Last year, a couple of yoga teacher friends of mine organized a ‘Yogahuasca’ retreat. They gathered folks interested in experiencing ayahuasca ceremonies in the Peruvian Amazon, and intended to teach yoga and breathing practices during the day between ceremonies. They had been to this particular ayahuasca retreat center (I won’t name it here for reasons to come) not far from the city of Iquitos. Needless to say, having been interested in the topic for some time, I signed up. Unfortunately, people already signed up were backing out and the planned trip fell through. But I said, ‘F@ck it, I’m going anyway.’
Cusco: The Sacred Valley
I arrived in Cusco on a Friday afternoon. I had signed up for a guided group tour: a week in the mountains (Cusco, the sacred valley, Machu Picchu), and a week in the jungle (Iquitos). I met up with a guide and the group — they were 5 or 6 people of all ages, from all over the world — and together, we began our mountain tour. Cusco is a colorful, quiet, quaint mountain town rich with culture and language. The group members and guides and myself were beginning to get to know one another, and I learned early of their personal stories and intentions for personal healing.
We spent a day in ceremony with the Grandfather cactus medicine Huachuma — or San Pedro. We had hiked the hills of Pisac to a beautiful grove by a stream, facing the facade of a mountain covered in ancient step-like ruins, where we drank the medicine. I saw more beauty there than I could wish to describe. I experienced the mountain. I thought about my friends and family back home, and opened my heart wide open to them, letting all their love flow in. In the evening we hiked back to a house where we sat around a fire and watched the most magnificent night sky fill with stars and a view of the Milky Way galaxy. It was a most precious, enlightening, heart-warming, calming, meditative experience. That day I learned about love and acceptance and the meaning of enlightenment. We continued through Ollantaytambo, and the week ended with a visit to Machu Picchu. We did a short hike, saw a spectacular view overlooking the calm endless mountains and the sacred valley, and marveled in the mystery and majesty of the ancient ruins. It then came time to say goodbye to the mountains and our mountain guide, and to begin the jungle portion of the trip.
As soon as we stepped out of the Iquitos airport, we were bombarded by motorcar drivers, hassling us to take their cab. I got a bad vibe about this place off the bat. I thought, ‘I don’t trust people here.’ In fact, a member of our group had a bag of souvenirs stolen immediately, likely by the motorcab driver after he drove her to the hotel. In the morning, we met up with more travelers and new guides. We drove across town to a dock on the Amazon River where we met our Shaman — a sweet old man with a twinkle in his eye — and his lovely family. It was comforting. Together, we boarded a long motorboat canoe, and began heading down the Amazon River, towards the ayahuasca retreat center. We were excited and nervous, and we were ready to go deeper. The drivers pushed off, and away we went. The retreat was a half hour ride up the river and another half hour hike into the forest. There were about 20 of us on the boat, carrying all our bags and gear.
Pirates Of The Amazon
The ride was slow… until, suddenly, a speedboat sped up close to us seemingly out of nowhere carrying a group of 5 or so men aboard, pointing pistols at us and shouting in Spanish. I saw a gun, then I looked around our boat only to find everyone ducking their heads down, so I did the same. Over the next five minutes, with my head to the floor, I heard the men board our boat, shouting and commotion, a few screams, the men rustling and bustling around our boat, and a gun fire. Then a guy grabbed me with a gun to my head, felt my waste area and grabbed my wallet. After some more bustling around, they took off. I looked up. Our shaman was bleeding down his face. Apparently he had showed them some resistance and they clocked him in the head. But everyone was alive.
Frantic, whoever still had a cell phone on them used it to make calls. We turned the boat around, and when we arrived back at the dock, about ten police officers stood there waiting. We spent the next 24 hours in filing reports in police stations and getting checked at medical centers. It was exhausting, and frankly, more frustrating than the robbery itself. Overall the incident was angering and traumatic. When things settled down a bit, we all were faced with a decision: do we count our losses and figure out how the heck to get home? Cash out? Tuck our tails between our legs? Or do we decide not to let some jungle punks ruin what we came for, and go ahead with the trip?
Ultimately, about three travelers decided to turn around and go home. The rest of us rallied together and decided to continue with the trip. I held the position that I’d rather be where everyone else was, with food and shelter (since the retreat was already paid for). Plus, after being held up at gunpoint, I had a feeling ayahuasca would somehow help heal such trauma. The day after the robbery, we finally made it safely to the retreat center. It felt like summer camp. The women of the family were cooking in the kitchen; the men chopping hedges. Everyone was assigned a tambo, or bungalow, in which to sleep. Upon arrival, we met a few more travelers who had been at the retreat for about a week prior partaking in ceremonies. We drank the medicine that night.
My first ayahuasca ceremony can be described as such: I was shown everything. EVERYTHING. I was shown source. Source of everything, of consciousness. I was shown death, life, and the cycle of rebirth. Mothers, fathers, and many, many generations. It was information download — overload. Death was painful. The second night was the hardest night physically speaking. I had the loudest and most explosive diarrhea of my life. I think I shook the jungle awake. The third night taught me about the healing process. I was exposed to everything that I am. And shown that I am not my brain. By the end I had a newfound appreciation for myself, and I gave myself a big hug. The fourth night was the most gentle.
A Lasting Impression
Then came time to leave the jungle. Police reports got us out of the jungle into Lima. The mission was to make my flight on time. With no money, and only a day or so to acquire the necessary paperwork, it was hectic cabbing around Lima to and from the American Embassy, waiting in lines, filling out papers, and getting printed a temporary passport. Finally, I made it to the airport on time, and managed to get myself boarded on my flight. I smiled the entire way home.