Those who come to Peru to experience ayahuasca – which is completely legal here (just like san pedro and other strong substances), unlike cannabis – make their way to Iquitos. Of course, it’s possible to experience ayahuasca also in Pucallpa, Tarapoto etc. (actually even in the mountains in Cuzco), but Iquitos is simply the top destination for this purpose.
I’ve written a lot about ayahuasca, but still get people asking me for more information and others confining to me how some mediator cheated on them, and how their dream journey was never what they had expected. Many are surprised that the retreats are so expensive and it is difficult to explain to them that spiritual tourism IS after all business.
Opinions on the effects of the vine of the soul or the vine of the death vary. When someone asks me about my personal experience with this medicine, I answer: “If the ceremony takes place when you are ready and well-instructed, if you work with the right people and respect the rules of the ritual, you are heading for great knowledge and understanding.”
What is Ayahuasca
The preparation of the ayahuasca potion
The “mother of medicine” (madre medicina) from the Amazon, which used to be available only to tribal communities in the Amazon rainforest, is becoming an article that is used practically all over the world for spiritual journeying since the 1960s. Unfortunately, the demand for the unique medicine also leads to spiritual tourism, which is not always fair and friendly to nature or in terms of interpersonal cooperation.
Ayahuasca is an entheogen prepared from the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and other plants containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The name ayahuasca also refers to the vine itself. It is always a good idea to ask the mediator of the ceremony with whom you are communicating what other plants have been added to the ayahuasca and in what quantities. This is what determines how good the drink will be. The drink was first described academically by ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes (Harvard), who explored its use for healing and magical purposes by the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon.
Alkaloids from Banisteriopsis caapi act pharmacologically as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which is synergistic with dimethyltryptamine from the plants added, which would be immediately metabolised and inactive without them. How the natives discovered this combination is not entirely clear, according to them, the instructions for preparing the drink were given to them by the spirits of the plants. DMT is a substance present in trace amounts in the bodies of mammals, especially in the pineal gland. It is produced naturally from brain neurons and may contribute to some aspects of higher-order brain functions, such as conscious information processing or learning, memory, etc. Shamans and healers claim that when DMT is active in greater than a trace amount, we consciously perceive what and why we do. The connections from the past, the present and, for some people, the future, become clearer.
A Bit about Terminology
Ayahuasca is traditionally used by Amazonian natives in a ritual context in the presence of experienced shamans (chamanes). Today, however, they also allow healers (curanderos) not only from the Amazon jungle and not only from the Amazon countries to work with the plant; within a few months, they pass on their knowledge to them (often for a high “tuition”), so that these healers can then transport medicine to other countries and continents, where they often conduct ceremonies themselves. However, keep in mind that SHAMANS are only those born into the tribal cultures most often of the American and African continent, certain parts of the Asian continent (Nepal, Mongolia, etc.) and other continents (Aborigines, etc.). It is NOT possible for anyone to adopt this term just because they can apply some art of healing; those are simply healers (curanderos). And those who simply have good knowledge about herbs and plants in general are herbalists (naturalistas, herbalistas). Chamanes, naturalistas and curanderos can be both women and men; for example, in the Chilean Mapuche community, female shamans are even more common than male shamans.
Cross section of ayahuasca vine
Curandero can be born into a civilian family living in the city. Curanderos may or may not be using the traditional smoking, chakapa, rattles, etc. during their healing practise. For shamans, these healing spiritual practices, where they purify and work with spirits (mountains, forests, waters, fires, etc.), are absolutely essential. They tend to have a strong gift of clairvoyance. They know exactly where to find this or that herb in the jungle, where they can come across an animal whose help they need, they know perfectly the totems and medicine of individual animals.
Mediators are the ones we usually communicate with before the event, as they arrange everything around the organization. Mediators can live and work anywhere and mediate rituals with tribal curanderos who are willing to travel. Shamans, on the other hand, travel very rarely. Some curanderos are also mediators.
Just as there are great doctors in the Western hospitals and then doctors with whom you simply do not have the right confidence, you may come across curanderos and mediators who do not act desirably.
Ayahuasca Retreats – The Diets
Many come not only to Peru, but also to Colombia and Northern Brazil, or even to Ecuador, Mexico, Chile and other Central and South American countries, to experience the ayahuasca rituals. Needless to say, the retreats, or diets, as they are called because before and during the retreat a special diet needs to be followed (commonly, one only eats fish from the river, eggs, veggies, fruits, rice, grains, all unflavoured, without oils and salt), are nothing cheap.
Unfortunately, due to the expansion of spiritual tourism, the jungle suffers, for example due to the overuse of ayahuasca vines or kambo frogs (whose gel can remove various toxins from the human body). And it’s not just the jungle: in Peru, currently there is a huge lack of sandalwood (palo santo), as it is being shipped to the whole world (no wonder, in Peru you pay 2 USD for a kg).
So, if you want to come to the jungle for your journeying, be cautious and conscious: only do the diets if you feel you need to heal at some level, not as a form of experimenting! Bring only eco-friendly products, especially shampoos and soaps that are biodegradable as they will most probably end up in the river when you take a shower, and work with people who charge fair and act fair.
Unlike the weekend (two-night ceremonies) you might have experienced with curanderos in the Western world, the retreats in the jungle usually take place for a week at least, rather two or three, possibly longer. The rituals during these diets usually occur every other night but each community would have its rules.
Preparing for the Retreat
Make sure your mediator informs you well about all that you need to know.
The handcrafted textiles of the Shipibo community reflect some of the patterns seen often when journeying with ayahuasca.
Two weeks prior to the retreat, stop the usage of any drugs and supplements – ideally also prescribed medication. When in doubt (as there might be some medicine you need to use due to your health condition), consult with your mediator as well as your physician what to do. Practically all prescribed medicine needs to cease being used latest three days before the first ritual. Know that there ARE certain health conditions which simply are not compatible with ayahuasca. The mediator should advise you.
Fresh and healthy foods, ideally a vegetarian diet, should be your choice for a week (at least) before the retreat. Potatoes, vegetables, fruits as well as grains, bread, rice, cereals and pasta are the way to go about this diet. If you are not a vegetarian, it is best to limit yourself to (minimal amounts of) chicken, turkey and fish. Do not use spices and limit the intake of salt and sugar. Foods that contain the amino acid “tyramine” do not go well with ayahuasca. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants.
Many artists get greatly inspired by the ayahuasca journeying. This painting is by Peruvian artist Roberto Amaringo. Copyright: www.facebook.com/ayahuascaartclub
Three days prior to the retreat: refrain from all alcohol, fermented cheeses and other fermented foods (canned foods, sauerkraut, soy, tempeh, kimchee), old cheeses (young cheese, ricotta, mozzarella), overripe bananas or avocados, figs and raisins, dairy products, all meet and fish, large amounts of nuts and seeds, chocolate, protein extracts or supplements, yeast extract, artificial sweeteners, energizing tea, energy drinks, nose sprays, sexual interactions. Drink plenty of water.
Retreats in Iquitos
Most agencies in Iquitos would be offering ayahuasca retreats among their tourist packages. On the internet, you will also find various communities offering their ayahuasca retreats. And once at your river lodge near Iquitos – to enjoy some days off canoeing, swimming and relaxing – the manager of the property might also offer to get you in touch with the local communities that do the rituals with tourists.
I don´t have any experience with those packages offered by agencies and neither have I ever blindly taken part in a retreat found online. All my experiences with the madre medicina and other healing substances were taken with people well-recommended to me by my family or very close friends.
You should know that most of the communities not only don’t speak English, but neither do they speak Spanish. They have their dialects, which might make it complicated for the communication. However, in each community, there is usually at least one person speaking enough Spanish to arrange the details with you and give you the information needed.
If you do not have anyone truly recommended to you by someone you trust, but want to go to a retreat, rather than choosing blindly or opting for an agency, go for a certainty, which is a retreat with the Ayahuasca Foundation which cooperates with the renowned Shipibo native community. Not only they have great reputation but they also offer the service you might expect as a Westerner and the manager speaks perfect Spanish and English as he is a US born citizen originally. The Ayahuasca Foundation was recently mentioned also in Zac Efron´s documentary Down to Earth, so I don´t think it needs a lot of introduction. Simply see their web HERE to learn more.
Their prices are not low, but then you have a guarantee to really get the best service for what you pay and your money is sure to go to help the communities whose life is not easy, I have mentioned a bit about that in my article HERE. And the foundation also supports some important projects in the rainforest.
To learn more about ayahuasca, the preparation of the medicine, the rituals and their differences in Brazil and Colombia, please see my article HERE.