La Experiencia: Taking Ayahuasca in the Amazon

doing ayahuasca in peru
John Meils traveled to Peru's rainforest to try ayahuasca, called la experiencia. (Photos courtesy John Meils, Illustration by Peter Colapietro)

By John Meils

I was torn about telling my girlfriend before I left. She would worry, accuse me of being reckless or worse, a fiend. I was traveling alone to Tarapoto from Lima then onto to Yurimaguas to catch a lancha, a river barge, to Iquitos. At some point before I got on the boat, I wanted to take ayahuasca, a jungle hallucinogenic made by curanderos (shaman-healers) in Peru, Colombia and Brazil for perhaps 3,000 years.

Ayahuasca is not for the timid. I learned that before I left. A quick Google search netted plenty about la experienca. For some it was beautiful, a three-to-five hour journey of almost edible hallucinations, the plant-based medicina facilitating a pleasant conduit from the subconscious to the conscious. Others, however, told of harrowing mental excursions laced with terrifying and diabolic images drawn from the depths of their minds, some that tested the very boundaries of their courage. The surprising part was that, in both cases, almost everyone thought the ride was worth it.

What is Ayahuasca?

Literally translated, ayahuasca means “spirit vine” in Quechua. The plant in question is B. caapi, though it’s known by a host of common names. Ultimately it’s made into a liquid by macerating and then boiling the leaves alone or with a combination of plants from the Psychotria genus. The resulting brew contains DMT, a hallucinogenic alkaloid that is illegal in a lot of countries, including the U.S. (but not Peru). Ayahuasca has been known to relieve drug addictions, cure colo-rectal cancer, bring people out of depression or free them of anxiety disorders. A 1993 study done in Brazil by U.C.L.A.’s Dr. Charles Grob showed that the nerve cells of regular ayahuasca users were able to more easily absorb serotonin, which, among other things, contributes to our sense of well-being.

For my part, I wanted to get off cigarettes, figure out an idea for my next novel, maybe try to shed some light on why I was so restless in the States that I picked up and moved to Peru with my girlfriend. But mostly I was curious. I’d done my share of LCD and mushrooms in college, but never really dug either of them. The former lasted too long and left me feeling like my body had been plunged with Drano, the latter made me nauseous. Ayahuasca was supposed to be much more, not a “drug” at all but a conduit. To what, I didn’t know.

Guilt got the better of me the day before I left. I told my girlfriend what I planned to do. She was cool with it, even jealous that she couldn’t join me. I’d already contacted a curandero with the help of the Takiwasi Center, a renowned drug rehab near Tarapoto that employs ayahuasca as part of its therapy program. The emails were conducted exclusively in Spanish, which meant I understood maybe half of what I was getting myself into. It was clear, however, that there were preparations to be made in advance of taking ayahuasca. It wasn’t going to be a drive-by high. I had to commit—and not just my time.

Hallucinogen Tourism in Peru

Ayahuasca tourism is quickly becoming a cottage industry in Peru. Lodges in and around Iquitos, Pucallpa and Cusco regularly offer ayahuasca “sessions” with a curandero for anywhere from $50 to $100+ per day and sometimes include lodging, food, tours, even massages. Those lodges with web sites tend to show tranquil pictures of simple huts in remote jungle or highland locations. Rarely do they describe the nitty-gritty of taking ayahuasca, the day-long fast that precedes the night-time session, the enema-like concoctions used by some curanderos to clean one’s system in advance of taking the medicina, the fact that you will most definitely throw-up at some point while under the influence of the “spirit vine.”

Jhon, the representative of the curandero referred to me by the Takiwasi Center, was clean-cut, friendly and quick to laugh. We met for coffee in a café next to Plaza Mayor in Tarapoto. Jhon wanted to make sure I understood that ayahuasca was not a drug. It was an aide to exploration, he explained, a facilitator. I would get out of it what I put in. Then came the catch: the place where I would take it was 2.5 hours away. A car via rough road, a boat upriver, then a short journey yet deeper into the jungle. Including travel there and back plus a couple days at “the center,” it would require three, maybe four days total.

Part of me was immediately seduced by the adventure before the experience. Then my better judgment kicked in. I had to be back in Lima within a week and still needed to make it to Iquitos by boat. I told Jhon that I needed to think about it.

The next morning I went to Lamas, a nearby town with a large indigenous community. Alfredo, my moto-taxi driver, quickly befriended me and we got to talking over lunch. I told him I wanted to take ayahuasca but was worried about traveling so far afield to do it. “Why go all that way to do ayahuasca,” he asked, “when you can join us to do it tomorrow night in Tarapoto?” Apparently, there was a curandero who lived part-time in the hotel where I was staying. He was taking a group, including Alfredo, to a small house outside of town for a session the following night.

An hour later I was sitting with Lucho, a maestro curandero, at my hotel. He was in his fifties, short and had deep-set eyes that drew me in. He was preternaturally calm, seemingly both in the moment and yet far away. After a brief conversation, Lucho played the guitar for a bit and informed me that he liked my energy. He wanted me to join him and the others the next night. He gave me a special concoction that smelled strongly of soap and mint and told me to cover my body with it directly after I showered the next two times. It was meant to unblock me. I was also forbidden to eat anything besides soup or fruit juice for the entire next day. Alcohol was verboten as well. I mentioned that I wanted to quit smoking cigarettes and Lucho smiled, said we’d “work on it” tomorrow night.

The Ayahuasca Experience

Fast forward 24 hours and I was in the back of Alfredo’s moto-taxi again. Lucho was on his motorcycle ahead of us with a guitar strapped to his back. His assistant, another curandero, was a on a separate motorcycle, also with a guitar on his back. The traffic in downtown Tarapoto was intense, a chainsaw orchestra of too many motorcycles, too many parts moving out of sync. We arrived at a small house—a room with a roof—outside of town. It was tucked away behind another house in the woods, quiet, hidden. The moon was nearly full, lighting up the night. The jungle burst forth. Loud, but not like Tarapoto. Its orchestra was well conducted, its notes forged by the life it supported, not by those who sought to conquer it. The air smelled sharply of earth, of fresh growth and sweet rot.

There were eight of us. Aside from me and an Aussie chick I’d met that afternoon, everyone was Peruvian, which put me at ease. If this was a hoax to swindle two wide-eyed extranjeros, it seemed awfully elaborate for the 100+ soles we’d agreed to pay afterwards. Lucho assigned everyone seats as he made his final preparations. A series of talismans were laid out on a table in front of him while he chanted and blew black tobacco smoke into the plastic bottle that contained the ayahuasca. He handed out double shots of the muddy liquid, each a big gulpful, maybe two. It tasted like bile with a hint of dirt, undeniably foul. I choked it down and tried to breath out of my nose.

Then we sat, all of us, and waited.

Thirty minutes later and nothing. Sixty minutes later and I was starting to feel a tingling—nerves, a buzz behind my eyes, looseness, flashes of color in my vision forming geometric shapes when I blinked. Lucho’s assistant began singing. His voice was astounding, deep and strong, emanating from his chest, his style a fierce staccato. I looked over his head and through a giant opening in the wall. The foliage in the trees formed a series of terrifying faces: skulls first, then scowls on old, worn faces, ever-changing. Each successive one got bigger as it moved into the room towards me, threatening to swallow me up. I sat still and absorbed them, searching for meaning but finding none.

Lucho asked how I was doing. I think he knew where I was, what was happening. I’d read that curanderos are much more than bartenders of ayahuasca. They are integral to your experience and can sometimes see what you’re seeing, understand what’s behind your visions and help you work through them. It’s why being comfortable with a curandero is crucial to a successful ayahuasca experience. The icaros (songs) they sing during an experience are often summoned directly from the surrounding jungle and meant to enhance, even intensify your journey.

I watched the faces in the trees for a long time, somehow believing that my father, dead since 2002, was behind them. I can’t say why. He was a nice man, full of stress, but decent. I tried to vomit in the bucket I’d been given, but nothing came up. Directly afterwards, Lucho asked me if I wanted a cigarette. I dry-heaved at the suggestion.

We took a break and were able to leave the room. I could barely walk. My legs were rubber and my head felt as though it could float off my shoulders like an errant balloon. I stumbled into a clearing beyond the house and tried to vomit again, but only dry heaved. Ants attacked my feet. The bites were both ferocious and numerous. I didn’t know if they were real or not. I returned to the room, sat and looked through the doorway to the outside. A pile of black pots transformed into a small gnome with a face like those depicted in pre-Colombian art. The gnome’s head turned towards me and glowered. I looked away, grabbed the arms of my chair and closed my eyes.

Everyone else returned and the music started again. Lucho reminded me to breath and I did. It relaxed me. I drank some water, tried to throw up again but couldn’t. Then, well, it’s hard to explain—but I gave up. I stopped fighting. I let go. The moment I did, a wave of relief washed over me and I started to cry a little. Then, for reasons I can’t explain, I realized that I’d been wrong all these years to not believe in God. It seemed apparent all at once and from nowhere that God was in fact love, a force for good, an unseen interconnector shared by all living things. It didn’t feel profound or miraculous, more a matter of fact, a deep reassurance. I couldn’t stop smiling.

The rest of the session played out in a blur as the effects slowly wore off. I had to throw up again outside and when I did the ground formed into a series of puddles that were illuminated by a kind of liquid mercury shimmering under my feet in the moonlight. It was beautiful—even in the midst of my dry heaving. Everyone else wound down, including one guy, who’d had a particularly trying session that involved a lot of tears and a minor freakout. Candles were eventually lit and we all stood and stretched and then hugged one another.

After the Ayahuasca

As we returned to Tarapoto in the back of Alfredo’s moto-taxi, the wind chilly and sobering, I felt different. Not changed in a deep way, but peaceful, more connected to everything around me. I can’t say that I’d do it again. It was easily one of the most intense mental experiences of my life. But I felt good, recalibrated somehow.

Oh, and in the week-plus since I’ve done ayahuasca, I haven’t had a cigarette.

John Meils is a freelance writer living in Peru. To see more of his work, visit johnmeils.com.