critical tourist (1)

I took ayahuasca and I understood why it won't solve all the traumas. But it can help

“Are you going to Machu Picchu?” and “Are you thinking of taking ayahuasca?” were the only two questions I heard when I said I was going to Peru. I get annoyed with stereotypes, but without intending to, I ended up doing both.

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Taking Ayahuasca in Peru

I had heard a variety of stories about shamans and ayahuasca, an ancient hallucinogenic potion used by people in the Amazonian regions. The closer I got to the jungle, the more these stories intensified.

I knew it was advisable to follow a specific diet before consuming the herbal mixture: no meat, no alcohol, no sexual activity. It had become clear to me that this experience could either be profoundly enlightening or lead to paranoia and distress. Having suffered from anxiety for as long as I could remember, I had always approached hallucinogens with caution. Additionally, I had heard stories of shamans mistreating female travelers and had no intention of exposing myself to such risks. My two years of traveling through Latin America had been incident-free, aside from a minor incident involving a lost wallet in a coffee shop, and I was determined to maintain that streak.

I decided to leave it to chance. I would continue my journey, and if I happened to encounter ayahuasca along the way, we would cross paths. As I traveled further, I began to realize that for many people, an ayahuasca ceremony was just another addition to their list of travel experiences.

What you should know about Ayahuasca

It’s really strong. It takes over your head, leads you. It held me for six hours,” confessed a 28-year-old Frenchman in a hostel in Chachapoyas, sounding like a child who had just been on a wild ride.

In the same hostel, I met a yoga teacher, draped in loose pants and a full-fledged hippie. I felt a sense of trust in him, so I asked about his experiences with ayahuasca and if he knew a reliable shaman. He recommended Benoit*, another Frenchman, a professional botanist who had moved to the Amazon jungle 17 years ago and never left. He had married a woman whose grandmother belonged to the native population of the region, and they had four children together. “Benoit, he’s amazing! And he doesn’t charge you the kind of money you’d pay at a traditional medicine center; his prices are much more reasonable.”

I knew that for a week of treatment in such centers, the costs wouldn’t drop below a thousand dollars, and I was convinced that if someone was so greedy for that money, it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. It seemed like another exploitative industry capitalizing on traditions and exoticism.

I immediately wrote to Benoit when I arrived in Tarapoto, one of the main cities in the Peruvian jungle, and we scheduled a meeting to get to know each other. I liked that. Most of the shamans I had heard of charged hundreds of dollars for a ceremony and didn’t take the time for discussions with clients. Benoit, on the other hand, drove from the village where he lived to the hostel I was staying at just to meet and see what we could work on.

He recommended a diet to follow before the ceremony—a week of solitude, without a phone or socializing, without salt, sugar, acid, or other spices. The only foods allowed were rice, plantain bananas, lentils, potatoes, raw peanuts, and oats. I also had to bring a book with me, preferably one with spiritual content.

He asked if I had a specific issue I wanted to work on. Ha! An issue?! There weren’t enough fingers on my hands to count all the issues I had to work on with people in the hostel, staff included.

I mentioned my sleep problems, and Benoit asked if I wanted to talk about my family relationships. Did I want to! Well, how could I not? It’s my favorite topic. He listened attentively, then shared his own story. He told me that he had serious alcohol problems when he first arrived in Iquitos, where he met his master, a native indigenous person with whom he spent 15 years learning about medicinal plants. He owed his healing to him.

I was going to Chazuta, a village two hours from Tarapoto, on the property of a young man and his girlfriend who were trying to establish a medicinal center. They would provide me with frugal meals that would end no later than two in the afternoon, leaving my stomach empty in the evening when I would only have a drink primarily made from verbena plants to treat insomnia and anxiety.

We met again on a Wednesday and set off towards Chazuta to begin the treatment with a tobacco purge, whatever that meant. The road through the high jungle of the Amazon was breathtaking, flanked on either side by lush hills, palm plantations of all kinds, and shelters made from the tall trees’ wood. However, I couldn’t enjoy any of it because I was frozen with fear. I found myself at the end of the world in a car with a man I had only spoken to once, and despite receiving the green light from all the permanent residents in the hostel who knew him, all the stories I had heard about perverted and abusive shamans echoed in my mind.

Perhaps my fear filled the entire car because the conversations were uncomfortable, and so were the silences. Benoit often lit a mapacho, a filterless cigarette made from a local type of tobacco leaf that contains ten times more nicotine than regular tobacco. It’s one of the most revered plants in the pre-Columbian Andean and Amazonian traditions, associated with healing, teaching, and the divine.

The tobacco purge

Benoit parked the car about ten minutes away from where I would spend the next ten days, and I continued on foot with a 20-kilogram backpack on my shoulders. There, I met the hosts and was led to a rudimentary wooden hut covered with insect nets.

The tobacco ceremony, like the ayahuasca ceremonies that would follow, took place in what, in the local language, is known as a “maloca” – an ancestral communal house, a circular and tall structure with a conical roof made of dried palm leaves. I followed Benoit into the maloca, where he carried a cup filled with a dark, almost black beverage and a bucket. I brought a large plastic container filled with two liters of water.

“You have to drink this tobacco brew. I know it’s not pleasant, but it will help remove the negativity from your mind and body, cleansing you before starting the diet,” he explained.

I gulped it down in many sips, convinced that I had never experienced anything as disgusting and repulsive in my life, all the while questioning why on earth I was subjecting myself to such torture. Then I lay down on my back, placed my hands on my abdomen, and waited for the worst. Benoit informed me that I was going to vomit but should drink the entire container of water.

I replied that I didn’t feel anything resembling nausea, but my temperature had risen by at least a degree, I was dizzy, and all I wanted was for that viscous substance to leave my body. He smiled fatherly, reassured me that I would vomit, and began singing what seemed to be an ode to tobacco. The whole ritual lasted for about two hours. When he wasn’t singing, and I wasn’t complaining, we talked about “intangible family inheritances,” transgenerational traumas, the importance of forgiveness, and the long road to healing.

I learned that, like tobacco, ayahuasca makes you vomit, and this act serves as purification. The majority of the process involves introspection, self-understanding, and self-forgiveness. Medicinal plants, whether hallucinogenic or not, can help you heal biologically, reveal aspects of your personal history or your family’s history that the ordinary mind cannot see or comprehend. However, to achieve a visceral change, it also requires personal effort on a daily basis.

I also learned that the plant remains within you, and its spirit continues to work for a long time, for months or even a year or two after the ceremony ends. You can ask it for things, but it’s more likely to provide you with what you need through the experiences you’ll have, the people you’ll meet, and the understanding that life will bring you.

I vomited. I tried to do it discreetly and quietly, to maintain my composure even in such unfavorable circumstances. When I thought it was all over, Benoit brought me a little more tobacco brew and another liter of water. I started over. What surprised and amused me at the same time was the analytical look Benoit gave to the full bucket, as if he had discerned something within it that I couldn’t possibly know, and he added approvingly and solemnly, “está bien, esto está bien.” What was good? The dense and dark color was a sign that everything had come out, or almost everything, which meant the process had been effective.

“It came out easily, you didn’t have any problems. It means the tobacco didn’t have much work to do.”

I didn’t understand what he meant until two days later when I participated in another purging ceremony with someone who drank not two but four liters of water, and their body expelled it with agonizing efforts and coughs that made me think their veins would burst. The tobacco remained inside, causing shivers and profuse sweating, and only saliva-soaked water ended up in the bucket. The torture lasted for two hours, and I watched with a petty sense of satisfaction, thinking that I had experienced a rather mild purging. I learned that the tobacco had more work to do in their case because it followed a turbulent period.

The First Night of the Ayahuasca Preparation Diet

I still shudder at the memory of the first night. I had gone to sleep with earplugs to escape the constant sounds of the jungle – Amazonian insects and chattering monkeys. Around 10:30, I jumped out of bed, startled by the noise of people and the light of lanterns. Dozens of thoughts raced through my mind in a split second. I froze, imagining that it could be the men from the village, whom I had greeted in the morning on their way to the fields, and they knew there was a lone woman here.

At that moment, I was probably as close to a panic attack as one could get. I didn’t necessarily calm down even when I realized that someone had just settled into the room across from me. The cabin shook with every tiny movement, and my nerves were on edge because I had been told I would be staying alone. My cabin neighbor tossed and turned, got up, paced around, and rolled his cigarettes to smoke them. It was clear that he suffered from insomnia. I couldn’t have fallen asleep in a century, and I had no intention of spending the next few days like this.

I gathered my belongings and walked 300 meters to the maloca where the person who had endured the infernal purging during the day was sleeping. I opened the door and headed for one of the empty mattresses scattered on the floor.

I can’t say exactly if I dreamed, if my imagination played tricks on me, or if I saw it for real, but the moonlight revealed the shadow of a tarantula on my mattress. I don’t even know if, simply after the panic attack and the stress I had just experienced, there was no room for more fear in my mind, but I wasn’t afraid of the spider. I sat down, wrapped myself in a sheet cocoon, and hoped that no tarantula would crawl onto my skin during what was left of the night.

I woke up feeling sad and desperate, and I began to cry as I gazed at the expanse of the jungle as if all the fear and despair I had ever felt had descended upon me in a heap.

Diets are never easy. Plants can show you the darkest parts of your past or your family’s past, and I don’t think what happened last night was a coincidence.

My solitude issue was resolved during the day, and the insomniac neighbor agreed to sleep on the mattresses scattered on the maloca floor and leave me in perfect solitude for the days to come. I’m still grateful to him because many things happen in a person’s mind during periods of austerity and tranquility.

The Ayahuasca Ceremony

After five nights and six days, the moment of the Ayahuasca ceremony found me with my energy reserves at a minimum, hungry but calm. My movements were slow, my speech likewise, and my attention much sharper than usual. “The cleaner your state, the deeper the medicine can penetrate and cleanse deeper wounds. Don’t worry about the lack of energy; Ayahuasca will give you strength,” Benoit told me, and he was absolutely right.

I participated in the ceremony with two other young individuals. Like during the tobacco purge, each of us had a bucket at our side, and we were assured that we would vomit.

The taste of the brew was bearable during the first sip, when the senses weren’t functioning at galactic levels, and the mind wasn’t bombarded with vibrant colors, sounds, and patterns. I was often asked, “What did you see?” but it would be difficult for me to string together a narrative. As I had been advised, I lay down on my back and let myself be carried without expecting anything, having complete trust in Benoit and in the fact that I was safe.

I felt a claw-like, animalistic sensation extending my hand, with which I dug into the sand. From there, I extracted memories about which I couldn’t later say if they were dreams from my life, projections of my imagination, scenes from the books I’ve read, or simply scenes from other lived lives. Benoit’s music took on vibrations that I could almost see and touch, and in some instances, I couldn’t distinguish between his music and the sounds of insects. I vomited from time to time, and each purging act was greeted with congratulations from the others: “Así, Jan saca todo el mal.”

Benoit sang with a strength that never ceased to amaze me. After six hours, around two in the morning, he passed by each of us, blowing mapacho smoke on us and sprinkling us with the liquid he carried in a bottle, dispelling the negativity with the bouquet of chapaca, all while continuing to sing.

He warned me that it was highly likely for the spirit of the plant to return to me at any time, but not to be frightened; I could awaken it whenever I needed. And he couldn’t have been closer to the truth. I might have fallen asleep for about half an hour when a wave of energy engulfed my entire body, and escalating convulsions took hold of my pelvis. I twitched in liberating movements, unable to shake the idea that what propelled me was the pulse of life, the movements of my parents when they conceived me, and my own when I left the womb.

One Year Later

I participated in two more Ayahuasca ceremonies and one with mushrooms before leaving the Amazon. Both were filled with memories and formative sensations from the history of my life. At one point, I had an almost painfully vivid familiarity with the feeling that I didn’t want to engage in a sexual act but felt like I couldn’t say no. I was ashamed. I cried a lot then, both out of sympathy for the girl who experienced all of that and out of guilt for allowing myself to forget her.

Benoit told me that once, when he drank a cup of Ayahuasca, he felt exactly what his mother felt when she emptied a glass of wine, and he perfectly understood that his alcoholism was “inherited,” not necessarily through DNA but also through constant exposure to her image. During another ceremony, he saw his grandfather during World War II and understood all the violence and pain of the war that leaped over two generations and reached him.

Beyond the intense experiences during the treatments, the year that followed was transformative. As I often heard, the plant doesn’t always give you what you ask for, but what you need. I asked for better sleep, and it gave me that, but that’s nothing compared to all the answers I received in the year that has passed since then.

However, I will always wonder if the plants played a role in everything I understood about myself in the past year, or if this would have been the natural course of life regardless.

*The name has been changed for obvious reasons.

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