Famous for its healing properties, ‘purging’, psychedelic visions and mental revelations, I headed back into the jungle near Iquitos to explore the notorious ayahuasca ‘medicine’. Although I had no particular ailment to cure, my interest had been sparked by hearing of the positive life altering experiences of others. A reputed retreat centre was chosen rather than try a random unknown place (there are a few horror stories out there). Here is my experience of the bizarre and often unpleasant drug popular among travellers and long used by certain groups of Amazonian Indians.
There were four times five hour ceremonies over the course of the week that took place in the circular Maloca (an indigenous communal wooden building often used for these ceremonies). 16 mattresses and ‘vomit’ buckets circled the peripheries of the room. We were each called up and given the medicine in turn by the shaman. We then lay there in the dark for the next five hours listening to various icaros (songs) sung and chanted by the shaman and other helpers. These ‘melodies’ were normally quite soothing during the inevitable and quite grim feelings of nausea. Later the local experienced shaman circled the room treating each of us in turn. This involved the light rhythmic tapping of each subject on the top of their head with what I can only describe as a handful of dry leaves. Meanwhile the same monotonous melody was chanted in a mostly undecipherable murmur. Once the ‘tapping’ was done, smoke was blown over the subject in various ways in a ritualistic, deliberate and purposeful manner all to the intermittent and rather disagreeable background sound of vomiting.
All the group ‘purged’ (vomiting and / or diarrhoea) and may have benefited from some physical healing / gut cleanse although this is hard to measure. Over the course of the week two or three people seemed to have some pretty profound insights whilst 30% to 40% experienced visions. The rest had none of the visions that ayahuasca is so famous for but we were told that maybe insights could be gained in the weeks following the retreat. “Ayahuasca knows what you need” etc. Mostly I just felt sick with an intense feeling of nausea, struggling to purge the grim dark tasting liquid. Although I felt no profound benefits, my gut seemed to improve from some previous issues. This could have been due to the change in diet or just a coincidence, however locals commonly use it to help with digestive problems from (e.g.) parasites.
Sifting through the various blogs on ayahuasca it’s rather surprising that so few of our group had visions. I had been more worried about an irreversible trip than no effect at all. It makes me wonder whether other centres put additional substances in the ‘medicine’ to give more of a ‘wow’ effect to their clients; certainly not something I’d appreciate. On reflection, I prefer that our retreat centre perhaps erred on the side of caution from a safety perspective even if it meant fewer results.
Explanations along the lines of ‘mother ayahuasca knows what you need’ don’t really hit a nerve for me. However, since some people in the group seemed to benefit perhaps it does have some medicinal use. Overall the retreat was enjoyable. Staying in your own cabin surrounded by jungle noises was a calming experience and there was a positive group spirit in spite of the inevitable disappointment for some after flying halfway around the world for no noticeable benefit.
After the ceremonies a quick boat trip to ‘Isla de las Monos’ was a delight to the senses. Rescued animals roam freely in this protected environment. On immediate arrival we were warmly welcomed by a variety of exotic species of animal. They seemed to be well looked after.
NB: This place is not to confused with a zoo by the same name 20 minutes boat ride from Iquitos (where the animals don’t appear to be well treated. In the previous week, we had hideously found ourselves visiting it by accident whilst trying to get to this place…).