You’ll want to have done more than a smidge of research before you find yourself at a 10-day retreat in the Amazonian jungle of Peru where you agree to ingest a vile, plant-based elixir that elicits vivid visions and violent vomiting. Just sayin’.
We went. We endured. And despite my poor attempt above at marketing, we’re more than glad we didn’t shy away from the adventure.
The obvious first question is “why?”
No, neither of us has a puking fetish – quite the opposite really. In fact, it’s been about 15 years since a rather nasty run in with a bottle of coconut rum left me embracing a porcelain bowl for hours. We’ve all been there – am I right?
However, in this instance, it’s unfair to look at the elements (e.g. puking) of this 10-day experience in isolation. Retreats like the one we went on last month, guide individuals on a journey to cleanse their mind, body, spirit and soul. Ayahuasca is the medicine. And as with much in life, that journey isn’t easy.
It all sounds a bit hippy-trippy, but stick with me.
The selling feature of ayahuasca, over other psychotropics like ‘shrooms, is that it works on the segment of the brain responsible for memory. As I understand it, our subconscious has a tendancy to repress bad memories, but deep down they still torment us. With the help of Peruvian shamans and various ceremonies that involve drinking ayahuasca, a person can access those memories, process the emotion/trauma and find peace. It’s also purported to cure physical illness and treat certain chemical addictions.
Although I didn’t think I had any repressed traumas, I chose to attend this retreat in the off-chance that there might be something from my past preventing me from being a human more fully capable of loving myself and others.
Rather than give you a blow-by-blow of the ten days, I’ll serve up my experience in categories: how we got there, where we slept, what we ate, how we filled our days, and yes, the ayahuasca drinking ceremonies. Just to clarify, there were only four evening ceremonies, each lasting three hours. For those who think we spent the entire time throwing up, it was more like 90 seconds total – more on that in a bit.
The retreat is a tad off the beaten path. And by beaten path I mean a rutted, muddy trail in the rainforest. From Buenos Aires we flew to Lima where we spent the night and part of the next day exploring. From what we saw of the Miraflores area, Lima was clean and provided some great vistas of the ocean.
After the day in Lima, we flew to the city of Iquitos, which was established back in the rubber boom. It’s ironic that the rubber was used to make tires, but Iquitos is totally inaccessible by car. There are roughly 500,000 people spread far and wide but we were left with the feeling that far fewer people live there.
We spent only one night in Iquitos at a small inn. The following morning, we hightailed it to a cafe where a translator/guide met us and the other six attendees of the 10-day retreat.
Seconds after we left the cafe, it felt like we were on an episode of Amazing Race – the Amazon edition. The guide from the retreat put all of us two by two into waiting moto-taxis. Iquitos had a distinctly Asian vibe – in that it was overrun by moto-taxis. With bags perched on the back, each driver was hellbent on giving us gringos a whirlwind tour of the city on our way to the port. Much honking ensued as we played a wicked game of moto-taxi leapfrog. We were in the lead until another from our crew passed on the outside in the face of oncoming traffic and so went that game for 20 minutes.
Once we arrived at the port we gathered our packs, teetered our way across precariously placed planks of wood over the water, and ambled onto the long-boat taxi that shuttled us up a tributary of the Amazon to a village of 1,000 people.
It was high water season and at times it appeared as though we were traveling over what, in low water season, would be dry ground – random power poles sticking out of the water and one-room, tin houses perched precariously above the mighty Amazon on wooden stilts.
Once we got off the water taxi, we hopped into waiting moto-taxis that took us on a 15-minute ride along muddy and rutted trails deep into the bush.
First things first. No electricity. No cellular service. Yes we did know this going into it. One of the highlights of this trip was being totally disconnected for 10 days. However, needing to rely on a flashlight between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. took some getting used to.
The retreat location has several buildings of various sizes, all with palapa roofs: a dining/cooking building, several sleeping cabins and a building in the centre where the ayahuasca ceremonies take place.
The configuration of the sleeping cabins is very basic. The building I was in had four cabins – each with a double bed, a desk, a bookcase, a toilet (thankfully, a porcelain one that flushed to lord knows where) and a shower with water from an elevated tank, the temperature of which I found more than a smidge refreshing. The walls and ceiling of the rooms are hobbled together with thin sheets of plywood. The window openings are only screens so at night I could hear every animal and insect in the wildness – with the crystal clarity as though they were on the pillow beside my head.
The screens and door are about 93 percent effective at keeping creatures out. I’m happy to report that I didn’t have a single mosquito buzzing around in my room while I tried to sleep. On the other hand, it took a few deep breaths to get accustomed sharing my room with tiny and amazingly fast tree frogs, a slow-moving toad, a few geckos, a spider bigger than the palm of my hand and two cockroaches – one I found under my sheet (thankfully before I crawled into bed), the other at my feet in the shower.
The frogs and I came to a mutual understanding that we would give each other a generous amout of personal space. After much maneuvering I was able to sweep the spider out of my room. The cockroaches are now where cockroaches go when they’ve been stomped on.
Beside my room was the hammock hut. Three hammocks – and a place where I spent hours swaying and reading. I found a small collection of novels in the dining hall left behind by prior retreatees. Reading helped me pass MANY hours. I spent so much time lazing away in the hammocks (reading, and snoozing, and pondering the universe) that most nights while I was in bed wondering what insect or frog might find its way on to my pillow, I still had that gentle swaying sensation.
What we ate
Very early on, we organized our daily routine around when we would be fed. Breakfast was at 7:30, lunch at 12:30 and dinner (when there was dinner) was at 6:30.
With very little to do at the retreat during the days we found that no sooner did we finish breakfast then would look forward to lunch, then dinner.
They incorporated rice into every meal. Believe me when I say it is possible to eat too much white rice.
On the days following our ayahuasca ceremonies we had a very basic diet. Their belief is that ayahuasca continues to work its healing magic while it’s still in your system. And thus, we shouldn’t eat things that would impede that work. Best I can figure, that’s anything that could remotely add flavour – no oil, no salt, no sugar, nor spice of any kind.
A typical breakfast after ayahuasca was a boiled egg, shredded carrots, beets, tomato, cabbage and boiled potato. Lunch and dinner were varied combinations of white rice, tofu or lentils, cooked vegetables (and perhaps your paper napkin if you really wanted something stronger tasting).
Non-diet days were marginally more exotic. Breakfast included either oatmeal or rice pudding, a variety of fruit (bananas, papayas, oranges, tree fruits I’ve never seen before), fried eggs, bread. Lunch and dinner included more rice, fried white fish and cooked veggies.
In addition to our endless supply of purified water, we had tea (lemongrass and an assortment of other herbal varieties).
There was no dinner on the nights we had an ayahuasca ceremony. This made sense given there was a high likelihood that the ayahuasca would cause us to purge and I for one was not interested in seeing all that rice again.
There is no denying our meals were beyond bland, but we could have as much of the bland offerings as we wanted. The only exercise my taste buds had over the 10 days was the foul taste of the ayahuasca – and they still haven’t forgiven me.
About halfway through the retreat, we made a solemn vow to stay away from white rice for the month of April with an option to renew that commitment into May.
There was no real agenda of activities. Purposefully, we were given what seemed like an eternity of time to be with ourselves. Meditate, read, nap, dream about food, roam the jungle, contemplate the number of ants per square metre (literally thousands). On the morning of day three I watched my fingernails grow – of course I was in the hammock at the time. I saw them grow longer on day four.
In search of some excitement, Frank and I would venture down muddy trails into the rainforest. Tentative on our first outing, we returned unscathed, which left us boldly blazing new trails on subsequent days. We always brought our water bottles and the seemingly endless paths ensured we wouldn’t get lost as long as we turned around and marched in the opposite direction. I saw more wildlife in my room than we saw when we were deep in the rainforest. Albeit, we were talking and that’s a surefire way to keep all the various monkeys (and snakes, too) out of sight.
Our guide also took our group on a three-hour rainforest walk one afternoon. There was a bit more bushwhacking than we got into on our own. He happily shared with us his knowledge on the medicinal qualities of every plant and tree we passed. That walk was a highlight. BTW, if you have hemerroids or a nasty snake bite have I got the plants for you.
Our guide also lead us on a walk into the village one afternoon. From there, we took a water taxi up the river to a lookout point where there was a tower that provided a great view of the Amazon. It was also on that outing that we hiked to the “big tree” – one of the oldest in the area at 400+ years. It was all very interesting but I was keenly focused on how I could stop in the village on the way back and smuggle salt into the camp.
On the days we had an ayahuasca ceremony the retreat organized a few toxin clearing rituals. One was a mud bath, where we were covered (head to toe) in mud from the Amazon and left in the sun to dry as a way to draw out bad energy. Another traditional practice is to be rinsed in a mixture of local stream water and ayahuasca leaves. Before our last ceremony we crowded into a small teepee/sweat lodge with a boiling cauldron in the centre – as if it wasn’t already hot enough at 40 degrees celsius during the days.
The entire retreat was focussed on health. The shaman arranged for a doctor to come to the camp three times. The first was to do a basic health assessment, including a family medical history and to measure each person’s heartbeat and blood pressure. The other visits were a follow-up after the ceremonies.
We had several meetings with the shaman during our stay to assess how we were feeling and the effects we experienced during and after the ceremonies. The shaman helped us to understand (through our interpreter) what those experiences signified and he answered questions we had.
Ayahuasca is prepared by beating the ayahuasca vine to a pulp, putting that mash in a large vat of boiling water. Adding a healthy serving of chacruna leaves and then boiling it down for about eight hours.
We arrived at the ceremony building at 8 p.m. We took take our place on one of the mattresses on the floor. The room was only lit with two candles to help us find our way.
The ceremony began when the three shaman arrived. They poured a small individual portion of ayahuasca (about four ounces the first night) into a cup. The senior shaman said a few words over the cup and then one of the younger shaman walked the cup to the first person on their mattress. He whispered what I assumed was a blessing and then handed it to the person to drink. The senior shaman refilled the cup and passed it along to the next person and so on around the room until everyone drank their portion.
At each ceremony when it came time to drink the ayahuasca we were to be mindful of what we hoped to achieve in the ceremony. That said, it was hard to stay focussed the instant the ayahuasca hit my lips. Perhaps what the shaman whispered to me in their native language was, “This will be the worst thing you’ve ever tasted. Sucker!”
Although it’s prepared fresh prior to each ceremony, it had the same bitter taste with a strong smokey finish. Blech! I think, like a good wine, they might consider having it age some. Have the sediment settle. Allow it to breath more. Something. Anything. However, four ounces was pretty easy to choke back.
Then we all continued to sit or spread out on our mattresses while the candles were extinguished and the shamans began their three-hour series of traditional chants (called icaros). They used fans of dried leaves to create hypnotic percussion throughout.
Everyone’s experience from that point was unique. What we saw, what we heard, how we felt. I was completely calm going into it and at no time did I ever feel anxious or unsafe. That’s due in large part to the genuine caring nature of the shaman.
Surprisingly, I opted to increase the amount of ayahuasca I drank in subsequent ceremonies (in consultation with the shaman). However my experiences remained fairly consistent, albeit maybe a bit more intense. I’m guessing I gulped down about eight or nine ounces in my last ceremony.
In a nutshell, once I closed my eyes, I began to see a kaleidoscope of colours with geometric shapes moving in time to the shamans’ songs. For most of the ceremonies I was on my back. I remember smiling a lot. I didn’t experience any negative thoughts. There were certain scenes that would surface and sensations that filled me with an overwhelming sense of love mixed with joy. It’s really impossible to describe.
At no time did I feel like I was out of control. When my eyes were closed I was having a good old electric light show, but at any time when I opened my eyes, I was lucid and knew exactly where I was. There were times when I had to leave the ceremony building to go to the bathroom. To walk felt like I had enjoyed a few glasses of wine. The fact that it was dark and we needed to navigate with a flashlight on uneven ground was more the issue.
As for throwing up – it happens. When you know it’s going to happen it’s a bit easier. Because the ayahuasca is so bitter, my stomach (which was empty other than water) tended to revolt about halfway through my second and third ceremonies.
Thankfully, we each had a small pail beside our mattress. The advice we were given was that if you feel you need to throw up, don’t fight it. “Purging is part of the process.” Without getting too graphic, it came out about as fast as it took to drink. After which I wiped my mouth, had a swig of water and felt a whole lot better. Then flipped on to my back, closed my eyes and continued the show.
With about 30 minutes remaining in the ceremony I felt the effects of the ayahuasca wearing off. I was more aware of being in the room and just listening to the amazingly rich night sounds of the jungle.
At 11 p.m. the shamans wound down their songs and we headed back to our rooms for the night. I had no problems falling asleep (other than thinking about what might be in bed with me). Others had fitful sleeps following the ceremonies and some felt hung over the following day.
That wasn’t the case for me. I felt completely fine the days following the ceremonies. Nothing was going to keep me from my hammock time.
Jungle rescue (to make a long post even longer)
Nothing, maybe, but rescuing a newborn kitten from certain death – and in doing so being adopted by the jungle momma cat. You might dismiss this tale as an ayahuasca hallucination, but I assure you it’s true and another highlight of my time at the retreat.
On our second morning, I woke up and heard what sounded like a kitten being strangled somewhere in the very large space between the ceiling and the palapa roof. The noise would stop after a few minutes then I’d hear it again an hour or so later.
It was perplexing. The sounds in the rainforest are hard to describe. At night we’d hear screeching monkeys and flying insects that sounded like animals. I wasn’t really sure what the intermittent noise was above the ceiling. But since I had nothing but time, I set out to investigate. You know… pull the desk out of my room, balance the chair on top of it, then climb up and stick my head under eaves to check it out. We’d all do that in the jungle, right?
Okay, so I did all of that except put my head in there.
When I started to hear the noise again, I turned my phone’s video recorder on and lifted it up into the space above the ceiling.
This video reveals what I saw and heard:
Based on how long I’d heard the intermittent screeching, the kittens were only three days old and one had been tangled in the netting for at least a day and a half.
We jumped into action. I was nervous that the feral momma cat would aggressively try to protect her kittens. I clambered back up on my makeshift scaffolding and kept my eye on momma as I attempted to untangle the kitten. Momma was keenly interested in the four kittens closest to her.
Trying to untangle the kitten as it wailed wasn’t working so Frank brought me a small set of scissors from his toiletry bag. That did the trick. In a few seconds I had cut away the net and nudged the wayward kitten on the path to momma.
About an hour later I climbed back up to see how things were going and all five kittens were feeding and momma didn’t even raise her head to look at me. Huge relief.
The following day when I was on the hammock I was surprised to see the momma cat by my cabin door. That was the first time I’d seen her outside. I slowly approached her. She was very skittish. I crouched down and tried calling her over. She was hesitant but moved closer. She was meowing and walked around me in wide circles. I stayed still and she circled closer and closer until she rubbed against my legs.
I stood up slowly and to my surprise she followed me back to the hammock. Still a bit unsure about being so close, she inched forward and then I reached down and lifted her onto the hammock with me. We had a good cuddle and then she heard others coming up the path and she darted away.
Each day after, she would show up at my door on her daily hunt for food. I checked on the kittens and they were squirming with their eyes still shut. In subsequent days I brought a bit of egg soaked bread for momma. She was a skinny thing and not much more than a kitten herself.
Momma and kittens were still doing well on our last day when I checked on them before we returned to reality.
Although I joke a lot about roughing it at the retreat, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The remote location, my ‘roommates’, the diet, being cut off from the world for 10 days, getting to know the shamans and learning about their traditions and customs, slamming back a few ayahuascas – all of it contributed to a life reset of sorts. I see myself and others a bit differently now. I’m still sorting through it, but doing so with greater love and compassion for myself and, I hope, for others.
Next adventure – our re-entry to Canada.