local family’s riverside home the following day, we piled into a stuttering motor boat and slid into the jungle. When we stumbled out of our vessel onto soggy land -- the river lapping against the grass and soaking through our shoes — we were greeted by two women, each in long, flowing skirts, who chatted like old friends as they walked toward us. Stephanie was from Maine; Bev, from Australia. Both of them looked perfectly at home standing there in the long jungle grass.
The retreat leader emerged next, with open arms and two more visitors at his side. A casual closeness between this group of retreat participants was already visible as the seven of us stood there. Introductions shifted to personal questions as we made our way to the main hut, where a long wooden table provided a place for conversations that would continue throughout the week.
“Why are you here?”
“What do you hope to discover?”
“Is there something you’re looking for?”
I remained quiet, but was fascinated by their comfort with this experience, so foreign to us all.
Claire and I walked down a narrow pathway to our sleeping quarters — two open floors with only a mosquito-netted bed and a hammock in each. The walls were screens and the surrounding trees clawed gently from four sides.
I plopped myself down with a heavy sigh, overwhelmed by the absurdity of all of this. The monkeys swinging from nearby trees cackled in my direction.
The day of our first ceremony flew by much faster than I had hoped. In the morning, we were instructed to relax with our thoughts -- to focus on what we wanted Ayahuasca to reveal. Everyone scattered to various quiet corners, curling up on bean bags with books, rocking gently in hammocks and taking barefoot walks down the muddy paths that wove around the retreat.
My thoughts darted every which way as I sat alone on a dock, but they mostly settled on fears and anxieties surrounding the swiftly approaching night.
At 8 p.m., it was time.
When we arrived at the ceremony hut, a circular structure with a thatched roof, so secluded from the rest of the lot that I hadn’t yet noticed it, I was immediately aware of how much I could not see in the small, dark room. A single candle flickered in the center of our yoga-mat circle, and as I struggled to make out the faces around me, I found only grey outlines of seemingly calm figures.
I felt completely alone.
The retreat leader introduced us to the shaman -- our spiritual guide for the evening. He was lit just well enough for me to see a friendly smile spread across his face. His thick build and cross-legged position gave him the silhouette of a Buddha, welcoming us all with palms turned upward.
The shaman drank first, and then began to sing softly, inviting the spirit of Ayahuasca to join us, as we were each called up to take our Ayahuasca servings.
Crouching clumsily for my turn, I took the wooden cup and threw back a chalky, bitter substance. It clung to my mouth with its earthy, sour thickness — worse than the many descriptions I’d read, one of which was “akin to blended toad.” Back at my mat, I gulped down water with so much desperation that the sound filled the otherwise silent space.
I lay back down and prayed to whatever entities lingered near to keep the twitching weight in my stomach from crawling up my chest. I relaxed my muscles, breathed deeply and hoped for the best.
We were then invited forward a second time for a reading with the shaman. The Ayahuasca allowed him to dive into our psyches, and address one question to which we sought answers.
I asked for help with my anxiety -- something I’ve battled my entire life. Lying there with my eyes closed, I listened closely to the shaman’s deep incantations as he traveled through the spirit world, searching for my answers. Brass “singing bowls” were placed open-side-down on my belly and chest, and tapped to send reverberations through my limbs.
Then the shaman spoke. He spoke no English, and I could only catch a few of his Spanish words, but eventually the retreat leader translated for me.
The shaman had seen me crouching and drinking from a stream. There was beauty all around me, but I wasn’t looking up. It was in the air and in the water I drank. But I didn’t notice.
I returned to my mat with the shaman’s vision fresh in my mind, and waited for my own reaction to the spirit vine to begin. But still, nothing.
The rest of the ceremony found me slipping into boredom and confusion. After three times the original dose, I resigned to a brief nap while others worked their way through thrilling and bizarre hallucinations.
“F*** my mother! F*** my mother!” I awoke to a man next to me, shouting in a panic.
The shaman came to his side, placing a strong hand on his back.
“Tranquilo, tranquilo,” he said in a baritone voice that still sounded like singing, leading the man back to a less angry place.
In response, the man coughed up some phlegm into his bucket and lay back down, curled up now like a baby.
The next morning, I told the retreat leader of my disappointing night. Despite the nauseating sounds of sickness around me, I hadn’t even purged.
He suggested I was suffering from blockage of the emotional variety, and a nervous system that was fighting the medicine.
“Where do you call home?” he asked me, scrupulously.
“Most recently, New York City.”
“Ah. Yes, that’ll do it. New York City is full of anxious people. You’re hard-wired to resist release.”
But anxiety was exactly why I wanted answers. Could it also prevent me from finding them?
The retreat leader then explained the effects of Ayahuasca aren’t always experienced immediately. They could be slow and subtle.
“Don’t worry,” he offered. “The spirits have already gone to work on you.”
That afternoon we sat in a circle to discuss the previous night.
Bev spoke first with a deep, controlled breath – the type we’d been coached to implement during ceremonies, ensuring calm and focus on our thoughts.
She was a middle-aged woman, a raw vegan who worked in an alternative medicine shop in Melbourne. She’d been in a car accident that nearly killed her. When she came out of a coma, her body was a collection of broken bones and pain. Her family was absent. Her friends weren’t there. And none of them were coming. Bev had nearly died and there was no one in her life that had shown up to stick by her while she fought.
But she did fight, and now, she cried.
Bev had traveled 14,000 miles to Iquitos, Peru, with hopes that Ayahuasca could turn her life around and help her cope with the abandonment she’d experienced.
The previous night had shown her strength. She described feeling the weight and the power of every bone, every muscle, every joint. She’d felt the physical capabilities of her body that had nearly been taken away.
Several of us cried with her as she looked around, offering this vulnerability to a group that no longer felt like strangers.
The following night began a lot like the first.
Darkness. Waiting. Gulping. Waiting. Fear. Relaxation. Waiting.
But at some point I sat up and opened my eyes – baffled yet again by my lack of visions.
As my sight settled into the darkness, I could see the individuals around me. I watched their morphing expressions, and felt them too. Heartbreak, joy, resentment, fury, all played out across barely visible faces.
Claire let out a giggle that broke through the silence of our hut with its uninhibited happiness. She was talking to someone I couldn’t see. It felt good to hear her joy, and I started to laugh with her.
I eventually dozed off again, with images of snakes crawling through my sleep. They may have been spurred by the Ayahuasca, or they may have simply been dreams inspired by the real-life jungle creatures that lingered nearby.
When I awoke, the hut was empty. I’d feared this happening -- being left alone in the middle of the jungle to be fed upon by spiders and panthers. Yet I felt relaxed and calm for the very first time since we’d arrived. Eventually, one of the retreat assistants returned to walk me back to my hut.
He hadn’t wanted to wake me in my peaceful state.
Two days later, our time at the retreat came to a close, and we boarded the creaky vessel once again, this time with embraces and promises to keep in touch.
I looked into the eyes of people who had changed -- their faces now lit by the brilliance of early morning sun.
The emotional impact of those people and the jungle were clear to me, as we snaked back along the Amazon River, but the power of the plant spirit we’d come to meet remained murky.
I’d seen the medicine at work in those around me. I’d heard it in their shouts and hysterics, laughter and sickness. I’d sensed it in the beautiful voice of the shaman as the singing bowls rang against my racing heart.
I thought of the river from the shaman’s vision -- not having to imagine one as I dipped my hand in the passing water and felt its refreshing coolness splash across my arm. I looked up at the sun and felt the comforting warmth on my face.
Perhaps it was bold of us to expect an ancient practice, so ingrained in the culture of those who spent their entire lives on this river, to take root in our psyches. For Bev, it had. But for me, the effects would have to be more subtle.
Ayahuasca did not inspire the dramatic reaction that I expected. But this place was so beautiful, maybe it didn’t have to.