Three years ago, I endured an extreme jungle trip in the Amazon near Iquitos, Peru. I now returned to face my demons. This is the story of my journey into the heart of darkness.
Iquitos is bustling ciy located in the north east of Peru in the Amazonian rainforest. It is only reachable by plane or boat – there are no highways leading here. It has a population of over 400000, making it one of the largest cities in Peru. It became rich in the early 1900s with the rubber boom and many Europeans moved there and built large colonial style mansions, giving the city today an aura of faded grandeur. The main form of transport is rickshaw (mototaxi) giving the city a real South-East Asian feel.
Extreme Jungle Adventure
My first trip to the Amazon was organised by a good friend of from Berlin, Alex, who had made the trip before using his connections from 10 years living in South America. He had hyped it up so much, I had to join him on the next expedition. We were to fly from Lima to Iquitos, take a 12 boat ride sleeping in hammocks on the deck, then go even deeper into the jungle to a family’s house. From there, we were to hike through rough jungle with machetes, make camp and sleep in hammocks with mosquito nets.
I don’t know what I was thinking because I hate camping. That’s luxury camping with nice tents in camping grounds with showers, toilets, restaurants and other facilities! I love getting out in the nature, but I was used to beautfully marked trails with nice bridges and walkways everywhere like we have in New Zealand. Plus, I was unprepared mentally for the expedition. I had just finished an extremely stressful job and had burn out. Before meeting the team in Lima, I went to visit Machu Picchu and had terrible problems with the altitude in Cusco. I was also extremely nervous about going to the jungle for the first time, not speaking Spanish and having to rely on my friend to plan everything. At the end of the camping section of the trip, we had organised for a Curandero (Shaman) to perform an Ayahuasca ceremony for us. Ayahuasca is a very powerful traditional medicine used for millennia for detoxification, but can produce intense and sometimes overwhelming visions due to the presence of the psychoactive DMT in the brew. Instead of just relaxing, I spent too much time in Cusco poring over trip reports in the internet and freaking out about having a bad trip.
So, I was already a complete nervous wreck before even setting foot in the jungle. I also had super high expectations of the Amazon. I mean, it’s the granddaddy of all jungles, so it must have the most animals, the biggest trees and the most colourful plants, right? Well, the problem was we went in the rainy season and there were no animals to see. They are all hiding in their trees and other enclosures, our guide, Ruber, informed us. I blamed this all on the poor planning of Alex, but if I had bothered to check it out myself beforehand, I would have found out that the rainy season is pretty much all year round and there is only one dry season from around June to Sept (high tourist season for Europe).
The high water levels made it very difficult for jungle walks, which I found exceedingly stressful. There was no time to concentrate on the nature as we were too busy avoiding touching some poisonous plant or negotiating streams by crossing slimy logs. I didn’t want to know what was living in those streams. Ruber told us the only time he had seen Piranhas was in the movies. What are all those scars over your hands?, I asked him one day as he prised some unidentifiable creature’s jaws from his fingers whilst fishing.
So, instead we made some boat trips which were enjoyable or just had downtime back at camp. I tried to fill the time by sitting meditating in preparation for the ayahuasca ceremony. But I couldn’t relax and as soon as I sat down I was attacked by every kind of insect known to the Amazon and there are thousands of them. Worst were the mosquitos. They are some kind of super-breed, able to bite through denim jeans and seemingly resistant to insect repellent.
Our guides had brought a small amount of basic food which we supplemented every day with whatever fish they could catch. On the third day, however, they failed to catch anything, so one took the rifle and went hunting. Minutes later, we heard a gunshot and he returned triumphantly with a monkey, which they then proceeded to skin and roast over an open fire. I bet that’s the best god-damn monkey you ever ate, remarked Alex.
Alex has told me one great thing about the jungle was that it was so peaceful at night. Each has his own definition of peace, I guess, as I found it difficult to sleep in tiny claustrophobic cocoons with the racket of frogs and insects going all night. One thing that particularly freaked me out was how I reacted to the isolation. Of course, I knew I was going deep into the jungle, days from civilization, but the thought that if one of us got injured or bitten by a snake really spooked me more than I expected. I guess I am just a city boy at heart.
After 3 days in the same stinky clothes, covered in mosquito bites and the taste of monkey still in my system, I was ready to get the fuck out of the jungle. In fact, if we had had to stay one more day, I would surely have killed someone. So, we returned to the family’s house in the morning to prepare for the ayahuasca ceremony that evening. This house was very basic. Just a floor on stilts with a roof. No walls. I swear it was like coming back to a 5-star hotel! As Alex remarked to me, the extreme jungle experience certainly makes you appreciate the basic luxuries of life, which we take for granted.
I had already made my decision not to take the ayahuasca. I had set myself the prerequisite of being completely relaxed and had failed miserably. So to pass the time, I started to read a book they had there. It was called Ayahuasca in my blood: 25 years of Ayahuasca dreaming by an American, named Peter Gorman. I wondered why this family had this book there – they didn’t have any possessions let alone books, especially one in English. Peter Gorman had arrived in Peru 30 years earlier and discovered Ayahuasca by accident. He then settled in Iquitos and married a local woman. The book was a fascinating account of not just his experiences with Ayahuasca, but also his adventures living in Iquitos and his encounters with pirates and aggressive natives. On the back cover was a picture of Gorman with his mentor, curandero Julio. That’s my grandfather exclaimed Ruber, pointing to the picture of Julio!
I was disappointed to miss the chance to try Ayahuasca, but in hindsight it was the best decision for me. I was determined, however, to one day return to the amazon to face my demons and try the medicine for myself. Unfortunately, on my next trip to Latin America, I did not make it to the jungle, but I finally got to try Ayahuasca recently in Colombia, which was a very tough experience for my physically.
Facing my demons
So with great trepidation I returned to Iquitos to face my demons. This time I was meeting a friend of mine from Berlin, Anita. These days Ayahuasca is a big business and there are dozens of retreats charging $hundreds per night. It is important to choose carefully, as there are many fake Shaman around and there have been reports of women being raped while under the influence. We decided to stay for a week at Alan Shoemaker’s Ayahuasca medicine house. Alan is another expat and friend of Peter Gorman who has worked extensively with Curanderos both in Peru with Ayahuasca, and in Ecuador with San Pedro (psychoactive cactus containing mescaline which grows in the Andes) for over 20 years. He has also written a book on Ayahuasca and hosts an annual conference on Shamanism in Iquitos. So, we figured we would be in safe hands. Plus, you only pay for the ceremonies you participate in. Many retreats offer punishing schedules – whilst you don’t have to participate every time, you don’t get your money back either if you choose to back out of a ceremony. We decided to do 3 ceremonies in a week and finish with some San Pedro the following Sunday.
Entering the spirit world
After my rough physical experience in Colombia I was pretty nervous about taking Ayahuasca again. As soon as I took the first cup, I began to feel nauseous and was thinking, what am I doing to myself? I vomited twice and started to trip intensely, much stronger than in Colombia. Eventually the nausea faded and I started to feel intense euphoria. Anita and I were alone in the ceremony with Jose, our curandero. We started to feed off each other’s energy and started laughing and making silly noises. One burp would send us into uncontrollable laughter which went on for what seemed like hours. Something strange then seemed to possess Anita. She seemed to regress right back to childhood. Once she decided to arrange her bed (we were sitting on mattresses in the ceremony area). Jose had to help her, as she couldn’t do it herself in her state. She contemplated the nicely made bed for a moment then dove straight into it like as if it were a swimming pool with a huge thud, sending Jose and I into fits of rapturous laughter!
The second ceremony I vomited again, but this time without nausea. In fact, I was go so far as to say it was a pleasant vomit – I was willing more to come out. Is that all you’ve got super ayahuasca medicine? I thought to myself! Then the visions and euphoria returned but this time much gentler. I felt the medicine working all over my body as I floated into the visions with a feeling I can only describe as sheer bliss, or perfection. I have never felt so good in my entire life, and this is no exaggeration (as my clubbing buddies will attest to, I’ve experienced my fair share of ecstatic moments over the years!).
Before the third ceremony Jose had told us that Ayahuasca stays in your system for 3 days and that the effects were cumulative. He said to expect an “explosion” on the third ceremony. Strangely, Anita was not feeling so many effects by this stage despite taking a double dose on the final night. I started to feel intense nausea again, and as I started to purge into my bucket, something very strange happened – I entered another world. The spirit world, an alternate reality, call it what you will. It was a black world, of infinite time and space. This was not some dream or hallucination, it was real. Everything was crystal clear and did not change whether my eyes were open or closed. The strangest thing was, Jose was there with me in this world, his Icaros (songs, chants and whistling) guiding me and keeping me company. I felt like I could communicate with him telepathically. Without him there I would surely have lost my mind, as it was fucking scary! It was also extremely hard work as the intense nausea persisted for what seemed like eternity. I could not stop vomiting, but there was nothing left in my stomach – I was vomiting air or some deep psychological blockage the medicine was trying to expunge. Finally, the nausea gradually subsided. I could then concentrate on the experience. In this world, there is only you and your mind. You have to face your demons. If this equates to the Christian concept of heaven or hell, then I can understand why being trapped for eternity with your own thoughts could be considered nirvana or purgatory. Everything suddenly became clear what I had to do (at least for the next few days, if not my life). I started to purge physically and emotionally releasing a ton of I don’t yet know what. I sweated, yawned, sighed, farted, sang, hummed and whistled it all out. It was the most intense experience of my life. After a while, I noticed I had returned back to the normal world. I was still, however, feeling the effects of the ayahuasca very strongly including getting tracers (light trails following the movement of my hands).
San Pedro Cactus (Bringing me back down to earth)
San Pedro is cactus which grows in the Andes and contains the hallucinogen, Mescaline amongst other alkaloids. Mescaline is also found in the Peyote cactus which grows in Mexico (for depictions of Peyote trips in indigenous art, click here). The Mescaline experience was described by Aldous Huxley in his book, The Doors of Perception, written in 1953. A San Pedro trip lasts much longer (around 12 hours) and is much gentler than, for example, Magic Mushrooms. It takes longer to take effect and is much subtler and less of a roller coaster than a typical LSD trip. There are no kaleidoscopic visions or hallucinations, just a subtle change in perception and enhancement of shapes and colours, accompanied by a beautiful mild euphoria. They say San Pedro is the perfect compliment for Ayahuasca as it “grounds” you – giving you a deep feeling of contentment and peace. Anita and I spent the day in Casa Fitzcarraldo, an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of Iquitos with garden, pool and fantastic treehouse. It is owned by a Swiss, Walter, who produced this and almost all of Werner Herzog’s movies. Needless to say, it was a beautiful day and the perfect end to an amazing week. I felt pure, cleansed and totally centred.
San Pedro is legal in Peru and has been used for millennia in religious ceremonies for healing purposes. In most western countries it is legal to cultivate, but any attempt to process it for human consumption is harshly punished. This is a crime, as if this were sold in bars instead of alcohol, there would be no more wars.