Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca, transcendence in the Amazon

Photo of floating houses
Sascha Grabow/Creative Commons

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I was positive that the elderly woman next to me was having a panic attack and that I was going to vomit if I didn’t die first.

I hastily retrieved my diary from my backpack and began scribbling thoughts produced by the increasing swelling of cortisol in my brain. The plane bucked three more times and dozens of cups of water flew into the air. Luckily, I was able to manage my nausea as the petrifying turbulence soon ceased and our humble passenger jet cleared the Andes. The rest of the plane ride to the “capital of the Peruvian Amazon” in Iquitos, Peru was much more tranquil. However, the rest of my time in Peru would come to include more vomiting and more euphoric seemingly near-death experiences.

I was part of the initial wave of enthusiasts in 2013 for Joe Rogan’s podcast. Young adults like myself resonated with his unconventional conversations covering conspiracies, self-improvement and martial arts, which was how I came to know of ayahuasca: a plant-based brew with psychoactive effects (similar to marijuana) that has been utilized for centuries by Amazonians for purposes of spiritual enlightenment, healing and self-discovery. Equipped with youthful moxie, during the summer of 2016, I decided to trek to the Amazonian village of Manacamiri to experience firsthand the life-changing power of ayahuasca and explore Amazonian culture.

I flew to Mexico City, then to Lima from where I embarked on the scariest plane ride of my life across the Andes to Iquitos. Iquitos is one of the largest cities in the world that is strictly accessible by way of boat or plane. Iquitos has been home to many native peoples, chief among which are the Napeano and Iquito — the latter being the source of its current name. 

Most people are familiar with Iquitos as the hub for ayahuasca ceremonies. The city center reflects the commercialization of ayahuasca with advertisements, posters and solicitors beckoning nirvana seeking tourists from all over the world. If one seeks to experience ayahuasca, it is advisable that they have a ceremony with an experienced shaman. There are ayahuasca retreats all around Iquitos where seven-day lodging and food are provided with the guidance of a shaman through the course of four days of ayahuasca ceremonies and three days of rest.

Months prior, I had reserved a retreat called Kapitari, headed by a pleasant elderly shaman named Don Lucho. There were 15 people from every continent in my retreat group and we rendezvoused with Lucho at the Nanay River docks in Iquitos.

From there, we serenely canoed for a few kilometers to the quaint riverside village of Manacamiri and hiked two miles deeper to reach Lucho’s resplendent tropical settlement of Kapitari. The sublime settlement was about one square mile large and consisted of two dozen or so wooden shacks for guests, a large wooden building for the dining hall and common area, and a massive circular wooden structure (called a maloca) supported in the air above a small lake by stilts. Kapitari was surrounded by dense trees that teemed with the sounds of thousands of creatures. It was magical.

As darkness fell and the life of the Amazon became more audible, we congregated in the maloca and prepared for our first ceremony. We all sat on twin mattresses with an individual bucket around the maloca. It was complete darkness except for a single candle lit in the center. Don Luco began rhythmically shaking a bundle of dried chacruna leaves and chanting to the rhythm of its rustling in an indigenous tongue. He walked around blowing smoke from a mapacho, an extremely potent strain of Amazonian tobacco, onto the crowns of heads. He then unsheathed a large container of what looked like dark brown sludge: the ayahuasca. 

Unceasing in his nostalgic chanting, Lucho poured us all a glass and instructed us to drink quickly. It was the most repulsive thing I’ve ever tasted. Soon, the chanting seemed to occupy the periphery of my conscious mind and we all laid down silently awaiting the life changing euphoria that we had all come to Peru for. 

The next 30 minutes were punctuated by the sounds of all of us vomiting — part of the package deal of drinking ayahuasca, as it’s indigestible. What followed was our collective departure from reality into the infinite expanse of the cosmos, or into the infinite depths of our own conscious minds. It was the latter for me. My mind and heart were deluged with all the emotions of joy and grief from the memories, traumas and realizations from my past. 

As the intensity of our surreal three-hour-long experiences settled into blissful reverie-like states, Lucho walked around to check in on us.

“Estás bien?” he asked.

“Si. Puedo abrazarte?” I responded.

“Claro que sí, mi hijo.”

During the debriefing the next morning, my ayahuasca companions described their experiences. One person had forayed through literal hellfire, but attained a serene peace at the end of her ordeal. Another described being lifted into another dimension by a pair of massive blue hands and being told divine secrets. Another explained how she conversed with all of her deceased pets. 

I described how I hallucinated living the lives of my parents through different major episodes from their childhood to current adulthood: adolescence, teenage years, marriage, kids and the happiness, insecurities and sadnesses that accompanied those periods. The sensation of living your parents’ lives firsthand is almost indescribable, but humbling. It gave me so much insight into understanding my parents and how they’re fallible, yet trying their hardest, which helped me better understand myself.

Somehow, the second night’s ceremony was even more powerful. I left Kapitari that week as a new, more fortified person. I felt healed physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Awareness of naturally occurring indigenous healing methods ought to invite us to better understand the significance of indigenous bodies of knowledge that may help us cathartically improve our relationship, mentally and spiritually, with each other, the world and ourselves. 

Do visit Iquitos if you can, because even if you aren’t seeking ayahuasca, your bucket list should include exploring a city in the middle of the largest rainforest in the world.

Contact Moideen Moidunny at [email protected].