I’m in a panic, stumbling into countless palms and cecropia trees. I’m not far from Espíritu de Anaconda, an ayahuasca healing centre located in an isolated part of the Peruvian rain forest. I came here three days ago, taking a half-hour, two-passenger mototaxi ride from Iquitos, the gateway to the Amazonian rain forest in northern Peru.
My vision is almost completely gone, and I’ve lost all ability to judge time or distance since the effects of the ayahuasca took hold. It’s starting to rain, and the sound reminds me of popcorn in the microwave. It combines with the cacophony of insects to disorient me even more.
Hundreds of people come to Espíritu de Anaconda each year to be treated with ayahuasca (pronounced “ayuh-HWOS-cuh”), along with a simple plant-based diet and daily portions of the juices of native plants. The centre’s founder, 62-year-old Guillermo Arévalo, has been a shaman for more than 30 years. He was raised in a family of healers from the Shipibo and Aymara tribes that inhabit the Ucayali River region. He runs the centre with his wife, Sonia Chuquimbalqui, and a few apprentices. On any given night, the maloca—a large, round wooden hall where the ceremonies take place—holds one to three dozen people who hope to heal physical and mental conditions and gain spiritual insight.
I’ve also come to experience the healing process and to discover the spiritual connection to nature the plant is supposed to provide. Ever since a knee injury in university and subsequent surgery, my knee and back have been a constant problem. I’m hoping this treatment will get me back to playing sports pain-free.
The mix we drink during the ceremonies is prepared by boiling the ayahuasca vine with another plant, chacruna, to produce a powerful hallucinogen—N,N-dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT. Ayahuasca is illegal in many countries, including the U.S., Spain, and Canada, but is widely used in the Amazon region. The drink’s bitter, viscous taste and texture make you gag, and resulting effects can include vomiting and hallucinations.
Since ayahuasca was studied by legendary botanist Richard Schultes about 60 years ago, thousands of westerners have tried it in an attempt to alleviate everything from alcoholism to depression. It is also used as a tool for self-discovery and self-awareness. There may even be a reference to it in James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar. The ayahuasca, also called by Native users “vine of souls” or “vine of spirits”, is echoed in the film’s Tree of Souls. In one of the deleted scenes on the Avatar DVD, the film’s main character participates in a ceremony that closely resembles those of the ayahuasca tradition. Although the plant’s fame has been spreading throughout the western world for a few dozen years, the indigenous people of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil have been using it for hundreds of years to communicate with the spiritual world and to heal.
When I arrived, I was told I would have my initial consultation with Arévalo a few hours later. I walked around the centre, sweating profusely and observing its inhabitants. The air was heavy and thick, and the 35 ° C heat slowed down my pace.
I passed a solemn group of men who barely made eye contact. A few dozen Europeans, Americans, and South Americans strolled along the narrow paths of the 15-hectare territory, lost in their thoughts and looking like the survivors of a shipwreck. Their voices were low, and their faces looked worn-out.
When the time came for my consultation, the shaman assured me that he could help me with my personal issues during the two weeks that I would be staying there. I was lucky that one of the apprentices who were staying at the centre at the time spoke both Spanish and English—he acted as a translator during my 15-minute chat with Guillermo. I told the shaman that my main goal was to be rid of pain, but that I would also like to learn more about myself in the process. He listened carefully, sometimes asking for clarification, and prescribed a plant that would be part of my daily diet.
That night, my first ceremony was uneventful. It began with the senior apprentice, Ricardo, pouring ayahuasca into a cup for each of us. After the last person had settled into her mat, the lights were turned off and the only sounds in the maloca were those made by the night insects. The chanting started half an hour later, giving the plant enough time to take effect. Both Guillermo and Ricardo were singing for each person individually, establishing a connection with the plant that was necessary for the healing. I was the only one of the 25 participants who didn’t appear to feel any of the usual effects. I didn’t vomit, have visions, or feel any different from usual. However, the second ceremony the next day sent me blindly wandering through the forest, feeling like I’d entered other dimensions and there was no return.
Many people who ingest ayahuasca, like those in the centre’s maloca, experience fearful visions and sensations of death. They scream, wail, laugh, cry, bark, and become entranced if the potion they drink is overwhelmingly strong. Under the influence of ayahuasca, it’s also common to feel connected to the universe and gain a sense of total understanding. Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at UCLA’s school of medicine, researched these effects and believes ayahuasca may have potential as a treatment for depression and addiction.
Ayahuasca, however, is not for everyone. Its effects are unpredictable, and without proper supervision can be dangerous.
For me, every night the “mother plant”, as ayahuasca is sometimes called, brought out something new. Some nights I was calm and blissfully happy, lying quietly on my mat and smiling at beautiful colours and shapes that appeared before my eyes. Other nights I had no visions—only the physical sensation of falling or spinning, while my thoughts also spun out of control, leaving me sleep-deprived and utterly exhausted in the morning. I came to understand why people at the centre looked so haunted—the constant inner battles and revelations were draining.
By the end of my second week, I felt that my mind had been cleansed, but my body wasn’t feeling any better. I still had the knee tension and back pain I had arrived with. On my final day, I told the shaman of my disappointment. He smiled at me warmly and told me to be patient and have faith.
The visitors I befriended all had different results—some felt better, and others were instructed to continue their program, either at the centre or by maintaining the plant diet at home. For many of us, there were no magical results. But through two weeks, 10 ceremonies, 14 plain oatmeal breakfasts, and one of the scariest nights of my life, I did get a glimpse of the profound world the “vine of spirits” can open.
Access: Ayahuasca tourism is a thriving business, but many “shamans” lack the necessary skills and experience. Research the facilities carefully and get recommendations from those who have already been there. Talk to your doctor first. Espíritu de Anaconda is located 14 kilometres from Iquitos, Peru. Stays are flexible, and cost US$50 per day, including Iquitos airport pickup, food, accommodation, plant supplements, and ceremonies, based on four ceremonies per week, or US$70 per day based on six ceremonies.
By Katya Gubarev
May 13, 2010
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